How to Simplify Your Common Space

If your house is anything like mine was growing up, then the common spaces in your home — be it a living room, family room, TV room, or music room — are one of the biggest battlefronts in your ongoing war with clutter.

It may seem like a battle you're never going to win, especially if you have children. But the culprit behind messy common spaces is often a combination of two things — an excess of stuff and a lack of clarity for the space.

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CLARIFY THE PURPOSE

Over the last several years, I've lived in nearly a dozen homes, sometimes with family, but most often with one or more roommates. Those homes have had anywhere from one to three common spaces, some that stayed calm and uncluttered the entire time we lived there and others that made me twitch each time I walked into them.

In my most recent home, we had two main common spaces that we divided into three — a living room, an entertainment room, and a...something room.

Throughout the time we lived there, the living room and entertainment rooms rarely, if ever, saw clutter for more than a couple of hours. The "something" room, however, was quite a different story.

I call it a something room because the purpose for the room was never clearly defined. We put the keyboard in there because it fit, along with an extra table, and used the storage spaces available to house miscellaneous items like luggage and holiday decor.

But as far as what we'd use the space for? Well, we never really knew. Largely for that reason, the space became a magnet for all of the stuff we didn't know what to do with. Boxes of items we were planning to donate or sell, miscellaneous things that didn't have a clear purpose in our lives anymore, wall decor we didn't know where to put — it didn't really matter, you could just throw it in the something room.

This is the problem that so many common spaces have and why they become such magnets for clutter, and that's why the first step to simplifying those common spaces is to clarify the purpose for the space.

For our living room, the purpose was to have a space that was relaxing, inviting, and open — both in its feel and furniture layout — where we could spend time with our friends or relax with a book. This meant our bookshelves went in the room, along with a couple of couches and chairs, sufficient lighting, and a basket full of blankets for people to use whenever they wanted. We also kept the layout of the furniture open so we could easily add more seating in whenever we needed it. Nothing else came into the space for more than a couple of hours because it distracted from the purpose of the room.

Depending on the common space you're working with, the purpose for your room might be the same, it might different, and it might be a hybrid of a couple of things.

Do you want it to be a space for gathering as a family not just to talk, but also to do things like watch a movie or play a game? Then set up the room to the fit that purpose — don't feel bad about having games or a TV or DVDs in it. But if the purpose of the space is to connect as a family without technology, then keep the TV far away!

You get to decide what you want the space to be and what is essentially for accomplishing its purpose, but without a clear goal in mind, you'll likely find the room cluttered again, no matter how hard you to try to keep it clear.

CLEAR OUT THE EXCESS

Once you've decided what your goal for the space is, it's time to quiet your space again. Just like with the bedroom, clear out as much as possible and let the space sit for 24-48 hours before bringing items back in again.

Take this time of quieting the space to go through all the items you've removed and determine not only if they fit the purpose and should back in, but if they fit the purpose of any space in your home. And don't be afraid to get rid of the stuff that isn't a resounding yes — even if it seems like it fits the space.

Let's take board and card games, for example. If part of the purpose for your space is to play those kinds of games with friends and family, your initial thought might be to put all of them back in the space. But when was the last time your sorted through them? When was the last time you played some of them?

Even if an item fits with the purpose of the space on the surface, it's still a distraction if you never actually use it.

I love to play games with my friends and family, so I have a fair number of them that I keep in my home. One of the games I've had for the last several years is Apples to Apples. Lots of people love to play it, but it's one of my least favorite games, so I will always vote for something else when someone suggests it. What then, was the purpose in keeping it as part of my collection? I never actually used it and groaned every time someone suggested it. So even though I do love playing games with friends and family, that one left my collection because it didn't help fulfill the purpose of enjoying games with the people I love.

It's at this point that you will need to ask yourself some serious questions and really consider if you need all of those board games, movies, books, or whatever else.

I love to read, I love to watch movies, and I love to play games. But that isn't an excuse for never going through my books and asking myself if I actually love them all or going through my movies and asking myself if I watch it enough to keep in my collection.

Two steps might seem like an oversimplification of the process, but if done with care, they will result in a common space — or spaces — that are calmer and free from clutter because there's not only fewer things in the space, but you know exactly why the things that are in the space stay there.

Next week, we'll continue the series with one of the biggest magnets for paper clutter — your office!