Thursday, 9 July 2015

By request..

This may surprise some people, and others may just smirk, but I am not a naturally organized person. My mother despaired of me ever learning time management skills, or even basic housekeeping as a child, and whenever chores were to be done, well.. lets just say I disappeared. 

But I'm a single parent of 5 children. I had 4 children in 5 years. Organization was forced on me, simply as a matter of survival. I never claim to have it down pat, but I'm better than I used to be. And because I'm desperate to catch up on something that I missed out on somehow, I collect and avidly read old organization books, blogs, magazines.. anything that might help!

I found this old book in a yard sale about 5 years ago. The last copyright was before I was born, and cover showed it had been well used. It was a light-blue paperback, with a cartoon comparison on the front cover. One side showed a woman in curlers and housecoat, with a stack of dirty dishes behind her, the curtain askew, a mess on the floor and a squawling toddler beside a broken plate at her feet, with a defeated look on her face, and a coffee cup in her hand reading "Take a Break". The other side showed a neatly dressed woman, hair and makeup done, coordinated outfit, purse in hand, with happy, neatly dressed child at her side, headed out the front door, with a spotless, well-decorated home in the background. The message was obvious. 

Entitled "Sidetracked Home Executives" I bought the book, and put it aside with the rest of the organizing books and magazines I had collected, to be read later. I was in the middle of toddlers, preschoolers and pregnant with number 3.. or was it number 4? My marriage was either in shambles or rebuilding, or somewhere in between, and we had probably moved again, for the umpteenth time. I didn't have time to even try to get help organizing! I was too busy trying to just survive. 

6 months ago, my world changed. Newly divorced, moved into a brand new place, 5 small children to raise, feed, clothe, and educate -- I knew I needed something more. I picked up my organizing books, and this one caught my eye again. I curiously skimmed the first chapter, and laughed out loud! It described me and my tendencies to a 'T'. 

   "We wanted to call this chapter 'The Way We Were,' but since that's a famous song, we 
    figured we'd have to get permission from the writer, and we didn't know his address or 
    even his name. The only way to find out would have been to load all six kids into the 
    station wagon and drive downtown to Leo's Taco & Record Pavilion. (Leo lets you dine
    to music, and if you buy an album you get two tacos for the price of one.) But we didn't 
    think we should risk it. Knowing how we are, we would have ended up listening to all 
    our favorite records, stuffing ourselves with tacos, and coming home exhausted, with 
    a bagful of albums, indigestion, and no songwriter's name and address. There we'd be --
    sidetracked again, doing the very thing that had caused our problem in the first place."

I sat down immediately, (sidetracked!) and began to read. The story of two mothers, with 6 kids between them, overwhelmed by the idea of actually having a meal cooked, a clean home, children with clean clothes, washed faces and being able to invite friends over without embarrassment captivated me. 

The system they proposed seemed simple enough. Use index cards to keep track of what all needs to be done, and when it needs to be done, and put it in a kind of calendar that can be reused over and over again. I have tried digital and paper checklists, reminders of all kinds, but the ease of use Ms Young and Ms Jones' system promised was definitely appealing. 

I gathered the necessary supplies: index card dividers (actually I didn't have those, so I improvised using post-it notes and index cards, a box to hold them in, some paper, and several packages of index cards, both white and colored. 

The first step was to make a list of every single task you wanted to accomplish. Everything. They thoughtfully provided a worksheet in the book, but given that this book was rather old, I ended up writing out my list on a notepad of paper. It took me a couple of days to actually write out everything -- from sweeping the floor in the kitchen, to washing curtains, to sweeping down cobwebs or cleaning the toilet, everything went on my list. My only exceptions were taking out the trash and doing the dishes, because I seemed to have a handle on those. My sink was full of dirty dishes simply because I disliked the chore (hate it!!) and avoided it, not because I didn't remember to do it.

