Monday, September 8, 2008

We Got Hot Spots

Right after we put the kids to bed every night, I come downstairs and survey the wreckage. The supper dishes are still on the table, and the living room and sunroom are littered with toys, books, and dirty clothes. The couches are in total disarray, and often there's a makeshift fort that needs to be dismantled. The floor of the book room is usually covered with dominoes and puzzle pieces. Sometimes there's a special, awful mess somewhere, like when Hank pulled handfuls of gravel out of the fishbowl. So as I stand there taking stock of all that, I tell you, it is the dark night of the soul. I am trying, though, to practice the Flylady's teachings, and I've gotten the dark night of the soul down to about twenty minutes.

If you have not heard of Flylady, she is all about having systems and routines to make housekeeping and decluttering a normal and painless part of everyday life. (Kind of like the Home Comforts book I've preached about here before.) A few times over the years, I've signed up for the Flylady's email reminders. The website emails you multiple times a day with encouragement, tips, and little missions like, "Go organize your shoes," or, her rallying cry, "Go shine your sink!" So I never stay subscribed to the emails because it is a lot of email. But the underlying principles are rock solid. I love her site and the fact that it has gotten not one bit slicker in the last seven years. The only lesson of hers that I've really made a long-term success of is the before bed routine. I don't do it at my bedtime though, but right after the kids go to bed. Flylady's before bed routine is:
  • Spend twenty minutes tidying the house, cleaning the kitchen, and clearing your hot spots. A hot spot is anyplace where clutter tends to gather, like a hall table--a place that, unless it is constantly attended to, will become a monster that eats your sanity.

  • Think about tomorrow, check your calendar, start a to-do list, make sure kids have what they need to get out the door, lay out your clothes.

  • Focus on yourself and your partner: do your nighttime grooming and bedtime thing.

And if that is too overwhelming, she boils it down to: clean your kitchen sink, lay out your clothes, and brush your teeth. I love that about Flylady--she never makes you feel like you can't measure up. So anyway, I can count on Matt to clean the kitchen. That leaves me doing the tidying. First I gather up the kids' clothes that have been strewn around, and start a load of laundry. It will be ready to fold when "The Daily Show" comes on. Next: toys. I grab this thing:

Unfolded, it is an awesome road playmat. It was a gift for Hank from my mom, but it costs about $15. Folded up, it is a roomy and perfect container for all toys with wheels. I chuck them into this thing, then stash it in one of the cabinets next to the fireplace. It really makes this part of the day easier. In the morning when Hank pulls it out, all his cars are ready to go. Then I pick up and stash all other kid stuff by category--books, art stuff, and tiny things.

Next I put all the furniture (!) back where it goes and straighten up the couches. (I like throw pillows, and Hank likes to throw them.) I start to enjoy the routine at this point, because the lineaments of my tidy rooms are starting to emerge. Finally, I put Laura's shoes, socks, and schoolbag all together and put her snack in her bag. I make her lunch if I didn't do it earlier, putting out not one but two reminder-notes that say, "Lunch in fridge." One goes on her shoes and one goes on the door where Matt will see it in the morning. Then I make a cocktail and sit down to catch up on the episodes of "Mad Men" I have tivoed.

So what is missing from my routine is any real attention to our hot spots. Sometimes I feel like our entire house and life is a hot spot. But we truly need a system to deal with paperwork and mail. Right now, the upper, non-food prep section of my kitchen counter is an undifferentiated pile of papers that are kinda important, or I haven't looked at them yet, or maybe I need to look at them again, or I need to do something else with them. I pay most bills online, many of them automatically, so this is. . .other stuff, I don't know. That's the system. I have an office--it is where paper goes to die. I could never put any piece of paper there that I needed to touch again, because the office is the Place of Forgetting. It doesn't look too bad in the office, but that's because the mess is in the kitchen. Maybe every two weeks, I make some progress with reducing the pile.

So, toy organization, I'm good. We can sit down at night for Adult Time without feeling like we live in a daycare. Paper system, sorely needed. I would love to know what y'all have got going on, or if everyone lives like this? That's where I'm at. Thank you for your time and attention.


Amy said...

