Be a clutter detective

Years ago, I worked in a group home. It had a big kitchen with flat, spacious counters. My staff and I were very good at keeping the place nice and tidy, however, there was one corner of the countertop that just seemed to attract clutter.

No matter what we did, things would pile up in that corner — notebooks, mail, pens and paper, all sorts of stuff the should’ve lived in the drawer in the kitchen. For a long time, this annoyed me. I’d think, “How hard is it to just put this in the drawer? Why can’t anyone put this stuff away?” It was only after doing some detective work that I discovered the problem. The cabinet where the clutter should have been stored was the same cabinet that held a whole lot of plastic storage containers. The containers were stored in a haphazard fashion, and opening this cabinet almost guaranteed that lids and other bits of plastic would rain down upon you. Once I took care of the plastic storage containers, the countertop remained clean.

Today, you can conduct the same type of clutter detective work in your house. Look at the areas that are typically messy. You’ll want to try your best to see the space with fresh eyes. That is to say, hold a question in your mind as you inspect the space: “What exactly is keeping this area so messy?”

I did some successful detective work around our own house recently. The back door of our house is what we use most often. Just inside this door is a small coat rack we bought for the kids to use years ago. However, the kids come home from school and drop their coats and bags and hats and what-have-you all over the floor. This drove my wife and me crazy, and constant requests to please pick up after yourself after coming home from school seemed to fall on deaf ears. So what was the problem?

Well, one afternoon while putting everything on the rack again, I remembered how wobbly it was. After heaving the last winter coat onto it, the whole thing toppled over. The coat rack was the root of the problem. My kids learned that the rack just was broken and stopped using it entirely. A new coat rack was the solution.

You can apply this investigative strategy to your home office as well. In a previous post, I mentioned something I call swivel distance. This is the distance you can reach things from your chair without having to get up out of your seat. Since human beings will almost always lean toward the path of least resistance, we’re more likely to stack something instead of getting up and putting it in filing cabinet across the room. That stack of papers could be due to simple poor office layout planning.

The takeaway here is to periodically scan your house for persistent clutter spots and try to figure out why clutter loves to accumulate there. Often, the reason isn’t what you think. For example, my kids aren’t lazy or disinterested in following the rules, they just learned that the coat rack wasn’t very effective.

5 Comments for “Be a clutter detective”

  1. posted by Sinea Pies on

    I am re-cleaning the same “junk room” again! It even has a NAME that collects clutter. I am going to have to really sit down and think this through. “Why, why, why!”

  2. posted by Andrea on

    Most Unclutterer posts are useful to me, but this article really provided an ‘ah-ha!’ moment. Now I feel a bit silly for not having thought of it before, but honestly more prepared for those trouble spots. Already identified one. Get rid of winter shoes out of closet to have extra room. No more having to find the perfect spot to put shoes away, thus making it easily to do so, instead of piling near the shoe rack. Thanks!

  3. posted by misty on

    i know what causes the clutter in parts of my house- LAZY!!!
    why didn’t you put this away? “donno, i was tired, i will do it later….”
    this is adults not kids…..

  4. posted by Cristina on

    Nicely written article and good examples too. I believe I have targeted my own area where a few simple changes will eliminate the clutter. Thanks!

  5. posted by Creativeme on

    There is a corner in the family room/office that refuses to stay clear. Small piles and boxes seem attracted to that corner! I have noticed that it looks “weird” when it’s cleared out, so it must be something to do with the furniture layout, I haven’t solved the puzzle yet. But now I’m determined!

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