Much like making the bed every morning, keeping your dining table surface clear is a way to create some order and peace in your home.
But isn’t it easier said than done? You clean off the table, maybe even set it, and before you know it, it’s full of mail, toys, food, books, that thing you need to return to the store, and the bill you can’t forget to pay.
Keeping the table clear has always been a struggle in my home because of small spaces. The table functions as a desk, a workbench, a game table, sewing table, extra kitchen prep space, and oh yeah–a dining table. For Simplify Your Life Month, Day 11, I’m going to keep my table clear. For the rest of the month. Unless I’m using it, obviously.
Endeavoring to keep the table clear (and counters clear) can show you where organizational problems are. In my kitchen, I know we run out of cabinet space for snacks and bread, so things end up on the flat surfaces.
The Key to Keeping Your Dining Table Clear
I’m a firm believer in arranging the environment to support the habits you want. If a thing is hard to do, a lot of times it just won’t get done. If you have to go out of your way, take extra steps, or struggle somehow with the space, it’s going to be 10 times harder to get done.
Most importantly, if there isn’t a better option, (i.e. if things have no home), your stuff will end up on the table.
Maybe You Don’t Even Need a Dining Table
If your formal (assuming second) dining table is functioning as anything but a dining table and you have a decent place to eat meals, then consider taking a leap and getting rid of the dining room. Turn it into an office, art studio, playroom, or Home Ec headquarters (laundry-sorting anyone?). I’m a firm believer in arranging your house to function for the way you live.
You can certainly use your table if there’s no better work surface. The idea is to make it extremely easy to both keep unnecessary stuff off of it in the first place and easy to clear it’s time to eat.
If you’re using your table for storage, there’s a better option. Here are some solutions for the common issues in keeping your table clear.
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It’s Where You Dump Stuff
You need a landing pad.
A landing pad (or launching pad) is a dedicated space where you put keys, mail, wallets, phones, bags, and maybe outerwear and shoes. It helps keep things from getting scattered, lost, and in places they don’t belong. It should be everybody’s first stop on the way in and last stop on the way out.
It’s Your Office
You need mobile workspace solutions.
If you’re using your dining table as your office or crafting space, you’ll want some ways to keep your things organized and easily put away. You might be looking for a smaller desk that can be snuck into another location in the house. You might want to replace your china cabinet with an office credenza. Or, you just might want to be able to hide the filing in the bedroom when company comes over.
It’s Covered in Homework
You need solutions the kids can manage.
Here the key is to keep homework either off the table entirely or make it simple to clean up when it’s time to eat. Assigning each kid a bin they can stash their work in makes easier to resume the homework after dinner. You could also send ’em packing to the living room with a tray table or lap desk–some even feature storage.
It’s Your Pantry
You need to make your storage work harder (and probably also buy less).
Take a hard hard look at the space you have and your buying habits. A lot of us buy in bulk without having the space to store in bulk. This issue comes down to physics, and you can only do so much. Two options to consider: maximize the space in your cabinets and move a work zone (like coffee, snacks, or breakfast) somewhere else.
It’s Positively Piled with Papers
You need to conquer your paper stream.
This could be a book.
Actually, it is a book.
Unopened mail, receipts, reading materials, notices, calendar, instructions from your doctor, bills, permission slip for school, packets of paper from your investments. The amount of paper that comes into your home in a week can be pretty unruly.
The paper flow in and out of your house needs managed at 3 points: paper coming in, paper that is staying, and paper going out.
Decrease the paper coming in
- Sign up for paperless billing and communications in as many places as you can
- Get off of junk mail lists
- Use Optout Prescreen to stop getting credit card offers
To stop getting mail from places you have done business with or otherwise agreed to get mail from you will have to contact individually. I’m currently saving contact info for a bunch of catalogues to unsign-up for once I think I have them all.
Deal with the paper that’s staying
Some paper we need to keep. We either need to do something with it or save it for our records. Sometimes the papers are in-between those states. Addressing your paper in these ways will slow down the pileup.
- Implement a way to deal with reminders so you don’t have to have it all out in the open. A command center is great for this purpose if you don’t like things hidden away.
- Make efforts to set up a filing system that works for you.
Get paper out
In the day-to-day fight against the deluge of paper, it’s important to have a quick and easy way to get paper you don’t need out of your house.
Number one strategy: don’t bring it into the house. Put a recycling bin near your landing pad. If you live in an apartment building with a mailroom, ask to have one put in there.
Use a command center and set up an “outbox” or other area for mail and paper that needs to leave the house.
Know what you really need to keep. Double check with your accountant, lawyer, and/or financial advisor. You’ll want to shred any documents with sensitive information, but know that recycling shredded paper is tricky.
Mom! Don’t Mess Up My Stuff!
You need to make the toys easy to tidy.
Sometimes there is no substitute for the wide open spaces of the dining table. Aside from building a table just for Lego, there are some ways to corral those toys. Give each kid a shopping basket so little pieces can get cleared quickly. You can be setting the table while they’re returning toys (backwards shopping?). Try a puzzle or a play mat to clear everything all in one fell swoop.
It’s Not Me, I Swear!
Getting the rest of your household into a new organizing routine can be challenging. If the dining room table has been used for years as a catch-all, don’t expect everyone to change what they’ve been doing right away.
It will take practice, reinforcement, and time for everyone to be consistent. First make sure a better alternative exists. Merely saying “don’t put anything on the table” might just move the problem somewhere else.
If you’re stymied by gremlins who leave stuff on the table that doesn’t belong, try my request escalation technique:
- Talk with your housemates (nice request): Please put your tools in the toolbox.
- Talk with your housemates (Why haven’t they put the thing in its home? What’s the underlying obstacle?): What’s getting in the way of you putting your tools in the toolbox?
- Talk with your housemates (“I” statements): When you put your tools on the table and not in the toolbox, it makes extra work for me and I feel unappreciated for the work I do to keep the house nice.
- Implement a “black hole” strategy. What tools?
Just kidding on that last one. I’ve read of people threatening to throw away things that get left on the table, but that seems pretty drastic. Have patience, try to get to the root of the behavior, be clear about your expectations, and good luck out there!
How do you think these ideas would work in your house? Do you have a challenge that’s not covered here?