The Keystone Demise

Does this ever happen to you: Your home is functioning at its best and chores are getting done when they need to be done. Then, the light bulb burns out in the laundry room (or something similar which is seemingly minor, like you run out of dish detergent or you throw your coat over the back of a chair instead of hanging it up in the closet). Less than a week later, you have dishes piled up on your kitchen counter, clothes spilling out of the hamper, and old newspapers piling up in your driveway. All it took was one itty bitty cog in the machine to break for your entire system to fall apart.

I refer to this breakdown as the Keystone Demise. In architecture, the keystone is the center stone of an arch. It is the piece that is vital to the arch’s success because it makes it possible for the arch to hold its shape and to bear the weight of the ceiling, wall, bridge, and/or doorway. If you remove the keystone, the arch fails, usually bringing down the entire surrounding structure with it.

The Keystone Demise is almost always the cause of an organizing system failure. One small piece is disrupted/broken/compromised and in a matter of days it is as if the organizing system didn’t exist at all. One day’s mail being thrown on the dining table can be all it takes for full-house chaos to erupt.

When you or others who occupy the same space notice the keystone isn’t working properly, its as if the keystone gives license for you and others to abandon your efforts to keep everything organized. In a sense, the Keystone Demise plays a part in the Broken Window theory. The tiny, out-of-place keystone sends a signal that it’s okay for disorder to rule the home or office.

As someone who wants to keep your home and office organized, it’s your job to immediately identify when a keystone is out of place or broken and fix the situation. There are a few easy ways to do this:

  1. Printed closing duties or a chore chart. It seems elementary to write out chores and end-of-day assignments, but these lists can be very beneficial for helping you avoid Keystone Demise. Before leaving the office or heading to bed, review your printed list of closing duties or daily chores to make sure all tasks were completed properly. If they weren’t, quickly do the chore or re-do it. Don’t leave work or go to bed with an essential task undone.
  2. Keep an easily accessible shopping list. Again, this is pretty basic, but having a grocery shopping and errand list can be a huge help in avoiding Keystone Demise. This list needs to be in a place where any of your housemates can effortlessly add to it (right when they notice something is running out or broken, don’t ever expect housemates to have to email you because they won’t), the writing implement needs to be in working order, and you can take the list with you when you go to the store or to run errands.
  3. Having the right tools. This is mentioned constantly on this site, but it needs to be mentioned again in this context. If clothes end up on the floor of your bathroom, then you need to put a hamper in your bathroom. If clothes end up on the floor of your bedroom, you also need a hamper in your bedroom. If you want to shred junk mail by your front door and also shred sensitive documents in your home office, have a shredder by your front door and also a shredder in your office. Having multiples of something isn’t clutter if you actually need multiples of something to stay organized and keep from avoiding Keystone Demise.

In my house, receipts on the top of our bedroom dresser are our broken keystone. If we empty our pockets and just set the receipts down on the top of the dresser, within a week we have absolute chaos in the house. It’s amazing to me how something as small as receipts can cause complete disorder, but time and again they are the culprit. Rather, I should say receipts used to be the constant cause of our Keystone Demise. We now have all the tools necessary to keep this simple type of clutter from accumulating. Plus, getting ready for bed more than an hour before we plan to go to sleep also helps a great deal because we have enough energy to properly process these little slips of paper (and get our dirty clothes into the hamper and all our other end-of-the day chores).

44 Comments for “The Keystone Demise”

  1. posted by Courtney Sperlazza on

    Okay, so I’m not the only one.

    We have built-in shelves in our kitchen. It’s so easy to just shove something on a shelf to deal with it “later,” i.e. never. Then the neighboring shelves start looking unkempt, then the kitchen countertops, then it starts creeping into the dining room, and so on until I’m back in a big hole.

