21 Essays to S.H.E.: Get Organized with Sidetracked Home Executives

Welcome to the 21 Essays to S.H.E.™!

In the essays that follow, we'll take a short course in how to set up and use a Sidetracked Home Executives card file for better home organization. 

Designed to be read one-a-day for 21 days, these Essays will help you put into practice the ideas, habits and principles taught in the book Sidetracked Home Executives, by Pam Young and Peggy Jones.

About The 21 Essays

The 21 Essays that are presented here are grounded in real-life experience. I began using the Sidetracked Home Executives card file method in 1981, and it helped me manage home, career, children and marriage. Every tip and pointer I'll share is one that was earned the hard way: by living it.

But the Essays themselves are a product of the Internet--and they go way, way back. Between 1991 and 1995, I shared my experiences with Pam Young and Peggy Jones' Sidetracked Home Executives™ card file system with a group of online friends.

It was a heady time! Back then, there was no Web; we met online at different online services. We had text-based access, not friendly graphics. More important, we women were less than 10% of the online population.

But somehow, we found each other--and found a common interest in what we called "Get O". Short for "get organized, Get O was something we all needed--we were busy, time-pressed multi-tasking women, wives, mothers, workers and artists. Whatever our home circumstances, we all treasured the connections we made in this new and exciting online world.

The essays that follow were written as part of an informal online column about the S.H.E.™ system. Written under my online name, "CEO" (short for Cynthia Ewer, Organized), my "S.H.E.s Online" column moved from Prodigy to GEnie to Delphi over the years, but was always eagerly anticipated by our group of Get O friends.

By 1995, the World Wide Web had begun to be available to more and more families. I signed on as Home Organization Editor with an early woman's portal on the Web--but what to do with all the Essays? Many online friends had heard of them, and I wanted to share.

That's how "21 Days to S.H.E." was born. For the next five years, I sent a carefully selected number of columns, chosen to help readers learn to use the S.H.E.™ method, in a 21-day mail loop. Over the years, the list included more than 250,000 e-mail addresses--all friends who wanted to use this method to get organized at home.

With founding of my own Web site in 1998--OrganizedHome.Com--I began to phase out e-mail delivery of 21 Days to S.H.E. In 2000, I opened this site on the Web as home to the 21 Essays. Numerous mailing lists and Yahoo! groups used these resources to help their members learn the system and get organized.

Now, in 2008, I'm the hard-working owner of a thriving site network offering web sites devoted to organized scrapbooking, Christmas organizing, and getting organized at home--but my little S.H.E.™ site has continued to quietly offer the Essays written so many years before.

Rereading them today, I was taken back to an earlier self. That younger woman was a new bride of a young doctor, a home schooling mother, a civic volunteer--and only Pam Young and Peggy Jones' teachings kept her upright, on time and organized at home.

Today's CEO? Because of the success of OrganizedHome.Com, my life is very different. I'm a print author (Houseworks: Cut The Clutter, Speed Your Cleaning and Calm The Chaos), webmaster and media expert--but only the strong foundation forged by my years as a S.H.E. enabled me to grow into the life I lead today.

That's why I'm proud to share these Essays with you and your family today. This method worked for me; are you ready to get organized and find a new life?

The Essays that follow were designed to be read, one a day, for 21 days. In that time, readers would be introduced to the S.H.E.™ system, set up their first cardfile, and begin taking baby steps toward an organized, clutter-free life.

Ready? It's never too late to get organized at home!

--Cynthia Townley Ewer

Introduction to S.H.E.

Welcome to 21 Essays to S.H.E.™! In the next 21 essays, we'll learn and implement Pam Young and Peggy Jones' card file system for home management from the book Sidetracked Home Executives.

Newcomers or old hands alike, the questions have been flying. What is this card file business? How does it work? How do I start? Where do you get the cards--and where do you put 'em?

Today's essay is meant to introduce the system, so you get an idea of where we will be traveling during the next 21 weeks.

The card file is the heart, nerve center and brain of Pam and Peggy's home executive system. A rotating "tickler" file, it contains 3x5 cards for all the household tasks necessary to maintain your home. The cards are color-coded according to frequency: daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal jobs. When you've been on the system for awhile, your card file is worth more than gold. It was the second thing I grabbed when our family prepared to flee the Oakland Hills fire in 1995!

How does it work? Each morning (P&P recommend the night before), you pull a stack of cards from the day's divider. They'll be different each day. Some cards appear every day: make beds, wash dishes. Other cards roll around once or twice a week: vacuum, laundry, mop floors. Some are monthly chores: tidy closets, oil woodwork; a few are seasonal: shampoo carpets.

Here's the key: you pull out the cards and do what they say. At first, this is daunting! You're digging your way out of a big hole, and you can't see the sky! Laundry, waxing floors, windows--whew! It makes you want to throw the cards in the air.

Don't do it! After a few weeks, your house will be clean, and you will be on the system. Then, a few cards each day, (with one or two heavier cleaning days each week) will be all that is needed to keep you on track. Getting started is the hardest part--but the rewards of sticking with it are great.

Where do the cards come from? From Activity Lists. It's very simple. Take a 3-ring binder (with paper in it--one S.H.E.™ knows another S.H.E.™), and walk smack into the center of each room of your home. Stand there. Make a 360-degree turn and LOOK at the room. Now, write down everything that needs to be done to keep that room clean and orderly. Is the woodwork grimy? Write down "clean/oil the trim". How about the floor? Write down "vacuum", "wash area rug", or "sweep". Do one room each morning, but do them all before you go on.

Now you're ready to make your cards. Sit down with your 3-ring binder and your Activity Lists. Make one more list: for yourself, listing exercises, manicures, haircuts, and other personal care activities. I include trips to the library!

Decide how often you want to do each job. Estimate how long the job takes. Then make out one card per job. Complete instructions are found in "Sidetracked Home Executives", or you can order pre-printed cards from P&P!

When you've made out all your cards, you're ready to file. You'll use either 7 days-of-the-week dividers or "1-31" days of the month dividers, and a set of dividers for the months of the year. File daily cards behind tomorrow's divider, weekly cards within the next week, and monthly ones behind the next few months.

That's the system in a nutshell--but don't think you have to do it all today. We'll start slowly and gradually, easing into a new way of life.

Beginning Baby Steps: Up and At 'Em!

We begin with Pam and Peggy's first rule: get up 30 minutes earlier than the rest of the family, shower and dress.

Amazing how hard this simple assignment can be. Oh, the excuses and barriers to showering and dressing! Listen to my usual mental dialog, any given weekday morning:

"Oh, I'll shower after I read the paper--I need my coffee!

Wait, Dr. DH is in there. Fine, I'll shower after he's finished!

Oh, no! The Rocket Scientist has grabbed the hot water--better get dressed, because it'll be midmorning before there's anything hot to wash with!

Phooey. Forget that, I've gotta get the RS going on his Chem lesson.

[2 hours later] Why bother? I'm just going to exercise class at 4:30!

Sheesh. I'm too tired to go to class. Not today--I've gotta cook dinner!"

Get the picture? If you're Sidetrackable, everything in your life, from family to chores to choices, presents you with an opportunity to slide.

So what're your excuses? Starting your day right, in clean clothes with clean hair, gives you more energy for doing the stuff you don't wanna do (for me, just about everything).

[Find a printable Excuses Reminder here.]

That's it: first challenge. Write it on a 3-by-5: "I WILL GET UP, SHOWER, AND DRESS, EACH DAY!"

Tape it to the coffee pot, the back door, wherever your first excuse resides. Know it. Learn it. Live it--and Get O!

Why Ask Why? To Get Motivated!

Last week, we began with Pam and Peggy's first dictum: GET UP BEFORE THE FAMILY, SHOWER and DRESS!

This week? We need to take a look at our situation and our motivation. While P&P don't mention these techniques in their books, I learned them from one of their seminars, and these two concepts serve you well.

The task is simple. First, our situation. Take a 3-by-5 card and turn it on end, long-ways. Date the top. Then list five things in your life that are bugging you.

No rules here! They can be as simple (ha!) as a full ironing basket or as complex as a nagging desire to go back to school; as straight-forward as a heaped-up desktop or counter, or as daunting as "every single closet in our house is stuffed full of JUNK!"

Just five things, though--our generous and energetic S.H.E.™ imaginations sometimes lead us astray! No, just make your list, with a little thought, then put it to one side.

The second half of the analysis is not really a P&P technique, but something of value, nonetheless. Make another list on another 3-by-5; this time, list five reasons/things/hopes/dreams that you want to achieve by getting organized.

Some of mine?

