The dining table, kitchen counters, coffee table, nightstands — flat surfaces certainly have a way of attracting clutter. But the piled-high stuff makes it a hassle to use those surfaces — to prepare a meal, eat a meal or kick up your feet for movie night. It also makes it harder to find things and just plain looks awful.
Still, we keep on piling because it seems easier than putting things where they’re actually meant to go. To have long-term success in keeping the flat surfaces in your home clutter-free, you need to find places for your things that are just as easy and obvious to use as a table. If you’re tired of clearing off the surfaces in your house again and again, only to have them redisappear under piles of who knows what, these 10 strategies should help.
1. Have a not-flat place for each thing you come home with. When you walk in the door, the natural impulse is to drop everything you’re carrying on the nearest available flat surface. The next time you arrive home, pause and pay attention to what you’re holding: shopping bags, a coat, a bundle of mail, perhaps keys and a phone? Decide where you will put each of these items from now on. Hooks are faster to use than hangers, so if you tend to dump your coat on a chair, choose a hook.
If smaller, random items are a problem, consider hanging tote bags on hooks. They’re easy to dump things into and very flexible — you can change their contents as needed, from library books and school projects to dry cleaning.
2. Keep tool storage off counters. Kitchen counters can become cluttered so easily, and if your kitchen is short on prep space, this can be a real problem when it’s time to cook. One way to take some of the load off your counters is by using wall space to store cooking tools instead. A pegboard, metal rail with S-hooks or floating shelves can all be put to work to store utensils, spices and knives, within reach but out of the way. And if the entrance to your home is through the kitchen, add a few wall hooks and sorters for your keys and mail as well.
3. Reserve counter space for daily necessities. Small appliances hardly feel small when they’re taking up all of your available kitchen counter space. Limit that real estate to small appliances you use every single day without fail, and store everything else in cupboards.
One caveat: To make it more likely you’ll put said appliances away when you’re done with them, they shouldn’t take too much effort to lift. In my house, this means our microwave (which we mostly use for melting butter and reheating dinners) is in the laundry room, so while we do have to walk a few extra steps to get to it, it can stay plugged in all the time without taking up valuable counter space. Another option would be to put less-frequently used small appliances on a rolling cart tucked into a closet or corner, and wheel the cart out to plug them in.
4. Keep your dining table set. A neatly set table has a clear purpose, and that makes cluttering it up less of a temptation. In the evening after dinner, clean off the table and set out some breakfast things — this not only helps encourage a clutter-free table, it makes for a smoother routine in the morning. After breakfast, take a moment to set out a few fresh placemats and cutlery for dinner, and your table will be a much less tempting spot to toss your stuff when you get home in the evening. If you have curious cats who are likely to walk all over your lovely table setting while you’re out, you can set out candles or flowers and perhaps a stack of dishes with a napkin laid across the top to protect it from prying paws.
5. Be mindful of multipurpose spaces. Combo spaces, like a dining room-home office, can be the trickiest to keep tidy. Easy, obvious and specific storage is the key to making a space like this function well. Ideally, the storage is so simple and clear that anyone (not just the person who set up the system) can quickly put things away. Labeled wall-mounted files like the ones shown here are a good option for home offices. If you have a craft space combo, consider a closed cabinet filled with labeled clear containers.
6. Try a tilted desk. Can’t seem to keep the paper piles off your desk? It may be verging on the absurd (and it won’t work for a desktop computer), but a desk that tilts, like the drafting table shown here, can quickly break a piling habit. Of course, if you want to keep the piles from simply migrating over to the next available flat surface, you’ll need to pair a tilted desk with a paper organizing system that’s as easy to maintain as your piles were. Try labeled stacking trays or a set of shallow drawers of the sort artists use to store paper and finished works.
7. Designate a bin for your ‘worn-once’ clothes. Flat surfaces in the bedroom (the bed, floor, dresser top and chair) tend to become receptacles for articles of clothing you’ve worn once but plan to wear again before laundering. (Sweaters often fall into this category.) Rather than dump these items onto the nearest surface, give them a home. An open-top basket or bin is a good solution because tossing the item there is just as easy as tossing it on a chair. If you have a closet system, clear out one basket or drawer to use for this purpose; otherwise, a second laundry basket can corral the items.
8. Downsize your bedside. Do you prize your sleep? If so, it’s in your best interest to create as restful an environment as possible around your bed — and a cluttered nightstand will not help. Instead of attempting to make room for every possible item you might want on your nightstand, consider using a petite table that fits only the truly essential. If you love to read in bed, choose one book. If you like to journal, place your journal and a nice pen there. Perhaps add a glass of water and a candle, and that’s it.
9. Avoid clutter catchalls. A tray or basket on the coffee table or counter to hold clutter might seem like a smart idea — until it’s full and overflowing onto the surface around it. Remember that clutter attracts more clutter, so when a group of random little items (hair ties, loose change, buttons, pens) ends up in one spot, you’re far more likely to add other (larger) random items (stack of mail, shopping bag, pile of dry cleaning) to it. A better practice is to create a spot for each type of item — for instance, a jar for coins, a cup for pens, a hook for keys, a tray for mail, and a drawer organizer with little slots for small items like hair ties and stamps. It then becomes easy and satisfying to drop things into their individual containers.
10. Create a no-clutter zone, one surface at a time. It’s apparently a law of nature that clutter attracts clutter. So while it might seem like no big deal to set that one bill/hairbrush/shopping bag on the table, the problem is that that one item will now act like a great big magnet, tempting you (and others) to dump more items there.
Creating a no-clutter zone isn’t easy, but it can be highly effective. Clear everything from one surface (for example, the coffee table) and focus on vigilantly protecting it from becoming another clutter problem area. It’s easier to have one goal than many, so stick to clearing one surface at a time until you feel it’s second nature. As a visual learner, I find it helps to visualize the table physically repelling clutter, like a giant trampoline that clutter simply bounces off of when you try to set it down. A little silly, sure, but it works!
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