3 Simple Steps to Rid Yourself of Kitchen Office Clutter

Have you ever noticed that more space attracts more stuff? Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill the time you give it. And I think it tends to be true with physical space and material things.

More space? More things.

When we lived in Milan and we were just starting our family, we had what was called a two-butt kitchen — it was so narrow that if one person was cooking, there was only space for one other person to pass by.

Enrico in our super-small Milan kitchen

It probably had about 12 inches of counter space and included a fascinating little appliance that was half-oven and half-dishwasher. (Brings back memories of our first Thanksgiving and how we had to go around to butcher shops with a measuring stick to make sure the turkey would fit!)

Our kitchens in Arlington and Manhattan were barely more spacious. However, I still managed to carve out a corner for my Mom Command Central — a kind of kitchen office that is like the gateway to the outside world. Phone numbers and rechargers, receipts and calendars, rosters and party invitations. This is the stuff that churns everyday life, so it lives in the center of the house: the kitchen.

Cut to today: we can’t believe the size of the kitchen we now have in Washington, D.C. Although it is no Tyler Florence design beauty, the galley kitchen’s white formica countertop extends all the way along the wall into the dining room area for a ridiculous 11 feet. Our family has grown to include four children and a couple of budding businesses, and I think our kitchen paper clutter finally breathed a sigh of relief and spilled itself all over the counter.


My mom, who I consult regularly on design questions, didn’t think the clutter was a big deal. But the open messiness bothered me, and it looked especially bad when we had people over for dinner. So one morning — I always have a burst of energy on the weekends after my cup of espresso coffee — I attacked.


Now I am the one breathing a sigh of relief.  Here is how I did it.

Step 1: Purge and Rearrange

As you may remember, a few months ago I read the Minimalist Mom’s Guide to Baby’s First Year, which I recommend whether you’re having a baby or not. I got all energized about getting rid of clutter and extra stuff that was just bouncing around my house and not getting used much.

So I got out one bag for giveaway and one bag for trash and started ruthlessly tossing stuff like leaky sippy cups, empty wipes containers, plastic water pitchers, mini coolers, dish racks, random pots and pans, and broken appliances.

(If regret is holding you back, you might like 5 Reasons to Skip the Yard Sale and Give Away Your Extra Stuff.)

Step 2: Get the Rest Out of Sight into Drawers and Cabinets

I freed up even more space by moving less-frequently used things, like tablecloths and silver serving dishes, out of the kitchen or to high-up cabinets. A few weeks later, I realized that if I rearranged things a little more, I could end up with a few empty drawers. Shocking! And why not move all my yucky paper and unsightly clutter into those drawers?

When anyone talks about whisking important papers out of sight, the fear is: but what if I forget about it? And that brings us to Step 3.

Step 3: Instead of Physical Reminders, Use To-Do Lists

I have to fight the temptation all the time to use the object in question as a reminder to deal with it. Whether it’s a package that needs to be mailed or a form that needs to be filled out, I think that by leaving it out, I will be forced to deal with it.

But the problem with this system is that it creates a constant layer of low-level anxiety. Now that I have changed my system — clutter inside, lists outside — I feel infinitely better.

And the thing I love about lists? Stuff actually gets done. Sometimes I’m amazed at how many things I can cross off when I go back to my lists. It’s like the act of writing down cements the information in my mind, and when I have a minute, I just subconsciously know to do it.

I fully recognize that this counter is crazy-long and, I’m lucky to have so much space in the kitchen. Before we bought this house, I thought I would use an idea I loved from Better Homes and Gardens. In Hidden HQ, they show how people can use a piece of furniture like a buffet or a hutch to contain the messiness of a family’s nerve center.

A solution to the kitchen office mess from Better Homes and Gardens

But my point about all the tiny kitchens we’ve had in the past is this: no matter how much space we have, we all have things we can get rid of or put away, and spaces we can use more efficiently. Decluttering means less stress and more peace. And I wish that for all of you.

Has your January been about streamlining and clearing out too? Please tell me what you’ve been doing in the comments at the end of this post!