  1. No more hour-long searches through stacks of paper looking for that one form our accountant needs.
  2. Actually being able to wear my summer clothes during the summer--freeing them from the ironing basket in time to keep from wearing the same few things.
  3. Not being faced with dirty dishes and a trashed family room first thing in the morning before I've had my coffee.
  4. Ending time-eating daily store runs, errand runs, bank runs, cleaning runs or office supply runs; I want to consolidate out-of-house trips during the summer heat.
  5. MORE TIME FOR ME.

I want to repeat number five: MORE TIME FOR ME!!!! That is the bottom line!

Think about it. If you invested ten minutes per week in a menu plan, you'd save about 3 hours a week of defrost madness. If ironing was in control, there wouldn't be anymore desperate evenings (like mine last night) spending 30 minutes searching desperately through my closet for something to wear out to dinner.

But this is my motivator. Time. Time to write, to learn new computer skills, to work on teddy bears, to sew, to read, to idle with my husband.

Your motivator may be entirely different, but you must identify it. Perhaps it's to "show" a critical mother or shove a snooty sister's "neener-neener" up her nose sideways!

You may want a more serene, happy home environment. Is hospitality your special interest--but the clean-up effort undercuts your good intentions?

Whatever the reason, get it on that card, and use it to shore up your new resolve to . . . get organized!

"A" Is For Activity List

We've gotten up early, we've worked on motivation and goals, and now it's time to set up those cardfiles--and it's as easy as A, B, C.

For S.H.E.™s, that stands for Activity List, Basic Week Plan (sometimes known as BWP), and Cardfile--the mechanics of the S.H.E.™ home management system.

I hope nobody thinks I'm one step ahead at this point. I have a very bad case of boys infesting my computer (why, oh, why do I permit them to buy a game that can only be played on my computer, not theirs?).

To make matters worse, our area is plagued with afternoon and evening thunderstorms, meaning the computers must all be unplugged. Then I come unplugged as these same high-tech boys must be redirected to amuse themselves in low-tech ways (and I'll say only that, as teenagers, their ways are low, indeed!)

No, I'm sitting right where everyone else is. And where I've started is with the "A" of the S.H.E.™ equation: Activity Lists. But you will be amused to learn that I filled out my Activity Lists during some unscheduled down time in a tire store.

There I sat, notepad in hand, scribbling my Activity Lists while watching Montel. As a daytime TV virgin, I'd never seen this particular show and having had the experience, I'm sure I'll never repeat it.

All I could do was mutter, "Excuse me? Where are your parents?" at the four sisters who accused one another of boyfriend-poaching and worse. Oh, la, as the French girls say.

There I sat, surrounded by tire displays and the smell of smoky rubber. I visualized every room in my house. For each room, I listed every task necessary to keep it in shape, from cleaning to regular decluttering to seasonal or yearly maintenance.

At the same time, I kept an "On My Mind" list on another page--a place to put all the little nagging pesky problems that popped up from nowhere. Things like "Call for a furnace tune-up and duct cleaning!" were listed under "On My Mind", while repeating tasks like "Oil family room paneling" were assigned to the room's activity list.

The tire waiting area proved to be a perfect place to work up my Activity List. No teenaged boys yelling "Get 'im!" or husband nattering, "Sweetee, where's the . . . . .".

In the tire store, I couldn't give in to a desire to do something, anything, besides think about cleaning the house. Granted, I lacked the stimulus of being able to see each room--but I was spared the potential sidetrack hazards of my mail, my magazines, my books, our photos, my children, the birds in the yard, the weeds in the flower bed, and the neighbor lady over the fence.

Are you along for the ride? Activity Lists! The next step to organization in 21 Essays to S.H.E.™!

Activity Lists: Start With A Clean Slate

As I look around my big new home, now that 80% of the moving boxes are squashed flat and in the attic, I've realized that my cardfile, too, will have to make the move from small apartment to four-bedroom house.

If you're new to S.H.E.™--or your copy of Sidetracked Home Executives is creased and stained but you still;; haven't assembled your cardfile--you may want to join me as I start from scratch in a new house.

We begin, as recommended by P&P, at the beginning: with Activity Lists. You'll find them in the back of "Sidetracked Home Executives", while "I'm OK, But You Have A Lot Of Work To Do" contains an appendix listing copies of P&P's revised "routine" cards.

Iconoclast that I am, I'm going to use neither, just pages in my S.H.E.™ notebook.

We will now make a grand progress through the house. Starting at the front door, and moving room by room throughout the house, we will list each and every task that needs to be done to keep our house clean.

I know I'll have lots of new and dirty jobs ahead (one of which being "Polish Cleopatra's Barge"--the nickname given my mother-in-law's rosewood Victorian sofa aka boat, complete with seasick green velvet upholstery), but, to appropriate a Southernism, "I'll think about that tomorrow at Tara!" Just walk through the house, scribbling as you go.

After an hour or so, you'll have assembled a place to start. Put the lists away, because you want to attack the next phase with renewed energy, and because you're probably depressed at the number of things it takes to keep a house clean.

Next day (or however long you've managed to procrastinate) you'll assess your activity lists. For each task, decide on a frequency. On my lists, "Vacuum" will take on new depth and meaning, now that we no longer live in a city apartment building (where any street dirt has been walked off in the halls), but live surrounded by Georgia sand, pine needles and mud.

I'll assign a "daily" or "every other day" to my vacuuming chores. Other jobs will be weekly tasks: wind the clock (a wedding present now out of purdah), polish Cleo's Barge, mop out the mud room.

Seasonal tasks will pop up, too: put all light-diffusing bowls in the dishwasher, vacuum the drapes, flip the mattresses (required because, in the course of moving, I found that 15-year-old rocket scientist had worn a hollow into his one-year-old mattress already).

Last, you'll try to estimate the time needed to complete each task. Use your timer, because an accurate grasp of time is essential to the reformation of a S.H.E.™. It takes 7 minutes to thoroughly vacuum the family room (the chief beneficiary of said Georgia sand, pine needles and mud)--so note that on your activity list next to the task.

Now you're ready to make out your cards, the next step as we travel 21 Essays to S.H.E.™. A clean slate, a new broom, and Activity Lists! Get off to a good start . . . and get organized!

Get Organized? Press As You Sew!

We've talked about the "why" of organization. We've covered the very first step: get up one-half hour before the rest of the family, shower and dress. Now we're going to talk about the reason it took me about six years to make this system really work, and it all started in home ec!

Remember home ec? That was the class I took as a seventh-grader to teach me to make chocolate milk and cinnamon toast--when I was already cooking family dinners twice a week, baking pies, and making jelly at my grandmother's elbow.

Good ole' home ec had a sewing component, too, and my teacher, Mrs. McClincy (bless her soul--I've saved a bundle over the years using the skills she taught me!) was a regular bear about construction pressing. Even decades later, her voice rings through my head when I bend over that Bernina: "Press as you sew!"

Mrs. McClincy must have been born organized. Born organized people (and those Sidetrackers who were blessed with a Mrs. McClincy) do press as they sew--and they follow directions in every other aspect of life, too.

We Sidetrackers? "Why should I iron that seam? It's not going to show!" we tell ourselves--and then we wonder why our garments never look quite right when we are finished!

Like sewing, like life--if you take short-cuts, you'd better expect to be short-changed.

This goes single, double, triple in our quest for organization. I know exactly what newcomers to the S.H.E.™ system do--because I did it and did it and did it for years!

First, you race through the book. It's such fun! It's so encouraging. Then, you race down to the stationery store and stock up on a rainbow of 3-by-5 cards, a nice file, and maybe you even add a pack of colored pens, too. "I'll be super organized, even color-coded!" you beam as you stagger to the car with your loot. "This is fun!"

You may even write out some nifty little cards (why bother to make boring old Activity lists?) and set up your cardfile. But just like that unpressed garment, your new Home Executive system is going to droop on you, right away. Why? Because you didn't do the hard stuff. You didn't press as you sew!

What hard stuff? Changing attitudes. Changing habits. Drafting a Basic Week Plan, and modifying it and modifying it and modifying it until you have a plan that works. Giving up excuses. Saying "No!" Doing the cards!

In the days to come, we will begin the nitty-gritty: Activity Lists to 3-by-5 cards to habits to goals. Decide, this time, that you will succeed. And how will you succeed? You will not skip the hard stuff, the stuff that doesn't show. This time, you will press as you sew. . . to get organized!

"B" Is For Basic Week Plans

Your activity lists are scribbled and scrawled, and stacks of colored cards have piled up in front of you. Now what? The Basic Week Plan, or BWP!

The BWP is the tool that lets you take control of your time and your life. With it, you plan the flow of household tasks, shopping, errands and activities--and you get the "anytime" monkey off your back.

Pam & Peggy have several recommendations. They advise setting up a BWP to include: a free day, where you may do whatever you want; a heavy cleaning day (four to six hours of housework); a moderate cleaning day (two to four hours of housework); a quiet day for bills, correspondence and paperwork; a shopping day; a family day; and Sunday, which is free of cleaning.

