Julie Morgenstern, a leading expert on organization and time management, is the author of six best-selling books and a consultant to large corporations. She has appeared on “Oprah,” “The Today Show,” and NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and helped thousands of people transform their homes, businesses, and attitudes about every kind of clutter. New York City-based Julie Morgenstern Enterprises has been in business for more than 30 years.
Morgenstern joined a recent Washington Post Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
A: That’s a tough one. One of the common conflicts around chores is people’s different understanding of urgency. As long as you and your husband agree on what chores he will do and which ones you will do, the next discussion to have is the when. Unless something has to be done by a certain time because of external deadlines (the garbage has to be brought out before the truck arrives), come to an agreement that it needs to be done by noon, or end of day. Find out when he is fitting the chores into his routine, and see if you can live with that. The time they’re completed often doesn’t matter as long as they get done. It’s just about aligning our expectations.
Q: My playroom is a disaster. I can’t even walk in the door, and I can’t find any toys when I look for them. I’m not sure how it got this way. How can I get the kids involved in organizing, and how do I start?
A: Use a kindergarten classroom as a model of how to organize the space. Divide the room into activity zones like reading, floor play, dress-up, crafts, etc. Store everything at its point of use in well-labeled containers that use pictures and words to make it clear what goes where. If you have too many items in each category, consider displaying only about half of them at any given time. You can rotate them out quarterly.
Q: It drives me nuts when people leave dishes in the sink. How do I get them to stop?
A: People usually do it absent-mindedly. If you have automatically been cleaning the dishes people leave, they have no idea it bothers you. Let them know that when they leave dishes in the sink, they are putting something on someone else’s to-do list.
Q: It has been really tough dividing the housework and keeping everything in order. How do you create a system everyone will follow?
A: Each room is getting more use than ever, so there’s more to do. Ensure that each system used for cleaning, cooking, laundry and setting the table is designed as a multi-user system. Keep each system simple enough for a 5-year-old to follow. If your systems are too complex for everyone to understand, it’s hard to get others to follow. Have a family conversation about how to put things back, so they’re ready for the next person’s use.
Q: I have to remodel my kitchen, but I’m still in the designing stage. What do you suggest I think about when designing for organizing a kitchen, beyond a work triangle?
A: A kitchen should be designed around how you function, not just the aesthetics. Define the activities that take place in the kitchen, and design the space into self-contained activity zones that store everything you need and use for each activity. For example, create a daily dishes zone for dishes, glasses, mugs, cleaning supplies and the dishwasher, all within arm’s reach of the sink; a food prep zone (the longest counter between the sink and fridge or stove and fridge), with mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, knives, small prep utensils and appliances stored in the cabinets above and below; and a cooking zone for pots, pans, lids, potholders, oils and more. Define how you operate now and what you use. Use that to guide what you need in the space.
Q: I’m a list-maker, but lately I’m making multiple lists or losing them. My thinking is really clouded by the stress of the pandemic. Any tips?
A: Cloudy pandemic thinking is a common complaint these days; the change and uncertainty is taxing on the mind. The key is to have a single, consistent list, and really commit to putting 100% of what you need to do on there. It doesn’t matter whether you choose paper, digital or a whiteboard. Choose one that seems to be capturing the majority of your to-dos, and eliminate the rest. Assign a time every day to review the list, and see what you finished and what you need to add.
Q: How do I stop going backward in my effort to organize? By the time I want to do some big-impact cleanup, I have to do five low-impact tasks just to get to the point that the big project can happen. That’s upsetting, so I never start.
A: It sounds as if you’re organizing in a reactive way rather than proactively planning each project before you start. For systems to last, you need to plan them out before you dive in. Organizing from the inside out is a three-step process:
1. Analyze what does and doesn’t work.
2. Plan out the space into zones.
3. Attack, meaning sort through piles, create categories and put items in containers.
Q: In this pandemic, we’re home all day, and people don’t pick up after themselves. I’m tired of being the only one who cares about an organized house. Any suggestions?
A: Call a family meeting. Never have this conversation reactively; plan it out and come to it calm, nonjudgmental and in problem-solving mode. Explain that the workload has become more intense, the household has fallen into a pattern that isn’t working and everyone needs to own the space equally. Then engage everyone in problem-solving, so you are not the nag, or the “owner,” of cleanup. But everyone should design and maintain a system to equally share the maintenance.
Q: We’re always home with two full-time jobs, a dog, a toddler and an old house that always needs repairs. We can’t stay on top of the clutter, let alone the deeper cleaning, but we’re both organized people, and it’s driving us crazy. Any tips and tricks for managing our cleaning and organizing in a doable way with limited time?
A: Think about bite-size organizing and convenience. Make a list of organizing and repair projects you can do in one hour or less, such as organizing the refrigerator, pantry or bathroom, creating a shopping list, calling the plumber, etc. Prioritize them in terms of what would give you the greatest sense of relief, control and time. Write it down, and tackle each task one at a time. Create cleaning stations on each floor of the house in the rooms that get the most use; include a broom, dusting cloth and mop, so you can easily clean as you go.
Q: How should we organize our food during the pandemic? Especially when you’re buying larger quantities and have smaller homes and apartments.
A: Clean out a closet and turn it into a pantry, or buy a narrow, inexpensive pantry cabinet and create a supply area. Wayfair (wayfair.com) has some good options.