A Simple Guide to Keeping Your Counters Clutter-free

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

While many readers seem to like my minimalist approach to a home, especially clutter-free counters and tabletops and floors, it seems to be a constant trouble area for some people.

Keeping counters (and other flat surfaces) clear, clean and clutter-free doesn’t have to be difficult.

Here’s a common scenario that I get from readers — and I should note, this was me only a few years ago: you get home, you toss onto a counter or table things such as your keys and purse/briefcase, papers and mail, shopping bags and anything else you might be bringing home.

This clutter is compounded over the course of weeks, as things accumulate. Over the course of years, you’ll end up with a mess the likes of which I don’t even want to imagine.

And no amount of decluttering will change the clutter problems caused by this habit, because as soon as you declutter, things will start to get cluttered again in a matter of days.

Some simple changes to your routines can clear this all up. Let’s look at how to do that.

How to Get Started
If you’re starting with a cluttered home full of cluttered counters and tables and floors, things can be overwhelming. Let’s not try to declutter everything at once. We’re going to start small, as always.

I suggest choosing just one countertop or tabletop. Something perhaps near your doorway, or in your dining room or kitchen if you like. I happen to enter my house through my kitchen, so they’re both the same for me.

Now let’s get that one tabletop or countertop decluttered. Start by taking everything off the counter (or table). This includes appliances or whatever else might be there. Put it all in one pile.

Now sort through the pile quickly: things you love and use, things you don’t need or use, and a “maybe” pile if you can’t make up your mind about some items. Wipe the counter nice and clean, and put the “love and use” items back. As few as possible — keep things nice and clutter-free. If you have too many items and it ends up cluttered, find a new home for some of them out of sight, such as in a drawer or cabinet. Or make some tough choices and get rid of more things.

For the pile of things you don’t need or use, recycle or trash them, or put them in a bag or box to be donated to charity or to a friend who might need them. For the “maybe” pile, put them in a box, mark today’s date, and store it somewhere out of sight for 6 months — open it up after 6 months and if you never needed any of the items, get rid of them. This is a good way to deal with things you’re on the fence about.

At any rate, you should now have a nice and decluttered counter or table. If it still looks cluttered, edit the things you have, getting rid of some items and finding a new home for others until you have a nice decluttered counter.

This is your starting point. Your goal from now on is twofold: to keep this counter decluttered, and to expand your decluttered zone one counter and table at a time, using the same method as above. Once you have these surfaces decluttered, move on to the floors and then to drawers, shelves, and closets. But start with these flat surfaces.

Let’s look at how to keep them decluttered.

Keeping Counters and Table Clutter-free
This is the trick. Decluttering isn’t too difficult, but to keep things clutter-free, you have to form some new habits.

Let’s start with two simple rules:

1. Everything you bring into the home must have a home, and it can’t be on a flat surface such as a counter, table or floor.

2. When you get home and unload your stuff, or if you’re already home and are finished with something, you must put it away in its home.

These are age-old rules you might have heard from your mother: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” It’s a classic because it works.

So here’s how to implement those two rules:

  1. Examine everything you bring home, and everything you’re tempted to put on your clutter-free counter (or other flat surfaces for that matter). Find a home for these things. For example, if you normally bring home mail and other papers, have an inbox for incoming papers. For many items, it’s best to find a drawer or other similar storage so they’re out of sight.
  2. Have a spot for your keys, wallet, purse, briefcase and other similar items you always bring home. I prefer a spot near the doorway so I’ll never forget the items — I simply load up on the way out the door.
  3. Now form this habit: as soon as you get home, put your keys and other items in the spot you’ve chosen. Do this always. Also put the papers in the inbox and other items in the spots you’ve chosen.
  4. If you find yourself putting things on your clutter-free counter(s), figure out why. Usually this means you don’t have a good home for these types of items. It takes just a minute to find one. Another reason is just that you haven’t formed the habit of putting things where they belong. It’s simply a matter of focusing on this and reminding yourself until the habit forms.
  5. Have a system for dealing with the mail and other papers so they don’t pile up. I like to deal with them immediately: open all the mail, toss the junk and envelopes, pay bills or otherwise take any needed actions immediately,  scan (or file) the ones I need on record. It takes a few minutes. Another good system is to do it once weekly. Whatever the system, do it regularly so you don’t get a big pile of papers.

These simple steps, if you can stick with them and make them a habit, will keep your counters and tables clutter-free.

Once you get into this habit, you’ll really enjoy the clean and clear counters and tables. It’s incredibly soothing and makes for a much nicer environment. Again, expand your clutter-free zone into the rest of the house and soon you’ll have a nice minimalist home.