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Get It Together: Organize Your Way to a Simpler Life

According to this professional organizer, organization reduces the stress of busyness. You can do the same amount of stuff - without living in a constant state of frenzy.

You've seen them - the family who seems to have it all together. They're always on time to church; they never forget friends' birthdays or anniversaries; and they're able to successfully balance gymnastics, soccer, piano lessons, and youth ministry activities.

If your family habitually stumbles into church  late, eats more meals in the car than at the table, and never can seem to catch up on homework or make it to every practice, you've probably looked at the "together" family with awe - and frustration.

You're not alone. Most families today live frantic, harried lives. There's a lot to do and only 24 hours each day in which to do it all. If you consistently feel a day late and a dollar short, life can easily lose its joy.

If you can't seem to get it all together, you could be trying to do too much. But if your schedule is filled only with must-dos, the solution to the craziness could be as simple as streamlining your activities and your approach. You can organize your way to a simpler life.

"The more you are involved in, the more organized you must be to accomplish each task," says Kathy Firkins, a professional organizer and owner of Totally Together in Midland, Texas. "Clutter and frustration is a symptom of being unorganized or undisciplined, not a direct result of being too busy. The home chores, dinner, homework, and even supplies must be organized in a way that allows for quick completion and retrieval of needed items."

According to this professional organizer, organization reduces the stress of busyness. You can do the same amount of stuff - without living in a constant state of frenzy.

Create a system

You won't find a perfect, cookie-cutter system to organization. You'll have to consider your family's needs, but there are general guidelines to becoming organized that any committed family can follow. And making changes toward organization offers excellent benefits. You'll spend less time searching and more time on what really matters, and you'll experience less stress and more peace.

According to the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), there isn't a right or wrong way to organize. Organization is about how you manage your time, paper, information, and space. But, they note, "the amount of information available to us continues to grow at a rapid pace, as do the demands on our time. Organizing systems help you deal with everything from your paper to your professional responsibilities, and [they] give you parameters on what to keep, what to toss, and what to take action on."

According to Firkins, families need to realize it's the lack of a system or routine that's causing them to feel stressed out, not necessarily the events in their lives.

"It is much easier to quickly grab your bowling bag to head out to your weekly bowling league, knowing you have returned all the necessary supplies to this bag after its last use," she says, "than to run around grabbing things and feeling like you're forgetting something. Realize it's not the bowling league causing your frustration but your inability to create a smooth system to get you there prepared."

Also realize the process of creating systems to simplify your busy life is not an overnight or even a weekend project. It takes time.

Firkins suggests starting with a challenge that bothers you most - preparing dinner, finding the matches to your shoes, clearing the clutter from the kitchen. Once you have created a workable system for that area of your life, move on to something else.

Take purposeful steps

As soon as you've decided to create more order for your life, change your current way of doing things one step at a time. Try to make the process a family affair, keeping expectations clear and holding one another accountable. When everyone is involved, you can create an ordered household and eliminate feelings of stress and anxiety for the entire family. Here are some ways to start.

Cut the clutter

Open the mail over the recycling bin or trash can, and throw out junk mail immediately. Designate a specific spot for bills, and pay them once a week. Evaluate whether to continue receiving magazines you never have time to read, or consider rotating subscriptions. Gather frequently used papers, such as phone lists and take-out menus in a binder, NAPO suggests.

Plan ahead for meals

Plan dinner menus each weekend for the following week. Use a slow cooker or other time saving cooking technique as often as possible. Keep a shopping list on the refrigerator or another visible spot for family members to write down needed grocery items; then shop only once every week or two.

Get your children into the act

Take your children along when you donate used items to charities to help them learn to part with things, suggests Birdie Brennan, a professional organizer in Cincinnati, Ohio. Lower the bars in children's closets so they can hang up their clothes. If they're too young to read labels, put pictures on storage containers so children can help put items in their proper places.

Organize your kitchen

Use clear containers for pasta, cereal, and other dry items so you can quickly see the quantity you have on hand. Group items together according to how you use them, Firkins suggests. For instance, keep all your baking ingredients in the same place.

    Manage your time

    Track appointments and tasks with a planner. You can use a notebook, computer software program, or PDA. Use a family calendar to record upcoming events and activities for all family members, as well as birthdays and anniversaries. Wear a watch, and be on the lookout for creative ways to save time.

    While becoming organized may seem like a daunting task, it's probably easier than you think. Once you start on the road to an ordered life, you'll be hooked. A house without clutter can be cleaned in half the time. A shopping and menu system can add hours to your week. And remembering every friend's birthday is bound to offer sweet rewards.

    "As the old saying goes, 'If you want something done right, ask a busy person,'" Firkins says. "Busy people are often organized people who have developed a system that works for them."

    Nancy Mann Jackson is an award-winning writer for a number of publications and corporations. Her specialties include writing about business, food and travel, homes and gardens, and family.