To figure out your BWP, sit down with a piece of paper, and write the days of the week across the top. Under each entry, write down that day's activities: church on Sunday; work or volunteer jobs under each working day; social events (Wednesday Circle meetings, Cub Scouts or sports practices); the day the food ads appear in the newspaper (you'll make your menu/shopping lists that day); and your cooking/baking day (if you have one!).

Looking at your week makes setting up the BWP much easier. Some choices will be obvious: if all your social activities fall on Wednesday, that will be your "free" day. If the food ads come out on Thursday, that will be your "quiet" day, where you make lists, write letters, pay bills and clip coupons. If you like a clean house for the weekend, Friday makes a good heavy cleaning day--or, if you work outside the home, you'll round up the family to clean on Saturday morning.

With your list as a reference, write your BWP on a card and tape it to the inside lid of your cardfile. Then file your cards according to the BWP: big cleaning jobs for heavy cleaning day; shopping lists and menu planning for quiet day; trips to the library, the dry cleaners' and the mall for shopping day.

Now comes the hard part. Tape a copy of your BWP on the wall next to the phone. See it. Learn it. Live it.

When the room mother calls on Monday to ask you to bring treats for Wednesday's party--but your baking day is Saturday--you say, "Gee, I'm sorry, but I bake on Saturdays!" If DH wants his favorite tie to go to the cleaners', tell him, "I'll do it on Tuesday, when I do ALL the errands"--and if he wants to wear it sooner, he knows where the dry cleaners' is.

It sounds harsh, but a S.H.E.™'s generous heart is a big part of the problem. By trying to do all things for all men (or women or children), all the time, S.H.E.™'s scatter their energy and waste their time.

By making and keeping a BWP, S.H.E.™s get the jobs done--but in an efficient, time-saving manner. No, you aren't on constant call--but yes, you do get things done on a regular, consistent basis! There may be family (and institutional) grumbles, at first, but they die off when those around you learn that when you say you'll do the dry cleaning on Wednesday, you will!

Finally, the BWP is flexible. Is that kitchen tour being held on Thursday, your cleaning day? Simple! Switch the cards for Thursday with those from your regular free day. Then go look at somebody else's chopping block with a clear conscience!

The Basic Week Plan. Make it. Live it . . . and get organized

"C" Is For Cardfile

Consider this tapestry, my cardfile.

Yes, it is time to assemble our cardfile. We've gotten up early, marked out Activity Lists, and begun to flirt with the concept of a Basic Week Plan. In the ABC of SHE, "C" is for Card File--and here we go!

As we make out our cards, we'll look at the issues one-by-one. First, Anatomy 101: the cards themselves.

No secret here. You use multi-colored 3-by-5 file cards to create the heart of the SHE home management system. Each card will contain the following information:

  • Frequency
  • Time
  • Estimate
  • Job name and description
  • Skipped:

Start with your Activity list. Choose a job, and write the job name (Mop Kitchen Floor) in the center of the card. You may add descriptive information (Use Magic Mop and clean covers, white vinegar on hardwood) to make it easier to delegate the job.

In the upper-left-hand corner, assign a frequency to the job: daily, weekly, seasonal, yearly. In the upper-right-hand corner, estimate the time necessary to complete the job. And at the bottom, write "Skipped:"--here is where you'll make pencil checkmarks each time you skip this job. Remember, two checks, and you must do the card!

That's the bare bones, now for the bells and whistles!

The Color Controversy

Pam and Peggy grew their cardfile system over several years, and along the way, a few points have veered here and there around the compass face. One of these is the use of color.

In Sidetracked Home Executives, Pam and Peggy used color to indicate job frequency. Daily cards were yellow, weeklies were blue, monthly cards were green. Pink cards had a totally different purpose: they were "personal" cards, while white cards held data and yearly tasks.

By the time P&P published "The Happiness File", they'd begun to push the color connection further. Now different colors began to indicate different functions. Volunteer work, or paid work, or social, or prayer--color could stand for all of these areas.

At this point, I noticed something: since we already have an entry on our cards for frequency, why not harness that color tool for a different purpose?

So I did. Color, in my cardfile, designates type of task. Yellow cards are housekeeping cards, whether the jobs are dailies, weeklies or monthlies. Green cards hold work and writing projects. Blue cards ruled my life during our homeschool years, and now stand for home decorating and home improvement projects (yay! an empty nest!) White cards hold information, list contents of storage boxes and tell me when to back up my computer. Pink cards are still "personal"--haircuts and manicures and sort-the-wardrobe cards are pink. Orange cards help me prepare for the holiday season and entertaining.

Using color to distinguish between different types of functions dovetails neatly with the Basic Week Plan. Yellow cards are divided between cleaning days. Green "money" and work cards go to Desk Day, pink cards to Free Day. Using color, I see and sort my tasks according to the BWP.

This is not SHE-orthodoxy, but it works! Think color as you build your cardfile. The tool will serve you well, helping you juggle job and home and school and church and family: all the colors of your rainbow life.

How Many Jobs Can Dance On The Head Of A 3-by-5?

With publication of "Get Your Act Together", Pam and Peggy broke with the one-job-per-card rule. Now they advocate putting all your kitchen jobs, say, on one card. With publication of GYAT, a raging controversy arose among old-time SHEs.

Some love the new spare, uncluttered look of many-jobs-per-card. "After all," they say, "it was so discouraging to see so many cards every day!" Other SHEs were outraged. "What? I love filing each and every card--gives me encouragement and a good feeling to tuck that baby away!" This camp pointed out that if you group jobs on one card, what do you do when you only finish some of them?

Both sides are right. It's up to you to decide where you fall. Do you want one card, listing all related jobs, for simplicity? Do you need the extra encouragement and/or motivation of one job per card?

There's even a good middle ground: if you do the related tasks, say laundry, without getting too sidetracked, by all means group "sort clothes, wash, dry, fold and put away" on one card. Others of you, out there (and you know who you are) will be sorting on Monday, washing on Tuesday, letting wet clothes sit on Wednesday, drying them on Thursday, ignoring them on Friday, ignoring them on Saturday, and fluff-drying them again right before church on Sunday. For you, better break each task out onto it's own card!

One Card At A Time

Many baby SHEs quail at the thought of diving into a huge cardfile just full of jobs and tasks and work. Ducky, a veteran Get O member, devised the OCAAT concept to cover just this phobia. OCAAT (pronounced Oh-Cat) is short for One Card At A Time.

Which is what you do. You make one card. You file it. You do it until becomes routine and comfortable and you're happy with it. [This time frame will vary directly with the number of children you have and the strength of your spouse's packrat tendency.] Then you make another card.

Many SHEs have climbed the ladder to O Nirvana using OCAAT. Think about it. The best way to encourage yourself and other is to form an OCAAT club on your Get O bulletin board, wherever in cyber-space it may be. One Card At A Time will lay a paper trail OUT of disorganization!

Daze Of Our Lives

Another point of controversy concerning the bones and tendons of the cardfile, dividers. Yes, dividers, those pesky little things.

In SHE, Pam and Peggy recommended that you divide your current "month" using numbered 1-31 dividers, one for each corresponding day.

There is only one disadvantage to this system: anybody who is sidetracked enough to need a cardfile is going to have, uh, a problem figuring out which number is Tuesday. I am quite serious! Using only a 1-31 divider means that cards will, not may, but will be misfiled. You'll find cleaning cards under your Free Day, I guar-on-tee it.

So do yourself a conceptual favor. Remember your overburdened little brain, and stick a set of days-of-the-week dividers in the front of that cardfile. No more squinting at teeny calendars to remember whether next Tuesday is the 8th or the 9th, no more misfiled cards. Referring to your BWP, just dump the heavy cleaning cards behind the little divider that says, "Tuesday".

In my cardfile, front to back, live the days of the week, then numbered dividers for the rest of the month. Following them, are a year's worth of monthly dividers. How does it work? Each morning, I pull the days cards from their divider, and move the Sunday divider to the end of the week. At the same time, I move the NUMBERED divider for that day (this month, the 13th) to the end of the numbered cards behind the month of August.

This setup, weekly followed by monthly dividers, gives me almost six weeks of daily-filed cards. No, it's not cumbersome! And it works far, far better than the old numbered guess-the-day system.

To Print, or Not To Print, That is the Question

Should you print your SHE cards? Upon mature reflection, I'm two minds on this issue. Computer-printed cards have a lot going for them. They're more professional-looking. When you're delegating cards to unwilling family members, that computer printing gives things an extra bit of authority. They're cleaner looking and just plain more pleasant.

But. Yes, there is a but! So you decide to print your cards on the computer? You have just multiplied the energy required to set up the cardfile by a factor of two or three. Will your printer take 3-by-5s? Can you find tractor-fed cards, or laser cards? If you do, they're gonna be expensive! When you need to add a card, will you put it off until you can print it on the computer? Until you've put off the entire thing? Cards and all?

