Sarah Cronin, owner of Simply Inspired Home Organizing, offers these tips to start your journey to an organized life.

Paper management

"People struggle the most with paper," said professional organizer Sarah Cronin, of Simply Inspired Home Organizing. Bills, schoolwork, receipts, mailers and other documents tend to pile up, resulting in confusing piles of clutter.

To manage her family's paper, Cronin created a "command center" on one end of their main living space. There's a desk where she sorts the mail and files paperwork, equipped with folders, including one for bills, one for each child's paperwork for that week, and another for that child's keepsake papers. Above the desk, she hung a curtain wire with clothespins, for a rotating display of children's selected artwork — "to show that their things are valued," she said. "It's a flexible space — functional for every day, but it's also a hosting board."

When she has guests, the folders are moved to the bedroom, and the desk becomes space to set up food and drinks. Cronin also keeps a recycling bin next to the desk for tossing unnecessary paper before it becomes clutter. That includes coupons and fliers. "I give myself permission to not even open them. There isn't anything in there I need." When her kids have paperwork that needs a parent's signature, they know what to do. "If you need something signed, bring it to me with a pen," she said. "If it's urgent, it needs to be in front of my face."

Meal planning and food storage

Cronin buys enough groceries to have ingredients for specific meals for a week or two out. A notepad near the refrigerator collects family members' notes and requests, such as "out of orange juice." To save time, Cronin utilizes the pickup service at her nearby Hy-Vee store, ordering online, usually on Sunday night, then picking up the family's groceries after she drops her kids at school Monday morning.

She buys snacks in bulk, and stores them in clear plastic bins. Pantry shelves are clearly labeled ("Snacks," "Soup and vegetables," etc., so that everyone can see what belongs where. "Labeling is helpful with multiple members of a household," she said. Her kids helped make the labels, creating buy-in to the process.

School lunch menus are posted on a calendar, and her four kids put their initials on days they want a packed lunch from home. And they don't always get their wish. "There are mornings when there's just not time to make lunch," Cronin said.

Household chores

Cronin expects her kids to help with daily tasks. So she made a sign for the dishwasher that can be turned to display its status — "Load Me," "Empty Me" and "I Am Washing." When the sign says "Empty Me," each child must put away 15 things. "Assigning it to one kid per day is too structured," she said. "They grumbled at first. But the one who gets there first gets to choose. If plates are easier to put away, take the plates."

In the laundry room, she set up four plastic bins, a different color for each child. As Cronin does laundry, she folds clothes and places them in each child's bin. When they need clean clothes, they grab their bin and bring it to their room.

Books and magazines

Reading material also tends to pile up in homes. "We love to read, and we would have books everywhere," said Cronin. So she places a bin or basket for books in every room. Her husband's magazines go into a basket next to the sofa. After two months, every magazine is recycled, unless it contains instructions for a handyman project he wants to tackle; then it's moved to his lower-level workshop.

Periodically, Cronin has her children sort their books into three piles: "Really like," "Kind of like" and "Don't like." The "Don't like" books are then donated. (This process, which Cronin adapted from organizer Judith Kolberg, works well with kids of all ages and other categories of belongings.)

Kids' stuff

To keep school and art supplies from forming a messy jumble in drawers, Cronin assembled an "art cart" — a multi-shelved cart on wheels that serves as a mobile homework station that can be rolled to wherever kids are working on school or craft projects. Bins hold sheets of paper and cups for pens, pencils, crayons, etc.

Cronin also keeps a whiteboard in the kitchen as a visual reminder to her brood. Under each child's initial is listed what that child has to do that day. Cronin also uses phone alarms to keep kids on schedule on hectic mornings. One alarm sounds five minutes before it's time to leave, and another five minutes later. "I had them pick the time they needed to get ready, and the ringtone," she said. That got them invested in the system. "It eliminates some of the stress. I don't have to be yelling."

Family heirlooms

No need to ditch all sentimental keepsakes. "But if you have 10 boxes of it, and it's stressing you out, that's different," she said. An heirloom's value often isn't the thing itself but the relationship it represents. "If you're having a hard time letting go, find a way to honor the relationship that is not directly tied to the object."


Right after the holidays is a great time to assess your seasonal decor. "As you're packing it away, you probably notice some stuff you never put out," she said. "It's a great time to donate it." Also review the gifts you received. "If you got a better blender, donate the old one." And with clothing, Cronin advocates the one-in, one-out rule. Got a new sweater? Pick an old one to donate.