My clutter categories ~ By Sanna

I have been visiting family members in the past week. Being there and coming back I realized that my home still feels more cluttered than theirs although it isn’t. How’s that you might ask. Well, it’s the quite simple fact that we live in a much smaller space. Our rooms and cabinet space are limited and require a more minimal lifestyle than a whole house would. Also, I realized that no matter how big a house is, the amount of daily mess you make is about the same. So, of course in my home, dirty dishes seem to take up all the kitchen – add a little floordrobe as well as paperwork in progress and the whole living space is REALLY messy. There’s no clean room to make you feel at ease anymore. In a bigger home all these things can spread out, be hidden behind closed doors and make it possible to have some “cluttery spots” and still other places around the home to host visitors. It is a problem I fight every day. I am not the most tidy person and I tend to not pick up after myself immediately. So, yes, my home is often in a messy state. On the other hand, I feel that I came a long way during my decluttering journey, I have a good grasp of what I own and my long-term-clutter gets less and less instead of more and more as it used to (e.g. paperwork etc.). Although things may not be in best order, it is always possible to find things in a reasonable amount of time. I certainly feel I am living a relatively uncluttered life (not quite there, but getting really close), although my home often is a mess. There are certainly different layers of clutter:

The forgotten clutter

This is the kind of stuff that is just there, but never touched. It may fill your attic or your basement, but it may also be displayed in a glass front cabinet in your living room. It’s the things that are of no immediate use for you and that you probably wouldn’t even realize if someone nicked it. I find this is the kind of clutter a bigger house attracts. Children’s rooms just stay as they are, even when the children moved out years ago etc. etc. In my small home I am forced to question that kind of stuff quite regularly and I got rid of a lot of it over the past years.

The bottom clutter

This is the really nasty one: unsorted stuff. The things that haunt you. It’s stuff like unsorted paper work, collections that got out of control, junk drawers, craft supplies that are in a mess. It can also be unsorted relationships, problems in your work life or elsewhere, debt etc. It is most certainly the most difficult clutter to get rid of. People can’t see it from the outside (unless it got REALLY bad), but it’s what clutters your mind most. I think this is the most important kind of clutter to deal with. As it is hard to do, it will probably only get less over a long period of time, but it is so rewarding to work on it. I still have my things to sort there, but it’s rather getting less than more and I am glad to say that there is very little actual physical clutter that still falls in this category. In my home, I can find scissors, instructions, matching screws and bank statements quickly.

The surface clutter

This is the mess you make on a daily basis: dirty dishes, coats draped over kitchen chairs, bags put on dressers, mail on the counter, laundry heaps etc. This is also the kind of mess that makes my small home feel cluttered easily because there’s so little space to walk away from it and ignore it. Actually, I don’t think it’s a very bad kind of clutter as it is put away quickly, so I didn’t focus that much on it during my decluttering journey. As I already got rid of lots of duplicates the maximum amount it can add up to decreased. That’s quite simple maths: you can’t have a stack of 7 dirty pans if you only own 2. But still, a stack of 2 dirty pans still looks cluttery, so even though I put certain limits to it the basic problem of this kind of mess cluttering up my home still remains. Of course, being more rigid about it is the best way to go, but I came to think that accepting the fact that it will turn up and be there at least for a certain period of time might be a better way for me to deal with it. I think, I should start to think more about my ways and how to deal with this stuff so it doesn’t look just so cluttery anymore. E.g. it might be a good idea to have a space to put dirty dishes until I wash them, because there will always turn up that odd cup or pot to be washed (we don’t own a dishwasher) and cleaning up right away isn’t always an option. I can still work on cleaning up more often with those things put out of sight and not right on the counter.

What type of clutter is worst for you and what kinds of strategies or ideas do you have for the different types?

Today’s Mini Mission

Declutter the good china if you rarely use it or better still declutter the everyday set and start using the good stuff all the time. You deserve it after all.


“If we do not feel grateful for what we already have, what makes us think we’d be happy with more?” — Unknown

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About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.


  1. Surface clutter is one that I deal with daily – I guess we all do since it’s the clutter of life unfolding. Like you, I do not automatically completely clean up after myself, so while I AM very well decluttered, my house can still be quite messy. I don’t like that, and you’re right, it can feel very not restful.

