The Temptation of Surfaces and Defeat of Junk Drawers

A warning bell goes off in my mind when surveying a new client’s space: Oh no! So many surfaces! 

By surfaces, I specifically mean countertops, shelves, and furniture tops. Surfaces are magnets for stuff, and the stuff tends to stick. The more surfaces, the greater the temptation of clients to occupy them with stuff, intentionally or not.

Then I am on high alert, looking for what I expect to see next: a junk drawer (or two or ten). It says it all in the name. Junk is defined as discarded items that are useless or of little value. So why dedicate a drawer to these pieces? Why hold onto them?

And what is a solution to clearing a surface? Pouring the contents into a junk drawer. These two areas of the home are closely intertwined.

Another term for junk drawers (or bins, shelves or file folders) is miscellaneous, a troublesome word and solution. Naming something miscellaneous does not promote wayfinding or clarity; it invites accumulation. Suddenly you have more miscellaneous possessions because you have a drawer specifically for them! Using miscellaneous as a category promotes the retention of items that aren’t important or useful because it is a pseudo organizing system. Examples are freebies that unintentionally make it into your home, duplicates, loose batteries, flyers or coupons, etc. 

Sorting through these items is tedious because it involves minutiae you don’t value, decision fatigue, and thinking more deeply about each item’s purpose and where it’s used your life. If you take time to dismantle miscellaneous, you’ll likely get rid of most items, put a few with other like items, and possibly create a new, better defined category as well. 

If you are beginning to look around your home’s covered surfaces and junk receptacles nervously, you probably arrived at this point because you suffer from the following:

  1. Things without a home. Every item needs a place to rest it’s head at night. Most surfaces are not a well-defined home. There are exceptions to this of course: books neatly aligned on a bookshelf or a coffeemaker on a kitchen counter. But these items tend to become obscured by all the other stuff. A defined home is a specific place that is acknowledged by everyone in the family. This home should allow for easy retrieval and return so the item isn’t plopped down on some surface or junk drawer, which leads us to ….

  2. Lack of processes and good habits. Why did you initially put something in a drawer or randomly on a surface? Any good habit begins with a thoughtful decision about what the routine should be and then training yourself over time to create a habit. If you decide on a thoughtful home for your mail, create an easy process to deliver it there, and a process to review it, you can save time, frustration, and surface space.

  3. Tendency toward default. If you had junk drawers in your former homes or don’t regularly re-evaluate the organization of your home, it will be easy to continue this bad habit. Defaults are devoid of thought. The solution is acting with intention.

  4. Occupying space you don’t need. While some people live in small spaces, many have homes that can easily store and support everything they need … and more. As a result of this feeling of abundance, space isn’t used efficiently or logically. Spreading out your stuff can make finding items more difficult. If you have more space than you need in your home, consider leaving drawers empty and top shelves free. Avoid the tempting invitation of surfaces.

Of course, having less things makes this approach far easier but it does not fully solve the problem. Acting with intention, implementing clear homes, and initiating a bit of discipline, is the other side of this approach. As I wrote about in the The Unfulfilling Desire to Fill Space, space is what allows us to pause and gives us a little bit of freedom. It can lead to less feelings of overwhelm and promote just being. Minimizing, and keeping clear, surfaces and drawers lightens your physical space and your mind space.