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The Surface Rules: Two Ways to Avoid Household Clutter

Clutter accumulates quickly. Between our desks and coffee tables and countertops and dressers and credenzas and benches and sideboards and end tables and media consoles, our homes are outfitted with boundless surface area ripe for the accrual of stuff.

We pay it no mind until, one day, the detritus has metastasized to cover every flat surface. Stacks of unread magazines and unwanted junk mail. Piles of unfinished projects and unattended toys. Hoards of untidy appliances and unremarkable junk.

It didn’t happen overnight, but the chaos can be addressed relatively expediently. Personally, Rebecca and I have a couple rules in our household that help us avoid the mess.

Fewer surfaces. Whether you live in a tiny apartment or a McMansion, having fewer flat surfaces means fewer places for the rubbish to collect. Ergo, if a piece of furniture has a flat top, Bex and I refuse to bring it into our space unless its function is critical. Sure, we have a desk, a dresser, and a table in our home, but even those items remain clutterfree when not in use—hence the next rule.

Clear surfaces. Even with the appropriate amount of surface area, clutter will still find its way to the, ahem, surface. It’s as if our level surfaces are a magnet for miscellanea, so Bex and I have one more rule in our house: unless a possession is used every day, it doesn’t belong on a flat surface—it must find a new home in a drawer or a closet or, better yet, the donation bin. Thus, our desk remains empty, and our kitchen counters contain only a hot-water heater and a coffee grinder, while our blender, food processor, and Sodastream dwell inside their respective cabinets. Moreover, the kitchen items we haven’t used in 90 days have moved out of the house altogether.

Our one exception to the “clear surfaces” rule is art. We own a handful of well-curated objects—a pair of ceramics vases, a water-drop-shaped glass jug, a wooden blackbird statuette—that harmonize with our uncluttered surfaces in a way the debris of everyday life cannot. Oh, and books! We frequently adorn our clean surfaces with the books we’re currently reading, just for when we encounter a serendipitous reading situation.