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  • Pat Moreton April 28, 2013, 9:32 pm

    Love this one. Having moved to Canada 18 mths ago we got rid of a lot of stuff but especially love the folder with a name on – plan to use that in the morning! Thanks heaps.

    • Amy April 29, 2013, 9:10 pm

      Hi Pat,

      Moving is always great for streamlining!

      Glad you still found something of use here.

      Thanks for writing in,

  • Vanessa Jubis January 20, 2012, 8:13 pm

    Dear lovely Amy,

    You NEVER fail to inspire and LIFT my spirits. Loved this post and all the ways you remind to us to ‘keep it simple’, just my style ;) I finally tackled my garage a couple of weeks ago so next is my desk. Thank you! ;)


    • Amy January 20, 2012, 9:50 pm

      Hi Vanessa,

      Great, I’m so glad to hear your garage is DONE! Desks are tough. I think that should be my next project too.

      Thank you so much for your sweet words — which lifted MY spirits!

      Take care,

  • Elizabeth Carmody January 19, 2012, 8:58 am

    For me the absolutely hardest part is to simply to get going. And then once the organization has taken place the challenge is to get the rest of the family on-board and helping to keep the neatness going. (FYI- I like the pie safe shown in the “after picture” near the spiffed up home office. It is very much like one my mother gave me years ago and one which belonged to her grandmother who moved to the Houston TX area from Iowa over a hundred years ago. Mine is now stuffed- albeit in an “organized” manner- with china and other detritus.) Keep up the good work.

    • Amy January 19, 2012, 11:36 am

      Hi Liz,

      Yes, that’s it. It’s getting going — just like exercising — so hard to put on those workout clothes and get to the gym. (Aside: I don’t do the gym partly because of this problem. I integrate exercise into my daily life in ways that I enjoy, like walking my kids to school.)

      Sometimes it takes things getting really bad before we are inspired to take action. And then, as you say, there is the maintenance. A clutter-free counter doesn’t just stay that way. It’s a constant battle. And that’s why systems are so important. I hope you find some that work for you.

      p.s. That’s so cool that you have a pie safe too! Aren’t they beautiful old anachronisms?

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Liz,

      • Elizabeth Carmody January 19, 2012, 1:14 pm

        Pie safes are certainly not original to the US and were mostly built as a place to store pies and keep the flies off. In France (or is it Spain>) the farm wives would keep bread in wall hanging cupboards between weekly bakings. I suspect Italy has something similar but am not up on that.

        Slowly but surely I am working through the piles in my house. But don’t expect me to share pictures. One of my rooms is a junk room- literally. I imagine what it will look like. Discarding and donating will my two important phrases.

        Have a great one!

        • Amy January 19, 2012, 1:20 pm

          Hi Liz,

          Envisioning what you want is a great strategy for getting things done. Not sure if this is what you meant in terms of imagining your junk room, but if you keep picturing it empty or clean or full of organized books or whatever you want — even as you are falling asleep at night — I can pretty much guarantee that that is what you will get.

          Go Liz!


  • Rayna@BrightCopperKettles January 19, 2012, 5:58 am

    Oh my gosh, I loved this post. Your pictures made my heart beat faster (it’s a little sad on my part, no?). It didn’t look to me like you had a lot of clutter on your countertop – just the stuff from every day living – but I could see how you prefer having everything put away and organized. When everything is neat and tidy, I do feel more calm, and once there’s a good system in place, all it needs is maintaining. And it looks like that’s what you have going here, so congratulations! Well done!

    • Amy January 19, 2012, 11:32 am

      Hi Rayna,

      Yes, it’s all about peace, I’m realizing. We have so much going on in our lives and so many things we want to do in life, that it doesn’t make sense to be bogged down by clutter and insignificant details. I know you’ve said this before many times in your writing — it’s all about finding what’s important to you, and carefully choosing what you bring into your house and your mind. Discernment, in your words.

      Thanks for writing in, Rayna,

  • Kathy January 19, 2012, 4:13 am

    Hi Amy,

    I just discovered your blog through another Amy blogger. I was curious to see what you’re writing about because your sister was a friend of mine in college and I’d heard about you way back then.