Don't laugh! This writer has done all of these things. If you're a computer whiz and if you promise faithfully to do all the cards, go ahead and print them. But if you're here to get your home organized, making cards by hand is just plain simpler, easier, and not much slower than going computer-fancy.

Start those cardfiles . . . and get organized

Make A Flexible Basic Week Plan

If the card file is the engine driving Pam and Peggy's S.H.E.™ system, the basic week plan is the transmission, chassis and tires--without it, all the horsepower in the world won't get you where you're going.

Only, as many writers in this space have asked, what do you do when there's no such thing as a "basic week" in your life? Today's Essay opens the floor for S.H.E.™ creativity in the face of chaotic schedules.

In Sidetracked Home Executives, Pam and Peggy recommend establishing a Basic Week Plan, assigning a focus to each day: heavy cleaning, moderate cleaning, shopping and errands, "quiet" (bill-paying and paperwork), family, and, above all, your free day.

If this plan seems unattainable, well, Sidetracked Home Executives was first published in 1977--and Pam and Peggy were not yet the high-powered media cuties they've become today! It's time to bring the concept into the '90s: out-of-synch work schedules, working moms, kiddy sports, year-round school--even holidays!--can all wreak havoc in the card file.

I'm no stranger to this syndrome, juggling contract writing, Dr. DH's melange of call, rounds and moonlighting schedules, kiddy activities (Aauugghh! radio nerds!) and volunteer work.

I took the question to the source, and at a S.H.E.™ seminar, asked Peggy herself what one does in such circumstances.

Peggy explained that Danny, her policeman husband, preferred that life go on around his erratic schedule. She advised sticking with the basic week plan wherever possible.

Well, Danny Jones sounds like a one-of-a-kind jewel. My Dr. DH would not be at all delighted to have his post-call naps interrupted by the sounds of the vacuum! Here are some strategies I've worked out to adjust the basic week plan to modern realities.

The critical tool is the monthly calendar. My calendar has generous spaces to write in each day. At the beginning of the month, I sit down with the calendar, the card file, and three different-colored highlighters. Dr. DH's call schedule is indicated by a green highlighted band at the bottom of each call day. Kiddy activities get a yellow highlighted band, and my commitments get a pink band. Using color, I can see at a glance which days are full of toting, carting and delivering--and which days are available for cleaning, sewing or writing.

But if my calendar shows me that Dr. DH will be on call Wednesday (and home at noon Thursday, exhausted), I'll switch quiet and cleaning days that week. My cleaning will be done on Wednesday without a grumpy doctor in my way, while my billpaying and such on Thursday won't disturb him! If a sudden rush writing assignment comes in on Thursday, I'll grab all those cards and move them to the following Monday, bumping that week's writing time.

More On The Flexible BWP

Making and keeping a BWP is the biggest obstacle to success under the S.H.E.™ system. It's also the biggest benefit of the S.H.E.™ system.

I swore up and down for years that I could not live on a BWP. I was a single mother, running my own legal research business from my home (lots of neurotic lawyers and deadlines), active in church and Scouting and community and civic groups. My children attended a public magnet school for gifted kids that was (1) 45 minutes from home and (2) on a year-round school schedule. Even when I remarried, I married a young doctor who had every fourth night call and strange intern-year schedules. All these reasons militated against the idea of a Basic Week Plan.

What I learned to do was adopt a flexible plan, and just make sure that I flopped my cards around so that every week (every two weeks during the weirdest times) had its dedicated days: a heavy cleaning day, a light-moderate cleaning day, a desk day, a shopping/errands day, a work/work day, a family day, and a free day.

Really, none of these (except the work/work day) are full days. What they are is a path to getting each week's chores done each week. Groceries/errands? About two hours on one morning, and add another hour or so if I want to do some cooking-ahead. Heavy cleaning day can be rough, but if you do it regularly, the house eventually gets caught-up, and you'll find yourself working much less hard. Desk day is really desk two hours, even including homeschool record-keeping --if, and only if, you're doing it regularly each week.

The BWP is the hardest nut to crack for S.H.E.™s, but once you crack it, it'll stick around when you need it. Even when we were faced with our highest-stress life-events, like caring for a terminally-ill parent at home, that little BWP kept racing round the track for me. When grocery day came around, I asked friends to shop, but the shopping got DONE.

Hang in there with the BWP. Keep at it and at it and at it. When it becomes second nature, you will reap the benefits. I know how hard it will be (I can't count the number of yellow BWP cards I've made and torn up over the years!), but I'm here to tell you, it will be worth the effort!

Free At Last! About The Free Day

Good morning! I'd like to see a show of hands. How many of of you S.H.E.s took your Free Day last week? Come now! Be honest! How many took your Free Day last month? How many can't remember when they took a Free Day?

I thought so--and it doesn't surprise me in the least! The concept of a Free Day (and I mean a FREE Day) is the downfall of many a would-be S.H.E.™, second only to the Basic Week Plan in provoking the classic S.H.E.™ response: "I can't do that because I'm ___________________ (recite your own excuses here and fill in the blank).

Shockingly, many of us don't even know what a Free Day is--or what it should be! We see that unaccounted-for block of time, and visions of projects dance in our minds. "I know it says Free Day, but if I just catch up on all those letters I said I'd type for the Women's Guild, then I could really take my Free Day next week!"

Excuses aside, modern life does, alas, provide us with substantial barriers to a Free Day. Try explaining to a crying baby or demanding preschooler that "today is Mother's day off, darling--I'll be with you tomorrow".

Nor has this writer noticed, in her neck of the woods, any actual gung-ho chore-doing, apron-wearing (not to mention drop-dead gorgeous) television sitcom "fathers"--you know, the guys you see on television who rear housefuls of little girls without aid or comfort from anything resembling an adult woman--or such irrelevancies as a job.

At the bottom of it all, though, we have seen the enemy--and he is us! It is our own thinking, our own habits, and our own poor self-image which prevents us from getting the rest, relaxation, and renewal which we need.

Everyone--but especially household managers, wives and mothers--needs time to tend their internal fires. Yet we have the hardest time admitting to that need, and feel guilty if we take that time.

The Free Day is not a day to schlep kids on field trips, catch up on ironing, repaint the kitchen, or finish that spreadsheet. The Free Day, an integral part of the S.H.E.™ system, is devoted to the three "R's": rest, relaxation and renewal.

The specific proportions of the three "R's" must be left up to the individual. While a S.H.E.™ with a sedentary job may opt to hike or swim on her Free Day, a mother who spends her days behind the wheel of "Mom's taxi," ferrying multiple kiddies to multiple kiddy activities, may choose to remain within the four corners of her boudoir for her Free time.

The ultimate goal is renewal. To be reinvigorated, to be recharged, to be reinspired--all this takes time. Free time. The CEO, aspiring writer that she is, finds comfort and challenge in the words of Gertrude Stein: "It's hard work being a genius. You have to sit around so much doing nothing."

Your Free Day. Take it! Do what you must the other six days, but do like the God of Genesis on the seventh day: He rested!

And on the morning of that day, ask yourself this strange and unfamiliar question: "What do I want to do right now? What do I want to do?"

The answers may surprise you!

Closets, Cupboards and Drawers, Oh My!

You have the system. Cards neatly filed, your BWP taped to the inside of your file box, posted on the refrigerator, inked on the phone (and tattooed on your forehead, in reverse, so you'll see it in the mirror!).

Now what? Closets, cupboards and drawers, that's what.

There is an important concept here: the difference between cleaning and clutter control! You may all congratulate yourselves, ladies, because the ability to comprehend this distinction appears to be sex-linked. Those poor XY husbands never get it--which leads to some interesting conversations in the CEO's household.

CEO: "Sweetee, the maids are coming today! Better pick up your office!"

Dr. DH: "Sweetee, I don't understand! Why do you clean before the maids come? Women ALWAYS do this, and it drives me crazy!"

CEO (for the ten thousandth time): "Dear One. I pay the maids to clean. I do not pay the maids to pick up your Wall Street Journal and your old diet Coke cans. If your stuff is in their way, they can't clean your office! Didn't we have this discussion last week?"

Dr. DH: [grumbles and shakes head and shoves mess into an overflowing wastebasket] "I just don't understand why we have to clean for the maids."

CEO: "Calgon, take me AWAY!!!"

There it is, dear ones. Your spandy-new home management system takes care of the cleaning, but you must deal with the clutter. That means closets, cupboards and drawers. Also countertops and tabletops and piles on the floor--see? I do, too, know what your house looks like!

Have faith, ladies! It's not the impossible job you think it is! You declutter just the same way you eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

Here's how: Pick a spot, any spot. It can be the front door, the back door, the worst room in the house (not recommended) or any other startpoint that makes sense to you.

