How to Accommodate Last Minute Guests How to Accommodate Last Minute Guests

Q: Last week my sister-in-law called at 4 o'clock on a Friday, saying she wanted to visit for the weekend, bringing her two kids along with her. I did what I could to prepare for her, but when she got here all she could say was, "What a mess!" Now I'm wondering if you have any tips on how to handle such a situation a little better in the future?

A: This is one of those situations that would make even the most even-tempered person anxious. Me, I probably would have turned out the lights, locked the doors, and gone down to the basement to hide.

But for family harmony, sometimes you just have to pull yourself together and practice grace under pressure. After you buy her a book on etiquette for your sister-in-law's next birthday, you should take a good look at your place in terms of its organization, and see if you can make some permanent changes so that you feel nothing but delight if she ever makes an announcement like this again.

But in the moment, the first thing to do when you get a call like this is to take a deep breath and organize yourself. The key to efficiency is being able to do three things at once, and to make the best use of the time that's passing while something is in the works. So if you realize there are no clean sheets for the guest bed and the kitchen is a mess and there's nothing for dinner, for God's sake start the laundry first.

And then make a list, so you won't be running back to the grocery while time's a wasting. Remember to think big here: scrap your plans for dining on a slimming piece of grilled chicken with a side of lettuce for dinner, and invest in a giant box of pasta and a huge jar of sauce.

In terms of sprucing up your place, tackle the obvious jobs first: wash the dishes in the kitchen sink, clean off the counters, and quickly go over the bathroom.

Clutter is probably the single biggest problem in decorating, and we all have it. If you have time to really organize, for example, now, before the next surprise guest arrives, invest in a couple of organizing items, like a wire mesh file box or a closet organizer. Remember that if you organize the closets, you can tuck away plenty of junk and you'll never have to look at it out in the open until you ready it for a rummage sale.

Of course, even the best organizing boxes and hangers won't help if you don't use them. You must be vigilant, once you do get the place organized, about keeping it that way. Try to bear in mind that spending a few seconds tossing the dirty laundry into the hamper will stand you in good stead later, so that you won't be trying to smash all the laundry under the bed as the doorbell is ringing.

Bookshelves are sometimes the worst offenders in terms of clutter, and just by looking at the shelves you should be able to tidy them up: get all the books standing in one uniform direction, and take away anything that isn't a book or a knick-knack - for example, the old cassette tapes or the plastic bag with the stuff you got at the hardware store last month.

In the kitchen and bath, don't forget the "label out" principle that's used in stores. Turning all the cans and bottles so that the front of the label faces you can make everything at least appear more organized.

Any flat surface also acts as a clutter magnet, and the desk, kitchen counter, and coffee table are probably covered with those things so aptly defined as "stuff." If you have time, you could sort through this. You'll probably find you can toss out most of it, and you'll probably also find that gift certificate to Closet Organizers and More you've been searching for.

Chances are you have a good hiding place for this "stuff" somewhere in the house. Think of it this way: you're not going to get anything done during the weekend visit anyway, so you can take all the bills, scraps of paper with phone numbers, bus schedules, and the other detritus of modern life, and stuff it all into a drawer until Sunday night.

Once you do get everything in fairly good shape, make sure you pick up some flowers at the supermarket while you're there. Fresh flowers do more to enliven a room and make it look cared for than anything else.

On Monday, just don't forget where you stuffed that laundry and those bills.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Interior Design

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