    I love your blog. So far you’ve inspired me to completely rearrange our craft drawer into a much tidier craft cabinet, and attack some of the clutter down in our too-big storage room. Most remarkably, you have inspired me to go through all of my pre-kids, too-small, beautiful professional clothes and gather them up to give away to a friend. I never thought I’d feel ready to do it but it’s happening.

    I’ve been living in Switzerland for more than 8 years now and usually feel such a disconnect between typical American attitudes and my own. It’s so wonderful to find your blog and to be reminded that there are other Americans who resist the culture of accumulation. I hope it’s a trend that more and more people will choose to follow.


    • Amy January 19, 2012, 11:29 am

      HI Kathy,

      It’ so nice to hear from you! I’m so glad you are getting something out of this blog. That makes it all worth it to me!

      I know how hard it can be to get over the psychological hump of deciding to give certain things away — skinny clothes, baby gear, college term papers. I’m so glad you’re on top and ready to sail down. I know you’ll feel better — and I love that you have a friend you can give stuff to. Sometimes it makes it less painful to know that someone is going to really appreciate your things.

      And I know what you mean about living in Europe. We have so much to learn about Europeans’ natural eco-consciousness. The amount of waste we create here is appalling. It’s the disposable culture. But there are a lot of people like me who are on a different bandwagon and that I’m sure you’d like to connect with. There’s the slow movement, the simple living movement, minimalism, free range parenting, and the real food movement, to mention a few. So you are not alone!

      I hope you’ll come back and visit and feel like this a safe place to talk about what’s on your mind.

      Have a cup of Swiss hot chocolate for me!

  • Daisy January 18, 2012, 11:11 pm

    Hi Amy,

    My January has definitely been about streamlining and clearing out. Perhaps it is a natural reaction to the excesses of Christmas. I have so far tackled my pantry, linen press, tupperware cupboard, the cupboard under my sink and a storage container of maternity clothes. There is still a lot more to do and one of the jobs I have been putting off for a long time is paperwork. This looks like a great idea to keep control of what is coming in!

    • Amy January 19, 2012, 11:21 am

      Hi Daisy,

      Wow, you are a busy woman! I think you are right: January clearing out is natural after Christmas. It also signifies a new clean start. I can see why paperwork would fall toward the bottom of the list. It’s much more complicated to deal with, since each paper could potentially contain several more tasks, or at least thought processes. But it’s one of the most annoying clutter-creators, perhaps exactly for this reason. Lots of baggage. My next project is the other office area in our dining room. And that is really not pretty.

      Thanks for writing in, Daisy!


  • Jen @ Jen Spends January 18, 2012, 8:27 pm

    That kitchen in Milan would have made me crazy! It looks like you made the best of it though. I’ve been meaning to tell you that I think it’s so nice the way you and your husband snap so many pictures of every day life. It’s fun looking at them. I really need to get into the habit of doing that more.

    Great work on the organization–I shudder to think about the remarkable mess I would have made with such a nice long flat surface at my disposal!

    • Amy January 18, 2012, 8:54 pm

      Hi Jen,

      Oh, I wish we took more pictures! You are right though — the everyday life ones are precious. That’s what life is made of, yet we usually don’t think it’s special enough to record. I’ve heard that historians are always thirsty for daily life photos. People never think it’s worthy enough, but you remind me that, instead, it could be the most important.

      Take care,

  • Sally Oakley January 18, 2012, 6:11 pm

    This is wonderful. Thank you for the inspiration and ideas!

    • Amy January 18, 2012, 8:51 pm

      Hi Sally,

      You’re so sweet for saying so! I’m glad it might be helpful.

      Take care,

      • Sally Oakley January 19, 2012, 7:32 pm

        Oh Amy, it will definitely be helpful! I even told my hubby about your article, and he wants to read it too. He is a great cook and loves to maximise cooking space on the kitchen benches (which are often swamped with clutter). So he’s very keen to help me organise an admin area. Win. :-)