January Analysis: Where does clutter come from?

With a week left to finish my first monthly goal of the year, I’m just now officially getting around to the “analysis” phase of the month, though it’s been rolling around in my head ever since I kicked off this project.

So000, why exactly can’t I currently (circa December) host a dinner party on a whim? Here’s what I figured out about my first problem…

1. There’s stuff to put away.

Every time we want to have people over, we have to plan for a couple hours of decluttering, which includes handling unwashed dishes, clearing flat surfaces, relocating random piles of stuff from the floor, and putting away baby toys. Obviously, this problem is likely related to the fourth problem, there are habits to form, but I thought I’d take a look at the composition of some of this clutter. Is there a reason my childhood mantra of “put stuff away when you’re done with it” isn’t working for our mess? Maybe the clutter holds secrets into our psyche. Maybe it has legitimate excuses. Maybe it’s a problem I can solve just by thinking hard enough.

Anyway, here are three exhibits to study…

The Bar

We’ve accepted the fact that, no matter how awesome we make the rest of our house, if we’re going to have people over when food is involved, people will stand around the bar. So, it’s gotta be clean…and look! It’s not!



  1. Boogie wipes (oft-used-baby-gear) –  I think I put these here because I was using them very frequently, and I wanted to have them in an easily accessible place. There’s another place in the living room where they’re supposed to go, but the bar seemed like a more reachable location.
  2. Chapstick (something-that-goes-upstairs) – I’m not sure how this made it downstairs, but I didn’t put it in its natural location upstairs because I was watching the baby, and it didn’t seem worth it to lug the baby all the way upstairs to put away some Chapstick. Babies are heavy!
  3. Snack cup and Mommy’s cup (dishes-to-clean) – We ate food in the living room, and because I was watching the baby, I didn’t want to leave to put these dishes where they’re supposed to go.
  4. Wet diaper (trash) – Um…yes, I’m claiming that, at times, there’s not a better place to put a wet diaper than on the bar. Has it really come to this? Well, temporarily…there’s not a trashcan in the living room, and (all together now) I didn’t want to leave the baby to go to the trashcan.

Let’s see what exhibit 2 reveals…

The Console Table

This awkward, somewhat homeless piece of furniture has been serving as our living room Baby Station for the past year, but even so, I’d like it to look presentable.



  1. Clean wipes and diapers (oft-used-baby-gear) – This stuff technically belongs here because the changing table/pack-and-play lives right next to this thing, but this stuff just doesn’t LOOK clean. The diapers normally live in a somewhat attractive basket thing, but it’s so easy to want to use the basket thing for other purposes.
  2. Password board game (something-that-goes-upstairs) – Artifact of a pre-Christmas get-together that never seemed offensive enough to warrant an extra trip up the stairs.
  3. Used kleenexes (trash) – First, I didn’t specify what these were used for, so it’s maybe not as gross as it seems. However, I previously mentioned the fact that we don’t have a trashcan in the living room, and it’s beginning to seem that trash that appears while watching the baby is destined to decorate the living room for an indefinite period of time.
  4. Basket of baby hair doodads (things-I-think-I-want-on-hand) – We have a bald baby, and bald babies beg for froofy hair thingies to help them maintain balance (scientific fact). However, this pile of hair doodads looks somewhat unkempt, AND the daycare takes off the hair doodads anyway.

I see trends emerging! On to exhibit 3…

The Inexplicable Hall Table

This table resides in the hall between our foyer and the living room. I really don’t know why it exists, but it currently serves to keep Stuff off of other surfaces. Too bad it’s one of the first things you see when you walk into the foyer…


  1. More Boogie Wipes (oft-used-baby-gear) – Seriously, I need these things everywhere I go.
  2. Gift cards and to-do items (stuff-I-want-to-be-able-to-find) – So, all of this stuff is SUPPOSED to be in that clear organizer, but the clear organizer is full. It shouldn’t be full because it’s supposed to contain only to-do items and gift cards and checks, and there shouldn’t be so many to-do items that it’s full.
  3. Papers to do something with (to-do-items) – I guess we accepted the fact that we’re not doing stuff in our to-do organizer, so we’ve started creating piles of to-do items in other places. There are things like this on the bar as well, just not on the part I photographed.
  4. Shoes and camera bag (stuff-I-want-on-hand) – This is actually all Jonathan’s stuff. I don’t think there’ s anything more to say about it.

