3 short laps to a better kitchen

As with so many other parts of our lives, kitchens often drift into a state of low-level inconvenience. If you're feeling frustrated and thinking major changes may be required, start with this quick fix to clear the slate and reconnect with what is most useful and attractive to you.

This won't take long at all and it will feel great when you see the difference you've made. You'll be running three short laps. You can do these all in a row or spaced out over a few days, depending upon your available time and energy. Each lap should take about twenty minutes.


#1 – Move out the old and cold.

Look quickly through your cupboards to find clots of things you haven't used in the past six months. Move those things out to cold storage elsewhere in the house (e.g., a clearly labeled storage bin in the garage such as "Holiday Baking Tools") or to your charity box. If you don't need it more often than a couple times a year, it should be out of your daily way.

When we did this on our kitchen we came to terms with the fact that we haven't made muffins, cupcakes, or bread in the over five years since moving in. Off to a new home with those pans and liners! We located a few large but only occasionally needed items that were able to move to a closet. We also purged a batch of cheap empty water bottles which never get used on hikes since we have a nicer reusable bottle.

Finish this lap by wiping down the newly cleared space with a lightly moistened paper towel.


#2 Clear the decks

Your target now is the countertops and open shelving. What is out in plain sight, taking up space, but which you haven't used in six days? Get those things into a more appropriate location out of your view and your way. If you don't use them more than once a week (or if they're ugly), they don't belong at the ready. Take advantage of the space you've cleared in lap #1 to store things conveniently out of sight.

We had allowed our counters to be populated with many things which seemed convenient but which we didn't actually use often enough to warrant losing so much of our limited task surface. Spice and herb boxes moved into a cupboard. Ramekins moved into the dish cabinet. Spare cutting boards shifted from a visible location to an unnoticable spot on top of the fridge where they are still handy but less ugly. We also put our least favorite one into the Goodwill box. A broken slate trivet headed out to the garden for use as a different sort of pot rest. Pot lids moved from being propped behind spice racks to their new home behind the pots in the cupboard under the sink. Lastly, some old decorative items such as a fruit basket moved out to leave more room for their more attractive successors.

Again, we finished the lap by wiping down newly exposed surfaces.


#3 Improve the new reality

Now that you can see more clearly and the items ready to hand are the right things, take a last few minutes to see if you can arrange them more effectively or attractively. Look at the kitchen with fresh eyes, acknowledging your progress and seeing the opportunities it has created for you.

We found that our attractive breadbox, which had been jammed on top of the microwave under a cupboard could now move to a more convenient spot on our sideboard, next to where we actually prepare things like sandwiches. The breadbox's top now became available as a home for a few small, formerly counter-cluttering items such as tea, honey and a small decorative pitcher. Two decorative dishes for fresh fruit were then able to move from the sideboard to the top of the microwave and free up even more of our work surfaces. Our SodaStream carbonator changed from blocking access to cooking utensils and a standing spoon rest (which Joe hadn't even noticed we had!) to live on the other counter closer to the fridge and its chilled water bottles. The kitchen now looks like we got rid of half the stuff we'd had in there even though we primarily just made better use of our space.


What can three little laps do to make your everyday life even nicer?

Tackling that Stack of Papers

Oo, it's terrifying to have a big pile of papers. There could be anything in there. Unpaid bills, your diploma, letters from an ex, uncashed checks. Anything!

But probably it's almost entirely not that kind of stuff. I'm betting it's mostly four things:

1. Trash

2. Recycling

3. Stuff to shred

4. Manuals and receipts for the purchase with which they came

There are probably some other big categories that are well-represented. For example, packing slips or receipts that came with things you bought. You also may have papers relating to your health: bills and insurance statements from doctor visits, those information sheets that come with prescriptions, etc.

There are two main ways to conquer random stacks of paper: targeted missions and steady chipping. Targeted missions are great for feeling a big positive impact fast. Decisions can be tiring, so rather than picking up each piece of paper and deciding its fate, make one decision that can apply to a whole lot of pieces of paper.

An ideal decision to start with is, "All the catalogs in the house can be recycled. While I'm conquering having too much stuff, I'm not buying more stuff, and they'll be sending me another catalog in the future anyhow, so goodbye to all of these." Similar is the decision, "I want to catch up with my other papers before I add more, so all magazines and newspapers before the current issue can be recycled." Either (or both) of these decisions allow you to attack a stack without having to do a lot more thinking. All you're asking is if it's one of those things you said you're going to recycle. Yes and it goes in the bin. No and it stays in the stack. That simple.

Do that one targeted mission against the stack and then stop. Give yourself credit for forward progress and go do something you enjoy. Flinging yourself against the paper wall until you collapse isn't the road to success; define your current lap, run it, and then take a rest and your reward.

Perhaps in the course of doing that targeted mission you'll notice some other easy target. For example, you might see a lot of health-related items. Your next targeted mission can be to pull those all out of this stack and consolidate them in a folder or box which contains only health materials. That transforms a mystery blob into a clear category. If you're later looking for your passport, you know you don't have to look in there because it's not a health-related item. Categorized chunks are easier to navigate than random stacks.

After the obvious targeted missions have been run, the way to purge the rest of that amorphous blob of paper is to chip away at it steadily. Working just 5 or 10 minutes at a time—with a timer!—is all it takes. Don't get hung up with taking action on any individual item. Merely spend those 5 or 10 minutes quickly identifying each successive item you pick up and then throwing it away, recycling it, shredding it, or putting it in a labeled folder based on a category (e.g., charitable donations; letters from Mom) or an action to be taken (e.g., add to address book; scan and then discard the paper; add to calendar)

The folder can go in your inbox or even in a stack of "to be dealt with" folders, so long as you have the sacrosanct rule that nothing goes into a folder that doesn't belong in that folder's category. Remember: A set of categorized chunks is progress over a random mystery pile!

The key to making chipping away work is to keep it steady. Do another 5 or 10 minutes every day. It's quick, you'll make it through those minutes!

If you run into a occasional difficult item that you just don't know what to do with, something that hinders your progress, put it on the bottom of the stack and return to it later. Take your easy wins first and then use that victory to give you strength to tackle the tougher stuff.

As you go, keep an eye out for useful patterns to save yourself from having to repeat this chore. If you had to throw a lot of the same catalogs or unread issues of a magazine into the recycling bin, get off that mailing list or cancel that subscription; it's costing you more time, space, and pleasure than it is giving you. If you have a lot of receipts you held onto in case you needed to return something, start a folder for those and keep them all together, where it's easy to purge the oldest ones on a regular basis. Optimize your inflows for quality over quantity and ease of use.

Paper piles can be beaten! Chime in in the comments to tell of your epic battles and how you won out against your stacks.