    Maybe I’ll post a little sign that says KEYSTONE DEMISE on the sentinel shelf…

  2. posted by Mist on

    Brilliant and true! I thought I was the only one (and crazy) to let a tiny thing out of place throw my whole routine off. Now that I know those little things are what keeps the whole structure up…

  3. posted by drizzle on

    That sounds like an awesome name for a fiction book!

  4. posted by Emily on

    This very thing has happened to me recently! My husband was laid off and so we have two boxes in our dining room filled with the contents of his desk. While in theory, him being home should have kept the house cleaner, I’ve found myself struggling to keep up my half of the bargin. And every time something new comes in the house now, I put it with those boxes and figure I’ll deal with it later. It’s started to creep out of the dining room and into the kitchen and the bedroom closet. I’m going to have to take a day off work to dig out from under it all.

  5. posted by Alix on

    Random receipts (which lead to checkbook chaos) and unopened mail: the root of all evil!

  6. posted by Anita on

    I don’t know about this. I (and I think most people) have bouts of extreme cleanliness and efficiency, when my house is and HAS TO BE in perfect order, and then I have bouts of laziness where things get messy and I can live with it for a few days until the mood pendulum swings from Sloth back to Neat Freak. I don’t think it’s a question of ONE THING snowballing into chaos; it’s not the receipts on the dresser that make it ok for the house to be messy. The fact that you can’t be bothered, then and there, to pick them up and take them to the recycling bin is an indication of your mood or outlook changing. It’s also not a sign of the apocalypse. The next day, or maybe 3-4 days later, you’ll likely go back to “ick, my house is messy, this just won’t do” and a 20-minute pick-up later it’ll be back to normal.

    I agree with having the right tools and organization for you, but I don’t agree with the extreme duplication that you allude to. Two shredders, really? I have zero, because I take my shredding to work, and mail is not piling up in my house. If you work from home, and especially if you have your own business, I absolutely think you need a good shredder (or a subscription to a shredding service), but if you can’t be bothered to bring your mail to the shredder, especially when you’re at home most of the day?… that, to me, is a habit worth changing, unless your mailbox is overflowing every day or something.

    This reminds me of my brief time as a teacher. I gave 1-on-1 French classes to adults; one student consistently failed to do his homework and gave me ridiculous reasons for it. The one that took the cake was: “well, I didn’t understand THIS word… and I was doing my homework downstairs on the kitchen table, and the dictionary was upstairs, so…”. Is this a case of him not having the right tools to get it done? Does this mean he should keep a second dictionary in the kitchen since that’s where he tends to do his homework? Or does it just mean he’s a lazy bum who couldn’t be bothered to put in the minimal effort of walking upstairs to finish his 1-page homework?

  7. posted by bytheway on

    Yep. Mail in a pile in the front hallway table is definitely our sign of keystone demise. It’s a great organization tip to be aware of these perpetual problem areas. A little analysis goes a long way, and keeps things from being emotionally charged (you never! you always! becomes: let’s do something about this now!). Thanks, Erin.

  8. posted by Samantha Bailey on

    I wish that you had an easy way to email a blog post; this is one I’d like to share with my husband.

  9. posted by DawnF on

    Interesting post and comments today. Personally, I think Anita nailed it.

  10. posted by JustGail on

    I’d say it depends on the situation and person when it comes to duplicate tools. If you are just looking for a way out of keeping things up, you can have a set in every room, and suddenly walking to the other side of the room is too much. On the other hand, if you easily lose focus (like the old joke about sitting down in the morning to do the crossword then need to sharpen the pencil and are busy the whole day but never do sharpen the pencil) maybe the multiples make sense.

    And yes “for now” are some dangerous words in our house also.

  11. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anita — As is explained in the post: “Having multiples of something isn’t clutter if you actually need multiples of something to stay organized and keep from avoiding Keystone Demise.” If you don’t need multiples of something, then don’t have multiples of something. The point is to have the tools YOU need.

