As they say, “Mess creates stress.” And after 2020, the last thing we need is more stress. Take control of what you can in life, starting with your home. Getting your house in order is not only visually appealing, but it will definitely lead to a sense of inner calm in your head.
I was recently asked to contribute to this Redfin article full of expert advice on how to get organized — and how that will lead to a less stressful life. Along with other organizing professionals from around the country, I shared one of my favorite organizing hacks for a less cluttered, more ordered home.
Read the full article here and find out what tip I shared to help you have less mess and less stress this year!
Raising a child with special needs is overwhelming in many ways, but one of the things I had the hardest time with personally was the amount of paperwork the situation creates. By the time my son was three, I felt as if I was drowning in reports, recommendations, forms, meeting notes, resources, and newspaper articles lovingly cut out and mailed to me by well-meaning friends and family. Add this to the chaos of everyday life with a kid on the autism spectrum, and it was. . . not helping.
In order to get through this chaos with some feeling of control, I had to devise a system to keep track of paperwork, appointments, meetings, medicine, etc.
At first, I had a traditional file cabinet with folders. But as the years went by, the papers piled up inside that black hole and I got frustrated with the fact that I could never find anything. I found myself constantly needing to locate old papers and reference them in chronological order.
When I see a large pile of paper not in any particular order, it makes me feel panicky inside. And as the parent of a kid with ADHD and Autism, any papers left lying around my house are subject to getting lost forever or used to create “artwork” that will render them useless to me in the future.
I realized there had to be a better way, so I turned to my favorite rabbit hole of inspiration, Pinterest, and discovered the idea of organizing everything into binders. What a genius way to keep everything in order and easy to access!
Here’s how to get this project done:
First, gather up all the papers you need to organize. You can leave them in file folders during this process or put sticky notes on tops of piles.
Sort them into piles according to what they are:
Medical records and evaluations
School records / IEP (Individualized Education Plan)
Autism (or other special needs) resources
Gather your supplies:
Binders – I like to use the super inexpensive plain white 1” ones from Staples, but you can get fancy or colorful if you want.
Clear plastic page protectors. These are good for grouping several related papers together quickly, or if you don’t want to use a hole punch.
Assign each group of papers to a binder, then begin creating categories within those groups. These categories need to make sense for your family, but here are some ideas for how you can organize within the binders:
list of current doctors
copies of birth certificate, birth records
paperwork from all the doctor visits
You can further separate this out by giving each doctor or specialist a divider (psychiatrist, pediatrician, occupational therapist, and so on)
(On the medical records binder, I found it to be tremendously helpful when you need to go back and see what medication you tried, or when a surgery happened. Sure, those paperless advocates out there will say that your doctor has all this info in your child’s file, but how easy is it for YOU to access that information when you need it?)
School Records / IEP:
Teacher and school info
Login passwords, etc.
Calendar to track absences, behavior incidents, tests, etc.
Current year info
ARD meetings (arrange in chronological order so you can easily reference past goals, etc.)
List of doctors
Newspaper or internet articles
Future planning (group homes or schools)
Information to save for future
You can leave your binders plain and minimal, or dress them up however you want. But make sure you label the spine clearly so everyone knows what is in there! I recommend using a label maker or printing out labels from your computer.
Now you just have to find a home for your new binder collection. Look for a place where they’re out of the way but easy to access for all members of the family. Obviously, both parents need to know how to access the information, but it would also be great if grandparents or caregivers could access the information they might need easily as well.
All my binders are lined up on a shelf, but you can store them in a filing cabinet if you want. I tried them in the filing cabinet, and loved the fact I would open up the cabinet and see all these neatly labeled binders, but I just didn’t like how some of the wider pages inside got bent when I stored them on their sides.
The only thing left to do is to find a new use for that old filing cabinet. We filled ours up with hard drives and bulky computer equipment we have to keep.