Make a card for the cardfile that says, "Closets, Cupboards and Drawers!" Assign as much time as (a) you have, (b) your hyper toddler will nap, or (c) 20 minutes. That's the default.

Each day, go to your startpoint, and select one cupboard, one shelf, or one drawer. Only one at a time! Taking daily bites of that big old elephant, we are going to empty, clean, sort, store and organize all the bits and pieces of your life. One tiny spot at a time.

So, say, you start at the front door. Day One, you'll tidy, dust, sort and organize the hat rack. Day Two, the umbrella stand. Day Three, the drawer in the foyer table. Day Four, move into the living room (or next adjacent room) and tackle the top shelf of the bookcase/entertainment center. Day Five, move down one shelf . . . and on we go.

Try to develop a taste for Elephant, will you? You must declutter . . . to get organized!

Getting Organized? Do It For You!

There's a deep-dark secret that's been nattering at me lately. It has a lot to do with the way we think about ourselves, our motivation for organization, even our wardrobes. The secret is not one that we readily admit to, and many of us want to deny that it even exists. Yet this unseen force has a powerful effect on our decisions, our actions and our self-concept.

I'm talking about feminine competitiveness.

Feminine competitiveness. The very phrase seems self-contradictory. To be feminine is to eschew competition, right? To be competitive is to be "un-feminine." How do these two ideas manage to coexist--and worse, how do they manage to have such power in our choices, our efforts and our lives?

Lately, though, I've had my nose rubbed in the issue of feminine competitiveness. It started with my very own S.H.E.™ gurus, Pam Young and Peggy Jones; rereading "Get Your Act Together" a few weeks ago, I came up, startled, against the following sentence:

. . . [Maybe you've always felt the condescending, watchful eye of a vicious, know-it-all in-law and you'd like to get organized so you could shove it in her face and show off your pretty, clean, happy, prosperous home, making the stuck-up pillar of perfection so jealous that she would become a binge-eating, rash-scratching, pathetic pile of disbelief.

Pam and Peggy add, in all capital letters, "THAT'S NOT PRETTY, BUT IT'S MOTIVATION!" I looked past the exaggeration and hyperbole to the reality: women compete.

I stopped reading. I started thinking. "Am I competitive with other women? Is that healthy? Do I do things--or not do things--in order to score points with other women? Against other women?"

When I became sensitized to the issue, I saw it everywhere. Take the comics page. Nicole Hollander gets regular laughs on "Sylvia" when she lampoons "The Woman Who Does Everything More Perfectly Than You." "Baby Blues" spends two weeks pulling daily laughs from Wanda and Daryl's cook-out with next-door neighbor, Bunny, the Queen of Perfection. The tussle between at-home and working mothers boils over in "Cathy", when Zenith's working mother feels inadequate at the "mommy game" played out by at-home moms at Zenith's preschool and goes to outrageous lengths to impress . . . the other mothers. We laugh--but is it really so funny?

I open the Atlanta Constitution, and read that a high percentage of Southerners agrees with the statement that "Women who don't care about their appearance show disrespect for their families or communities." The article quotes an older woman, proud that she's not gone outside the front door without lipstick since her 14th birthday, "Women who don't make the effort to look good in public probably have messy houses, too!"

But wait! No regional slur is intended; the West has its own style of one-up-womanship. While there's less conformity in matters of dress, weight is not negotiable. At social events, competitive undereating is the sport of choice. Even middle-aged women feel the pressure to have the body build of a 17-year-old concentration camp inmate (who has had breast implants, to boot). The ultimate fashion irony: the waif in a Wonderbra. Yet we women buy it, and worse, we use it against one another.

More to our point, our homes are a focal point for feminine competition. Whose house is cleanest? Best decorated? Best managed? Most hospitable? Most filled-with-cookies-and-cheer at the holidays? Why do many of us set our feet on the road to more efficient home organization? To read Pam and Peggy, many of us want to "show" somebody, and not very nicely, either.

Thinking and stewing and mulling this one over, I came to the appalled realization that I, too, have been playing the game. Yup. I, me, have to plead guilty as charged, to both components of the offense.

You see, in this game there are two players. There is the standard-bearer (the mom who shows up at 9 a.m. preschool with freshly-baked gingerbread men, despite the fact that 3-year-olds wouldn't know freshly-baked from Nabisco, as long as it has sugar on it), and then there is the wannabe (who wants her piece of the freshly-baked action, even though she hates to bake, hates gingerbread, and isn't particularly fond of 4 a.m.--the time when one must rise to bear this particular standard).

The standard-bearer generally operates from a posture of wide-eyed innocence. I know, because I am one. "Oh," I say casually to the admiring wannabe at the church supper, "I think fruit salad just looks better this way!" when she complements me on my carved watermelon basket surrounded by crushed ice on a silver tray.

"Just looks better", my heinie. Between polishing the silver, carving the watermelon and cutting the fruit balls precisely, I could have made 15 fruit salads that would have tasted just as good. Sure, I'm happy that my dish is well-received, but I'm even happier that somebody noticed that I went above and beyond.

And the wannabe? I'm one of those, too. Her problem is her willingness to see the attainments of someone else as an indictment of herself. At a restaurant dinner with friends, I complement Amy on her wonderful embroidered linen dress. So far, so good--but what do I say to myself in the ladies' room? "Gosh, you look so fat in that jacket. Just look at those upper arms. Pork City! You'd better get your flabby hocks down to that gym and tone up!"

Reduced to the bare bones, feminine competitiveness is grounded in good old insecurity. Do not believe the insouciance of those standard-bearers! They would feel naked and defenseless without the equivalent of a carved watermelon basket surrounded by crushed ice on a silver tray. At heart, what motivates this behavior? The fear that the ordinary you isn't good enough, so you'd better be extraordinary.

And the wannabes? Same problem, different expression. Someone else's watermelon salad is more than just a salad--it's a reproach, a reminder, a downward tug on the self-esteem. Someone else's compliment means there's one less available for you.

It takes a strong, strong woman to sail between these shoals, to set a course bent neither on impressing others nor devaluing one's self.

I'm going to disagree with Pam and Peggy, and you are free to disagree with me. P&P believe that an "I'll show you" motivation to get organized is sufficient, that as you persevere toward your goals, "[i]t will only be fun for awhile to rub it in somebody's nose" and that, eventually, you'll move on to reap the rewards of your efforts.

Will that motivation even get you to that point? Most standard-bearers are quite agile at finding new and exciting standards to bear (just ask me, I'm an expert). Most wannabes, on conquering one area of insecurity, only move on to another. The thrill of "showing" somebody is a very fleeting thrill, indeed.

Get organized for you, and you alone. Forget the lady on your block with the collection of 5-by-8 nylon flags for all occasions including death in the family. Forget your sister-in-law, who gets her jollies being newer, better, and faster than you at everything.

ALL THIS BEHAVIOR IS DESTRUCTIVE. Period. It will not get you anywhere except behind the eight-ball of envy and insecurity and spite, whether you're nervously bearing that standard or frantically jogging to catch up.

Get organized to move toward health. Get organized so you, and you alone, can set the standards toward which you strive. Get organized to free yourself from the tyranny of always having to say "Yes!" Get organized to honor the unique and wonderful person you are--with no comparisons, up or down. Get organized to free your energies to make a real difference, not merely to jockey for place with the other gameplayers.

Ready? Let's get organized . . . for our noble selves.

Disorganized? A Word To The Whys

My venerable husband, the good Dr. DH, has one very bad habit: he loves to introduce me to total strangers as "my wife, the writer." Which leads to the universal--and dreaded--response: "Oh? What do you write?"

On the outside, I mumble something about "home management and personal goal setting." On the inside, I feel like a total fraud, thinking of my tumbled closets and unmade bed. Somehow, this simple social question blinds me to the reality: I write about home management precisely because I'm numbered among the organizationally challenged.

In other words, it takes one to know one.

But have you ever stopped to think about the Whys? What is it, exactly, that separates you and me from the rest of the world, with their made beds and alphabetized spice racks and neat stacks of color-coordinated towels?

The question's not a new one. Home management "experts"--those paragons of neat-and-tidy that make me feel so sheepish--offer many theories. Stephanie Winston thinks disorganization is rooted in childhood rebellion. Pam Young and Peggy Jones believe in a "sidetracked gene", while Sandra Felton catalogs a rogues' gallery of Messie types. Jeff Campbell asserts that it's a matter of knowledge: we just don't know how to clean and declutter.

Reading the "experts" yields only one consensus: there are as many Whys as there are disorganized people. Moreover, the CEO--an admitted non-expert--will tell you that Whys mutate over time: the young mother burdened with baby disorganization will, in 10 years' time, be the young matron dashing about in a mini-van, sandwich crusts and sports gear tumbling in her wake.

If there's no right answer, why pose the question? To paraphrase the beer commercial, "Why ask why?"

