It’s 6:26 am and I’m rifling through the God forsaken mountain of papers on my counter because I know the kindergartner’s field trip permission slip is somewhere in there.
I’d turn on the lights, but any flicker creeping under a door could wake the baby up early, and so I sacrifice. Just as I unearth a water bill I thought had already been mailed, my husband breezes through the room, “Don’t forget the Coopers are coming over for dinner Thursday.” Super. Make a mental note and promptly forget until Thursday afternoon.
Round three through the papers and the 1st grader yells (!) from the bathroom, “Mom! Don’t forget I’m going home with Aiden today – write a note for my teacher!”. Oh, sure. Scramble for a pen. HOW ON EARTH ARE THERE NO PENS IN THIS HOME? As I rip off a corner of some math scratch paper for the note, I know something has to change.
That morning – after finally finding the permission form crumpled in a backpack – I decided that if we wanted any hope of enjoying the “hustle and bustle” of family life – the very moments people insist go by “way too fast” – I was going to have to get organized.
Here’s the thing: I am a really organized person by nature. I’m the nerd who got way too excited when Amazon had a flash sale on a laminating machine last year.
But, throwing various kids’ schedules and a husband’s schedule into the mix was something new for me. With meals haphazardly planned, missing permission slips and forgotten commitments, I was constantly rushed, frustrated and inefficient, which is not how I envisioned enjoying this time. Enter: The Command Center.
What is a Family Command Center?
A command center is place (or a couple of places) in your home that keeps your family organized. It’s comprised of places that keep track of appointments, school events and shopping lists. It is home to the weekly menu and chore charts. It also keeps all of your paperwork organized and off your counter. It is the mecca for keeping your family on track.
Pinterest offers an endless stream of command center ideas – everything from fancy Pottery Barn versions to DIY on the side of your fridge options. Great for ideas, but don’t go down the rabbit hold of Pintrest shame. I assure you not everyone’s set-up looks that beautiful everyday.
I scoured the pins, and while I love and use many ideas I found there for my mudroom area, I realized that what I also needed was an Active Work Station – a place where I’m physically spending much of my time, where I have easy access to my planner and the drawer full of things I need all day. So, I analyzed my needs, tweaked ideas from pins I loved and came up with my own Active Work Station. And, I updated all of my other family organization stations with ideas below.
Why do you need an Active Work Station?
Men have Man Drawers with loose screws, random keys, duct tape and whoknowswhatelse.
It only makes sense that women have a place from which to run the family. If a CEO gets an office and a desk from which to run a company, surely Mom needs something similar in order to effectively run the family.
Having a place from which you are “stationed” maximizes efficiency. Moms are petitioned for things all the live-long day: scissors to cut the tag out of a shirt, Sharpie to label toddler’s sippy cup before heading out the door, notes to teacher, tape to hang priceless art on the wall, ponytail holders, stamps for mail. You could spend a (hours) ridiculous amount of time walking to and from the home office, the bathroom and the art supply station all day those items pile up on your kitchen counter OR you can devote a space in your time-most-spent-in spot (very likely the kitchen) to house all of those daily necessities.
Having your planner in your face all day also does wonders for increasing efficiency. Since you can seen the dinner with Coopers on the schedule, you add those shopping items to your list along with anything else that pops into your mind as you’re unloading the dishwasher or making lunches, and you make one trip to the market rather than two or three. And, being able to see the week in front of you makes it much less likely that you’ll forget that you are Friday’s mystery reader. It even helps you see blocks of “free” time during which you could snag a workout, read a book or take a nap. [Take the nap. But, really who has time to take a nap?]
And. . . PENS! When you need a pen, IT IS THERE. It’s like magic. You may even have PAPER. It’s crazy.
Oh, and your utilities won’t get cut off. Always a plus.