    People who struggle with clutter might think, “Other people don’t need two shredders, so I shouldn’t have two shredders.” But, this is bad reasoning. What works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. Other people may have more time, self discipline, or speed and can easily walk across the house to use a shredder in another room. As a mother with a toddler constantly hanging on my leg or under foot, my needs are much different now than they were three years ago. It can take 10 minutes just to get in the front door with a kid, his backpack, my purse, and the mail. And, when my leg was in a cast, actually walking across the room was a pain in the arse and I had more than one trash can in my office. My point is to know the way YOU work and what YOU need to keep your space clutter free and organized.

  12. posted by lola on

    Tailoring your home/organization method to your needs is key….(teehee, keystone). I know that I get overwhelmed when I have to keep track of too much stuff, so I consistently (mostly) edit what comes in the house and keep things as simple and clean as possible. Others would be able to deal with more than I can so would have a different system in place. Observing what causes those ‘hot spots’ and learning to ‘put out the fire’ makes daily living pleasant instead of frustrating.

  13. posted by Thrift Store Mama on

    Were you in my house last week ? Seriously, were you ? The end of the school year created a lot of papers so that my normal “sort pile” overflowed onto a table. Then, before I dealt with that, we came back from traveling and my darling husband unpacked one suitcase but left the items on the dining room table. That was all she wrote.

    Definitely keystone demise.

  14. posted by Tweetie on

    I definitely see how this works. Flylady calls them “hotspots”–areas that are so easy to dump stuff, and then they just keep accumulating more clutter (like a table just inside the front door, or the coffee table, or an unused chair in the bedroom). But I also think there is something to Anita’s logic about it being based on mood as well. Some days the clutter doesn’t bother me so much, and then I’ll snap back into, “oh, this just won’t do; I MUST clear off my desk now.”

  15. posted by the other Tammy on

    Laundry is my keystone demise…if it doesn’t get folded and put away the same day it is done, then laundry baskets and random piles of clothes take over the whole upper level of my house.

    Also cardboard recycling…I really need to find a better solution for this. Our at home business has a lot of cardboard boxes coming through our door that end up sitting around my front room for a week waiting to get recycled. Ugh. And heaven forbid we miss recycling pickup day…

    I liked this post very much!

  16. posted by Mletta on

    Don’t know if these fit under either theory, Keystone Demise or Broken Window, but our systems break down and stuff doesn’t get done when:
    1. We get sick. It can take weeks to catch up on some things.

    2. We are experiencing computer and/or electronics problems. Because this can stop our home office from functioning as needed, it demands immediate and ongoing attention until the problem is solved. And no matter how much time it may take us to fix the problem, it is still less time, money and agita than trying to find a competent tech person. (You find one and they are either too busy or too expensive.)

    One or both of these in the same week? There goes the schedule, the project timelines, etc.

    Sometimes we catch up. Sometimes, it seems as if we do not.

  17. posted by Just Breathe on

    Great article, Erin! My husband of 41 years is so adept at creating “keystone demise,” that, years ago, I created an acronym for the process: BNRN. (Pronounced bin-ren.) But Not Right Now…

    I “believe” that BNRN was responsible for The Great Wall Of China. The farmers just kept putting off dealing with those rocks… :o)

  18. posted by Melissa A. on

    I don’t know what my keystone is but if I do manage to get my apartment clean it doesn’t take long to get messy again and then I am completely overwhelmed by it all. Mental illness has a lot to do with it (no, not hoarding). I don’t know how to get back on track.

  19. posted by Keter on

    @Tammy –

    Another solution I’ve seen is to take 2x4s and dowels and make I shapes with the 2x4s on the floor and the dowels as uprights.

  20. posted by Sinea Pies on

    This is so true. Soon as I started leaving unopened mail, or receipts, on the dining room table, it’s downhill from there!

  21. posted by Kate on

    For me it’s the dishes. Once I let dishes pile up more than in their rightful half of the sink, suddenly the kitchen counters are dirty, cooking becomes a pain, the sink isn’t as usable, and if it gets really bad the disorder starts overflowing into the dining area, etc.