    • I’m thinking more about this. My mother and father have an immaculately cleaned and decluttered home, except for my mother’s office, which tends to be a bit papery. The office is in a private area not visible from the rest of the house. My mother always completely cleans up after every meal; nothing builds up in their home. Also, she does a traditional cleaning once a week with touch ups in between if needed.

      On the other hand, I live with a husband, two children (middle school and high school), two cats, and two dogs, one of whom weighs almost 100 pounds (45kg). I cook or pack lunches for 20 home prepared meals a week. (We probably eat out once a week.) That is A LOT of activity, and it takes A LOT of maintenance.

      • Your situation does require a lot of maintenance. I know how much the maintenance reduced in my house when the kids left home. In the past I used to do my weekly house clean whle everyone else was at school or work. At least then I could enjoy the tidiness and cleanliness for a few hours before the reverse cycle began again. It is funny though how no matter how much we simplify aspects of our lives we always feel the need to fill up our time by focusing more on other areas of it and end up back a square one. I think I might have to write a post about this.

      • Hi Cindy!

        Thank you for your thoughts on that.
        It is certainly true that certain life circumstances make it easier to keep always on top of such clutter.

        Then again…
        My grandma keeps a VERY tidy home and I know that it always disturbs me when at a social gathering/nice dinner she (and weary helpers) go up to clean right when everyone else enjoys their after-dinner-coffee. Of course, during a longer family holiday or similar there should also be times to do the dishes etc., but really, my priorities at such events lie more with enjoying the company and less with keeping an empty sink at all times. So, it’s actually intentional if I sometimes let the dishes sit until the next day etc.
        I think, it’s more about finding ways for me to make my style of housekeeping (which includes temporary mess) less visually cluttery and install systems to keep these messes really temporary (like one day to the next) and not let them become permanent.

        • Hi Sanna, that sounds like find your happy medium, which sounds like a realistic goal to me. You never know once you become familiar and comfortable with your new approach you may then want to take it further. I think when it comes to changing ones habits setting reasonable goals gives a better chance of success.

          Don’t forget thought that in your grandmother’s situation that you mentioned she and her weary helpers may find cleaning up together to be just as social an experience as indulging in coffee. It’s all down to everyones way of thinking. And many hands make light work. That being said when I have guests over for a mean I always clean up after they have left. I do have a dishwasher though and it is never a big crowd.

  2. its the grime clutter that gets me most in a state of despair. The dog hair and outside grit and bits that make their way inside and thick clingy dust, and spatters and grease in the kitchen and soap scum, etc. It feels like everyone else can keep on top of these accumulating messes except me! And the other clutter just is more surfaces for all this grime to hang onto.
    I am by no means a germophobe (good thing too, or I’d be paralyzed with fear 24 hours a day) but I have always wondered in awe how a house could possibly stay clean as most of my friends. Is it my boys? Is it mostly the big hairy indoor-outdoor dog? Is it because I work from home and cook at home stirring it up all day?
    I do a daily swish in the bathroom with a good clean weekly, the kitchen is cleared after every meal, but I still feel like I am 5 steps behind the “dust bunny clutter” at all times. By the time I finish vacuuming the house, its messy again. Wow.
    Getting the clutter out of the way is helping. If I could remove the emotional clutter, I know it would all be easier… since this is a priority it is happening slowly.

    • I understand what you are saying creativeme. Even with a little two bedroom apartment there is always something that requires attention. And after six weeks of vacation, not having to deal with cleaning, all those annoying build ups of grime stand out all the more. Am I just turning into a princess, is it age creeping up on me or is it that the more I simplify the lazier I get. I am not sure what the answer to the question is. Perhaps this is just one of those things that require a change of mindset. I’ll have to work on that.

  3. Sanna, I loved this post! I organize and clean very often and it still feels like such a mess here even though I know it isn’t. But we have a nice little chunk living space (nothing grand) so it does spread out a bit. In an apartment it would be a chaotic pile of kids things and boxes, I am sure. A few remodel projects also make some areas look neglected and messy here. By far I, and my husband struggle with the horrid “bottom clutter” you mentioned. Screws, paperclips, broken ceramic pieces, gift cards with a small balance on them, stray pennies, bits of ribbon, chewed plastic army men, broken crayons, bits of steel widgets, twisty ties and rubber bands, random rocks all somehow find their way into my life despite seasonal sorting and tossing. They don’t take up much room and are easy to conceal but for whatever reason really irk me more than any other clutter. I can’t donate or sell that stuff and I try not to throw stuff out unless it is not cleanable to unusable for anyone else. I usually go through it once socks or receipts and coupons start ending up in the box/drawer it’s in at the time. It can easily become forgotten clutter around here if I don’t stay on top of it.

