Keeping your house clean: it’s the perennial parenting struggle, especially for houses with working parents. And though I don’t place a lot of pressure on myself to get this one right (I don’t think it’s worth all the worry), I do have one big pet peeve: clutter.

Clutter on the countertops, clutter at the door, clutter on just about every available surface where clutter could gather. And yet, no matter how many times we clean a surface and tell ourselves that this surface isn’t going to get like that again, it doesn’t take long for it to get buried.

Which brings me to New Year’s Day this year. My husband and I had been home for a few weeks for a family surgery and the holidays and we were finally trying to get back on track with things around the house.

On that one wintry night, my husband had an epiphany. We wanted to keep these surfaces clean but our prior methods hadn’t worked. We also felt like everyone was a bit to blame for the clutter and so everyone should carry a bit of the responsibility. So he came up with a “micro-step” that has been a game-changer for our house.

In case you’re wondering, a micro-step (in this sense) is basically a goal that is readily achievable because it is broken down into something simple—something that is “too small to fail.” Thrive Global has a number of outstanding examples of New Year’s resolutions in the form of micro-steps that you can actually stick to.

Our “Too Small to Fail” Surface De-Cluttering Plan was simple:

  1. Choose the most cluttered surfaces in the house—that ones that most frequently get piled up and need attention.
  2. Assign each person in the family to one of those surfaces. Match the surface with the skill or frequent use of the person, i.e. give the four-year-old the living room table where toys often gather and give mom the hall lowboy where bills and batteries often come to rest.
  3. Each night (or at least five nights out of the week) take a five-minute “clutter” check to have each person pay attention to their surface and get it back in the clear.

It sounded simple and maybe overly optimistic, but I told him we’d try it. After giving everyone a few days leeway to get their surface back to visibility, we started our quest to keep those spaces in the house clutter-free. And by golly, it has worked!

We did discover a few necessary ground rules along the way:

Taking something off of our surface and putting it on someone else’s does not count as de-cluttering your space—UNLESS it belongs to the person who owns that space. So, if my husband finds that I’ve left my glasses or a book on the kitchen counter, he can put it on the low boy for me and I’ll take care of it.

If the whole family messes up a surface at once, the whole family should participate in recovering it. So, just because my husband has the kitchen counter assignment doesn’t mean he cleans up from dinner every night—it just means he checks the surface at the end of the night and tries to get everything back to its rightful place. Same goes for a family game on the living room table.

But guess what else has happened? We’ve gotten used to seeing those clean surfaces that our Surface De-Clutter plan has inspired us to spread the de-cluttering mojo to other parts of the house.

We’ve grown more conscious of where we put something down when we’re in a rush and have started making more of an effort to actually put it away rather than just put it in a “temporary” spot where it will get stuck. Doing it together has also helped us to feel committed as a family to this new ritual and has freed us up to be more present with each other on a daily basis.

At this point its only been two weeks since we started this plan, but I can tell you in all honesty that some of these surfaces haven’t stayed clear for more than a day in the past three years, so two weeks of keeping them relatively clean and open is a huge accomplishment. Because we are all sharing in the duty and because each person’s little piece is not too much to handle, we are finding success that we believe will last.

And you know what? All these open surfaces are bringing me a ton of joy!



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