Because, CEO will tell you, there is a right answer lurking beneath the Whys: the right answer for you. Armed with a little knowledge, your solutions will hit closer to the mark. You'll be free to pick and choose from the hints, ideas, concepts and strategies laid out by all those "experts", and modify them to fit your circumstances. In Get O, as in life, there is no such thing as "One Size Fits All!"

So how do you ask the question? First, to stalk your Whys, open your eyes. Settle back in your chair and mentally review the past 24 hours to 48 hours. Where are the organizational bottlenecks? Morning rush, with children slinging back the cereal as husband slops coffee into a travel cup over last night's dirty dishes? Is clutter a constant, with at least three 10-minute hunts for needed items occurring each day? Did the home manager drift into a creative fog with a craft project or new novel, with the result that dinner is, once again, ordered from the pizza guy?

The problems point the way--and the Why. That morning mess can be chalked up to procrastination; solution: some new habits and a better routine. Clutter crises signal a pack-rat mentality or a simple failure of vision--when eyesight for out-of-place items registers 20/200--and mandates a prescription for decluttering and improved household storage. The home manager with "leveling drift" needs a short course in time management and goal-setting.

There is no right answer to the question. There is no one solution to the problem. But by asking Why, you point the way out, you draw the map to a happier, neater, less-time-stressed life.

Why ask Why? Why, to Get Organized!

The Sidetracked Sisters' Happiness File

Lest you think that this writer has it all together, and speaks, Jove-like, from a mountain of organized calm, let me confess that it took years for me to get on the system.

After reading "Sidetracked Home Executives", I had all the symptoms of S.H.E.™-itis: I raced past the important stuff in order to get to the cute little card part!

What got me--and my whole life--on the system for good was publication of The Sidetracked Sisters' Happiness File, Pam and Peggy's third book. The Happiness File, or HF, is a bonanza of organizing ideas and principles. My copy is dog-eared and spine-busted, and I read it again, in it's entirety, about every four months. And I still haven't tried everything!

Other essays will cover many concepts from the Happiness File, including On My Mind lists, Immediate Action cards, Journal cards and Daily Routine Cards. Today, we'll look at how to adapt the S.H.E.™ file system to any other life arena: work, play, civic or crafts!

You begin, as you did with your Home Executive system, with an hour of uninterrupted time, any necessary props (CEO's list: coffee, snack, Perry the teddy bear), your S.H.E.™ notebook, calendar, cards and card file. Follow me as I organize one of my volunteer jobs for the next year.

Start with an activity list, just as you did with your home. I'll be publicity chairman of my church Women's Guild, so my activity list would include Guild board meetings (monthly), Guild membership meetings (monthly), press releases to the church newsletter and local newspapers before our major fundraisers. Write down each job, and the frequency (or date) on which it must be done on a sheet of notebook paper.

When the Activity List is complete, it's time to make cards! I use orange for "special projects", so all my Guild cards will be orange. Making cards for board meetings and general meetings is easy: I make one card, and write the dates of each meeting in the upper-left-hand corner. As each meeting comes and goes, I'll file the card behind the divider for the next scheduled meeting.

Newsletter press releases? That's easy, too. I know (or find out) that the deadline is five days before publication, so I make a card for "Draft and Deliver Press Release". I write all THOSE dates in the upper-left-hand corner of the card. I'll fill in a time estimate in the upper-right-hand corner: 30 minutes.

It's with those big jobs--announcing our major fundraisers--that I'll save myself some time. I make an orange card that says "Draft and Fax Fundraiser Release". Time estimate: 2 hours. Date is set for five weeks before each event. On the back of the card, I write the contact, phone and fax numbers for every media outlet I want to reach. File the card under the first date.

As the year gets underway, I'll have my volunteer work in order. When each board meeting is over, I cross off the date on the "Board Meeting" card, and re-file. I won't miss any deadlines because my "newsletter release" card will come up in plenty of time. And the chore of writing 10 or 12 press releases will be easier with all the information in hand.

S.H.E.™ isn't just for housework . . . so get organized!

On My Mind: Immediate Action Cards

All you new S.H.E.™'s are probably reeling from trying to set up your card file, organize closets, cupboards and drawers, and get your house clean (just once!)! Today's essay introduces the Immediate Action Card--in this writer's humble opinion, the single best concept Pam and Peggy have had!

An Immediate Action Card is different from your S.H.E. or Happiness File cards. Those cards control the repetitive, continuing tasks that have to be done to keep your house and your life under control.

But what about those little one-time pesky chores? You know, those little "gotta-do's" that occur to you thirty seconds after your tired head hits the pillow at night? How do you fit them into your card file system? With an On My Mind List and an Immediate Action Card!

This concept is described in full in the Happiness File, Chapter 4, pp 67-77--but I'll give you the Condensed Books version!

Pick a time once each week. You'll want to have 15-30 quiet minutes, because you'll be thinking! I like to make my list first thing Monday morning--but you can do it anytime, just so you do it.

Take out a piece of notebook paper (we hope you have your S.H.E.™ notebook--with paper--but we know S.H.E.™'s, don't we? So filch one from the schoolkids!).

Now, write down everything, big or small, problem or praise, that is on your mind. Don't think about each item, just write it down, one problem per line.

One of my lists might look like this:

  • Renew driver's license
  • I'm too fat!
  • Call for dentist appt.
  • My nails look terrible!
  • Call altar guild florist
  • Return dance decoration
  • Pay bills

When you run out of steam, you're ready to take action. For each item, write in the margin the type of action you need to take.

Some are easy! You'll write "call" next to the dentist and florist entries. Put "do" next to chores you've been putting off: paying bills, return decorations.

For more general problems, like "I'm too fat", you'll need to address that in your daily routines, so put "routine" down next to that. Some need money to get done, so put down $$.

Next, take out a white 3X5 card, turn it longways, and write "Immediate Action Card" and the date at the top. Then use your list to write categories: To Do, To Go, To Call.

My Immediate Action Card might look like this:

IMMEDIATE ACTION CARD 5-25-92

To Do:

Pay bills
exercise
manicure

To Go:

DMV drivers' license
Church (return decorations)

To Call:

florist
dentist

Just writing these peskies down usually motivates me to make most of the calls right away!

Stand the card on end (so that it sticks up) in today's divider in your card file. Check it each day and do one or two of the jobs. As you do each one, cross it off--and when you're finished, scrawl "Success!" and the date across the whole thing, and file in your personal divider.

Take Immediate Action . . . to get organized!

On A Clear Day: The Clearing Exercise

Pam and Peggy's third book, The Sidetracked Sisters' Happiness File is packed with power concepts that can jumpstart your "little hen" S.H.E.™ cardfile system into a mighty tool for whole-life change. One such idea is "clearing". It's simple, quick and effective: so effective that a single clearing session has been known to keep DH's busy for months!

Clearing's goal is to look at your home, your surroundings--or yourself!--with new eyes. When you disconnect yourself from what you see, you become open to new ideas. As S.H.E.™'s know, sidetracked brains become immune to disorder and disarray.

By clearing, you wipe the slate clean, and give yourself the power to change, to simplify, and to enjoy!

Here's the how-to. Clearing is a timed exercise, so gather your S.H.E.™ notebook, pencil and a timer. P&P recommend that you begin at the front door. Set your timer for 30 minutes to an hour. Now, pretend you are a stranger, looking at a house you've never seen before. Look at the door, the wall, the windows, the art, the tables--pan around the room, just like a movie camera. Just observe--and take notes:

Fingermarks on the switchplate
Door needs oiling
I hate that picture of dogs playing poker!
Hall tree covered with winter coats (in July)

Move around your house, observing and taking notes, until the timer bell rings. Don't worry if you don't finish! This isn't a race--it's a discovery, so take your time. Don't open drawers, clean out closets, or move furniture.

When the timer goes off, shift mental gears--it's time to take action. Sit down with your list. Look at each item and decide what action to take. Some will be simple additions to your routines. Are there "fingermarks on the switchplate"? Then make a new weekly card, "wash switchplate" (and since it's a mini, don't forget to mark it Delegate!). "Door needs oiling" gets a new monthly card.

Other items on your list will require more complex action. You truly hate the picture of dogs playing poker? (Don't laugh! CEO's Dr. DH has this very picture on order at this moment. I'll deal with it when it arrives!). DH, on the other hand, loves it. Some negotiation is in order: can DH hang said picture in his den? His workshop? List possible solutions on a 3 X 5 card--and start budgeting for a new hall print.

Other items on your list involve broader family issues. To solve the hall tree problem, you'll have to discover whether there's another place for winter coats to hang, and make one if there isn't.

You may decide to use a variant on the "infraction game" to encourage family members to keep this area tidy. Again, brainstorm your solutions, and write them on a 3 X 5 card.

