Inboxes and Outboxes

It’s T minus 3 days till the beginning of school so it’s time to make sure that we have a better system in place for homework management. And here it is: inboxes and outboxes for both Sophia and I and also her little brother.


These things are called document holders and they come in packs of three and are stackable. They come with mounting hardware so you can mount them to a wall as we’ve done here. These are mounted just around the corner from our new entrance door where my spouse made us a very handy little mudroomish area with hooks and shelves. All this work in aid of helping Sophia and the rest of the family get organized!

 I decided to get these specifically to address the problem of where completed homework belongs (in Sophia’s outbox) since it was such a problem for her last year, but I think these will come in extremely handy when dealing with all the dozens of forms the children bring home that I have to deal with and send back.

The new boxes make my spouse happy because we have no “reminders” on our fridge anymore (a practise that works pretty well for me but drives him nuts because of the cluttered fridge front). Also, the fact that the clear plastic wall-mounted boxes are frankly pretty ugly isn’t a concern because we’ve put them in the most infrequently-used and smallest room in the house.

So now we just have to form the habit of using the new entrance and new mudroom and the new inboxes and outboxes. Starting Tuesday.


Small Victories, Small Defeats

So, hot on the heels of my victory regarding using Wunderlist for homework remembering, we had a setback in our quest for an organized life.

There was this homework assignment on Stonehenge that was due on a Monday morning. Everything went really well for the most part: Sophia brought home the right materials, scheduled time early on Saturday to get it done, completed the work, printed it out, all good.

The best part was that because Sophia got an early start, she was able to take as much time as she wanted. She is the kind of kid who wants to inject some personal expression into every assignment, but often this isn’t possible because she’s in a rush. Starting early allowed her to do the assignment exactly as she wished, and she had the luxury of taking twice as long to complete it as she had originally estimated. Happiness.

Until Monday morning at 8:10am when it was time to go to school and the completed assignment was nowhere to be found.

Where was it last seen?  Dining room table. Who cleaned off the dining room table? My spouse. Where is he now? At the office. A phone call revealed this: “I handed it to Sophia in her room last night.”  The room in question is so messy that I feel like doing this:

Comic snagged from xkcd

Sophia provided options, which was a very rational thing to do, but I was too annoyed to appreciate the rationality at the time. The options (aside from tearing apart the bedroom to find the missing assignment, which is what I thought we should do) were

a) re-print the assignment, or

b) email the assignment to herself and print it off at school.

Both options required finding a laptop and a power supply and booting up the laptop and doing stuff. This was not appealing but it is what she ended up doing.

That was a discouraging morning. The whole point of getting organized was to avoid situations like that one. So clearly we are not THERE yet. The thing about homework is that there are so many more ways to fail than meet the eye. It’s not really about doing the homework. It’s about being organized, following through, sticking to a plan, developing discipline.

The solution, I think, is for us to define a specific physical location where all completed homework goes.  “On the dining room table” is not good enough. Even “on Sophia’s desk” won’t cut it because inevitably things get piled on top of said desk. What is needed is a clearly visible, non-mobile outbox. We’ll try this at the beginning of grade eight, a mere  62 days away.

Organization: it’s catching

There is a movement afoot in our household. Now that Sophia is putting systems in place to get organized, everyone else wants to get in on the action. We got our copy of David Allen’s Getting Things Done in the mail, and both the adults in the household are reading it.

Also, I installed Wunderlist on my iPad and am using it for getting myself organized in all sorts of ways. I figure that having her parents model good organization in their own lives is probably the number one way to help Sophia get organized. And living in a home that is not in organizational chaos at all times will probably help too.

Other members of the household are beginning to reap the benefits too.

Cloud and Black Licorice are two small chickens who live in our backyard.  When we run out of chicken feed, which happens every three months or so, our chickens are often left in the lurch for a day or two or three until someone finds time to run to the feed store to get them some more laying pellets.  In the meantime, they must survive on kitchen scraps, wild bird seed and bugs.

But look what popped up in my email inbox on Friday afternoon at 3pm.


“Oh, right, nearly forgot that” thought I, when I received said email. I jumped in the car, ran to the feed store, and voilà, no interruption in service levels for our beloved pets.

So, organize one teen and you will solve, if not world hunger, at least backyard hunger.