For the Active Work Station:
Planner. I’ve rocked planners since my Trapper Keeper days back in grade 2, but with the increase in the number of people I’m keeping track of, my needs in a planner have morphed over the years. I know that these things are helpful in keeping track of a family:
Week view: Being able to see Sunday – Saturday in one fell swoop of the eyeballs is crucial. It very quickly gives you a snapshot of the week and allows you to keep it open on the counter for appointment making and to-do lists without flipping through pages.
Space for lists: To-do lists help you remember what needs to get done, and crossing items off the lists boosts your mood and morale. You may also need space for your weekly meal plan, shopping lists, etc.
“Notes” pages: Blank pages toward the back for notes or planning are helpful when you’re pricing out dentists and need more than a tiny square of space. The information will always be readily available and you don’t have to search for scrap paper (which will likely get lost). I’ve also used those “notes” pages to list out birthday party plans, class party details, etc. In some ways it acts as a journal because I can always refer back to previous years whenever I need to reference those notes.
Time slots: Many planners have the days broken down by the half hour. When I was younger and had much less going on, this annoyed me, but now I love being able to physically block time out for appointments, meetings, workouts, etc.
Academic year: With school aged kids, it’s much easier to plan out the year according to the academic year.
My current favorite planner is this one from Passion Planner. It has everything listed above, and the teacher in me loves the lesson plan book size of it.
I also love this Week Dominator planner from Neuyear (who also has amazing wall calendars) because of the freedom it gives you in customizing things, and there’s tons of room for making goals, charting progress, etc. I feel like creative types might love this planner for all the free space it has.
Another planner I used for three years in a row is the Gallery Leather Family Planner, which I always found at Barnes & Noble. I loved (and still do love) the style and the size (easy to pack in a bag), but I ended up needing more space to write lists and notes.
Pens/Markers: Finding just the right pen or marker may not be your biggest concern. For me, it ranks right under breathing. I only write in my planner with one kind of pen because different kinds and colors of pens distract. Everyone in the house knows mama’s special pens and nobody messes with them. Well…most of the time.
My most favorite pen in the world is the Sharpie Pen. It doesn’t bleed through, it lasts a long time and this stainless steel version has a great weight. I just feels good. (I told you I’m a nerd).
If I was a multi-colored pen kinda gal, I know I would love these Triplus Fineliner pens by Staedtler.
Beginning this year, I assigned each family member a highlighter color so I could clearly block out times in colors, and I’ve been really happy with how well it’s kept us (me) on track. Because I have so many family members, I needed quite a few highlighter colors and the Sharpie Accent markers have been awesome.
Unless you want another man drawer, I highly suggest a drawer organizer for the drawer that holds the scissors, tape, post-it notes, ponytail holders, stamps and Sharpies. The kitchen drawer I use is small so my organizer is small and I still have room for notepads and a checkbook.
I use this great drawer organizer from Target:
Daily Items: These things will vary depending on what you and your family need most often, but here are the things that are in my drawer right now:
Sharpie markers (2), Sharpie pen and Sharpie Accent markers (I swear Sharpie doesn’t pay me, but they should).
Regular ball point pen
Teeny tiny screwdriver (for glasses and/or battery compartments on obnoxious toys). If I keep this here, I don’t have to rummage through the man drawer whenever I need it.
Push pins, paper clips, binder clips, rubber bands
Small notepad (for shopping lists)
Larger notepad (DIY notepad with my name, email and phone number printed on the bottom – makes for quick and easy notes to teachers and play date parents).
Stamps and return address stickers
Here’s a peek at what my Active Work Station looks like with all the pieces in place:
Once the Active Work Station has all of the necessities, you’re ready for the phase of family organization I call “Grand Central Station.”
Why Grand Central Station?
When multiple people are coming in and out of your house from different places and are bringing various things in from those places, it could mean disaster. Shoes, jackets, backpacks, school communication folders, art projects, lunch boxes, umbrellas, gym bags, sports equipment all find their way somewhere, and if there aren’t designated places, it gets ugly fast. Bills and important school papers get lost in piles on the counter and the coffee table, soccer cleats get lost under the bed, lunchboxes get dumped at the door (therefore unwashed and not ready when you need it). Designating specific places for all of the items right where everyone comes/goes most often will save you hours of frustration in looking for things – and it will keep your home cleaner.
