Moms: Surviving The Back To School Season

Parents sending their kids back to school often face a harrowing challenge of time management and organizational conundrums. Home organizing expert, Julie Morgenstern, and workplace organizing expert, Peggy Duncan, offer tips for tackling the to-do list for a more peaceful return to the school year. Also joining the conversation is regular guest mom Jolene Ivey, mother of five boys, four of which are now heading back to the classroom.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is back tomorrow.

If your child or children aren't already back in school, today is likely the traditional back to school day for your family. And while the kids go off to school neat and organized and ready to take on the day, too often parents return to their own disheveled home and workspaces and they wish organizing could be as easy as picking up a new book bag and some pencils and a lunchbox.

Each week TELL ME MORE visits with a diverse group of parents for their commonsense and savvy parenting advice. And we're talking today with moms who know a thing or two about organizing a household. Julie Morgenstern is a contributor to O magazine and the author of books including "SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life" and "Never Check E-Mail in the Morning."

Also with us, a mom, personal productivity expert and author of books including "Put Time Management to Work and Live the Life You Want," Peggy Duncan. And we also have one of TELL ME MORE's regular moms to this segment, Jolene Ivey, who was a member of the Maryland Legislature.

Moms, nice to talk to the three of you today.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Tony.

Ms. JULIE MORGENSTERN (Author, "SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life"): It's great to be here.

COX: Jolene, I'm going to start with you because you're here in studio with me. You're managing a household of five young men. Five sons.

Ms. IVEY: And a 92-year-old father.

COX: Oh, okay, six men, then.

Ms. IVEY: And then my husband.

COX: Okay, seven men.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That's a lot. What is the single best organizing strategy that helps you maintain your household and your sanity?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I guess there's a few things. One, if you keep your fridge clean so you can see everything in there, it really helps. I mean it sounds like a silly thing. But generally, if you have your house as clean as possible, then you don't spend as much time looking for your keys, for example. Those time wasters.

COX: Is having a large family more or less difficult to organize the household around?

Ms. IVEY: I think it's obviously more difficult. There's more people you have to yell at and more shoes that end up on the floor. I mean I really try. We've got a cubby for all their shoes so when they walk in - it's not that I'm making them remove their shoes, but they tend to like to take their shoes off. So I have a cubby there for them to put their shoes in. But when you multiply the number of people times the number of pairs of shoes, the cubby gets overwhelmed. And, you know, we end up with more clutter than I would like.

COX: You know, Julie, we started the conversation because this is the time of year when parents send their kids off to school and there's a lot of organizing of bedrooms and notebooks and closets and all of that and yet we want to concentrate for a little bit of this conversation about what you do back at home. So what do you think is the most critical thing to do at this time of year that isn't so stressful for everyone?

Ms. MORGENSTERN: Yeah, you know, I echo what Jolene said. You really -an organized home saves so much time. And I'd say, think kindergarten classroom when you're organizing your spaces. You know, kindergartens hold 20 or 25 five-year-olds that know where to put things away at the ring of a bell. So think about setting up each room on the model of a kindergarten classroom into activity zones.

And I think that can make it - and you just work one room at a time and do it as a family. I actually think if you organize the common rooms together, everybody owns this system and it's easier to get everybody to maintain it.

COX: I'm going to bring Peggy into the conversation in just a second. But I want to follow up with you, Julie, on this. Give us some examples. You talked about organizing the rooms according to I guess whatever their purpose is and some common rooms. Give us some details, some specifics, so we can follow you.

Ms. MORGENSTERN: Sure. So if you take a family room where everybody spends a lot of time, there's - you think about, what are the activities that take place in the family room? There might be entertainment. There might be homework. A lot of times homework is done in the family room because people like to be near their family. And there might be games, you know?

So you would then say, what is the homework zone of this room? Where are the homework supplies? Where are the kids doing the homework? Are they doing it on the floor next to the cabinet or are they doing it at that table under the window? And store all of the materials for homework in the section of the room where the kids do the homework. Games, where do, you know, and so on. You sort of really sort of create true zones within the room with everything you need to do that activity stored at its point of use.

COX: Peggy, you are an expert in organizing workspaces, so let's talk about what you think we should be teaching our kids so that they dont have to learn their working habits when they're in the workforce themselves, and so that they also dont have to say Mom, where is it? Mom, where is it?

Ms. PEGGY DUNCAN (Founder, The Digital Breakthroughs Institute): Absolutely. I teach my clients not to be the enabler. If they can't find it, you do not run the lost and found department in your home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

If they can't find it, do not look. Do not say a word. And that way, they will start being responsible for finding their own stuff.

COX: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin. We're talking about organizing your children and yourselves at back to school time.

We have experts Peggy Duncan and Julie Morgenstern, both mothers and organization experts. And the mother of five, Jolene Ivey is here with us as well.