Mama’s first ROI

My day job is running a software consulting agency. Every time I make a choice there, I have to consider the potential ROI (return on investment) of that choice, and often need to justify choices to my business partners using ROI calculations. That way of thinking often seeps over into my other job, managing my home and family, and sometimes it makes sense (not always, though).

So I’ve been watching our Wunderlist experiment (or investment, you might say) and hoping to see some evidence of ROI. The investment here is the time and energy it takes for Sophia to use the app, and the time and energy it takes for me to keep checking on her usage of it, remind her of the types of things she should be inputting into it, and (biggest investment of all) making sure she takes it to school every day. There is no cash investment since the app is free. Many thanks to 6wunderkinder for that!

Well, I got my ROI on day four of Sophia using the app.

It was 8:15 am.  This is arguably the most hectic and strained moment of our family’s day, when the whole family is rushing about trying to finish breakfast, organize school bags, find change for the bus, etc.  Usually one or more of Sophia’s buddies is waiting for her outside and she is looking for socks or her bike helmet.  Despite the rush, and the strained mood, I insisted, in my most patient and non-mad-mom tone of voice, that she check her to-do lists for her teachers before she got on her bike and left for the day.

Resistance from the teenager.  “I’ll do it when I get there!”

“Pointless. The whole idea is to do it now, in case you’ve forgotten something.”

“Fine, I’ll do it now. But I’m already late.”

Seconds later, she was running back into the house and grabbing her completed math homework which she had forgotten to pack.

I was so excited. “You see? It works! It’s really helping!”

She was already half a block away but I was still gloating into my coffee cup, so thrilled that our experiment was making a positive change in her life. Not only would she not lose marks by not handing in the work, but more importantly, she wouldn’t experience that moment of panic that you have when you realize you are about to lose marks for no good reason, and she wouldn’t feel the discouragement that comes from not having a handle over your life’s affairs.  ROI indeed.


This is a great article that, among other things, outlines the excuses that creative types give for why they don’t use GTD.  Substitute “teenager” for “creative” and it works just as well.

I expect I’ll be employing Mr. Pepper’s counterarguments when I come up against resistance from my teenager and even from myself.  I’ll try not to develop a split personality in the process.  

Quitting Cello

A friend of mine suggested that if our kids need sophisticated organization systems or apps it’s probably an indicator that they’re doing too much. He believes, and I agree, that kids need to have a quantity of unstructured time in their week, and feels that encouraging kids to do something like GTD only makes it possible to cram in more.

I don’t agree on that last point. I think the kid who is organized and knows exactly how much stuff she has going on can take a realistic look at everything she does and make better choices about whether to add more activities or whether it’s time to take something away. Because deciding to quit stuff is hard.

Sophia plays four instruments and sings in a choir. We didn’t plan for her to be doing so much musically but she just kept starting new things and at the end of grade seven, here is where we are. She’s been playing piano since she was very small, and studying it seriously for three years.  She’s been playing cello for three years and clarinet for two.  She recently started playing electric bass and has sung in her school’s choir for the past year.

I’ve been pretty well convinced by Penelope Trunk’s writings on the benefits of specialization and think that Sophia is spreading her musical interest over too wide a range to really be gaining valuable expertise and truly enjoying her experiences as a musician.  She agrees, and so, with some regret, she is quitting cello.

I’m sad. I want her to pick something else. My top two picks for things to keep are piano and cello. The rest can go. But almost-thirteen-year-olds have their own opinions and so the cello gets the boot.

Who said the path to an organized, ordered and well-focussed life was a simple one?


My new avatar, courtesy of my in-house artist

One of the lists in Sophia’s Wunderlist app is called “MyOrginizedTeen” (her English spelling is suffering a bit since she started French immersion) and in it, she has put some requests from me to draw some pictures for this blog.

Well, “Rebeca avatar” can now be checked off that list because she gave me the first one yesterday and it is great.

Rebeca, the mom

Rebeca, the mom (drawing by Sophia)

Having more time to work on her art is a big motivator for Sophia to get organized.  One of her big goals is to complete an entire graphic novel.  I think the skill of to-do listing is going to be key in helping her meet this goal.

(PS That is really what I look like, although my feet are not quite so pointy.)

(PPS For those who are interested, the inking for this picture was done using Copic markers.)