Mavens of organization

Experts advise on tidying up a home, including the cluttered person's worst nightmare - Pessah.

mess illustration 88 248 (photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
mess illustration 88 248
(photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
A worn Bible. A half-eaten apple left over from your child's lunch. Some wrinkled papers - oops, there's the grocery list you've been searching for! And careful not to trip over the toys that are everywhere. Strolling through a chaotic habitat is akin to stepping through an endless wilderness. Luckily, there are plenty of experts willing to assist in your dizzying quest of keeping possessions, papers and busy schedule in perfect order. That is, if you are willing to part with a few shekels. These uber-organized mavens have made an industry out of tidiness. They march into homes and offices equipped with color-coded boxes, binders and files. They urge you to purge. And in their orderly briefcases they come armed with, what else? Personal organizers complete with a detailed schedule for every hour of the day. Some of these professionals specialize in helping children navigate their school day. Others help adults conquer mess in offices and homes. Organizers can also help muddled minds control their schedules and complete more errands. Many experts in the field assert that the organizational issues faced by observant Jews - children and adults alike - are particularly vexing. After all, religious Jews need to be as prepared as boy scouts with all the stiff requirements of daily prayer services, kashrut restrictions and preparing for Shabbat, holidays and the cluttered person's worst nightmare: Pessah. Rivka Slatkin of Baltimore, professional organizer and author of the Yom Tov Perfectly Organized Collection of books, says that juggling religious and everyday life can be a difficult managerial task. "This is not your average family with two children and a few holidays a year. We make Thanksgiving dinner every weekend. Our lives are amplified to much greater degree. We have more kids. The kids have a dual curriculum in school. We have a lot of holidays, four sets of dishes. We can't follow the typical organizational advice that's out there." BUT HAVE no fear. Donna Goldberg, an organizational coach for the past 17 years in the New York area, asserts that if you haven't acquired organizational skills yet to manage such feats, it's not too late. She was motivated to become a professional organizer and coach after years of helping her own son with his challenges in managing his life. He has since become a successful college student. And she has since become a sought-after coach as well as the author of The Organized Student. The book offers a range of solutions for daily organizational challenges, including the backpack, locker, desk and home. Goldberg sees yeshiva students who are twice as disorganized because of the dual curriculum. In addition to managing all the teachers and course work, they have to figure out how to get all their homework and studying done around Shabbat and the holidays, she said. But such challenges can be mastered successfully, she said. It's just a matter of finding the right tactics to fit the child. Her typical client is a bright student who does his homework on time but neglects to hand it in because he can't find it. Goldberg tries to analyze where the student begins to lose track of his belongings and tries to fix it. "Sometimes, it's a matter of talking to the teacher," she said. "Other times, we have to develop a new system of organizing papers for him or a better way of handing them in." For younger students, she recommends homework be kept in a ring binder with clear plastic pockets, one for homework TO DO and one for homework DONE and a third for notes to parents. That way, young children will only have to look in one location for all their work. It reduces the number of folders that can be misplaced, she said. As students age and they have more material to manage, she recommends a three-ring binder with color coded tabs to section off subjects. If a binder is too difficult for a child to manage, or the school works off laptops, Goldberg often recommends an accordion file with a pocket for each subject. KERIN ADAMS of Englewood, New Jersey, an ADHD coach who helps clients with organizational issues and the author of a soon to be released book about ADHD, advises parents to use color to identify children's belongings at home and in school. Every subject should be easily identifiable so folders, notebooks and books in each subject should be covered in the same hue, she said. Purging is a second important step, Adams advises. Parents or children should purge the backpack and desk every two weeks. This will keep things more organized. Pick the same time and day on weekends, Adams suggests. Finally, students must have a running list of what homework is due when. It's best to utilize an organizer with a calendar so students will be clear about the due dates of assignments. Students need a clear list of priorities in preparation for the week. But the struggle to be prepared and organized grows after graduation from school. Jewish homemakers face the monumental challenge of preparing for Shabbat and holidays. The last-minute rush before candlelighting on Friday can be as stressful as the final 10 seconds before a rocket launch. And making Pessah can prove to be fraught with enough anxiety to convince a good husband to make reservations. Ruthie, a teacher from Teaneck, New Jersey, who did not want to divulge her last name, went to Adams for organizational help because she felt paralyzed by all the things she needed to get done. "I was so overwhelmed by everything I had to do, I wasn't getting anything done," she said. Adams helped her prioritize her errands and gave her a calendar planner on which she could determine what her goals were for each day. "When you have a book that gives you specific tasks for each day, you look at it. It helps you prepare in advance for the day. She gave me strategies for getting stuff done. These days we are all so busy, it can be too much. You don't know what to do first." They also discussed strategies for preparing for Shabbat. Adams suggested that Ruthie should shop for groceries on Wednesday so that she could prepare on Thursday. RUNNING A Jewish household requires top-notch organizational skills, said Goldberg. Otherwise, the stress will negatively impact the entire family. "Organization and time management are key factors in getting ready for Shabbat. You have to have a lot of lists you can refer to each week that become a step-by-step guide so you don't forget to do something or neglect to buy something." Since it's a family occasion, you want to include the entire family in the preparations. Her advice? Give every child, from oldest to youngest, a task they can accomplish. "One child can set the table, another can help with the cooking. If you have a lot to do on Friday, you may want to have the kids set the table for Shabbat right after dinner on Thursday night. With kids, you must be specific with the job. Don't just say, set the table. Tell him we have company this week, so put out eight settings of silverware. Or put out the kiddush cups. The same principle applies when you tell your child to clean his room: You need to give specific instructions about how and what to clean." Preparing for Pessah can be a dream for an organized person. But if you are disorganized, mused Goldberg, it can be a nightmare. Slatkin, whose Web site helps the overwhelmed for free, says that if someone feels totally stressed out by the prospect of making Pessah for the first time, she should calm down. "Don't worry. You are capable of doing this," she says optimistcally. "Everyone can do this." If you have to start somewhere, start with the acronym CHAG, she says. That stands for Cuisine, Halacha, Aesthetic and Guests. "Cuisine is you need to plan your menu and and decide what to buy. Halacha is you need to clean your house and rid it of hametz, and you have to burn the hametz at the right time as well as find a way to involve your children in the holiday. Aesthetics is what you want your Seder to look like, how you want the food to be served, what you want your house to look like. Is there a color scheme for the Seder? Guests are what guests are you having? Where will they sleep? How many meals are they eating at?" And finally, she asserts, whatever you do and however much you buy and cook, keep a record of everything. Then you can refer to it again next year. And preparing for Pessah will be even easier.