    I try to stay on top of them but sometimes it’s just not always possible, but at least I’m AWARE of the dishes as my keystone/Achilles’ heel/thorn in my side: just to mix a few metaphors.

    See? I have dirty dishes at home right at this moment and even my metaphors are disorganized!

  22. posted by Rae on

    You mean there’s a word for IT?!

    My keystone is the dishes. I rented a house for a year that had a dishwasher. For a year, my home was always immaculate and ready for company. It shocked everyone I knew. Then back to no dishwasher and chaos. Now I have a dishwasher again and, whadya know, when I can use it, my rig is spotless.

    Now that I know there’s a word for it and that I’m not crazy, maybe I can get fix this issue.

    Great post!

  23. posted by Charlotte on

    Absolutely true! My keystone demise is the bathroom cabinet shelf, which I *think* I got in pretty good shape today…

    Now to remember to KEEP it that way!

  24. posted by Molly on

    Spot on. The big one is a clean kitchen every night before bed, dishes done or in the dishwasher, counters wiped down. Nothing hard core but ready to go for breakfast. If the kitchen is dirty in the morning the day starts off behind. Its is my husband’s task and he does it well. Also before going to bed I put back all the little junk I have taken out during the day, the cup for my pills, a can to recycle, a drinking glass, iPods and phones charging, the little stuff that clutters up the space in the morning.

  25. posted by Marie on

    Top of my desk (where bills and random stuff I haven’t filed goes). Any paper receipts floating around and the whole office goes kablooey. Seriously – they are the bane of my life.

    Another big keystone demise is not putting things away immediately after a long trip. If we just collapse and let out stuff sit around (such as one of us is sick or distracted), it’ll take us weeks to get back to our routines. But if we immediately start putting things away, we’re back on track, so we’ve learned to not wait.

    Speaking of multiple objects, I have multiple scissors for multiple projects – hair, art, kitchen, utility, sewing – with no guilt. I’d never use a pair of utility scissors for a sewing project or vice versa, so each pair is exactly where it needs to be.

  26. posted by Karen on

    Erin, can you reveal (or blog soon about) your receipt solution?

    Mine are continually stuffed into my wallet after each purchase until I can no longer handily remove bills or change from the wallet. I remove them in frustration and end up tossing them all, thinking most are so out of date or faded that I’ll just start the perfect budgeting plan THIS month.

    What this post and comments reveal most to me are that our modern lives are so full of work and tasks and systems needed to hold it all together, that the slightest thing can bring it all crashing down.

  27. posted by Jen on

    I do like the idea of having duplicates of some items (I keep scissors in a couple of places in the house, and scotch tape, and a screwdriver, and a couple of other small things), but I’d think twice about larger and more expensive items like shredders. I would agree that if it’s what works best for you, then go for it – what’s clutter to one person is a perfectly organized life for someone else. But if you find yourself with a need for a shredder (for example) in your office and by the front door for mail, I would first try changing your routine to maybe bringing your mail to your home office as soon as you get home, and opening it there by the shredder. And if that really doesn’t work for you after a few weeks (perhaps because you have a toddler hanging off your leg every time you walk in the house and it’s just too much for you at this stage of your life), then go ahead and buy the shredder – but I think it’s worth trying to think about ways around bringing doubles of bulky and expensive items like that into your home first.

  28. posted by Cathie on

    One day’s mail being thrown on the dining table can be all it takes for full-house chaos to erupt.

    You’ve been peeking in my windows!

  29. posted by Anita on

    @Erin – I’m not disputing the fact that different methods and tools are best suited to different needs, and that everyone needs to tailor their organizing solutions accordingly. But in your third point I did see the potential for a slippery slope; you seem to advocate buying/owning stuff to help contain your clutter-creating habits, rather than changing those habits. Is Unclutterer about creating a clutter-free lifestyle for oneself, or is it about buying stuff to enable and disguise one’s cluttery ways?