Not many people have space in their kitchen for coat hooks, shoe cubbies and mail slots, but there are a lot of side-of-the-fridge options that work well for organizational charts and even slots for paperwork.
I like this one featured in a Good Housekeeping gallery from Jenna at SAS Interiors.
And this one from Charlotte at Ciburbanity.
And, of course, if you have space for a mudroom version, there are tons of swoon-worthy options like this one:
My Grand Central Station command center is slightly more spread out as I have the chalkboard menu board on the side of the fridge, mail slots and cubbies/hooks in the mudroom and a small file in the living room near the family computer, but it works for us.
Here are my favorites for Grand Central Station:
Portable File Box. This is important to have near your Active Work Station because it will prevent piles of paper stacking up. I like to go through mail and communication folders right near the recycling bin and my calendar. Whatever I need to keep, gots filed in the portable file box immediately. My files include: bills, “to-do,” school, recipes, coupons, etc.
Every few months I actually file the “file” folder contents.
I use something like this box from Lovely Crafty Home.
Cubbies/Hooks. Cubbies, hooks and baskets are crucial in keeping things off the floor and at least close to where they’re supposed to be stored. Ikea has tons of shelving systems that work well for cubbies if you don’t have built in storage. And, I love baskets for storing hats and gloves in the winter and goggles and pool toys in the summer. They’re also great for soccer balls, baseball mitts and lacrosse sticks that might otherwise find their way into the living room or – even worse – a toddler’s hands.
Mail Slots. Designating a place for each person’s miscellaneous paperwork not only keeps it off your counters, but greatly increases the likelihood of being able to find permission slips and such. My kids bring home a communication folder from school every day. As soon as they come in the house, the folder goes in his/her own mail slot and I go through the folder later. I keep what I need and recycle what I don’t. Before school, the kids grab their folders, pop them in the backpacks and off they go. I got mine at Home Goods, but you can also find them at Container Store.
Chalk Board/White Board. It’s really helpful to have a place where you can write general announcements. I’ve seen families use them as collaborative shopping lists and fun places to write messages to one another.
[source: Lemonade Makin Mama]
I mainly use mine to display our weekly menu because the four people that can read in my house are four less people I have to repeat the answer to “what’s for dinner?”. I don’t have a real chalkboard, but I’ve been using ConTact brand chalkboard paper, and I really like it because I can cut it to the size I need and tear it down if I want to move it.
Chalk Markers. Regular chalk doesn’t write as nicely on the ConTact paper as I would prefer so I use chalk markers, but those have been hit or miss for me. They’re expensive and I’ve had fairly inconsistent results with how well they work. This brand was okay, but I’ll be sticking to just white markers from now on.
As I’ve mentioned, Pinterest has tons of ideas for command centers for families of all sizes and organizational adeptness. Unoriginal Mom.com has organized a bunch for you here.
And, one of my favorite bloggers, Becky from Your Modern Family has an awesome family command center piece as part of her 40 days to organization series, which times up nicely with the 40 days of lent. Such great ideas.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure and recognition of real life, I submit to you what my own Active Work Station can sometimes become:
. . . the place where everything gets dumped.
And so…we troubleshoot:
How can I prevent my Active Work Station from becoming chaos?
You can’t (see above pic). But, you can control how often it becomes chaos. Because my Active Work Station is where I spend most of my time, it is the default place for where I toss down a receipt from my pocket or the chalk marker I wrote the menu with but didn’t have time to put away because potty training. And, mob mentality tells the rest of my family that my pile of stuff should also include their piles of stuff so they just throw things in, too. So, how do I wrangle this mess? Whenever I can, I take a few moments to put stuff away – in the real places things belong. I tend to make small piles so I can deliver items to one room without making return trips. Ponytail holders, lip balm, stray barrett, box of wipes – all go to the bathroom in one trip. A picture of the kids from someone’s family project, my book, my portable hard drive – all go to my room in one trip. Same for the drawer. I use the few minutes while the toast is toasting to work on one little space at a time. Sometimes, I have a full 20 minutes and I can get it all done at once, but I have more success working on a little at a time.