Then I was to determine 3 things for each item: frequency, time it took to actually do it, and whether or not I was the one who had to do it, or could a child do this? Given the time period of the book, they rarely mentioned having a husband do anything. 

The frequency of each task determined what color card it went on. Daily tasks were supposed to be on yellow cards, weekly or every other week were blue, and seasonal, monthly and yearly were on white cards. Each card was supposed to have the task to be done, the approximate time it should take to do it, and the instructions for doing each task on the card. The last was so that you could delegate: hand the card to someone else, and they could follow the instructions and complete the chore. I also was supposed to note whether a card was "mini", that is, whether or not it could be done in 5 minutes or less. 

To set up the box was easy. The dividers were labeled with each month of the year, and then others with a number, from 1-31. The months went at the back of the box, in order, and the days in front of them, again in order. Then you put the current month in the very front of the box. So if it was January the 3rd, your month card would be January, and the first number card behind it would be number 3, with 1 and 2 being behind the number 31 card. Every day you checked your cards, and at the end of the day, moved that number to the last of the number cards. It became a kind of rotating, perpetual calendar. 

Once all the cards were written up (and this was a rather laborious task! I'm not kidding!), I sorted them into the box. My daily cards were in the first day, my weekly cards distributed among the first week, and then the monthly cards over the course of the month. Then I began to try it. 

The first day, I looked at my daily cards. I looked at my kids. I gave each one a cloth, and a different area to wipe up after breakfast, and amazingly, the first 6 tasks were done in 5 minutes! My kitchen, normally a disaster area that took me half the morning to clean after the kids were done eating, was presentable in mere minutes. I was gratified. All that work.. and this actually worked!! 

Then my oldest and I split up the few weekly chores I had scheduled for that day, and within about an hour, all my household tasks were completed. I had to sit down, not because I was tired, but for shock. I now could actually do school with my kids with hours to spare before lunch, and before, I had always felt like it was a mad scramble, that usually ended up with junk food quickly thrown together, cranky kids and a frustrated mom. That first day was calm, productive, and dare I say.. relaxing. 

Obviously things did not always go so smoothly. But I found it extremely easy to "bump" chores over from one day to the next. Impromptu park day? No problem.. redistribute the weekly cards over the next week. Appointment I forgot? (I was getting better at that too!) No worries -- move those monthly cards to next week, or even next month. After all, it had waited this long, it could wait a few more weeks. 

The beauty of the system was the assurance that I wouldn't just forget something even if I did put it off. It was on a card. It would rotate back through, and eventually it would get done! It was a huge load off my mind. 

We tried it for a few months, and gradually, my house actually became cleaner. The baseboards, once never touched, were washed on a regular, if infrequent, basis. The windows got a spray and wipe occasionally. My toilet gleamed, my shower shined, and my bookshelves no longer had an inch of dust on them. The kids no longer wrote messages in the dust on top of the tv, and we could actually lay our hands on the tv remote most of the time (sometimes my 2 yr old still got away with it lol).  

Our school life improved too. Given that we had a non-sticky table, I felt more comfortable doing crafts with them. I knew where the pencils were, and I now had a place for erasers and pencil sharpeners, which meant less time searching and more time doing work. Best of all, the surprise visit by my ex in laws didn't throw me into a complete tizzy, even if my floors were still in desperate need of washing (the card came up the next day!). 

So, given the success in our housekeeping, I decided to adapt the system to our homeschool planning. Obviously, since tasks weren't really repeating -- each day had a different assignment in each subject -- I had to do a few things differently. But the idea of each task to an index card, and a rotating, perpetual calendar, and the ease of handing a card with instructions to a child to do independently, really really was appealing. 

I started by color-coding my kids. Parents with larger families tend to do this anyway, and I was no exception. We all knew that if it was pink, chances are it was my 2nd daughter's possession, and if it was yellow it was the youngest. Every child had "their" color, and I simply adapted them to my index cards. 

