by Gretchen Rubin
In my study of happiness, I’ve realized that for most of us, outer order contributes to inner calm. More than it should.
In the context of a happy life, a messy desk or a crowded coat closet is a trivial problem—yet getting control of the stuff of life often makes it easier to feel more in control of our lives generally.
When I’m surrounded by a mess, I feel restless and unsettled. When I clean up that mess, I’m always surprised by the disproportionate energy and cheer I gain, plus I’m able to find my keys. A friend once told me, “I finally cleaned out my fridge and now I know I can switch careers.” I knew exactly what she meant.
By getting rid of the things I don’t use, don’t need, or don’t love, as well as the things that don’t work, don’t fit, or don’t suit, I free my mind—and my shelves—for what I truly value. And that’s true for most people.
Often, when disorder starts to creep in, I think, I don’t have time to fight my way through all this stuff! I’m too busy to deal with it! But I’ve learned that by managing my possessions, I can improve my emotional attitude, my physical health, my intellectual vigor, and even my social life.
Now, no matter how busy I am, I force myself to take at least a few minutes each day to impose some order. If I’m feeling overwhelmed by multiple writing deadlines, I spend twenty minutes cleaning my office, because I know that clearing my papers clears my mind.
I’ve also found that once I start, it’s easier to keep going. True, sometimes it feels auspicious to do a big clutter-clearing on New Year’s Day, or as spring cleaning, or as pre–Labor Day prep—but now is always the best time to begin. A friend told me, “I woke up one morning and on impulse decided to tackle my basement. I spent my entire Sunday down there, and I was so pumped by the end that I wanted to keep going all night. I got up early on Monday morning just to sit there and gloat. It gave me such a lift at the start of a tough workweek.”
We want to cherish our possessions and we also want to feel free of them. I want to keep every toy that my children ever loved, but I also want to have plenty of space in our apartment.
With outer order, we achieve that balance.
We all must face clutter in the way that’s right for us. We’re all different—in what possessions we value, in the kinds of surroundings that we find pleasurable, in the kinds of habits that come naturally to us, in the dynamics of our household or workplace. There’s no one “right” or “best” way to create a better life.
In fact, we should work to create outer order only if it makes us happier. There’s no magic in making a bed, or filing papers, or emptying an in-box each night. These efforts are worthwhile only if they bring us more happiness. We’ve achieved the right level of order when we can find what we need, feel good in our space, and don’t feel hindered by stuff. For some people, what looks like disorder works just fine.
Why, then, do so many experts insist that they’ve found the one true and right way? It’s a fact about human nature: when getting advice, we love to receive a precise, standardized template for success, and when giving advice, we love to insist that the strategy that works so well for us will surely work for others. But each of us must find our own way.
Some people want to clear a little clutter each day; some people want to work for fourteen hours straight. Some people struggle with over-buying; some people (like me) struggle with under-buying. Some people feel a strong emotional or mystical attachment to possessions; others don’t feel much connection to objects. Some people curate their possessions with great care; others put little thought into what they buy and where they put it. Some people are powerfully attracted by the promise of minimalism—and some people aren’t.
Nevertheless, while each of us might define and achieve outer order in different ways, it’s clear that for most people, outer order does indeed contribute to inner calm.
Gretchen Rubin is one of today’s most influential and thought-provoking observers of happiness and human nature. She’s the author of many books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers The Four Tendencies, Better Than Before, and The Happiness Project. She has an enormous readership, both in print and online, and her books have sold almost three million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages.
Excerpted from Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize to Make Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin. Harmony, March 2019. Reprinted with permission.
Friday, March 5, 2019, 7:00 – 8:30 pm
Gretchen Rubin: An Evening Lecture and Book Signing
Community Church of New York
Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize to Make Room for Happiness
(Fee includes book)
To register, click here.