Ask UfYH: Reclaiming the Dining Room Table

Q: I think I used to have a dining table, but I can’t remember. The space where it used to be is covered with various bits of paper — lesson plans and resources for work (I’m a teacher), bills (they should invent vanishing paper that disappears your bills when you’ve paid them), takeaway fliers, letters, Christmas cards, etc., etc., etc. I have no idea how to even start getting that leviathan under control. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

A: OK, so I have a thing about dining room tables, and that thing is that I hate them.

They are always covered in crap, they seem to actually breed crap, you rarely actually dine at them, and when you have one, people expect you to host holidays. Which, no.

But anyway, you are far from alone in this. I’d go as far as to say that the vast majority of people who have dining room tables, in fact, have dining room tables that are covered with stuff. Stuff that belongs elsewhere.

First things first, you need to clean it off. Get your shredder, or, failing that, get a box that all of your shreddables can go in (most office supply stores offer per-pound shredding and it is a goddamn gift). Sort out all of the stuff that needs to be shredded and then file what needs to be kept. Recycle the takeout menus and Christmas cards. Work 20 minutes at a time and then take a break. I bet you’ll need far fewer 20-minute sessions than you think.

What’s that? Is the surface of your table poking through?

Next, your whole bills situation? Automate that shit. Get as little paper coming into your house as possible. Pay stuff online, set up automatic payments, whatever. Just keep the paper bills away.

Next, come up with a better plan for the things that tend to live there, like your lesson plans. Some kind of system (inbox, file boxes, whatever) is better than stacks of stuff. My suggestion would be a portable something you can bring to and from school, but that can be stashed once you’re done with one project or another so things don’t need to camp out on the table.

Then, clear off all of the stuff that’s migrated there and gotten left because it’s just easier than putting it back where it belongs. At this point, you should have proof of existence of your table once more.

Finally, and this is the really important part: the reset. If you don’t reset your table to clean regularly (daily or every few days at most), it’s going to end up right back where you started and you’re going to find yourself in the same position very quickly. So take a few minutes every day or so and just clear it back off. Don’t give things the chance to take root. Cleaning is active and ongoing; once it’s done, it’s never done. The good thing is that with regular attention, it takes very little time and it won’t get this overwhelming again.

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[E] Rachel

I punctuate sentences with Oxford commas, and I punctuate disagreements with changesocks. Proud curmudgeon. Get off my lawn.

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