by Susan McCarthy
Have you ever cleared off an end table (or any other flat surface in your house) only for it to get covered in new stuff in less time than it takes to say, “end table?” If you’re so frustrated that you don’t even want to bother decluttering these surfaces again, see if you’ve been missing these important steps.
There’s nothing more frustrating than decluttering a space only for it to become cluttered again. And this probably happens most often with flat surfaces, like end tables. Those cleared surfaces are oh-so-tempting when it comes to setting something down “for a moment.” And to be honest, things are going to land on these surfaces, there’s no way around it.
However, what you can control is what stays in these spots and for how long. The secret to keeping these spaces clutter-free has nothing to do with declutter. So, before you grab a bag or box and clear off a cluttered end table or counter, take a better first step.
Before You Declutter that Flat Surface (Again)
Before you clear off that surface, look at what’s landed here. Is it the mail? Magazines that were being read? Things from a drink or snack? Stuff emptied from a pocket?
While you might think it’s random, you may have some unconscious habits that take you to certain areas in the house while you engage in certain activities. And that means that similar items are going to end up in a spot.
Doing this type of investigation means that you can only clear one space at a time. Don’t sweep up everything from the end tables, coffee table, and seat cushions in the living room all at once. Yes, it’s the same room, but depending upon where you (or someone else) sit and engage in a routine activity, will affect what stuff ends up where.
Ask, “how did this end up here?” You can follow up that question with,
“Where does this belong?”
“Why is this the spot where this thing got set down?”
“Why did this stay here?”
Your answers to these questions are important because it’s here where you’ll discover how to keep the clutter away for good. Put on your detective cap.
How Did This Clutter End Up Here?
Chances are that certain activities occur in certain spaces in your home. If things get left behind here, why? Is it because someone is going to return to this spot to do the activity again? So, does that mean these things ‘belong’ here? And if so, is there a way to keep these things neater looking?
Solution – If you want the surface to stay clear, but you now understand that these things get used here, then your goal is to find a way to hide these things in this space. Remember, you could return your knitting or crossword puzzle book to the place where you want to store these items, but you have evidence that this won’t happen. Remember, being organized isn’t just about putting things away but also retrieving the items with ease.
If an action is a hassle, the items will get set down and clutter an area.
Where Does This Belong?
Other clutter that ends up on flat surfaces is stuff that we haven’t decided where it belongs. We leave the mail of the gift wrap paper on the dining table because we haven’t decided where this stuff belongs. And so, we set the items down in a visible spot thinking that this will prompt us to give the item a home.
Solution – If you pick up an item and you don’t know where it belongs, the solution is to make a decision about where to store it. Depending upon how often you use the item determines how accessible it should be. The more often you use something, the easier it should be to get your hands on it.
Here’s a little organizing secret – there’s no perfect space for every item in your home. You decide where to store things. For example, I can recommend that people keep similar items together because this makes sense. But in my home, the cookie sheets, muffin tins, cake pans (all belonging to the ‘baking’ category) are stored in three different cabinets because that’s how they best fit.
Don’t worry about learning the ‘right’ spot to store something because it doesn’t exist. One person may keep gift wrap supplies in their home office while someone else keeps these things behind their bedroom door.
If you can find the item with ease and return it with ease, then you’ve found a secret to staying organized.
Why Is This the Space Where This Got Set Down?
What about the stuff that seems to end up in a random place? You know this isn’t the location where you do a stuff-related activity…and you know where the items belong.
Solution – Is this spot a waystation – a space between how the item comes into the house and where it will end up? If this is a rare occurrence, don’t waste time trying to resolve the situation as it isn’t really a problem. Pick up the item and take it where it belongs.
However, if the same item gets dropped in the same space on a regular basis, then take a moment to envision the item entering the home – who brings it in and where are they bringing it to? And then, why is it set down here over and again?
In both of these cases, decluttering the flat surface may seem like the obvious task, but it won’t’ solve the problem. You need to declutter the spaces that are hampering the ease of putting away the items that are being left on the flat surfaces.
Why Did This Stay Here?
It would be impossible to tell yourself (or anyone at home) to not set anything down on any flat surfaces. That’s why they exist. You could eliminate some flat surfaces if you felt the piece of furniture wasn’t serving a purpose other than being a junk collector.
But that might be extreme. I’ll offer two suggestions for keeping flat surfaces clear, after you’ve investigated why stuff collects in certain spaces.
Solution One – The Evening Tidy Up – Take a few moments at the end of the day to sweep through your home, collecting items that belong elsewhere. You could even pop them into an empty laundry basket so you’re not zipping back and forth between rooms. Just carry the basket from room-to-room. Add what needs to leave a room and drop off what stays.
Solution Two – Reset the Room – When you’re done in a room, straighten the room so you’ll find it the next day in ‘ready to use’ condition. This includes removing things that don’t belong in the room. You can also think of this as tidying as you go.
Declutter Flat Surfaces and Keep Them Clutter-free
If you find yourself decluttering a space again, don’t just go into decluttering mode again. This time, ask a few questions and use the appropriate solution to keep the area neat.
Choosing to do some problem-solving can save you frustration and future (repeated) effort. Download your free guide to decluttering hot spots and stop the clutter from returning to the same spot over and over again.
Hi, I'm Susan
I'm a former teacher who became a professional organizer (and not because I'm a natural-born neatnik). I live with my husband and fluffy cat on a river in Massachusetts. I crochet, make handmade cards, and love reading young adult novels. Learn more about my decluttering journey here.