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Robin MacKenzie gestures toward her kitchen table, which is covered with the haphazard accumulations of her busy family -- piles of her husband's papers from work, an avalanche of bills, a stack of kids' artwork, a brood of Beanie Babies, and a laptop computer.
The table, alas, is a microcosm of the rest of the family's house near Poughkeepsie, New York. "This clutter stresses me to the max," Robin says to Kathy Peel, home-organization expert, founder of Family Manager, and a member of Ladies' Home Journal's Stress SWAT Team charged with the task of bringing down the MacKenzies' stress levels.
"This is normal," Peel assures Robin -- especially in a home with two working parents and six kids. Still, Peel points out that when it's hard to find important papers because they're buried under a jumbled mess, stress levels soar for parents and kids alike. Here's how she helped the family clean up the clutter.
Tackle Family Space
To get the whole family on board, start with a room everyone uses, advises Peel. In the MacKenzies' case, it's the family room, where the children gather to play the piano and games.
Keep Often-Used Items Handy
The MacKenzies had been using the large buffet in the family room to store liquor, which Robin and Leigh rarely touch. Peel moved the bottles into the kitchen, then refilled the cabinet with board games.
Peel tagged labels -- board games, cards, puzzles, and craft supplies -- on the shelves to keep things from getting scrambled. "We don't want the kids just throwing things in there," she says.
Set Up a Control Center
Peel set up a cardboard mail sorter with six shelves -- one for each child -- in the family's mudroom. The kids can put school papers, mail, and art projects into their own in-box, and Robin can go through it all at once, which will save the kids the stress of trying to catch her attention when she walks through the door.
Peel also placed a large wipe-clean calendar in the mudroom for the kids to track their athletic events and other commitments (one color marker per child), as well as a bulletin board for schedules and invitations.
Make Space for Memorabilia
For art projects and report cards that often accumulate on tables and countertops, Peel put a clear plastic container in Robin's bedroom closet. "One day you'll deal with it, but not now," she tells Robin. Peel also designated a drawer in the living room buffet where Robin can store photos until she gets around to putting them into picture frames or albums.
Make It Fun
When Robin unearthed a basket filled with unmatched socks from her closet, Peel coordinated a game in which Katlyn, Christopher, Conall, Bryn, Riley, and Keavy competed to see who could match up the most socks to the tune of a Mary Chapin Carpenter song. (Katlyn took home the grand prize of $5.)
Pick Up the Pace
Peel used another technique to get the kids hooked on organizing -- pitting them against a kitchen timer. Christopher, 14, had been reluctant to clean his room for months, but filled a trash bag in four minutes flat when Peel timed him on it. Peel instituted a seven-minute-clean-up sprint every night: As the clock ticks away, the kids will race to put trash in garbage containers, and their toys and anything else into their proper places, so the MacKenzies' newly organized home can stay that way, which in turn should help keep stress at bay.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, June 2004.