How to Set Up a Control Center for Your Home

The following is an excerpt from our book Everything (Almost) in Its Place.

Welcome to the age of overload.

Today we have more of everything: news and information, email, regular mail, voicemail, appointments, things to buy, and ways to pay. When you multiply the impact of this overload by the number of people in your household, it can get downright overwhelming. Our home is the center of a circulatory system that keeps our families together and moving forward. The problem is overloaded systems don’t function well. The more things you have to navigate around, consider, respond to, or accomplish in a typical day, the harder it is to maintain any semblance of control.

If you’ve ever felt the stress of having to deal with two week’s worth of mail, thousands of emails, and five loads of laundry after coming back from vacation, you know what a clogged system feels like. The last thing you want is to feel that way on a daily basis.

Sometimes, however, we neglect to do the simple things that are necessary for keeping our figurative pathways clean, open and healthy. We too often find out the cost of a clogged system can be high. For example, the difference between landing a new job or remaining unemployed might hinge on reading an email alerting you to a job interview, getting the appointment time onto a central family calendar, and coordinating your family’s schedule around that appointment so you are free to go.

The benefits from a highly functioning system are high. Plans are made, appointments are kept, your family’s home, work, school, social and athletic activities operate without a hitch. And, if there is a hitch, then you have the ability to cope. The key is to make some changes in how you’ve been running things and try some new approaches on for size.

Everyone organizes their home systems in a slightly different way – your own “home healthy” system will be different from your best friend’s. In this chapter, as throughout the book, we encourage you to put your own unique style into the Control Center system you adopt. Make sure it’s attractive to you and works for you and your family. Test it out, try variations, talk about it with your family. Remember that effective change can take willpower and time…

…Techniques for Handling Mail
Let’s start by creating the inbox for the family. While this will be primarily mail, it is also important to make space here for phone messages and other communications. The tools are pretty simple: a large trash can, recycle bin, some type of a sorter container, inbox, or mail sorter with around five slots, and a stack of Post-it notes and pens. The Post-its and pens are to jot down notes for follow-ups or family members, and save you time having to search for little scraps of paper to write messages on.

The trash can goes right next to the inbox. If you touch a piece of mail that you know is junk, throw it out immediately. Do not wait. Do not pass GO. Just put it in the trash or recycling bin and forget it.

Once you’ve got the junk mail out of the way, we suggest you sort mail in up to seven categories. These categories are filters that correspond to the most important areas of your life. You may be able to get away with as few as three; we recommend separating mail into bills, correspondence, and items requiring follow-ups. The simpler the system, the easier it is to use – so avoid the temptation to have a “perfect” filtering system that has a slot for every conceivable piece of information. Because many people have both physical as well as virtual inboxes, you may want to replicate the same filters in your e-mail system, BlackBerry, or other electronic devise. For most people, it does not make sense to sort mail by person, but if that seems like it might naturally work for you, give it a try.

While all families are different, there are a handful of very common categories that should work for most people. We’ve listed a few of the most common below. Be sure to limit yourself to the five or less categories that will help you tame the inbox without over-thinking it:
• Bills
• Correspondence – this may include financial and social correspondence
• Magazines & Catalogs – probably a bigger bin than the rest of the sections but not too big, so you are forced to sort through at least once a week
• Follow-Ups – use Post-its to note items requiring follow-ups by one of more members of the family
• Notes – notes might go in one of the inboxes or get posted on a bulletin board or a white board; use them to leave notes, phone messages, or reminders for the family
• School
• Work

Once you select your categories, find the right mail sorter to use. They come in all colors, styles and prices. Buy what suits your needs. The Container Store and Target are great places to search for options. Do not forget to label your inbox according to which section will be for which type of information.

Now that your inbox is set up, make sure you put it where everyone has easy access and passes by frequently. To maintain your inbox, get into a daily and weekly routine.

Daily: Whoever brings the mail in on any given day can place it by the inbox and sort it by category. This can be done each day and should take no more that two or three minutes. Throw junk mail out first and then simply sort the rest.

Weekly: Once a week go through and do a primary inbox sort to throw out additional items and distribute the follow-up items like bills and correspondence to the appropriate parties. When it comes to paying the bills, you can’t afford to be late. We encourage you and anyone else responsible for the household finances to take the three to five minutes to prepare and pay all bills in the inbox once a week. Set a recurring appointment in the books and stick to it. If you decide to hold on to your payment for a few additional days, put it back in the slot for items that need action so you’ll know exactly where to find it when you’re ready to send it. If you have left your checkbook at work or, if you pay your bills online and your internet connection isn’t working, then schedule a window of time the following day to complete the task.

Once you’ve taken care of the bills, it is the perfect time to recycle magazines that are past their issue date. Alert everyone when you set up the Control Center that if there is something sacred and specific to them in the inbox they should remove it before the weekly dump and sort. No matter how you do it, it should be easy and fast and fit into your routine. If it is easy, it will significantly increase the likelihood of you and your family sticking with the mail sort system three months from now.