Now that I know what kinds of clutter are cluttering my house and mind, maybe I can propose solutions beyond “be strong enough not to put that in the first available location”…


I see trends in this clutter. First, I think we put a lot of stuff in the first available place because we can’t get to its rightful location right away (stuff-that-goes-upstairs and trash, for example). Other things accumulate because they don’t HAVE a rightful location (stuff-I-want-on-hand). And then there are other things that accumulate because there’s a back-up in some other should-exist-system (dishes-to-wash). If I can address these underlying issues, the clutter might proactively declutter itself. Let’s brainstorm…

  • oft-used-baby-gear
    • Respect my baby-care depot (the console table) and promise to always put things back there, even if I need to access them from across the house. OR…
    • Create a baby-care apron to wear when I’m caring for the baby and to store somewhere out-of-sight when I’m not. This feels crazy to me, but it’s a common teacher-trick that has promise. Really, it’s akin to carrying a diaper bag around your own house.
  • something-that-goes-upstairs
    • Create an out-of-sight holding place for this stuff and then commit to transferring the collection on a regular basis. One promising location is in pretty baskets on my living room bookshelf.
  • dishes-to-clean
    • As part of cleaning the dishes every night, collect dishes that have gathered in other parts of the house. I think this will work because dishes don’t necessarily accumulate throughout the house every day. Honestly, I do believe this stems most from not cleaning the dishes, which is a separate clutter problem.
  • trash
    • Get a trashcan for the living room. I even have a good place to put it.
  • things-I-think-I-want-on-hand
    • Regularly evaluate whether I really want them on-hand. Those baby hair doodads? No. They can live in Talia’s room, and I can pick one when I pick the rest of her clothes. Alternatively, I can get one for her later in the day, thereby accumulating extra steps for my Fitbit.
  • stuff-I-want-to-be-able-to-find
    • I need to understand this category better. Really, I want to be able to find everything that I own at one time or another. I think that the trouble arises when I start to allow myself to keep ANYTHING that I want to find in a visible, obvious location. Also, the default location for this category should be somewhere other than “right in front of the front door”. I propose the pending new “office”, so a later project might solve this problem.
  • to-do-items
    • Same answer as above; these need to be in an easy yet invisible location. Honestly, keeping them in plain sight isn’t helping us do them any more reliably, so we might as well put them somewhere more discrete and let a new process help us make sure they get done.
  • stuff-I-want-on-hand
    • Same as above. Put it somewhere easy to access yet invisible. Pending new guest room/office, you are our only hope.

Wow, I’m exhausted now. I’m honestly not sure I’m going to devote this much typing to all my other problems…I’d like to have my thoughts on record somewhere, but I need time to actually enact my solutions :) At any rate, though, I’m currently satisfied that this exercise has highlighted some mechanisms that remove the need for quite so much will power regarding clutter. That means I can save it for dessert…

About Sarah

10 years ago, I was a computer science student. 5 years ago, I taught kindergarten. 2 years ago, I trained teachers. Now, I'm a technical writer. I have thoughts about most of these things, but most likely I'll just write about neuroses and why I love Mr. Gatti's pizza. Which might be a neurosis.
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2 Responses to January Analysis: Where does clutter come from?

  1. Ryan says:

    Wow, that was quite a bit. A good, in-depth look at a complicated problem! One I also struggle with quite a bit (though I have other reasons that stop me from hosting dinner parties). I have a few comments that you may or may not find useful, but show how I try to deal with clutter.

    1. I have a rule at my place. Every room needs 1) A box of kleenex and & 2) a trashcan. (As an aside, I don’t know why other people don’t follow this same rule. As another aside, I don’t usually keep kleenexes in bathrooms, because the toilet paper is just as good in a pinch.) So I’d have come to the same conclusion about the trashcan. Also, I’d go further and say that in your situation it may be appropriate to add baby wipes to that list, at least for the baby friendly zones.

