How to reduce flat-surface clutter

What is it about flat surfaces that clutter loves so much? In our home, any horizontal plane is a potential landing area for keys, mail, hats, pens, and all manner of paper, receipts, permission slips, and flyers. I find myself plopping things down as often as I say, “Don’t just leave that there.” In this post I’ll try to unravel the siren song of flat surfaces and explore a few ways to keep them clear and clutter free.

The problem

Perhaps this is a familiar scenario: you come home from work or school, and plop your bag, computer, and keys down on the first open spot you see. “I’m glad to be free of that,” you think. Maybe you’ve also got some mail, a newspaper, or a flyer. It’s a lot of stuff and you know you’ll get to it later. So down it goes. No biggie.

Days go by and the pile grows. By the end of the week the original surface is no longer visible. You know you shouldn’t stack stuff there, but it still happens. Why? There are a myriad of potential reasons, of course, but I think there are two in particular that perpetuate this behavior in us.

Homeless stuff

I would wager that much of the stuff that ends up tossed onto any surface doesn’t have a designated “home,” or consistent landing area. At the end of the day, we’re tied of making decisions, the ease of simply placing something down beats the question, “Now where should I put this?” Decision fatigue is real, people.

To combat this in my own life, I bought a a small container for my keys, wallet, pocket notebook and pen, and took a few weeks to train myself on putting those items in that container. Today, this practice has become a habit I don’t even think about.

“A place for everything and everything in its place” offers not just be benefit of reducing random clutter, but it goes a long way towards eliminating those frenzied searches for keys, wallets, or the one phone charger that fits your phone. When you know exactly where it is, you know exactly where to look.

Clutter as prompt

The second likely scenario is that an item is left out to serve as a reminder. When I look at the remote, I remember that it needs batteries. The sight of these envelopes is my prompt to pay the bills, or run to the post office to buy stamps. I understand this — you’re afraid that if you put it away, you’ll forget about it and fail to perform the associated task. Here’s a quick way around that: do it right now. Putting batteries into a remote takes less than three minutes. Ditto paying the bills. If you can’t complete the task within say, two minutes, get it into a trusted system that you know you’ll look at.

If you must keep items out because of convenience, ease or some other reason, consider creating a dropbox — a small container meant to be a temporary holding bin for stuff — but I recommend you do so with caution. I’ve seen dropboxes set up with the best intentions devolve into junk boxes full of who-knows-what. If you adopt this strategy, make sure you 1) get a small container and 2) designate a day or time to empty it out, say every Sunday.

The next time you find yourself dropping items here and there, stop and ask yourself why. Knowing is half the battle, they say, and a little exploration may lead to a lasting solution. Good luck.

2 Comments for “How to reduce flat-surface clutter”

  1. posted by magnoliachica on

    Clutter as prompt… My biggest obstacle. While I am trying more to take care of those small tasks right now, sometimes I can’t because I have 3 small kids who often demand immediate attention. I do so many of these small tasks, yet they never end, and I can feel like I’m putting out wildfires. If I pay attention to the small stuff, then I also feel like I just don’t get to the bigger stuff, like washing dishes. Some of it is coming up with systems, some of it is getting my kids to help out, some of it just is…

  2. posted by MerryMikala on

    THANK YOU for the “clutter as prompt” comment … it was just what I needed to encourage me to put more stuff where it belongs and get more reminders into Google tasks. It’s even helping electronically; I kept snoozing a few evacuation-related emails in my Inbox app – I realized I should just create an Evacuation label and mark them done. Thanks so much!!!

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