One last tip for organizing paperwork is to have a system for incoming paper. It’s not realistic to think that you will always stop and place each paper in the appropriate binder right away. Give yourself a way to deal with the papers until you can put them in their home: a desktop inbox, a countertop basket, or discipline yourself to put any papers that piled up on your desk during the day away each night.
When it comes to raising kids – special needs or not – there is no way around the fact that they come with a lot of papers! I have found this to be very helpful in my own life, and hopefully you will too. If you have any other tips for organizing paperwork related to special needs kids, please comment or send me a message!
I was recently asked to contribute to this article on the Redfin blog about reviving your home in the new year. January is the perfect time to give your home a fresh update, and this article is full of great advice.
Tip #2 (from yours truly) is all about addressing a “disorganization hotspot” in your home. Whether it’s a messy entryway or piles of mail in your kitchen, pick one area that constantly stresses you out and make this the year you address it.
I have two boys, so I understand the challenges kids present to keeping your home organized, your time managed, and your life together.
In addition, one of my boys has Autism, so I struggle with the tangible and intangible challenges that come with it (tons of paperwork, keeping track of appointments, grief over lots of personal things, having to think of time management differently, for example).
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a few posts about specifically organizing for families with special needs kids. I wanted to tell you about organizing the piles of paperwork, creating a sensory room at home, how to use picture schedules and visual cues to help your kid organize his or her day. But every time I sat down to write, I felt something was missing. Then I realized that I first I needed to tell my story. You need to know where I am coming from and how I can relate to this special situation. I want you to know that I understand these challenges because I have lived through them all myself.
Many people ask me why I do what I do or how I got into professional organizing. The easy answer is that I always loved organizing and I cleaned my room for fun as a child (these are both true). But the longer answer is a story I don’t usually tell, but it definitely is intertwined into why I do what I do. Behind the pretty closet pictures there is a deeper reason for why I do this, and why I love to help others. To me, it is not just organizing a bunch of stuff. I hope to give people peace of mind and allow them to focus their time on their kids, their spouses, their hobbies, or whatever brings them joy in life. I know firsthand that is harder when you are focused on raising a special needs child.
When I was pregnant with my son, we found out he had a heart defect. It was so serious that we flew across the country so I could undergo experimental (at the time) inutero heart surgery. The surgery had risks, and didn’t go as planned. I had PROM (Premature Rupture of Membranes), and ended up on bed rest in a Boston hospital for a month. It was truly a miracle that I did not deliver him that day and I healed enough to make it back home to Texas. Prayers answered, I delivered my son full term to a room full of doctors waiting to whisk him away for immediate heart surgery.
Will’s surgery went well and after a few weeks in the NICU, he came home. He grew into a strong, healthy, happy toddler with only a few limitations because of his heart condition. We thought the worst was behind us. We had no idea the most difficult times were right around the corner.
As our son approached his second birthday, I noticed that he was unusually defiant and didn’t seem to “need” me or respond to me like I thought a two-year-old would. I just knew something was wrong, but no one could give me any answers. He seemed to be pushing away from me, but not in a developmentally appropriate way. He didn’t understand cause and effect or consequences. Discipline of any kind failed to have any effect. And he became aggressive. When his preschool told me they couldn’t handle him anymore, I had no idea what to do.
He was officially diagnosed with Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, and ADHD at age 3.5, two weeks before the birth of our second son. As someone who often jokes that I wish I could put everything in my life in a box and label it, this was really throwing me for a loop. No one had any answers for me. There was no cure for the severe behavior I had to attempt to control every day. There was no relief in sight and there was no certainty about his future. I was overwhelmed with fear, confusion, guilt, loneliness, and sadness. I was drowning in books, articles from family, leads for treatments, doctor recommendations, picture charts all over our house, protocols from therapists, data charts to fill out.
I had been a custom closet designer, but I wasn’t able to work with all that was going on at home. So I began putting my life back together by doing the only thing that gave me a sense of peace and control. I organized our home and lives to minimize frustration and overwhelm. The last thing I needed while dealing with a meltdown was to wonder where something I needed was or have a bunch of clutter that could be thrown or ruined.