I figured out pretty quickly that I was going to need a different kind of storage for my index cards though. I didn't have repeating tasks, and I did need to sort by subject as well as by child, so I found some long organizer plastic boxes, that held a few hundred index cards, to hold the assignments organized by subject, divided by dividers. My idea was that I would, every month, sort into my perpetual calendar, that month's assignments from my "master storage". So each child would have their school days' worth of cards in each day, on their color of cards. Cards that weren't completed for whatever reason could simply be shuffled into the next day's assignments, and if we got seriously behind in something, the next month would make it easy to reset. 

I started my planning process. I began the same way I had with the chores -- writing out in a list every assignment for each child in each subject area. I made notes on my notepad of special things like craft supplies needed, or extra time, or which book was needed when. After all, I was writing each individual assignment on an index card! Lots of space to write here, unlike those little boxes in the planners I had tried before. 

Then came the super laborious process of transferring my lists to my cards. I labeled each card with its subject and I numbered each card, so that if they ever got knocked around, I could quickly put them back in order. It also made it easy to keep track of how many "days" each subject would take to complete, and will give me some feedback on how quickly or slowly we were completing something. If we get out of sync majorly on one subject, it means that I need to re-evaluate what we're prioritizing for a bit. 

I don't do grading -- I homeschool on a mastery basis (my children either get it, or we work at it until they get it), but it would be really easy to keep track of grades and time spent by noting it on a card after it was completed.  I don't know if I will keep my cards after we're completed, but I can see it being a very good way to keep track of what was done after the fact, as well as being an excellent "to-do" list. If I keep my cards, I may also note for future reference what worked and what didn't, so when I'm planning next year, using the same material for the next child, I can make those adjustments without relying on my memory as much. 

There you have it. I may post in future how well it works, but at this point, I'm still in the "writing out the assignments on the cards" stage. I'm on child 2! 3 more to go.. lol. I have every expectation that it will work out very nicely, though I'm sure there'll be a trial and error stage yet, as no school year goes to plan exactly, ever.  If you ever think that something will go to plan exactly as you envisioned it.. well let me introduce you to a fellow named Murphy, and his danged law.. 

One last comment: the unexpected blessings I got when I first implemented this system: the approximate time it takes to do things, and thinking about how I do things. I found I seriously overestimate how long it actually takes to accomplish anything. Because I was forced to write down a time estimate for each task in the housekeeping system, I started paying attention to how long it actually took me to do something.  I have since rewritten some of those time estimates! A lot of my problem in my lack of organization was thinking of everything as this huge enormous monster of a job, and not even starting because I didn't think I had the time for it. Now, I realize that its not "cleaning the bathroom" its "wiping the counter" and "sweep the floor". It's individual tasks, that can be done separately (This may be heresy, but there is no law saying you have to scrub your shower and your toilet on the same day, did you know that??), and may take only a few seconds to actually do. Now instead of ignoring the shoes spilled all over the floor, I pick up the worst ones, and casually kick in that direction the rest, and I know that in a day or so, the chore will come up on my calendar, and my 5 yr old or my 6 year old will be directed to put them all away neatly. I pick up those few pieces of torn paper off the stairs, knowing that in a day or so, the card saying "sweep the stairs" will come up, and I'll do the rest then. I don't start one job and get sidetracked into another anymore... because my jobs aren't as big, and they don't take as long as I once thought. 

I've even been known to have clean sinks occasionally -- because I can do a load of dishes in steps, and each step takes only about 5 minutes! Even the most hated task can be tolerated for 5 minutes... 

No more mom-guilt, and my procrastination habits are harnessed. This sidetracked home executive is no longer (as) sidetracked. 

** PS: I've since learned that this book, and these authors, are somehow related to the FLYlady system, either as the indirect precursor, or the direct developers. FLY has always seemed too advanced for me (how can you have a shiny sink when I can't even get to the bottom of the dishes!?) but this was simple for me. 

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