One of the things I want to ask you is whether or not it makes a difference, or to what extent - I ask you this, Jolene - being single versus being married and trying to take care of kids and keep the household organized. Can you speak to that?

Ms. IVEY: Well, as very, very fortunate married woman, I mean I have a great husband and he really, really helps a lot with the kids. In fact, these days while I'm campaigning for reelection, he is the one who is primarily running the household, so thank God for him. I dont know how single parents do it. It is really, really tough to not have someone else who can have your back and run out and get the milk when youve run out, when your organization falls through. I dont know how people do it. That's got to be the toughest job.

COX: Well, let's ask the experts. Go ahead, Is it Julie or Peggy?

Ms. MORGENSTERN: Yeah, that's Julie. I actually was a single parent. I raised my daughter by myself from the time she was three and ran, you know, launched and ran my business. And I only had one child and I always wonder Jolene, if I had five what I would've done. But...

Ms. IVEY: Easier if youre not single.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGENSTERN: But, I have to say honestly, organization just is so freeing, and if you just invest the time - you have to take the time on a weekend. You can't get organized in half an hour. You have to go room by room, think it through and when you create really simple systems that are repeatable, it frees you to deal with all of the surprises that life throws at you, the opportunities life throws at you because your system is just kind of works like clockwork. So even shopping lists, you know, you figure out these are the 10 meals that make in rotation. These are the ingredients for those 10 meals. I dont need to be a gourmet cook that does something different every night. I'm a single parent. So keep it really easy.

COX: Well, let me ask you this, Julie, then I'm going to come back to Peggy again. I'm thinking about my own mom, and she was a stay-at-home mom, so she did all of those things, you know, organized like crazy. Now I'm thinking about my wife who is not a stay-at-home mom and who tells me I'm too tired or I'm too busy or I dont have, you know, that's just not high on her priority list of things to do when she comes home from work. So what do you say to the working moms, whether they are single or married, who feel as if that kind of organization is a luxury they just dont have?

Ms. MORGENSTERN: Well, what I say is that I understand, and I dont think that you can get organized at the end of your work day and I dont think you can get organized when you can't take it anymore. I think you have to really be methodical about it and pick one or two or three rooms that you spend the most time in and plan out in advance.

The average room takes a day to a day and a half to organize from top to bottom. It doesnt take three weeks and it doesnt take three hours; it's eight to 12 hours. So if you know that in advance, and you can plan the weekend in advance and get child care - somebody to watch or play with the kids or a play date, so you can really focus - go and complete the job. Freedom comes when you complete the job, not when its halfway done. And once you do it I promise you, maintenance is like five minutes a day.

COX: So why is it so important then - one more follow-up with you - to unplug? You know, the title of your book "Never Check Email In The Morning," Why is that so important?

Ms. MORGENSTERN: Well, I mean we are so addicted to the email and it's really because people are overwhelmed. I really think its a world greatest procrastination device because we dont know what else to do, so let's just check email for now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGENSTERN: And it just is a self-interrupter. It actually -studies have come out that the brain without a chance to rest which is, you know, constantly being wired, keeps the brain from having a chance to rest. When the brain can't rest it makes mistakes, it can't create, it can't innovate. So you need to unplug to, you know, engage in life in other ways, other than through a screen.

COX: Peggy, let me ask you. One of the things that I'd like to hear you describe for us, if you can is: in order to be organized -certainly if youre in a household with other adults or teenaged children or older - you need to have cooperation from the others who are in the household to buy-in to the whole organizational schematic. How do you get that cooperation and how do you enforce it?

Ms. DUNCAN: Julie is so on point with all of this. It has to be a team effort. You are not a servant in your home. It has to be a team effort. Have a family meeting to discuss it and figure out who is going to do what? What responsibilities do you have? Who is going to do it? When it's going to be done? Have it laid out, organized. This is not a luxury. This is you have to do this. You have no choice. If you continue to dig yourself into a hole youre just going to get deeper. It's not going to get better until you stop. And I also recommend that people give up some weekends to get this done and get it finished.

COX: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. We are talking about organizing your children and yourselves at back to school time. And we have experts Peggy Duncan, Julie Morgenstern - both mothers and organization experts - and a mom of five, Jolene Ivey is with us as well.

So Jolene, you know, I guess I should have asked that with seven men living in the house, huh?

Ms. IVEY: Well, it's crazy but actually, I wanted to ask the experts what do you do about your dining room table? When you walk into my house, one of the first rooms is the dinning room. It's a big flat surface, that table, and it seems to be a magnet for everything, every piece of paper from all across the world ends up on a pile and then the piles have piles. So even if I get it all cleaned off one day and it takes, it seems, hours to go through all the piles, within a few days it looks like...

COX: It's right back, huh?

Ms. IVEY: Yeah. What do you do?

COX: Peggy, Jolene - I mean Peggy or Julie?

