The Freedom to Make a Big, Fat Mess

A couple of weeks ago (during an In Conversation that will be posted later this summer on GTDConnect), David Allen asked me if I practice GTD with my kids. In response, I laughed and said, “No.” After all, my daughter is three years old and my son is just nine months. They can hardly do GTD, can they?!

But, in the weeks since we talked, I paid more attention to how GTD factors into our family life and realized that — though they are quite young — there are elements of GTD that I am already teaching my kids.

Of the five levels of control in GTD (capturing, clarifying, organizing, reflecting, and engaging), most of what my kids are learning right now has to do with capturing, clarifying and organizing.

Capturing & Clarifying
My kids have a few inboxes that are specific to them. One is in my car: a plastic basket that sits between their car seats. Any books or toys that come into the car go in that basket (when they’re not in use).

Every couple of weeks, we empty it out and bring the stuff back into the house (or, in the case of rocks, sticks and other “treasures” — back into nature). This has two benefits:
1. It keeps mom happy because I don’t want to have the kind of car that looks like something exploded in the backseat.
2. It keeps the kids happy because if they get bored in the car, everything is within easy reach while I’m behind the wheel. And, there are far fewer cries of “I can’t find my [insert name of special toy you can’t live without here]!”

The second inbox is in my daughter’s “office” [pictured]. My husband and I share a home office (one room, two workstations); along the wall opposite our workstations, we’ve set up an area where our daughter (and, eventually, our son) can “work” as well. There is a table with two chairs, a homemade bulletin board, and a tower of drawers that contain art supplies, paper, puzzles and toys. On top of that tower is an orange box with a lid. Every art project she brings home goes into that box (super special items get featured on the fridge first). When it fills up, we go through the box and decide which things to keep forever. Those items get moved to a different box inside the closet (her first reference folder, I guess!), and the others are laid to rest. (If this seems cruel, then you have no idea how many art projects kids generate; if I kept them all, I’d need a bigger house. There are also lots of great ideas on how to archive kids’ art over at ParentHacks.

One of my favorite GTD mantras — and one that I think is well-suited to young children — is the idea that where something is should map to its importance to you. In mom-ese, that’s pronounced, “Put your toys away!”

I make it clear to my kids that putting stuff where it belongs is not just about being tidy, but also about ensuring that the things you enjoy don’t get broken, and that you can find them when you want them.

In practice, this means my daughter has lots of drawers and containers that belong to her and I try to make it as easy as possible to remember what goes where. She and I have decorated special “treasure boxes” to keep things in. Doll clothes are all visible in a clear plastic pouch that once held a bubble bath set and a collection of plastic animals are easily found inside a former Robeez shoe bag. (Clear plastic pouches are THE GREATEST. Toys are easy to find, and Al Gore pats you on the back for reusing something and reducing waste!). In the tower of drawers near her desk, she knows that crayons go in the top drawer. My daughter has learned that the fun is ruined if she’s ready to color and the crayons aren’t there.

In grownup terms, there is a tangible benefit to putting your stuff in a prescribed location.

While I don’t literally sit down and do a weekly review with my kids, we — as a family — have a habit of picking up the house on Sundays. In effect, this is a weekly review for our family. We clean up the stuff that’s gone astray as we’ve rocked through another week. It prepares us for the week ahead.  We make sure all the laundry is done and ready for Monday morning. We check the calendar and the notes from daycare to make sure we’re bringing diapers and extra clothes when needed. We pick things up and ask, “What is this? Where does it belong?” and put them away. Monday morning is a clean slate.

While none of these ideas are unique to GTD, they are developing a base set of skills that will help my kids practice GTD when they are older. Importantly, they are learning some of the “why” behind them. Why do we keep our stuff organized? Because we can find it when we want it, and the things that are meaningful to us are less likely to get wrecked.

So, here’s the thing: I’m no Mommy Dearest. My kids’ desk doesn’t look like this every day of the week. It’s important for kids — and grownups — to have the freedom to make a big, fat mess. But, as the days of the week go by, and this little table gets covered with art projects and dinosaurs and doo-dads, I don’t sweat it. I know that come Sunday we’ll pick it all up and start again. And my daughter knows that all her special things have a place where they are safe.

The last, and most important piece of GTD that I hope my kids are picking up is that the best thing about keeping track of everything that you need to do is feeling good about deciding to not do any of it. On Father’s Day this year, I could tell that what my husband really wanted to do was hang around and read books. My best memory of that day is all four of us lounging in bed with a book (the nine-month-old was chewing on his, but he did have one!). There we were, doing nothing — and knowing that was the best possible thing to do.

Meghan Wilker is a regular contributor to GTD Times.  She is Managing Director at Clockwork Active Media Systems, a Minneapolis-based web and application development company. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and their two children. Meghan discovered GTD four years ago, when she read Getting Things Done for the first time. She’s been honing her GTD skills ever since. Read how she hacked Mail & iCal for her GTD system.

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  1. Very nice article, Meghan! I’m not a mom, but your daughter’s little office will teach her a lot about working for a living too. Kids might as well get that idea early on.

  2. Awsome article. Probably the most powerful GTD principle at work in our parenting is next action thinking. And most of the time that shows up as problem solving. Especially between the two boys.


  3. Thanks for introducing me to this Meghan. I’d never heard of this before you started tweeting about it.

    I think I might make an attempt to institute your Sunday idea! What a great way to start out the week.

  4. Great ideas, never thought about doing GTD with my 3-year old. For my son (6 years) I made a list of everything that goes into his swimming bag, and before we leave for the swimming lesson he packs the bag all by himself. Now we never have to worry again about bringing towels and dry underpants (it helps that the list includes a snack). This way he learns that he has to do this stuff himself, and that his parents are not his external memory.

  5. Your daughter’s “office” is more organized than mine at the moment. Inspirational!

    I’m glad you focus on teaching, not telling. Imposing a system without teaching its value will just create something to rebel against later: it seems arbitrary. Instead, you are sharing the value of an organized system with your kids and teaching important life skills early.

    Have your children made or suggested tweaks to the system yet?

  6. Great article. Thanks for sharing. I like what you said about making a mess: “It’s important for kids — and grownups — to have the freedom to make a big, fat mess.” I found that, with GTD, I can allow myself and family to make messes because I know it will get back on track. It really does allow me to fall off the wagon, so to speak, because I know I have a way to regain perspective when we’re finished.

  7. Hi Meghan,

    Houses are for “living in” and my experience of life is a cylce of chaos and organising. Like your “big fat mess” its just a stage we all go through, I recognise that here!

    Stuff has its place and the most basic organization I find is in the rooms of the house.

    Some of these get used all the time, like the kitchen, where a big fat mess is not allowed to build up. Take when the kids help or bake a cake: where is the flour, sugar, milk, butter? And in the chaos of the mix and mixing (speed is an issue we all experience here) we then place it all in the oven. Now that is when the temperature gets really unbearable – when is it ready?

    Well first tidy up a bit, when we can get to the table again, then we can prepare for and eat our cake!

    I love the lessons of family and GTD @home.



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