Teaching tidiness, one step at a time. Methods true, but oft untried

You can spot them a mile away. They're always where they're supposed to be - and what's even more admirable, they're on time. Nine times out of 10 they have a pen in their briefcase or purse, and maybe even a safety pin or a stamp. Their socks match. And behind their spotless kitchen cupboard doors lurk alphabetically filed spice jars lined up in neat rows.

They are the organized people.

For those who aspire to such heights, there are aids to creating a new, more orderly you. ``Organization is a skill. It can be learned,'' writes Ronni Eisenberg, author (with Kate Kelly) of the recently published ``Organize Yourself'' (Collier Books, $7.95), offering hope to those who despair of escaping the mire of messiness.

Ms. Eisenberg, president of Ronni Eisenberg and Associates, a New York-based firm, is a consultant on organization who lists the Est'ee Lauder cosmetics firm among her clients. Drawing from her 10 years of experience in the field, she offers tips and tactics for ordering every aspect of daily life imaginable - from desktop clutter to tax records to the refrigerator to how to travel with children.

``The most important reason for getting organized and staying organized is so that you have time for yourself, your family, and your loved ones,'' she said in a phone interview. ``So that you don't always feel you have to catch up - instead, you keep up.

``Organization does take some time and planning. What happens is that it becomes a matter of habit - eventually you don't think about it, you do it automatically - that's the payoff.''

In her book, Eisenberg counsels ``just start with one small step and then take others, one at a time. Once you see the benefits in one part of your life, you will be motivated to go on!''

Dee Vance of Lafayette, Calif., who teaches a course in home organization, concurs. She has her students start ``by reorganizing and throwing out and getting rid of all the junk - but some can't even get to their closets and drawers'' for all the clutter, she says. In extreme cases like that, she has them start with a single countertop. ``If they can get a countertop cleared off and put a bouquet of flowers up, that gives them something pretty to look at, and motivates them to get the rest of the room cleaned up.... I had a woman who only did her bathroom! It was the smallest room in the house, and she'd go in there to get inspired'' - and then face the rest of the house.

One of the first things ``Organize Yourself!'' covers is paperwork. ``The key is not to let paper and piles keep multiplying,'' writes Eisenberg. ``Process each paper as it comes in, and get it off your desk.''

The concept of handling paper one time only is ``an old hint,'' says Ms. Vance, ``but it's so true. Paper clutter is a major, major problem. You have to have a file system. File it or throw it out. I throw stuff out coming up from the mailbox past the trash - it doesn't even get in the house. What comes in either gets filed or dealt with.''

The importance of using only one appointment calendar is another basic principle both women stress. ``The problem with having more than one calendar,'' writes Eisenberg, ``is that you may forget to transfer information from one to another. One businesswoman kept one appointment calendar at home and another at the office - a logical but unwise practice. She switched to a one-calendar system the morning she arrived at a restaurant for a meeting only to discover two different clients awaited her - she had set up two breakfast appointments for the same day!''

For mothers trying to keep track of the activities of several family members, Vance offers this tip: ``Use different colors for each member of the family.'' If you write ``baseball practice'' in red pen, ``that color tells you who it is and what school it's at.''

Vance has more valuable advice for full-time homemakers. ``I believe that the home is the mirror for the world of how you feel about yourself,'' she says. ``If you're running your home, you need to dress appropriately for it. You need to get yourself up and dressed and hair done and makeup on, so that you feel like you're in control of your home.''

This simple step does wonders to boost your confidence and self-esteem - although it can come as a surprise to one's family at first, she says. ``The first time I did this, the kids came out for breakfast, and I was already dresssed, and it was 7 a.m., and they asked `Where are we going?'''

Teaching children to be orderly is a whole area in itself. ``Mothers who do it all for their children are doing them a disservice,'' says Vance. Not surprisingly, she adds, the adults that come to her for help ``are the ones who never had the habits established. They never knew how to do these things.''

Helping children establish orderly habits ``makes life so much easier for them because then they're not frustrated when they can't find their schoolbooks and backpacks and toys.''

``I have a toddler,'' says Eisenberg, ``and I'm teaching her organization mainly through example. She sees that mommy puts things away and hangs things up ... and she's emulating me the best that she can. She puts things in her hamper - I have to remind her, but it's low enough for her to reach.'' Eisenberg made sure that all the shelves and hooks in her daughter's room are low enough so that she can reach them, and gives her plenty of encouragement. ``When she does it correctly, I praise her; when she doesn't do it, I don't make a big fuss.''

She also points out that ``children usually get attention for not cleaning their room. Be sure to pay attention when they do.''

Motivating kids to be orderly takes creativity and patience, according to Vance, who has come up with such reward systems for her own children as inexpensive gifts on the pillow, an extra story at night - even ``taking the phone off the hook for 20 minutes'' and spending that time with the child.

Now that her children are approaching the teen years, she says, money has started to mean something to them, so allowances are added to or deducted from, depending on whether household chores have been completed.

The most important thing in helping your family be more orderly, says Vance, is balance. ``You can't expect them to be perfect. Their sense of order may be different - what they think is clean may not be what I think is perfect.'' Being a fanatic about order is self-defeating. ``I want to have a sense of order and still be able to have my kids run through the house and have a squirt gun fight.''

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