I would love to say my home became a well-oiled machine, but it did not. It took a lot of trial and error, effort, and it didn’t ever look perfect. Nothing was Instagram worthy! But I started with making my home more visually peaceful, and it helped me and my son feel more calm when there wasn’t so much stuff around. Also there was less to throw on the floor and break.
By the time he was 3, I had an entire file cabinet full of paperwork. After he was diagnosed, the school district sent someone to our house who gave me a huge binder full of information and resources. It was overwhelming. I didn’t have the energy to read through it all, but I kept it knowing one day I might. The papers continued to pile up year after year, and the need to reference them became more important. I needed a system, so I created a binder. I’ll go into that more in a future post.
Over the years, my son’s challenges got bigger. We tried everything: special diets, supplements, OT, music therapy, play therapy, swimming, special schools, outpatient and inpatient hospitalizations, CBD, every pharmaceutical drug out there, sensory toys and crash pads, and a hundred different techniques and strategies for behavior improvement. Things only got worse. At age 10, he was verbally and physically aggressive to us, his teachers, his therapists, and complete strangers. We were always on edge, protecting everyone around us from his impulsive behavior.
After a difficult year of six hospitalizations in several different children’s psychiatric units, we knew we had to do something drastic. Will was a train that was going off the track a million miles an hour. I was out of energy and hope. In a weird way, I had been grieving the loss of the son I thought I would have for ten years. As he entered his tenth year and things got so bad, I finally felt like I grieved the loss of my son completely. I just did not know if he would have any kind of future, or how we would get through our lives. I also felt very much let down by the system and complete lack of help for families in our situation. I could not believe the way that the healthcare system treated (or didn’t treat) people with mental health issues. It was completely disheartening and infuriating at the same time.
We spent every day searching for something that would help, an answer, someone who knew how to help us. In 2018, we stumbled across two leads and found what would eventually, finally make a positive difference. First, we took Will to the inpatient autism unit at the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, CT. It took a lot (too much to go into here) to get him there, but it was the first step in getting him the help he needed. I wish Texas had resources like this. Families shouldn’t have to travel across the country to get the right help for their children.
Upon arrival, we met with the entire team, including psychiatrists from Yale, pediatricians, and therapists who specialize in kids on the spectrum with severe behaviors. These doctors knew what they were doing. To this day, I cannot say enough good things about the care we all received while our son was there. They even have an apartment on site where families can stay while their kids are hospitalized. When Will came home after about three weeks, things weren’t perfect, but they were definitely going in the right direction. I know medication can be a controversial topic, but for our son, the right medication was everything.
In 2018, Will went to a residential school about three hours away from our home. Dropping him off there was the most difficult thing I have ever done. The combination of the right medication paired with an environment structured to help his behavior and social skills was exactly what he needed. The school not only focused on these important skills, but also used music, gardening, and caring for farm animals to help him practice empathy and responsibility. At our first visit a month into his time there, he was a different child. He was calmer, more able to control his body, and able to have a back and forth conversation with us. He was the best version of the Will we knew, the version we had seen glimpses of but that had become less present over the past few years.
One of the things we loved most was watching him have friends and actually joke around / play with them for the first time in his life. Being surrounded by other boys his own age, he became part of a group with similar interests like football and Beyblades. As a parent of a kid with autism, you grieve the loss of your kid experiencing “regular” kid activities like going to birthday parties, field trips, or just joking around with friends. It has been so fun to watch and makes me so happy to see him experience that in life.
As of the end of 2020, Will has been home with us and doing great. Again, things are not perfect, but they are manageable. We still have a lot of challenges to face, but the physical aggression has not happened in over two years. For that, we are very grateful. We still need a lot of help, but it feels like there is a light at the end of the tunnel now and perhaps I can finally share what we’ve learned to help others. For a long time, it just seemed too hard, like I couldn’t see my own way out enough.