Clearing gives you new eyes--and a new approach--to old problems. You can "clear" an entire house, or just one dresser drawer! By taking a step back, and looking at your house, possessions and life through a stranger's eyes, you free yourself from old habits and preconceived notions, and galvanize yourself for action.

Is there a pink card labeled "Clearing" in your cardfile? Give clearing a go . . . and get organized!

Routines Aren't Only For Dancers!

In our go-go, late-night, glamour-obsessed culture, you'll seldom hear anyone preach the virtues of a routine. So dull. So boring. Right up there with prunes, housedresses, Geritol and sensible shoes.

Well, don't you believe it! Far from being frumpy and dated, a properly crafted routine can free you from the tyranny of constant decision-ducking, addiction to time-wasters, and what Pam and Peggy describe as the "IGAD" syndrome: "Get ready to cook dinner? I've Got All Day. [time passes] IGAD! There's nothing for dinner!"

Chances are, you already have a routine. Are there times in the day when you always read the paper? Log onto the Internet? Catch a favorite TV show? That's the skeletal evidence of a routine. By building on those "bones", we can find ready-made motivation. I know I can get through my hated evening chores in order to get to that scheduled hour of reading before bed! Budget the luxuries first, that's my motto!

How do you move from a haphazard routine to one that more clearly reflects the way you'd like to live? Pam and Peggy suggest a set of seven yellow cards. Turn them on end, and using a pen, write the days of the week--one per card--across the top.

Using your bed- and wake-up times, divide your day in half. Write the hours of each day down the left side of the card, half on the front and half on the back. This writer gets up at 5:00 a.m. and withers on the vine by 9:30, so I list the hours from 5:00 a.m. to noon on the front, and 1:00 p.m. to bedtime on the back of the Daily Routine Cards. You've just made your little beacon through the days (or daze) of your life!

Next step, using pencil, begin filling the "musts" on the cards: work schedules, kiddy driving chores, meals, exercise classes, church--anything that has a fixed time in your routine.

It may be helpful to do this step day by day, over a week. At the end of each day, pencil in your card: what did you do today? The goal is to get a snapshot of your week, in order to see where your time is really going.

When you've filled in all your "must-do" items, you're ready to work. Compare the Daily Routine Cards to your Basic Week Plan. If you've set aside Tuesday for Heavy Cleaning day, but that's also the day you have to drive the gymnastics carpool, volunteer at the thrift shop, and take a class in accounting . . . well, now you know one reason why you've been skipping all those cards. Some adjusting of the BWP will be in order.

At the end of this process, your free time (nearly-nonexistent as it may be) will be evident. Give some good, hard thought to what you want to do with this time, and think hard about what you have been doing with it. Seeing, in graphic pencil, how scarce are your few free hours is a dramatic motivator to use them wisely.

When you've filled in your Daily Routine Cards, you've just made most of the time-use decisions you'll ever need to make. Until conditions change, of course--probably next week!

Put your Daily Routine Card behind each daily divider, and look at it first thing, each morning. It will be a road map through the chaos of the day. Better, since it's in pencil, you can make any needed changes.

A well-crafted routine frees decision-making energy, energy you can put to better use taking up English handbells, sewing that new outfit, or just plain lazing on the sofa with a book. Get in step with Daily Routine Cards . . . and get organized!

Journal Cards: Daily Lives on 3-by-5s!

Although it's difficult to see it from behind the clutter of pizza boxes, mounds of laundry and piles of newspapers, getting organized is more than just housework. While Pam and Peggy got household organization off to a good start in "Sidetracked Home Executives", the sweet rewards of personal organization come with the personal growth concepts of The Happiness File

One of the best of these is the Daily Journal Card. No bound diaries with a little key for us! (Besides, my little sister could spring that thing with a bobby pin, every time!) Pam and Peggy suggest that S.H.E.™s keep a journal on, what else--a 3X5 card.

Do I hear a chorus of wails, out there? Like most of us, my previous attempts at journal-keeping ended in abject failure. With grandiose plans (and with an eye toward my eventual biographers) I entrusted florid prose to the first few pages of a long line of books--then, years later, embarrassed at my youthful literary excesses, I'd cringe whenever I saw them.

For a Sidetracker, though, a 3X5 Journal Card is just the thing. Here are the nuts and bolts of Pam and Peggy's idea. First, fill out your Journal Card the morning after. During early-morning quiet time, you have a better perspective of the trials and triumphs of the day before. If you're following directions and getting up before the main body of the family, you'll have those uninterrupted two or three minutes you need to fill out your card.

Turn the 3X5 on its side, date the top, and just outline your day. Hit the high points: did you feel happy? Proud? Peaceful? Loving? Put it down! Don't censor the low points, but with your early-morning perspective, you'll be able to present a balanced view. If you can't finish the front of the card--no problem! Have a long, exciting day to record? Let your writing spill over onto the back!

Pam and Peggy don't stop there! Keeping a journal isn't something to do just because "it's something nice to do!" Use your journal as a very powerful organizing tool.

In this vein, P&P recommend that you give each day a 1-to-10 Happiness Rating. As they put it on page 51 of the Happiness File:

A score of one we compare with being strapped to the flying blades of a Cuisinart for twenty-four hours. A five-point day is comparable to being the drapes at a Ramada Inn, and a ten is like having Johny Olsen tell you to 'come on down' for 'The Price Is Right.''

Over time, Routine Cards will help you develop an idea of where your day-to-day happiness lies--and you'll have a better idea of what areas of your life are out of whack.

A Journal is a potent organizing tool, not just a gimmick to keep the house picked up. A Journal is a lamp to illumine the pathway of your life. In a Journal, you've kept a tangible record of where you were, what you were and who you were as you move through the stages of life.

After a few months, you have some data for comparison. You can look back and see, "Yes, I do feel more down and gloomy when the weather's bad!"

In that knowledge is power. Power to understand, to change, and to grow. Power to become even more the woman you were born to be.

Tomorrow morning! Let it be the first day of the first Journal you've ever kept. Turn that white card on its side, get ready, and . . . get organized!

Hearing Voices: The Ordell Within

Have you listened to your inner voices lately?

No, I have not gone off my rocker--although those of you who know my preference for the flinty comfort of Marcus Aurelius over the sappy, shapeless maunderings of pop psychology may well wonder! Despite my firm prejudice that the genre of "little instruction books" is fitting punishment for those with "little" lives, and that the "one-minute" mother leads only to a generation of "one-minute" children, I concede that, occasionally, popular thought does give rise to a useful idea or two.

One such concept: inner voices. What (and whose!) voice dominates your internal dialog on the issue of order?

The inquiry began as I read the many notes on the subject of the basic week plan. The BWP is the central engine of Pam and Peggy's S.H.E.™ system. I suspect that organized people live by their own version of a basic week plan.

Why, I wondered, did we sidetrackers have such a difficult time with this idea? Why do we resist the idea of assigning a central focus to our days? Why is our first thought, "Oh, that won't work! I'm __________ (choose one: pregnant, a working mother, married to a shift worker, too much of a free spirit, all of the above)."

I followed myself through a week on my own BWP--and I heard voices! There was the Procrastinator: "I know it's Desk Day, but I hate to pay bills, and anyway, I have a brief due and I really should work, and besides, I need to spend extra time with Brandon on his algebra today, we're doing the Cartesian coordinate system. . ."

Then, there was Miss Self-Pity: "Look at this kitchen! I thought the guys were going to clean up after dinner! Why should I have to do everyone else's chores? They treat me just like a maid! Why should I spend my time cleaning up when it's never appreciated?"

I also heard from the Sidetracker Within: "Errand Day. Gotta get those groceries. Say, the sun is shining! Why don't we go to Berkeley for a field trip to look at the bookstores?"

There was one other voice, however; call her Ordell. At the end of Desk Day (really, only Desk Hour-and-a-Half), Ordell commented, quietly, "There. That wasn't bad at all. The bills are paid and your passport has been sent off to be amended. You've written those thank you notes, drafted a piece for the alumni magazine, and everything is filed and put away. You may go! See you next week."

If I listened for Ordell, she kept me clear of the other voices: the disorganized, bad-habit, "this won't work" crowd. Resisting the urge to run off to Berkeley on my Errand Day, I realized that the field trip would only improve with a week's planning and a clear conscience.

When Procrastination hissed, "Skip those pots and pans tonight! Do 'em tomorrow! Go read some more of that biography of Gertrude Stein!", Ordell would remind me that the pots would take only 10 minutes, and then I could turn my attention to Gertrude and Alice without guilt--and without having scuttled the following day before it even began!

Listen for those tiny, orderly whispers! Forces of disorganization can be strong in us sidetrackers--but Ordell lives in there, somewhere! Let her out! Listen to her!

Find your inner voice of order . . . and get organized!