Ms. DUNCAN: You have to; first of all you should decorate your dining room table. Make it pretty so that you won't be tempted to put something on there. And it sounds like you dont have a paper management system. And Julie talks about the kindergarten and I talk about the grocery store. And you organize your paperwork just like they do in the grocery store, they start with broad categories and then they subcategorize.

If you want to buy chicken breast you will walk to the meat department, then you go to poultry, then you go to the breast, then you go to the brand that you like, and then you might go to skinless or whatever. So if you think about that as just broad categories. In your clothes closet I have my suits across the top, light to dark. So just broad categories for your paper management system, establish a home for all that paperwork, and then and decorate your table, and I think the problem will go away.

COX: Julie, let me ask you this, because I think there are some people listening who may agree with what I'm going to ask you. And that is, some people are just messy and they seem to like mess and they seem to operate better in mess than in organization. Is that not true?

Ms. MORGENSTERN: It's absolutely true. I think you can't tell actually, when you look at a space whether it's organized or not. You can't tell. There are some people who work really well out of piles and they know exactly where everything is. And you ask them to find something and they can put their hands on it in a split second. And there are other people who have really neat spaces but they can't find a thing because they just shove inside drawers and inside cabinets. So...

COX: So you have to find what works for you then.

Ms. MORGENSTERN: You do have to find what - you know, being organized is about being functional. Its about a system for efficiency. And if you can find what you need when you need it and youre comfortable in your space, then youre organized.

The trick is when you live in a household and people have different styles, those styles can clash. And that's...

COX: Now you and your daughter, as a matter of fact, are, to the point that youre making, Jessi, actually wrote a book together about organizing for young people, "Organizing from the Inside Out for Teens." I guess your daughter really had a leg up on her friends having you as a mom, of course, or did you have to work at teaching her the skills that you later wrote about?

Ms. MORGENSTERN: You know, it's such a good question, Tony. You know, as the daughter of an organizer, there was a little bit of resistance...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGENSTERN: ...to organization.

COX: I can't imagine. A teen resisting a parent? I just can't imagine that.

Ms. MORGENSTERN: And, you know, one of the things that I learned and I recommend to every parent who is listening is never ever call you kid disorganized. Never label them, youre so disorganized, youre such a pig or youre so sloppy, because it gives them an identity that they will attach to. And I...

COX: But what if they are those things?

Ms. MORGENSTERN: No they're not. You have to find where they're organized. I guarantee you, every kid, every human being is organized somewhere no matter how messy it looks. When Jessi was little there were three things in her messy room that were hyper-organized: her stuffed animals, organized by personality and size, every morning on her bed. Her dance gear, because she was a dancer, and all her dance stuff was always really well organized. And on her wall she was very social, and she had three circles of friends: camp friends, school friends, dance friends, and they were in circles of color-coded Post-its, three big starbursts of phone numbers in three different circles on her wall.

And I just kept saying youre organized where it counts to you, and when school becomes important, you will organize your school work as well. And she really did grow into that.

COX: Our time is short, Jolene, but I've got to ask you because you have five guys, right, five boys.

Ms. IVEY: Indeed.

COX: Is it true that they're organized, even though it looks like sloppy mess?

Ms. IVEY: I'm not so sure about that. it sounds good, though and it gives me hope. But, you know, one of my boys, his room was always a mess and then not too long ago we had relatives come visit and he loves, loves his little baby cousin, Sydney, so he really cleaned his room for them because they'd be staying in his room and he...

COX: Without you prodding him?

Ms. IVEY: No. No. I told him.

COX: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: But once he realized who was going to come - be in his room...

COX: Oh, he did it. Right.

Ms. IVEY: Yeah. He did a great job.

COX: I follow you.

Ms. IVEY: And he's kept it clean and he's very proud of himself.

COX: Well, you know, I suppose the one thing we can tell the people listening is, you know, there is hope, right? Try, at least...

Ms. IVEY: Keep hope alive.

COX: Keep hope alive. Give it a shot. Organize as best you can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Right, Peggy? Do something.

Ms. DUNCAN: Absolutely.

COX: Absolutely. Well, I appreciate the three of you...

Ms. MORGENSTERN: Start in one room. Everybody, just start - start with the kitchen. Its the hub of the house.

COX: One room at a time.

Ms. MORGENSTERN: Yeah.

COX: I think that was a television show at one point, "One Room at a Time." At any rate, productivity expert and mother Peggy Duncan joined us today from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Author and time management guru Julie Morgenstern came to us from our New York City studios. And Jolene Ivey, a frequent TELL ME MORE Moms contributor and a member of the Maryland State legislature joined us from our studios here in Washington, D.C.

Once again, thank you all. Good conversation. I enjoyed it. Thank you.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Tony.

Ms. MORGENSTERN: Thanks very much, Tony. It was great.

Ms. DUNCAN: Thank you.

Ms. MORGENSTERN: Thanks, ladies.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our program for today. I'm Tony Cox and you have been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Michel Martin is back tomorrow to talk more.

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