My Dining Table Dilemma: An indepth look at the challenges of organizing a shared space

I’m an organizer and I freely admit that keeping my dining table cleared off is a constant battle that is rarely won (except for days when we have people over for a meal). How can I share such an embarrassing weakness? I’m human and I know I’m not the only person who struggles with this issue. My dining table only has enough space to fit a plate and a cup for each person. The rest of the table is buried under catalogs, to-do lists, coupons, grocery flyers, a small file box, library books, and DVDs. In addition to our table being an embarrassing eyesore, my young daughter can now reach the papers on the table and pulls anything her little hands can grab. So why can’t we keep the dining table cleared?

The challenges: 

  • My husband and I are both visual people. We need to be able to see something in order to remember it. 
  • The dining table is our command central. Everything from bill paying to family decision making occurs here so naturally all of the accompanying paperwork lives here too. 
  • We use the table as a channel for communication. For example, he’ll leave grocery ads, newspaper articles, or other items he wants me to read next to/on top of my placemat. I often shift these items to another part of the table when I’m sitting down to eat. 
  • My husband loves to use scrap pieces of paper and the backs of envelopes to write down the current day’s to-do list and things to research later. Unfortunately, these papers don’t always get thrown away at the end of the day due to that one item on the list that still needs to get done or postponed to another time. 
  • I tend to use the table as a temporary holding place for receipts and papers emptied out of my purse, envelopes to be mailed, my current reading material (we both tend to read while we eat), and specific store coupons to go out the door with me.

What have we tried in order to fix the problem?

  • The file tray – This didn’t work because my husband was afraid of items getting lost in the pile and never used it. I tended to never move papers from it.
  • The desktop file – This helped corral some of my husband’s project papers that were spread on the table. It has not helped group together all his action items and temporary to-do lists. Plus my husband likes to keep this file on the table close at hand, thus defeating the purpose of keeping the table top clear of paper. 
  • The stacking paper drawers – These were put on a nearby counter space and have helped keep pens, scissors, letter openers, receipts, stamps, envelopes and pads of paper neatly accessible and off the table. 
  • The open basket – This basket is used to toss all grocery circulars and store/restaurant coupons in for later access. It mostly works. About half the time my husband puts the grocery circulars next to my placemat because he thinks I’ll want to look at them. Although I’ve explained to him that I tend to not look at them till right before I go shopping, he still leaves them next to my spot. Another recent issue is that the basket is temporarily living on a high shelf that I can’t reach.

What different tactics should we try?

  • We need a system that allows us to note to-do items in a visually prominent area, yet store their associated paperwork somewhere else. I am proposing taking down the family photos from the wall we face at meals and putting up a bulletin board. My husband is afraid of it looking messy so I also suggested using a white board instead. We already successfully use white boards in other parts of the house for reminder lists. 
  • We need to agree on forming a habit of clearing the table off before going to bed. Any items that need to be addressed in the morning can stay on the table in a neat pile. Stuff to be mailed, returned, or taken to work needs to be put in our bags ready to go with maybe a text or email reminder about what needs to be take care of. 
  • We also need to change the location of the store ads. I’m proposing a wall pocket at a height I can easily access. 

I hope that by sharing my story, you’ll see that:

  • Organizing shared areas becomes more complicated as you take into account everyone’s habits.
  • You can try multiple containers but they won’t always work. You have to really look at what your needs are and experiment.
  • Organizing is more than containers but also forming new habits.

Hopefully with the holiday season, my husband and I will be inspired to make the necessary changes for a clear, ready to use the dining table. 

About Gabriela Burgman

Gabriela's mission is to empower her clients with the tools and motivation they need to get and stay organized. Prior to becoming a Professional Organizer, Gabriela worked in a photograph archive as well as several university archives, assisting offices, administrators, and retiring academics to sort through their files for preservation or disposal. She became a professional organizer in 2007 working as an independent consultant before joining Living Peace. When Gabriela is not learning new ways to organize photos or paper both physically and electronically, she is spending time on what matters most to her: visiting with family and friends, reading a good mystery book, or cooking a tasty meal.

1 comment on “My Dining Table Dilemma: An indepth look at the challenges of organizing a shared space

  1. As an organizer myself I understand how hard it is to keep the dining room table cleared off. I freely admit that I am a piler and flat surfaces just beckon me to pile. I just had to learn to make myself at the end of the day to pack up my stuff and have everyone else put away theirs and to clean the table at the end of the day. 

    Samantha Pointer

    Get It Together!

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