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Horizontal Surfaces Exposed As A Threat To Organization

There is likely nothing in your living space that represents more of a threat to your cleanliness and organization than open horizontal surfaces. They are extremely useful but unfortunately constitute a temptation that most of us have yet to overcome.

What open horizontal surfaces (OHS) do you have in your living space? Any of these?

    • The tops of:
      • Kitchen cabinets (if they don’t extend all the way to the ceiling)
      • Appliances such as microwaves, fridges, freezers, ovens, washing machines, dryers
      • Furniture such as bureaus, cedar chests, dressers, credenzas, hutches, diaper changing surfaces
      • Electronics such as TVs, computer monitors, and stereos
    • Sitting places such as beds, couches, chairs
    • Fixed surfaces such as ledges, window sills, mantels, built-in bookshelves
    • Work surfaces such as ironing boards, work benches, desks
    • The back of the toilet
    • Night, coffee, and kitchen tables
    • Bathroom and kitchen countertops
    • Other miscellaneous shelves with no doors to enclose them
    • Exercise equipment such as treadmills and the seats of exercise bikes
    • Floors including fireplace hearths
    • Occasionally TV trays, card table, folding chairs

Why are OHS such a problem?

They’re everywhere. They’re easy to use/abuse. You can put anything on them and come back to it, kind of like being able to put a project “on hold.” It’s almost as if they call to us, “Put something on me!”

Very often objects will be placed on OHS with the intention that it will be a temporary thing. I’ll concede that in the strictest sense anything placed on an OHS will only be there for a finite period of time, but their intended tenure in that location is likely to be much shorter than what actually happens.

Sometimes we run out of room in other storage locations and we’re forced to use OHS for lack of a better alternative. If that’s the case, consider renting a storage unit and/or disposing of some of your belongings.

Other times people use them as a sort of to-do list thinking, “I’ll leave this out until I get a chance to finish it.” Unfortunately that mindset is a symptom of a different problem: the inability to carefully manage personal time and tasks. Wouldn’t it be better all around if the physical components of a task were safely stored until you reached that item on a to-do list? You wouldn’t trip over the items in the mean time, and the reduced clutter would actually have a calming effect for everyone.

There are essentially five ways of dealing with OHS.

Do Whatever Comes Naturally

This is where you currently are. Is it working for you? If so, there’s no compelling reason to change. The unfortunate reality is that human beings (especially Americans) generally accumulate “stuff” and the natural result is cluttered living spaces.

Leave OHS Completely Empty

This is much more easily said than done and frankly may not be desirable. For some OHS however, empty is the perfect state. They’re much easier to clean when empty, and you immediately know when something extra shows up there.

Use OHS deliberately to display decorations or one or two small functional items

Most of your OHS will probably fall into this category. End tables in the living room are the perfect place for a lamp. The top of your TV may be the perfect place for you to store your collection of remotes.

Whatever you do, let it be deliberate. Decide what you want to store where and don’t let a few items become a magnet for clutter. The mindset to overcome here is, “There are already several things there so if I set this down too, it won’t matter.”

If you live alone this will be an exercise in self control. If you live with other people, it is appropriate to communicate to them the new plan. Be patient because old (especially lazy) habits die hard. Help others understand that taking an extra second to put something away makes home a nicer, calmer place to be. Plus, it will be much easier to clean up something that doesn’t get put away if it’s the exception not the rule.

Make it easy to keep OHS clean by providing alternatives. Reorganize the contents of cabinets and drawers to replace the easy drop zones provided by OHS. If people insist on having a little bit of a mess, let it at least be hidden.

If you have the luxury of designing your own cabinetry, include a shallow drawer just below the OHS. Use it for all the miscellaneous “stuff” that might otherwise have ended up on the OHS. Again the mess is contained and hidden until someone has the time and desire to deal with it.

Store possessions in OHS

This is my least favorite of the OHS solutions because it has the potential to snowball into an unmanageable mess, especially for people who are OHS challenged. In small living spaces with limited enclosed storage space it may be necessary to store books or other possessions in clear view. Please don’t just concede defeat and throw anything and everything there. Organize the objects as well as possible, set limits for yourself, and follow them.

Use OHS as work surfaces and clear them when finished

The reasons for this approach are clear. Even with projects that are not yet complete, it may still make sense to clean everything up. If a higher-priority task comes up, you’ll be able to make progress much more quickly (and keep your energy and motivation levels higher) than if you had to first make room to work.


Whatever your current situation and tendencies, give some thought to how to better organize and utilize your open horizontal surfaces. Actively managing them means you’ll be happier with your surroundings and you may even find something the next time you go looking for it.

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