How do you teach your family to use the systems?
Becoming streamlined and organized does not happen overnight, and you have to remember that there are learning curves. Not everyone works best with the same systems. In fact, in a family of more than three people, it’s very likely that what works best for you or your partner, will not be what works best for you kid(s). This does not mean those folks get a free pass. It works best to present any new system at Family Meeting where you have space to talk about why your family needs these systems and how they’re going to work. Ask for input and forge ahead. You will have to remind your people A LOT that they should empty their backpacks upon entering the house, they should deliver the lunchbox to the kitchen counter, they should put all school papers in their mail slots. I still make reminders, but they’re a lot less frequent because eventually, these things become habits. The best way to teach these new behaviors and systems is through consistency and persistence. Try not to get to frustrated when it’s not super smooth right away. You’ll get there.
Do I have to buy all of these files/slots/cubbies/planners?
Home organization can get super expensive. There’s an entire store devoted to it, and while I could spend way too much time simply making googly eyes at everything I see in The Container Store, there are cheaper alternatives. Much of what I recommend is stuff that you can either find cheaply at Ikea or Target or DIY yourself from things you already have. It takes a little creativity, but the Pinterest links above will give you lots of ideas for how to repurpose things you already have to make them useful in your new organized life. As for the planner, you can also print off blank calendar pages from your computer until you figure out what style planner would work best for you. No need to spend money on trial and error here.
Can I do my planning electronically (on my phone/computer)?
You could. And if you’re the only person you’re planning for, you will probably be successful. I find that keeping an electronic family calendar doesn’t work for us. While it’s helpful for me to see my husband’s work commitments, I don’t need to see every detail – and he doesn’t need to see that my 11 – 12 on Tuesday is blocked out for volunteering at the school. It ends up being too much information – and then for some reason things don’t get synced, etc. It’s much easier for me to have a hard copy planner where I can quickly jot things down, erase things and get a great, quick scan of the week than to pull out my phone to schedule something. When you’ve got a couple of kids doing a couple of different activities, the electronic planning gets chaotic, which is the opposite of what we’re shooting for. (Again, we get everyone synced up at family meeting.)
Tips for Success
Start small. Don’t feel like you have to have a complete and functional Active Work Station and Grand Central Station up and running in order to reap the benefits of getting organized – especially if you struggle with organization. Start with the planner. Once you’ve experienced success with that (i.e. You actually made it to the 1st grade Friendship Feast on time AND with a side!), start a little work station drawer with your favorite day-to-day things. Give yourself one or two weeks with each step before moving on to the next.
Be consistent. It can take up to two months of consistent behavior to form a new habit so if becoming organized is something you value, you need to stick with it through whatever mishaps you encounter. And remember those other people you’re trying to organize will need time, too.
Be nice to yourself. Changing the way you (and other people) live life is hard work. Don’t beat yourself up if you didn’t enter anything in your planner for 3 days in a row. Allow yourself fresh starts with different reminders (post it notes, reminders on your phone, etc.) and avoid getting down on yourself if the kids just aren’t putting their school papers in the mail slots. Gentle reminders with positive affirmation that you are all working toward something better will do you much better than negative self talk.
Try, try, try again. When you’ve given a system the good old college try and it isn’t working, don’t beat your head into the wall with it. Try something new. There are tons of ways to improve organization and there will be something that works for you. Just make sure you stick with something long enough to prevent giving up completely.
Here’s to you for reading all of these words with hopes of getting a handle on your family’s organization. I hope you have many successes, and I’d love to hear your ideas. What are your favorite ways to keep your people in sync?