Modern Life

From clutter to clarity: How busy families can stay organized

A few key strategies and the right tech can help you tackle the neverending flow of documents, receipts and forms so your family can get — and stay — organized.

By Garage Staff — August 1, 2019

Jury duty forms. Field trip permission slips. Insurance documents. Even though much of today’s paperwork is digital, it still piles up. And if your household is like many families’, your document organization might amount to a pile on the kitchen counter or an overstuffed manila folder stashed in a file cabinet.

But there is a way out of the perpetual chaos: Taking steps to organize the paperwork in your home can not only save time in the long run, it makes everyone in the family happier. 

“When people feel more in control of their environment, they are able to focus on other things that are more important to them,” says Amanda Wiss, the founder of Urban Clarity, a home organizing service based in Brooklyn, New York.

Try these tips for spending less time managing all those piles and more time doing, well, anything but managing all those piles.

Hero images/ Getty Images

Include your kids in the effort to get organized to instill confidence, independence and create good habits for the future.

Reduce and relax

Chances are you know someone who’s spent a weekend rolling their socks into tiny balls and saying “thank you” as they eliminate unused items. Marie Kondo’s 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and subsequent Netflix series have motivated people around the world to pare down their wardrobes and belongings, jettisoning those that don’t “spark joy.” (Thrift stores report being inundated with new donations following the book’s popularity.) 

An organized home has obvious appeal, but there might be one key reason Kondo’s book has sold over seven million copies so far: A clean space can bring much-needed peace to the household. 

If you can quickly locate your cousin’s wedding invitation or your kids’ homework in a file folder instead of fumbling through stacks of unopened mail and other documents, you’ll save a ton of time. Being organized can also save you money — imagine never losing a treasure trove of coupons or misplacing a gift card. 

So how can you get started? Try these tips for getting — and staying — organized at home.

“When people feel more in control of their environment, they are able to focus on other things that are more important to them.”

—Amanda Wiss, founder of home organizing service Urban Clarity

Decluttering your home also helps clear your mind, by reducing the chaos and the number of little decisions you have to make every day.

Ulrike Schmitt-Hartmann / Getty Images

Decluttering your home also helps clear your mind, by reducing the chaos and the number of little decisions you have to make every day.

Stem the tide

Reduce your inflow of paper in the first place. Wiss recommends unsubscribing from magazines you don’t read and switching to getting your bank statements, credit card and other monthly bills delivered electronically. To fight back against the tidal wave of brochures and promotional materials in your mailbox, the Direct Marketing Association’s website lets you opt your address out of receiving a lot of junk mail.

Create a system and follow it

Creating a system for organizing documents when you get them (and sticking to it) can help you stay organized and prevent decision fatigue, says Jennifer Truesdale, a certified professional organizer and the owner of STR8N UP professional organizing service in Daniel Island, South Carolina. 

“From the time you wake up in the morning until you lay your head back on the pillow at night, your brain is making millions of subconscious and conscious decisions,” Truesdale says. Scrambling to find an old receipt or decide where to stash an important document for future use only adds to that mental burden, eating up time and leaving you mentally exhausted.

To eliminate some of those little, day-to-day decisions, start by having a strategy for what’s worth holding onto in the first place. When it comes to document storage, people really need to think about why they're saving something, says Scott Roewer, a certified professional organizer at The Organizing Agency in Washington, D.C.

“We tell people, ‘This is not a paper sorting system. It's a paper retrieval system,’” he says. “That goes whether you're keeping things as a paper document or electronically.”

Roewer suggests separating documents into “action” and “archive” files. “Action” documents are ones that form your to-do list, like a receipt for a sweater you need to return, or car registration for your trip to the DMV. “Archive” documents, like old tax returns or mortgage papers, can be filed away.

If you’re storing some documents digitally and others in hard copy, categorize them consistently. For example, if you keep your electronic medical bills in a folder marked “Doctor” on your computer, have a “Doctor” folder for your paper bills, too. 

“If you are using digital and paper organization, it’s a good idea to mirror the categorization so when you’re looking for something in either system you don’t have to shift your way of thinking to find it,” Truesdale says.

Smart organization strategies and tech tools like the HP Smart app can help you digitize, store and retrieve documents.

Courtesy of Hp

Smart organization strategies and tech tools like the HP Smart app can help you digitize, store and retrieve documents.

Try tech tools to keep you tidy

You might need to get hands-on with your clutter to get organized at first, but with technology, it’s easier to stay organized. Apps like Evernote or Google Keep can help you keep all your thoughts neatly filed away in the cloud. The Sortly app lets you keep track of physical inventory in your home by helping you catalog photos of camping gear stored in the basement or holiday decorations packed away for the summer. Kids can also benefit from the power of tech; an app called iHomework lets students organize their school assignments and plan them out in advance of their due dates. 

For kids’ artwork, try Plum Print, a service that will photograph your piles of artwork (even the macaroni collages and popsicle-stick sculptures) and turn them into beautiful, easy-to-store books printed on HP’s commercial Indigo digital presses

Digital storage apps help you keep important documents on hand without having to store and manage mountains of paper. The HP Smart app — available on iOS and Android — lets you print, copy, scan and share documents and images directly from your mobile device. You can use your mobile device’s camera to create high-quality scans of each piece of paper in your overflowing shoebox or storage bin, then preview, edit and save them as PDFs and JPEGs. 

Then take all those physical copies to the recycling bin. If you ever need a hard copy of a document, just print what you need. HP Smart also lets you print from Facebook or Instagram, order ink and supplies directly, and create shortcuts called Smart Tasks for things you do frequently. For example, with one button, you can scan a receipt or document, name it, and send it to a specific folder on a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive.

Apps and features you already have on your smartphone can also help keep your family on the same page, reducing confusion and saving time. For example, a shared calendar that kids can see ensures everyone knows what’s happening when and gets alerted to schedule changes. 

If you turn on location services on your smartphone, and you’ve also saved specific addresses like home, work or the grocery store, your phone can ping you with nudges like “remember to pick up blueberries” when you step into your grocery store. 

“Location reminders are brilliant for one-off tasks that are quick to accomplish,” Roewer says. “Sometimes I just need that visual reminder. It's a great time-saving tool that can be used in a variety of different ways.”

Get the whole family involved

Mess in your home can create more problems than just a chaotic closet. A 2016 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that having clutter in one’s house had a negative impact on the feeling of “psychological home” — that is, a place associated with comfort and security — and subjective well-being. Many Americans live in a state of unintentional disarray, and when you add kids to the mix, it’s easy to let organization slide. 

“When people become parents, we find there's so much inflow of documents and ‘stuff,’ and no one is managing the outflow,” Wiss says. 

Good organization reduces family stress by encouraging independence, Roewer says. “If you create systems that you then teach your family members, you're going to instill confidence in them, and they're going to be able to be a little bit more self-sustaining,” he says.

Because children thrive on structure and routine, making them a part of keeping your house organized — by putting away their toys or managing their own homework filing system — is a great way to teach them autonomy and responsibility. 

“It’s not a parent's job to run a household,” he says. “It's everyone's job.”


Read more: Six steps to preserve old family photos.