I feel your pain! We have similar hotspot issues with paper. One thing I do that helps with mail and stuff is to go through it right when I bring it in and immediately throw out the junk. I used to think, oh i'll do it later and then it would pile up. Also I bought some cloth boxes with lids to put stuff in that I need to sort, and I "try" to designate a time each week to do that. That way it still sits there, but at least it looks nicer! Maybe you could get a couple for the bar area where you guys pile stuff. Also, I mentioned to you about the bulletin board idea--for L's school stuff you need to sign or whatever.

Also, what if you got rid of all the paper in the office and moved some of the other stuff to there? Is that too radical? I am lame in giving advice in this area--a bit of the blind leading the blind!

Lecia said...

I tend to be obsessively organized, so definitely do the picking out clothes for the next day, packing lunches the night before, etc. I've even gone so far as to lay out spatulas and skillets for cooking breakfast...
I like that these tips include remembering time for your spouse. My husband gets home late, so I try to get everything done before he gets home.
I never ever feel like tackling hot spots in the evening, or anything else, for that matter. Most things I try to take care of immediately - ie sorting, dealing with mail - this may not be the best thing for the kids though. Thank goodness school has started again; maybe I'll catch up on the garage and play room closet (which is becoming a black hole).

David said...

dude... this might be a long comment, which breaks yet another blogging rule, but since i just moved into m's place, i've done a lot of thinking about the paper problem. (plus, i miss our long conversations about such things... remember when we drank cocktails and organized your books for hours, after a lengthy pro/con discussion of different ways to organize? that. was. sublime.)

here's my newly instated -- and so far successful -- system:

accept that there's gonna be a big push right at the beginning. gather your tools, make a drink, and plant yourself in front of the tv... with every single stray paper you've got and a bunch of file folders. i started by naming some of the folders that would be obvious -- "warranties," "receipts," "taxes," "financial statements," etc.)

other categories became clear once i started to sort through the actual papers. (who woulda thunk i'd need a "bibliography and random notes i might need if i ever write that paper or book on boredom in proust and woolf" folder? but i did.... as a fellow academic, you've got the same problem, i imagine. you don't want to toss that stuff out, of course, and, for me, at least, the idea of typing it up and storing it on a flash disk is both tedious and a surefire way to launch it into oblivion. out of sight, out of mind... in a bad way.)

then: sort. and don't let yourself get lazy about it. make piles for each of your categories. if the papers can be in chronological order (pay stubs and bills and tax info, for example), take the time to *put them* in chronological order. if they can be grouped according to theme (receipts for books, receipts for electronics, etc.) do that too. once you've got your piles, put them in their respective folders. folders that you don't need regular access to (tax stuff and warranties, for example) can go into milk crates, index tab up, and then jammed into a closet somewhere.

stuff you need more at hand -- all the articles and bibliographies and notes you need for your work, for sure -- can go in a hanging file system by your desk.

that's the big job, but, as you say, the most annoying bit is the day-to-day maintenance. i'm with amy on the cloth-covered box thing. for papers to sort through some time soonish but not necessarily now, i got one of the stockholm two-drawer boxes from the container store. they're sturdy and attractive, and they can sort of hide all the papers while still reminding you that they need dealing with. one drawer for school and dissertation stuff -- including journals you'll want to catch up on -- and one drawer for house stuff and correspondence to deal with (if you get snail mail, that is.... somehow, i still seem to). every other day or so, i go through the house and correspondence drawer. i've sort of made it one of those mundane things i like to do because they make me feel like a better person. like, there's "wiping time," after washing dishes, when i get a satisfaction from sanitizing all our surfaces. and now i have "paper time," when i have a beer and sort through papers, filing and responding. "paper time" comes after "wiping time," for the most part. who doesn't want a beer on the couch with tivo and some paper after dinner?

i deal with the school/dissertation drawer as part of my academic work day. i've started devoting 45 minutes to an hour of my work time, every single day, to the more administrative tasks we academics let pile up till they're out of control. this includes filling out paperwork, responding to emails, scheduling meetings and reading plans, and reading those journals so we can stay current. at the end of each session, i file anything i've dealt with that'll be useful for the writing and store anything (in the milk crates) that i might need later but not right now.