    2. I’ve tried to develop the habit of, at least once a day, just walking around looking for things that aren’t where they belong. Usually I do this a little before I head to sleep, (and usually while I’m brushing my teeth). When I first started doing this, it took several minutes. There were quite a few things out of place or trash that just hadn’t made its way to a trashcan. Now it’s rare that I find more than one or two things out of place. I attribute this to a few things: 1) Being on the look out often enough means there’s not enough time for clutter to develop. 2) There’s a lot more psychological pressure to not add the first piece of clutter during the day, since I know it’ll upset nighttime Ryan. An instance of Broken Window Theory in action. 3) It forces me to deal with things, figuring out where they belong. Which brings me to the next item:

    3. Find a home for things. By far, this is what I consider the hardest part of decluttering. In theory, everything I own should have a place where it belongs, so decluttering should just be moving things from the place they are to the place they belong. In practice it’s not that simple. There’s far less space in my apartment than how much it would take to organize all the things I have. So either things get left out in the open, or put somewhere unorganized, like piled in a closet or stuffed in a box. It’s also quite difficult when you have a home for things, but it isn’t working how you want it to. Like your to-do organizer. The only things I know how to do about this are to 1) try to rework the existing home, 2) figure out that you don’t really need the item as much as you thought you did. I’m proud of you for coming to that conclusion with the hair doodads :), 3) my next item topic…

    4. Buy helpful things. I’ve found this to be really helpful. I used to have a really bad problem of finding my keys, so at some point last year I bought a mail organizer to hang next to my door. It’s the perfect spot to put my keys in when I get home. Since I’ve also made the rule that I have to put my keys there, which I follow most of the time, I’ve only lost my keys once. I also have a problem with loose change. I’ve recently bought a coin sorter in hopes that it fixes that problem. For example, the spot where your shoes are could be made the real home for your shoes with a little shoe rack there.

    • Sarah says:

      Yay! I feel like you wrote the second half of this post, which I might have written had I not been so exhausted :)

      1) I’ve been going back and forth about setting up “baby stuff” in lots of locations. Right now, we just have two baby stations: one in Talia’s room and one in the living room. Obviously, repeating oft-used items is the alternative to carrying around those items with you wherever you go. I haven’t yet implemented a “baby-care apron”, so this is still a possibility. I just kind of like the idea of being able to transform my house into “sophisticated adult house” in a couple of minutes, so setting up lots of baby stations makes that a little impossible. Of course, I don’t know how likely I am to really wear a baby-care apron…even though I cited such a thing as a teacher-trick, I wasn’t a teacher who did that :) Anyway, I can agree with trashcans and kleenex boxes…I’d just never thought about it before. Now that you mention it, though, I really appreciate the fact that every conference room at work has kleenexes…

      2) I’ve sort of started doing this…I call it the “clean-up game”, and it has a lot of rules that simultaneously contribute to my 10,000-steps-a-day goal (which I haven’t talked about but might sometime soon). It’s a good game, and it really does help, but the last time I played it consistently, I noticed what you did: there wasn’t a lot to clean up after a few days. In terms of efficiency, that was great…in terms of getting my extra steps, it was counter-productive :)

      3) Yes yes yes. This really is the heart of the problem. It isn’t that I’m just bad at putting stuff away…it’s that I don’t instantaneously know where to put stuff, and that is endlessly frustrating. When we first moved into this house and unpacked everything, I insisted that we not just throw things out-of-sight. At the time of our housewarming party, I knew exactly where everything belonged and why. However, 4 years later, I don’t know anymore, and the influx of baby stuff has multiplied the problem. That’s why I’m seriously hopeful that reorganizing/repurposing our guest room as an office might help with this issue. The other half of that solution is developing a process for dealing with incoming to-do items, but that’s more about time management than about organization.

      4) I like helpful things! We’ve discussed a shoe-rack in the past…I’m not sure I’d keep it in that hallway, but hopefully it would attract those shoes out of the hallway :) Also, I’m definitely beginning to appreciate the value of “rules”. I have some in my head, but I haven’t really articulated them…maybe I should do that amidst all these projects.

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