    If I can have two shredders to save me the walk from the door to the office, why shouldn’t I have a coffeemaker in every room in the house, for the times when I’m too sleepy or busy to make it all the way to the kitchen? Why should I bother bringing my dirty laundry to the bedroom hamper, when I can have a second hamper in the bathroom (for clothes and towels), a third in the kitchen (for dish rags and tea towels), a fourth in the garage (for rags and woodworking clothes), and a fifth by the back door (for gardening clothes and gloves)?

    These may be exaggerated examples, but my point is that, rather than just advocating, writ-large, that it’s ok to have duplication if it serves your needs, you may want to moderate that with advice about not just getting more stuff to help contain your cluttery habits, but also looking at those habits and whether it may make more sense to change them rather than enable them.

    How do you decide which (cluttery or potentially cluttery) habits are worth accommodating, and which ones should be changed? Now that’s a post I’d be interested in seeing. For me, if accommodating a cluttery habit creates more work than it saves, I’m better off changing the habit. Is it more work to carry 3 envelopes across the house every day, or to empty two shredders instead of one every week? Is the effort of cleaning and maintaining 4 coffeemakers worth the convenience of having one in every room? etc.

  30. posted by Anita on

    Sigh, non-editable comments and lack of proofreading. My last sentence should read: “Is the effort of cleaning and maintaining 4 coffeemakers worth IT FOR the convenience of having one in every room?”


  31. posted by Cathie on

    Sign me up for a coffee maker in every room!

  32. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    Hi, Erin: These three simple tips can take so much chaos out of so many peoples lives! I have a relative who sends her husband to the store several times a day because they run out of staples! I use the free customizable grocery lists at A bonus: Every once in a while my husband grabs the list and does the groceries.

  33. posted by Vanessa H. on

    I LOVE this post! It outlines a simple problem that we all face, tells me how Erin both experiences and addresses it, and even gives some theory behind why this happens.

    I also think the suggestion to start getting ready for bed an hour before you plan to go to bed is an excellent idea. So often things do not get done just because we have reached the end of the line and are too tired.

    And I finally gave myself permission to dump all receipts into a box labeled “receipts” at my desk and deal with them on the weekends; it frees-up my wallet and I know where to find any receipt I need until it is filed or destroyed.

  34. posted by Vanessa H. on

    @ the other Tammy: Have you thought of using your car’s trunk to hold cardboard for recycling and then dropping it off on a weekend when you’re free? I keep my Goodwill bag in the trunk of my car, along with my plastic bags for recycling on my next trip to the grocery store. It helps keep clutter out of the house. I just put it by the door and the next time I go to my car, I take it with me. Or I put it in the car straight-away. It sounds like a hassle but honestly it has worked for me. It lets me recycle while keeping the recycling out of the house. Good luck!

  35. posted by Mb on

    Laundry room-Both out
    dinning room-2 of 3 out
    guest room-Both out
    Hallway-1 of 2 out

    How did you know? I better get some bulbs and put the extras where they belong so I can find them when I need them.

  36. posted by Ana on

    While I do agree with the tips listed here, overall this concept is extremely disheartening. If one little thing can throw the whole process off, even for Mrs Unclutterer herself, what hope do the rest of us have? Is the whole concept of being organized just a big ol’ house of cards? I always believed that a truly well-designed system is able to accommodate these little unavoidable and unpredictable errors; that there are checks and balances in place that prevent the entire system from collapse.

    I agree with Karen, that this says something about our modern lives.

  37. posted by Missy P on

    We have avoided Keystone Demise with trash cans. I know, I know, do you really need a trash can in every room? YES. We do. We used to have receipts and junk from pockets and purses and laundry lint accumulating in our laundry room. Buy trash can—problem solved. Yes, we have a trash can in the bathroom and kitchen just ten steps away, but this works for us. We also have duplicates of cleaning supplies in our bathrooms. We have three bathrooms and nothing gives you the excuse to NOT clean a bathroom more than hauling cleaning supplies up and down stairs. So under every sink there are all the supplies needed to clean the bathroom (toilet cleaner, brush, anti-bac wipes, glass cleaner, and paper towels). Voila. No excuse and clean bathrooms all around. Duplicates work for us. They may not make sense for everyone. But personally, I’m a fan.