magazines: get some of the cloth-covered stockholm magazine files (or something similar) from the container store. i'm with matt on this: get them out of your living space, unless you're currently reading them... and read one at a time. that stuff is clutter.

mail: every single day, when you walk through the door with it, go through it. be brutal and unbending. recycle what needs recycling -- and put the rest in your new two-drawer box. if there's stuff matt needs to sort, put it somewhere conspicuous and make him sort it. (i'm still working on michael about this. he's got his little area of the kitchen table that gathers his paper clutter, and once a week or so, i carry the pile to him when he's on the couch and say "let's just do this now." he knows i mean "hey, *you* do this now," not "let *us" do this now." this is how "paper time" came to follow "wiping time"; if you're wiping said surface that gathers clutter, it's a lot more natural to hand off the stuff on said surface to someone else to deal with.)

so that's my system. it's working, and it makes me feel powerful. it's become a sickness i'm happy to have.

Michelle said...

Becky - thanks so much for the comment! I really like blog comments, and so I was excited to get yours. I can't wait to read your timeline. I just came right here and commented! I also like the suggestions about the hot spots. I'm looking at one right now next to my computer. Ack.

Becky said...

I called, and you answered. Thanks for the ideas, gang. David, you seriously need to write an article about this or at least post it on your blog. Especially because you are dealing with a small space. I need to go through your comment with a highlighter. But so far I love that it starts with fixing a drink.

I think that I need to commit to the big push of sorting you describe. I have a file system--it's just languishing from disuse. I just need to be more disciplined about the day to day pile up.

The dissertation pile--that's a whole 'nother thing. I feel that I can't sit down to work without every draft I've ever written arranged around me. Weird.

Lecia, I love that you pick out breakfast utensils. You are a true Flylady--she's all about setting the table for breakfast at night. Or maybe you are Flylady?

David said...

Three-ring binders for the drafts, dude. One for each chapter, with dividers for draft rounds. I did this for the qualifying exam drafts, and it made everything easier... and tidier. And transportable for meetings.

I have a *big* stockholm box I'm keeping the most recent "clean" drafts in, again with dividers (for chapters, conference papers, CV, etc. All of this -- binders and box -- gets stored on the bottom shelf of the bookcase beside my desk, for easy reach.

And you're right: I probably should have posted about this on my own blog. This way we can cross-list, at least. I'll be all "cf. suburban matron, September 9, 2008." Our first real citations!

Amy said...

David, i stand in awe. wow. do you do overseas consulations?

Carrie said...

I am checking blogs as a way of procrastinating this very dark time of the soul. The hubs is upstairs getting the girls ready for bed.

The thing is, I REALLY feel like my older girl (age 4) should have most of the responsibility for cleaning up her toys and any messes. I see my neighbors next door toiling away at their lawn, etc., with teenage kids playing around on the trampoline, and I think, this will be me in 10 years if I don't get it straight from the beginning.

But it is soooo hard. Today we had such a big blowup over me asking her to clean up the crayons that she and her sister had strewn all over the kitchen. She cleaned up some. I will be cleaning up the rest shortly.

But still. This is my main goal. Not getting the toys put away after bedtime, so much as getting THEM to put the toys away before dinner.

Cassidy said...

Nice read, I will have to check out FlyLAdy! The toy bag is a great idea : )


Becky said...

Thanks, Cassidy! And Carrie, I know families like your yard-working neighbors. Where the mother is like a servant to a crowd of increasingly adult-looking and shiftless children. Not to be judgmental, but turn off the Wii and clean up your crap.

I can pretty much get my 7 year-old to help out or to clean her room after I've asked/ordered her to enough times. But now that I think about it, she didn't really do that until she was 5, or even almost 6. I think if your 4 y.o. is doing some tidying then you guys are doing good!

Minnesota Matron said...

Oh, I love this!! Every night finds me doing just this. Also, when the children are in school, I spend one hour cleaning and organizing, even on work days. It's essential! Love the box!

Lecia said...

I think David should start a blog all about organizing - I'm sure it would be wildly successful - have a tip of the day or something! :)
I haven't read Flylady except as referenced by you - I'm going to have to check her out.