When things feel hopeless and you feel lost, keep going. Don’t give up because help could be around the corner. Or, you may realize that help is needed and you can play a part in changing things for the better.
This is the first part of a series of blog posts on getting organized while raising a special needs child. I hope that by telling my story first, you have gotten to know me a little better. I would love to connect with you about your own story, and offer any help or support I can. In the coming weeks, I’ll post about the strategies and tips I have learned in the trenches. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to reach out if there is something specific you want to hear about!
Look around your house and find all those piles of mail.
Gather it all in one place to sort.
Create categories: bills, papers to file, catalogs, etc. And of course, recycling and trash.
Put everything where it goes; trash or recycle the rest.
Create a mail center system
Create a system for the categories above.
Use file folders and a desktop file box, a wall mounted basket, or a file cabinet.
Label each file folder with a category that works for you: bills, school, social, file, kids, receipts, etc.
When sorting your mail, just put things into the appropriate folder.
Write out meals for the next week and a grocery list
Grab a paper and pen and take a look at what you have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer.
Make a list of 5-7 dinners you want to eat during the next week, as well as options for breakfasts and lunches.
Write down any groceries you need to buy for these meals.
Post the “menu choices” for the next week where everyone can see them. Family can vote on what they want to eat on what day, while you have a sense of control knowing you have everything on hand to make it (or delegate someone to do it!)
Pantry – quick cleanup and reorganization
Set a timer for 15 minutes.
Check for old, expired food, and throw that away.
Get rid of boxes that are half full by emptying the contents into clear plastic containers. (I love having labelled containers for food items I buy often, but you can also just use Tupperware that you already have to accomplish the same goal.)
Use baskets or bins to contain like items such as breakfast, snacks, bread, baking, etc.
Label! Even if it’s just sharpie on a white envelope label, it will help things stay where they need to be!
Clean out your car
Grab a bag for trash and a basket or bin for items that don’t belong in your car.
First, get all the trash out of your car.
Now grab all the things that don’t belong in the car (legos, an abundance of pens, plastic cups, socks?).
Evaluate what needs to go in your car and make a designated home for those important things (hand sanitizer, gum, masks, car documents).
Vacuum and wipe down surfaces.
Even if your house feels like a disorganized mess, you will breathe a sigh of relief when you get into your peaceful haven on wheels.
Bonus: Power hour
With my kids, I call this “Power Hour,” but really it can be any amount of time. Just get everyone involved.
Go through the house putting everything back in its home (or at least in the room where it lives). The key is to not get bogged down pulling everything out of a cabinet to reorganize the entire thing, or start taking trips down memory lane with each knick-knack.
Go for the “low hanging fruit:” don’t hesitate, just throw those old magazines into the recycling bin, put all clothes on the floor directly into the hamper (or washer), put the toys in a basket, etc.
Just keep moving and putting things back in their homes!
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just pick one of these tasks and start. I promise you will feel better in less than an hour!
Some of my favorite places to send donations (in the Dallas/Ft Worth area)
So you finally tackled that closet and are feeling pretty proud of yourself for deciding to let go of all those things that don’t “spark joy.” The only problem is, now you’ve got a large pile of random clutter sitting in your garage (or mudroom, hallway, trunk of your car, whatever) and no idea what to do with it.
Often, it can be quite a bummer to turn away from admiring your newly streamlined space only to see that pile of stuff you don’t want anymore. If you’re exhausted from the organizing project itself, you might find that you have no motivation to complete that last step, which is sending that stuff on to its new home.
You don’t want to just throw things in the trash, contributing to overflowing landfills, and plus, this is good stuff!
Sometimes that little voice in the back of your head will whisper, “It’s just easier to keep it in the back of the closet than figure out what to do with it. Besides, I might (?) need it someday.”
There are lots of places you may not know exist that are looking for your old stuff and would be overjoyed to receive it.
I myself find it so much easier to let go of things when I can envision where they are going, and especially if that place is really in need or something that really speaks to my heart.