  38. posted by MC on

    Frequent illness and occasional bouts of bipolar depression are definitely a problem for me. It doesn’t help matters that my darling husband couldn’t organize his way out of a wet paper bag if his life depended on it. I’m talking about habits so bad that he will leave the empty alka-seltzer packet on the counter, rather than drop it in the trashcan right next to him. I know I can never change him, so I can only do what little I can. A classic example is that we had a yard sale in May and I did a major purge throughout the house. After the sale I wanted the leftovers immediately loaded into his truck and hauled to Goodwill. Instead, it all got shoved into the garage, such that I could no longer get my car in there. Last week he took a day off work and when I got home I was so excited to find my side of the garage was clear. My little bubble of happiness was popped when I saw that he had spent his entire day piling it all on the other side of the garage, rather than hauling it off. That’s my life, in a nutshell.

  39. posted by Wrennerd on

    This happens to me too. However, I discovered over time that I have four types of clutter: paper, dishes, laundry, and shoes on the floor. Each evening, I try to run through that mantra in my head and handle at least those four things, in that order: “Paper-dishes-laundry-floors.” Further cleaning can wait until the weekend, but keeping those in order during the week keeps things looking respectable. And when things completely go haywire, I just have to run through “paper-dishes-laundry-floors” again to get them organized enough to actually clean the surfaces underneath.

  40. posted by CM on

    I’ve realized that we need to get rid of empty flat surfaces in our house. I need to take away the little tables and the unused bookshelves, because they end up accumulating clutter. If there’s no convenient surface where we can stash something, then we’re forced to put it away where it belongs.

  41. posted by Shari on

    Our keystone is my husband’s travel schedule. When he leaves town for a week the house ends up in chaos. I am trying to adopt another FlyLady philosophy here by creating a solid routine, and then just sticking to the tasks for each day. If something gets missed, like changing sheets or dusting the living room, don’t try to “catch up”, just leave it be and get it to it the next time around (next week, or whenever it comes back up.) So far this is working for me, as otherwise I get overwhelmed by feeling behind and shut down/don’t deal.

  42. posted by chacha1 on

    I guess my keystone is Flat Surfaces. If those are kept clear on a daily basis, life in general works much more smoothly and efficiently. And the place looks clean and tidy, even when it may not bear a white-glove inspection.

    For me the answer is to Just Deal With It. My mood may well influence whether I feel like tidying up, but I know my mood will improve when the surfaces are tidy, so I just do it.

    Receipts: I keep a file folder on my home office desk and simply drop cash or debit-card receipts in there, as often as I have to (I don’t shop daily, and I don’t keep receipts for consumables that aren’t Schedule C expenses, so it’s not a daily task. Most of them will never be referred to again, and in all likelihood they will be thrown out at the end of the year, but I am not yet at the point in my uncluttering journey that I can throw them all out immediately. It’s a process!)

    Credit-card receipts are dropped in the front of my secretary desk/file cabinet and transferred to the card file during at-least-monthly filing cleanup. Many months I have no receipts from the credit card.

  43. posted by Tiffany on

    I’d also LOVE to know how you deal with receipts…. my hubbys bedside table is piled high with receipts …. what’s your secret??? and….MC….. you have my sympathies. 100%

  44. posted by Get Organized Already on

    @Shari I like it. You have a routine and if you miss something because of slight break, you don’t freak out. Try not to anyway :o) and do that chore the next time its allotted time comes around.
    I can see how this philosophy could be helpful to many people in a variety of cases.
    Thank you all for your comments and of course to Erin for another stroke of genius in regards to staying organized.

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