Reader A.C. writes:

“As a young mom with two toddlers who works full-time, and recently decided to go back to school part-time, I sorely need to get organized! … I spend my down time at work saving sites in ‘Delicous’ that I never go back to. I save lists in Amazon of books that I want to read that I never read, and lists of things/dreams that I would love to do. I am subscribed to a whole bunch of blogs that I am geninuely interested in but never have the time to read.
“My desk at work and carefully hidden boxes at home are filled with piles of papers and ‘stuff’ that never gets put in its proper place. I feel like I spend much of my time looking for things and digging through my purse for something. I have all these ideas that never become anything. …I don’t want my children to experience these frustrations. Do you have any simple suggestions to help this frazzled mom get organized?”

A.C., before I answer your questions, I need you to know that I do not have organization down 100 percent. I’m much better than I used to be, but I still have seasons of chaos and frustration. So when I share these ideas, keep in mind that I don’t do all of them all the time, nor do I know what’s best for every person in every situation.

In reading your question, it sounds like you feel more overwhelmed at being a mom and everything that entails, than you are the nitty gritty details. I completely understand that feeling — what mom doesn’t wake up and think, “I have so much to do today, and I’m not sure I can do it all”?

Here are some ideas that came to mind as I read your question.

First off, focus on one thing at a time.

Photo by Margo C

Our jobs require a lot of hats, and if they all feel overwhelming, only focus on the one you’re wearing. They overlap frequently, but if you ever start telling yourself, “I need to organize my finances, my menu planning, my kids’ educational needs, my holiday decorations, my kids’ toys, my purse, my relationships… Aak!” you’ll quit before you start. No one can focus on all those things at once.

Have a brain dump.

Take a sheet of paper and a pen, and start writing down every little thing that comes through your mind. As you write down one thing, you’ll start thinking of another. I like the mind-mapping technique of brain dumping, which Nick Cernis’ Todoodlist explains very simply.

The basics of a mind-map are to start with one general idea, and then add ideas that stem off that main one you started with. As you add more and more, you’ll end up with a spider web-looking list of things your brain is swimming in.

Here’s an example of a brain dump via mind-mapping:

Pick one area from your brain dump, and start with that.

Since you’re one person, and can focus on only thing at a time, just pick something on your list and start with it. So if you want to start with organizing your finances, look at the sub-ideas that stem from the finances category. Circle the one task you should do first. Do it. If you’ve got “update this month’s accounts,” “create next month’s budget,” “call about the water bill,” and “get cash,” pick the item that affects you the most right now. In this case, it’s probably updating this month’s accounts.

Circle that task, and then sit down to do it immediately. Get rid of anything that will distract you. If you use an online service for budgeting (I use Pear Budget), close out any windows that would distract you, like your email inbox. Focus on it until it’s done. Then cross it off.

Find the tools that help you, and don’t worry about the rest.

Photo by Tom Adriaenssen

There are so many great online tools to help you be more productive, we’ve got the gamut of choices. But pen and paper might be your best choice, if you’re more of a kinesthetic learner or prone to distraction when you’re on the computer. Pick a few tools that will help you stay on task, and use them to your advantage. It sounds like you’ve already got a few under your belt, and that’s good. Here are just a few of mine:

  • As already mentioned, for tracking our family finances, I use Pear Budget.
  • For banking with a decent interest rate, I use Capital One 360.
  • For tracking my business expenses and income, I use Outright.
  • For saving recipes I find online, I use Delicious.
  • For saving online items of interest, I either use Delicious or Tumblr, depending on my reason for saving it.
  • To keep track of my family’s ongoing list of things we’d like eventually, I use Wishpot.
  • For my daily to-do list, I use my Daily Docket.
  • For organizing local restaurant menus, keeping track of little papers with notes we need, and holding our paper calendars, I use a simple Home Management Notebook.
  • To organize the kids’ toys, we use a basic bucket-and-shelf system (we got ours from Ikea, but anything will do). We also keep all the toys together in one playroom.

Have one place of storage for each thing in your life.

Don’t save your recipes on index cards near the flour, printed on paper and tucked in a folder, and tucked between the pages of cookbooks. Pick one system, and put everything there.

Don’t keep track of your work calendar on Outlook, your kids’ sports schedule on a printed flyer hanging on the fridge, and your family birthdays on the hanging calendar on the wall. Put everything in one place, and use that as your command central for your schedule. This is the beauty of a home management notebook — everything is in one place.

Don’t let paper rule your life.

Paper clutter is my biggest pet peeve. I can’t stand it. All those little receipts, the half-written notes, the candy wrappers… I cringe just thinking about it. Don’t assume the mantra, “If in doubt, keep it.” That’s not true. We really need to save very little. If in doubt, scan it and save it on a disk.

I recommend investing in a decent scanner, a paper shredder, and possibly a receipt saver like Neat Receipts. Find a workable money management system, and throw away needless receipts as soon as you enter them. You seriously don’t need that Starbucks receipts from 2001.

And in case you’re wondering, the papers you actually need in their original form are:

  • Legal documents, such as birth and marriage certificates and social security cards
  • Mortgage and loan papers — keep these for three years after the payoff date (although many companies offer a paperless version of these — always opt for this if it’s available)
  • Warranty letters, appliance repairs, and records of maintenance for your home and your vehicles.

Things like insurance records, tax information, and medical records can be scanned and saved as a PDF on a disk.

Take care of yourself as you take care of others.

Photo by Zara

I’m a big fan of single-tasking, but you can multi-task those items that can handle it. If you want to infuse a little continuing education in your life, listen to quality podcasts while you work on your finances, reply to emails, or clean the house. Listen to books from Audible. Check out a book from the library and keep it on your nightstand. Make it a habit to read a chapter each night before bed. Always be learning.

Don’t wait for your entire life to be perfectly organized.

When littles are in the house, there’s honestly very little way to have all your ducks in a row, all the time. If they are, they’ll probably stay that way for 20 minutes, until nap time is over. As I write this, I’ve got my lunch plate next to me, my home management notebook on the other side, and random cloth napkins, my laptop case, a doll, some of my husband’s work papers, some drawings, and a few DVDs tossed along the dining room table from which I type.

It annoys me, but I’ve also learned to not let it bother me too much. I’ll clean it up in a minute, and I know it’ll get filled with stuff again in a few hours. I like keeping the perspective that these items tossed hither and yon are footprints of those people in my life I love. This doll that never lives where it’s supposed to is here because of my daughter. And she’s such a blessing in my life. I’ll take her over a perfectly organized home any day.

Remember that life is a journey.

That long wishlist on Amazon? Your bookmarked sites on Delicious? For the most part, they’re not going anywhere. I have a ton of articles and sites on my Delicious account I haven’t read yet, either. And I’ll never be able to read all the books I want. That’s okay! In fact, it’s a sign of life — that you continually want to learn, that you’re proactively seeking improvement and better habits. Don’t let those things stress you. You know how to eat an elephant.

I hope this is an encouragement to you, A.C. Don’t panic! There are many sides to our multi-dimensional role of Mom, and there are seasons when we have a lot going on. It sounds like you might be in one of those seasons.

Take a deep breath, do only what you can do today, and don’t worry about tomorrow. God gives us the strength only for what He has for us. If you go to bed not having done everything you want to do, then perhaps that wasn’t on His agenda to begin with.

What about you, readers? What advice would you give to other moms like A.C., overwhelmed with the many hats we moms wear?

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