I’ve put together a list of my favorite local places to donate organized by type of items they accept. If you’re looking for a new home for something in particular, hopefully this will make it easier for you to donate things you no longer need.
Party supplies, gift cards, new toys and gifts for kids
The Birthday Party Project – based in Addison, this organization throws birthday parties for homeless kids who are living in shelters. Watch their video and cry – then go clean out all your closets of unused party supplies.
Special occasion dresses, shoes, jewelry, accessories
Prom Dreams – run by University Christian Church in Fort Worth.
They accept donations of gently worn fancy dresses, jewelry, shoes, and other accessories so that everyone has something special to wear to the prom. You can drop items off at the front desk any time.
Household items and clothing (they accept anything in good condition except pillows):
Berry Good Buys — benefits Safe Haven Women’s Shelter.
1701 West Berry Street, Ft Worth
Presbyterian Night Shelter
2400 Cypress St, Fort Worth
Women’s suits and work clothes, accessories:
Attitudes and Attires World Trade Center, 2050 North Stemmons Freeway, Suite 181, Dallas
With my top 5 favorite closet organizing tips and tricks
Since I am a professional organizer, people are always curious about my closet. They say things like, “I bet your closet is immaculate,” or “your closet must be amazing.”
Ha. It’s a process for me just like everyone else. I have to discipline myself to put things away and not just leave my half-worn clothes on the chair like the rest of you!
There are a few tricks I’ve picked up along the way. Having a place for everything makes it easier to maintain your closet, as well as customizing your space for your life. Create zones and put clothes that fit your life right now front and center. It still takes discipline to not throw your clothes on the chair, though!
Today, I want to give you a behind the scenes tour of my closet with my top 5 favorite organizing tips that I put into action myself.
1. Use space saving, matching hangers
I love these (Premium Non-Slip Velvet hangers from The Container Store ) because they keep things from slipping off the hanger and they really do take up a lot less space. But whatever hanger you like best, just make sure you pick one or two styles and go with it.
I use the velvet hangers for my shirts and dresses, but I use the wooden ones for my jackets and sweaters. Just, whatever you do — do not use those wire ones or 10 different types of random hangers! And while you’re at it, get those empty hangers out of there too – that wastes a ton of space and looks so messy!! Okay, I promise I’m done yelling now.
Group your clothing by type, i.e. pants together, casual shirts together, work dresses together. I like to organize them by type, then sleeve length, then color. I know it might sound extreme, but it truly helps you see what you have, which can add variety to your daily outfits and guidance to your shopping trips. You may discover a certain color or type of shirt you don’t need to buy again for awhile!
2. Store seasonal and special occasion shoes
I was not blessed with a ton of shelf space in my closet, so I switch my shoes out seasonally. And as much as I love seeing those fun sparkly heels, it’s not really practical to have them out all the time. But because they’re clearly labeled and accessible, I know where they are when I need them. Honestly, I get so excited about the change of seasons that I actually enjoy putting winter shoes away and bringing out all my summer ones. It’s like seeing old friends again. . . get out of here, winter boots, and oh hey, sandals!
I use the clear plastic shoe boxes from The Container Store. They stack easily and you can personalize them with your own labels. (These boxes are actually great for any area of your home.) It’s a really easy system to follow, I just turn them around according to the seasons and it takes up so much less space than having them all out all year. Plus, these boxes are so budget friendly and easy to clean.
3. Hang your handbags
Hanging bags and totes really helps keep them organized. This way they are not just flopping over on a shelf or getting all tangled up in a pile. I use binder rings or shower curtain rings to do this, but you can also buy S-hooks that are specifically made for this (at The Container Store, of course).
It helps that I have extra hanging space in my closet, but I find this so useful that I would build it into any new closet design. You could even put it behind glass doors to make it look really beautiful and keep the dust off everything.
In my dream closet, I would have a glass cabinet with hanging handbags and shelves for the smaller bags. . . and cabinet lights and a chandelier and a laundry room next door . . . as long as we’re talking about my dream closet, right? Anyway. . .