  4. Oh, I’d say that for YEARS, my trouble had been sentimental clutter, but I am really cracking down on that have donated so many things. I suppose presently, my trouble place is the attic. With minimal storage space (one closet for the entire main level of 2 bedrooms, kitchen, bath, living room, mudroom, laundry room), we have to store things in the attic. Then it can be a pain in the patootie to get things down and to get things put away. Wah! Wah! Wah! All I know for certain is that there is a lot less clutter in our home and that is really nice. 🙂

  5. I agree with you Sanna. My biggest issue is the paper clutter from trying to keep up with the health insurance paperwork, etc.

  6. I really enjoyed this post. Recently I found that my iPhone had achieved over a yr.’s worth of emails which I thought had been deleted….thousands and thousands and thousands. They each had to be put in trash before they could be deleted all at once. Grrr. Well the lesson I learned is that nothing gets past the front door nor into the inbox without my allowing it to. As for my problem w/dirty dishes before I can was them…..I got a busboy type tube in they go there until dish washing time suits me. I keep it ina walkin pantry. My counters and sink are clear and I don’t have chaos in the kitchen. I used to think it was because I don’t have a dishwasher but after seeing others who do, I realized that an empty sink is not possible for me and tackled the problem from a different angle.

  7. Sanna, this was a wonderful post and I thought you had stepped inside my mind to write it.

    I was just wondering today why I can’t seem to keep up. I know I’m getting older, but this is ridiculous. My house is large, so there’s plenty of room. But, my kitchen always looks cluttered even when it is clean. It is in constant use, it seems, and I keep quite a few things on the counter for easy access. My desk is in the main living area and I cannot seem to keep the papers off it. A couple days ago I sat up very late while hubby was asleep to get everything squared away. I dusted it, too. Then, the next day, I got out cards and stationery to write letters, brought in papers out of the car to file, and the list goes on. It looks like I never cleaned it. I have a lot of records to keep up with and I can’t seem to stay on top of it all.

    I keep up with laundry just fine and never have clothes lying around, but it just seems hard to stay caught up with other things. And having dogs in the house doesn’t help about keeping things looking clean!!! However, as a friend said…..”I’d rather have dog hair than to have no dog!!”

    I think it boils down to Gilda Radner’s famous line……IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING!!!!!!!!!

  8. Hi Sanna, great post!
    Surface clutter is my biggest annoyance. Shoes and more shoes around the front and back door. A shoe cupboard needs to be a priority at my place as work boots and beach shoes can’t really go in the bedroom closet.
    I have an accumulation of bottom clutter , digital camera, earphones, power cords,pens etc. They all lived on my desk. My desk has been cleared off to use as a temporary kitchen when the floor is polished next week. It’s all in a plastic tub, I think I will just hand it to Colleen to sort through. (What are friends for?)
    I was about to say I have no forgotten clutter, then I thought about it, my mind scanned all the storage areas around the house. Gladly I can say I have no forgotten clutter.
    Thank you Sanna ! Such an apt description for each type of clutter. Cheers

  9. Bottom clutter and yes it haunts me. I keep a good hand on the surface clutter in most rooms, but it’s just me here so that’s not hard. I have gotten rid of massive amounts but still have the problem areas and I should spend more time decluttering than reading about it LOL
    It’s all a work in progress and we remember to always pat ourselves on the back when we accomplish something!

  10. At the moment all three types of clutter are in my sights. The girls are on ‘study leave’ from school and these seems to be a few piles of surface clutter dotted around the house which started with their books, study guides and papers but seem to grow. We had house guests on short notice last week and there was a resort to some things being chucked in drawers rather than carefully considered, so that is bottom clutter. And there is forgotten clutter to be dealt with too, there are some areas which have gone under the radar in recent month but because there is adequate room and the house looks reasonably good most of the time, I haven’t targeted them. But I know they’re there.

  11. Happy, happy day, today. We went to a holiday craft fair (a really BIG one) and we did a quick walk-though, didn’t buy anything as we walked through, talked at the end about what we saw and the only thing we bought was a locally grown jelly package for my in-laws. 😉 I think we may be getting more discerning about what we purchase. Is it going to be useful? It is going to be appreciated? Do I feel good giving this gift? Yep, we’re all good. Excellent day.