When it comes to keeping my household organized and my kids in line, I aim to run a tight ship -- and usually we manage to stay afloat. But then, there's always a mom who has more children than I or works longer hours -- or both -- and still has empty laundry baskets, toy-free carpets, and kids who (gasp) do chores without being begged. How the heck does she do it?

To get the answers, I asked the most efficient (but still normal!) moms I could find. A few organize other people's homes for a living; others learned to cut corners as a means of survival; some are simply more efficient by nature.


But don't worry if you aren't, because you can borrow their tricks. (Maybe that should be tip No. 1.) Here, their secrets:

1. They know discipline saves time.

It's a common scene. You're at the Gap with your toddler when, bored, he begins pulling clothing off the hangers. You sternly tell him to quit it or you're leaving. He tests that theory by tugging another blouse to the floor. You're livid but continue to issue a steady stream of warnings as you pick up the outfits in his wake. After all, you don't really want to leave until you've finished shopping the sales rack.

Certainly it's easier said than done to drop what you're doing and haul a whining kid back to the car. But the way Angie Gerrard of Natick, Massachusetts, looks at it, you can endure arduous, argument-filled trips to the store until your child's past adolescence. Or you can go home without stuff a couple of times and ensure shorter, smoother store visits in the future.

That's why Gerrard, a former nanny and daycare teacher, chooses her words carefully with her two children, Ben, 4, and Ella, 2, and always follows through with the consequences. "If my two-year-old takes off her socks when we're out and I tell her we're going home unless she puts them back on, then I take her home if she doesn't put them on." It doesn't take too many experiences like these, says Gerrard, before your child knows you mean what you say and behaves accordingly. "You save yourself so much time when you actually make good on your threats."

This zero-tolerance approach is the only way Denise Nichols, a Kennewick, Washington, mom, can keep her ten -- yes, ten -- kids in line. "If I hear anything starting, I just step in and stop it," says Nichols. "I separate them, I take the toy, whatever it takes." No questions asked. Otherwise, she says, her entire day would be filled with enough accusations and cross-examinations to constitute a Law & Order marathon.

2. They have a place for everything.
With two rambunctious 3-year-old boys in the house, Mary Lou Andre of Needham, Massachusetts, knows that searching for scissors while she's doing crafts with them will mean coming back to find newspaper and glitter all over the floor. Her solution: Keep everything related to one activity in the same bin -- even if it means having duplicates of some items in each container. Now her painting bin includes a vinyl tablecloth, her clay bin has its own rolling pin and cookie cutters, and the "let's pretend" shoe boxes she has assembled carry all the props necessary to play restaurant or hospital.

This all-in-one-place approach can simplify practically every household task you'll have to tackle. If you put all your monthly bills in an accordion file that's stocked with stamps, a calculator, a checkbook, a pen, and envelopes, you can grab the file and write a few checks while waiting for your daughter's dance class to end or the gas attendant to finish up. To wrap presents in a snap, keep scissors and tape in the same bin as your paper and bows. Once your child starts taking a lunch to school, store sandwich bags, plastic storage containers, utensils, napkins, and favorite ingredients on the same shelf as his lunch bag. And whatever you have in your bins and boxes, make sure everyone in the household can tell what's inside by labeling the outside and using clear containers when possible. Taping a picture or photo of the bin's contents to its exterior will help even your youngest ones find their toys and art supplies -- and, in an ideal world, put them back.

3. They have a system for everything.
If chaos rules over some part of your life (and with children in the house, how could it not?), step back and consider how you could streamline that portion of your daily routine. "It was worth it to take the time to set up a system," says Andre. When her twins started preschool last fall, mornings became a stressful blur of tracking down coats, hats, and shoes; afternoon arrivals meant piles of artwork and empty lunch boxes cluttering the foyer. So she created a go-to area in her kitchen where her kids could drop off all school-related objects and clothing at the end of the day and easily find them again in the morning.
And when she found herself overwhelmed by the amount of clothing her boys were wearing, outgrowing, and waiting to grow into, she bought an extra dresser for the basement. "I divided it up, with one drawer for clothes they would wear eventually, one drawer for sentimental keepsakes, and two drawers of giveaways, where I also keep shopping bags." Whenever Andre visits friends with kids, she can immediately bag a hand-me-down or two and take it along.

As soon as Flo Trunk's kids reached the age at which they could prepare some of their own snacks, this Arlington Heights, Illinois, mom rearranged her pantry, putting food, cups, plates, napkins, and utensils on the lower shelves so they could reach everything themselves.

And speaking of food, almost every organized mom I talked to agreed that the best timesaving system for packing lunch is to do it the night before. "It's a house rule," says Trunk.