Growing Pains: Retool Your Cardfile


Long-term users will tell you: one of the beauties of Pam and Peggy's S.H.E. system is flexibility. Your trusty S.H.E.™ cardfile can keep your house clean and orderly, organize your business, steer your volunteer work on an even course, track your hobbies, and take the chaos out of Christmas. There's a place in the S.H.E.™ system for everything!

Just not all at once! The S.H.E.™ system doesn't "jist grow" like Topsy (or like my son's feet: one shoe size every two months!). The S.H.E.™ system grows more like a snail--every so often, you need to shuck the old shell for a new one. The new shell will resemble the old one, but will be roomier, and have a few new chambers. Cardfiles, too, get more complex with age.

Many circumstances can herald "growing pains". Early on, as you transit from sidetracked slob to a model of cleaning maintenance, your cards will need to be revised to reflect your new speed and efficiency.

Changed personal circumstances (new spouse, new child, new job or no job) can lead to cardfile shakeup. Perhaps you want to add a new thread to your lifeline, including Christmas planning, ideas from the kitchen book, or hobbies.

In all these situations, it's time for a cardfile retooling. Begin, as always, with an undisturbed block of time--at least an hour, if you can. You'll be much more efficient if, once you've gathered your wits, you don't let them go.

Start with a fresh sheet of paper in your S.H.E.™ notebook. (Don't let me hear you whine about how you prefer legal pads or scented stationery or computer paper! If it's in the S.H.E.™ notebook now, it'll still be there in three years, and think how much fun it will be to read!) On your paper, quickly write down everything on your mind.

Don't censor, or edit, or think about how--right now, you're only interested in what. Here are some examples from a "growing pains" list of mine:

I hate the furniture--want to reupholster, new drapes
I need to get tickets for the play
I need new clothes
I want to spend more time sewing
I need to call for doctor's appointment

Your list may be a jumble of big goals, together with little one-time tasks. That's okay!

Next, just like with an On My Mind list, assign each item to the past, present or future. My list, from 3 years ago, was made too close to Christmas to let me reupholster. This "future" project went on an orange card, filed behind February's folder. When February rolled around, I made a more detailed plan.

"Past" stuff? Put it on a card for January, when you'll make amends if you can; accept it, if you can't. Present "small stuff" (doctor's appointment, theatre tickets) goes on an immediate action card.

My list, though, had an area I wanted to add to my card file: sewing. First, assign a color. I chose orange, my "special projects" color. How many hours do you want (or are you able) to give this new project?

Once you decide how much, turn to your Basic Week Plan, so you can figure out where to plug in your new interest. I found four hours for sewing on Sunday afternoons by swapping a big Sunday dinner (which no one cared about but me) for a hefty after-church brunch and sandwiches for dinner.

Adding my new orange "sewing" card, I'd retooled my cardfile . . . sew I could get organized!

Jumpstart The Cardfile: Getting Back In The Box

It's been a super time together, as we've read these 21 essays! We've attacked everything from motivation to the last nooks and crannies on the back porch. How to end it? By giving you instructions on what to do when you fall out of the box!

If you're a S.H.E.™, Sidetracked is your first name, not your middle name. All of us veer off the system from time to time--and being a S.H.E.™ guarantees that you lose your "O" just when you need it most! How do you get back on track when dust is inch-deep on the cardfile?

To jump-start a cold cardfile, start with an uninterrupted hour early in the morning. That hour, self-indulgent as it seems, is an essential. No kiddies. No Dr. DH. Peace and quiet and a large table. Sweep the mess on the floor, if you must. Add a cup of good coffee, and begin!

Start with a clean slate. Forget how many times you've skipped cards, and look away from the condition of the sticky kitchen floor. The first task is returning your card file to pre-sidetracked status.

Take out all the cards that are filed before today's date, and rearrange the dividers so that today's month and day are at the front of the file. Now, refile all your daily and weekly housekeeping cards as if you'd done them all along.

Dailies go behind today's divider, and weeklies go in your regular heavy- and moderate cleaning days. Underestimate your time, because you'll be playing catch-up this week--better to schedule that big job for a week from now, than to risk getting sidetracked by too many cards this week!

Next, look at the monthlies--and look at your house. The kool-aid covered kitchen floor (ah, it's summertime) must be dealt with, but can the linen closets go one more month without being tidied? Distribute your monthlies over the next two months. This late in the game, a little more delay won't hurt.

After your cards are all tucked away, make a quick Immediate Action Card. Start with an On My Mind list, and transfer your most pressing jobs to a white card. If a job can wait, write it on a 3x5 slip of paper, and file it in front of next month's divider.

Now, you're ready to play catch-up. I start at the front door. Only this once, I'll do whatever seems most important even without a card.

As I work from the front door to the right, I'll tidy and dust bookcases, gather scattered laundry, wash that smudge off the wall (the one I've stared at for two weeks), de-clutter, toss old newspapers. I'll delegate the vacuuming to the household's helpers.

Count on spending time in the kitchen, laundry, and bathroom--there, neglect can't be postponed.

By day's end, I'll have dug out from under 80% of the mess, and I'll rest secure that the remaining loose ends are programmed into the cardfile over the next few weeks!

Jumpstarting your cardfile can be calming. Just seeing that Immediate Action Card makes me feel like my ducks are in a row. Get back in that box . . . and get organized!

S.H.E. Book Reviews

Interested in learning more about the Sidetracked Home Executives card file system? Authors and Sidetracked Sisters Pam Young and Peggy Jones have published six books explaining how to use 3-by-5 file cards for home organization.

Some of the titles in the list below are out of print, while others can only be purchased from the official S.H.E. Web site. Books in print may be ordered at a discount through Amazon.com. Look for out-of-print books at Amazon.com, through E-bay or online used booksellers:

Sidetracked Home Executives: From Pigpen to Paradise
(Warner 1981)

The sisters' first book, S.H.E. outlines the 3-by-5 cardfile system to move from "pigpen to paradise". Written at the end of the '70's, this is definitely a "Becky Home Ec-ky" presentation, but it contains the best description of the classic S.H.E. cardfile system. Readers learn to corral household management, clutter control, and cleaning using a 3-by-5 tickler system. The revised edition, published in 2001, adds some information about integrating the cardfile system with computer technology, but the addition is both outdated and sketchy.

The Sidetracked Sisters Catch-Up on the Kitchen
(out of print; Warner 1983)

A kitchen book, companion to S.H.E.™. The kitchen book is out of print, and it's not quite the blockbuster for the terminally sidetracked that S.H.E.™ became. Still, this book provides a way out of messy, disorganized kitchens and pantries, and offers help for menu planning and meal prep. Look for it at public libraries or used book stores.

The Sidetracked Sisters' Happiness File
(out of print; Warner 1985).

Also out of print, and it's too darn bad, too! The Happiness File (or HF to S.H.E.™ diehards) shows how to use the basic S.H.E.™ cardfile to achieve personal growth.

A month-by-month guide focuses on different areas for growth and order--and many S.H.E.s believe this is their best book. Even though it's out of print, this one is largely available in public libraries, while copies on E-bay routinely sell for $30 and up!

I'm Okay...but You Have a Lot of Work to Do!
(Permanent Press 1988).

Self-published, and it shows, I'm OK ... But You've Got A Lot of Work To Do! outlines P&P's infraction game, a method for family cooperation.

Largely republished as the 1993 title, Get Your Act Together, don't waste your time on this one unless you're truly S.H.E.™-maniacal.

Get Your Act Together: A 7-Day Get-Organized Program For The Overworked, Overbooked, and Overwhelmed
(Harper Collins 1993).

GYAT is a streamlined version of the Sisters' earlier works. It introduces a stripped-down version of the cardfile, touches on some of the Happiness File concepts, and reprints much of the earlier "I'm OK" book.

Some readers like the S.H.E.™ Lite treatment, others find it doesn't work for really stubborn Sidetrackers.

The Phony Gourmet
(HarperCollins, 1995)

Common convenience foods doctored with other common convenience foods are the staple product of P&P's first fling with a cookbook. Includes such "gourmet" tricks as "Aroma Only"--a method of making the house smell as if you'd been cooking all day.

Involving Bisquick and "frozen garbage", we'll spare you the remainder of the embarrassing details.

S.H.E. Printables

You've made a SHE card file to get organized at home? Bring your Sidetracked Home Executives organizing system to a new level with these printable S.H.E. worksheets for your household notebook.

They're designed to help you complete assignments given in the Sidetracked Sisters' books Sidetracked Home Executives(TM): From Pigpen to Paradise and The Sidetracked Sisters' Happiness File. Learn to give up excuses, focus on your strengths and weaknesses, and clear your mind from nagging must-do items.

Ready to print more pages for your household notebook? The Organized Home forms library is a great place to begin building your household notebook. You'll find printable calendars, schedules, planner pages and checklists to add to your household notebook or home management binder.