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Family Management Tip #2: Choosing the Right Organizer for Your Family

What method do you currently use to organize your family? Do you mean my paper calendars or my electronic ones, you ask? If you're like the vast majority of people we surveyed, you're probably using a wall calendar on or near the fridge. And, for portability, you keep the same information on your pocket day planner, which you carry around.

You might also have some information on a personal digital assistant (PDA) and your calendar at work, perhaps Microsoft? Outlook? or Lotus? Notes?. You worry about how to keep all these calendars synchronized, along with those of your spouse's. And you really manage your family in a day-to-day manner - sending an email or IM reminder or calling someone to make sure they've done something.

Or perhaps you're a little better than that. Maybe you've chosen a paper calendar/organizer that's specifically oriented to busy families. That's a great first step. As long as you're mostly home-bound and you don't need to share that information with anyone outside of the house, a paper-based family organizer is a good choice.

If you have school-age children, no doubt you have to deal with a mountain of paper that keeps piling up every time they empty their school bags. How do you keep track of their homework schedules?

Maybe you need to share your kids' appointments and activities with a babysitter, relative, or ex-spouse. How do you do that? Perhaps you use a web-based calendaring system such as the one provided by Yahoo?, MSN?, or AOL?.

But you still keep the wall calendar, because you still need to communicate that information with your family - now you have more places to keep the information synchronized.

A newer crop of web-based calendaring applications has debuted this year. These are specifically aimed at making it easier to share calendars with family and friends and "to bring it all together". So the choice just got more confusing.

What's the right tool for your family? Should you just stick with the tried-and-true wall calendar and live with its inadequacies, or should you attempt an electronic solution?

Glad you asked. Here's a set of questions to ask of any tool that you're considering. The tool that's right for you will depend on your answers:

  • What is the set of problems you're looking to solve? Do you mostly care about coordinating appointments? Do you want to keep track of things like chores, homework, medication, and so on? Do you need to share information with friends and relatives? Do you want to share ALL information, or only selectively share the information?
  • How easy is it to use? Paper tools are easy and quick, but they're not accessible from everywhere and keeping them up-to-date is a problem. Often, but not always, using computer-based solutions (whether using the web, desktop, or PDA) requires a certain amount of patience, but they tend to be more portable and accessible. Will the benefits of the computer-based solution make up for the inconvenience? Even if it does, is the system easy enough to use that you will use it consistently?
  • Will it work for my whole family? Feeding a time management system is a chore that's more likely to be completed if everyone in your family can easily use it.
  • How likely are you to continue using it? Making a commitment to time management, in whatever form, requires a certain amount of discipline. If a system is not delightful to use, it could quickly become a chore that is unsustainable. So weigh the usability of the system from that perspective.
  • How accessible and portable is it? This is an important reason to choose an electronic solution in the first place. If you're on the road or in the dentist's office, how can you easily find out if there's a conflict with some other appointment you're trying to make? Is the solution usable by a mere mortal (namely you) who may not have the patience to deal with clumsy little keyboards or the multiple steps it takes to navigate, for example, a cell phone calendar?
  • How easy is it to share information? Are members outside your family easily able to access the appropriate information (and only the appropriate information)? How much effort does it take on your part to share that information?
  • Does the system give back more than you put in? How easy is it to synchronize your information with, say, your spouse's work calendar and your own work calendar? If you make an entry on the system, does it automatically synchronize with other calendars that are important to you?
  • How much automatic input do I get from the system? How automatically does information that you care about, like your kids' homework or athletic schedules, and your local community schedules, come into the system?

You're probably asking yourself by now, is this all really worth it? This is a fairly daunting set of questions to ask. Isn't there a review somewhere of the different solutions available? That is material for another article.

Saro Saravanan is the Founder-CEO of Mediabee, which makes Mediabee Family Dashboard, a free family management tool built to address the needs of busy families and their organizers. In the past, he was the chief architect who launched Fidelity NetBenefitsSM, an employee benefits and retirement services portal used by over 10 million users. Be sure to read the rest of his articles from this series on Family Management. Download Mediabee Family Dashboard today at http://mediabee.com and streamline your family life.

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