4. Display your jewelry
Blank spaces in closets are storage gold. Seek them out, behind your door, in corners, above doors and below windows. (I also hang hats as often as I can.) Hanging long necklaces keeps them from getting tangled, but it also makes them more likely to get worn. “Out of sight, out of mind” holds true in your closet as well.
I made this jewelry organizer from an old canvas I had lying around that just happened to be the perfect size for my empty wall. I covered it with fabric and added gold hooks. It was super easy project, but there are lots of stylish pre-made options out there. The acrylic command hooks work great, and you can create your own configuration.
This arrangement definitely makes me appreciate my jewelry more and remember to wear it. And I don’t have any more meltdowns over tangled necklaces.
5. Plate racks or mail sorters for small bags and clutches.
This is an excellent way to store evening bags and clutches so they don’t get lost on a shelf. Otherwise, these would fall over and be all jumbled up on my shelf, and I would never remember what I have. It also makes your closet look like a high-end boutique when you show off your cute bags this way.
I have a plain white one, but you could do a gold, acrylic, or wooden one for an upgraded look. This one is from The Container Store, but you can find them anywhere, even the dollar store. Maybe even your own kitchen!
Bonus: the closet coffee bar
Surprise! This is the bonus favorite item in my closet, and I bet you weren’t expecting it. Maybe not everyone has a use for a coffee bar in their closet, but the point is that you might have room for something that is useful, or just makes you happy when you walk in your closet each morning. Think outside the box!
This empty space under the window was the perfect place to put a tabletop coffee bar. The drawers and cabinets underneath hold K-cups, but also other non-coffee related items, so we still use the space efficiently.
This way I don’t have to go downstairs and wake up the dog and everyone else who demands my attention (you know what I’m talking about, Moms). I can just go in my closet, have a cup of coffee while I get dressed, and start my day in a more relaxed mood. It just made sense for the way I live, so I made the space for it.
I hope some of these ideas will inspire you in your own closet. Thank you for touring my closet with me!
It’s easy to get paralyzed by the fear of trying to make your space look like the beautiful images on Pinterest. Overwhelmed by the mess, we can’t move forward because we want it to be perfect. We know that’s going to take a lot of work, or it might just be impossible. So we leave it one more day, and things continue to pile up. . .
But any progress is worth the effort. Once you start an organizing project — even the tiniest first step — things begin to fall into place. Think of how much stress that cluttered corner or pile of papers is causing you. Let go of the idea of perfection, and just start somewhere small.
So. . . I have been guilty of this as well. I have been so worried about the perfect blog post that I haven’t posted any blog posts. I have been paralyzed by the fear of living up to my own expectations, which were created by obsessing over other people’s beautiful blogs and professional photographs. I wanted to start this blog so that I could do what I do best — geek out over organizing ideas and share those ideas with others. Time to practice what I preach.
As a testament to this, I’ve posted a picture of the “epic” results of my Lego organization project I posted on Instagram in September. I’ve procrastinated on posting this because I don’t consider this epic results. However, I have made progress and the perfection I aspire to (a built-in wall of shelves to hold all the Lego containers in rainbow order as well as neatly organized toys) is not in the cards right now. But considering these Legos were scattered randomly in bags and boxes all over the house. . . for now this is definitely progress, although not perfection.
I hope that this inspires some of you to make some small steps towards progress without fear of perfection.
I have a hard time letting of things myself sometimes. What makes it easier for me is to admit that it isn’t worth anything just sitting in my closet. Imagine the joy it could bring to someone who will wear it to an interview and land the job that will change their lives forever. Makes it easier to let it go, right?
This philosophy of passing things on to bring joy to others is a big part of my organizing process. I try to find local organizations that have a real need for items that I typically see a lot of when helping clients get organized.
As part of my services, I collect donations and deliver them to the drop-off site on your behalf. If I’m already organizing for you, there is no additional charge for this service.
One of my favorite local charities is based in Addison, Texas: