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Gretchen Rubin: ...that decluttering would lead to a happier life

Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: On this episode, we are thrilled to welcome back bestselling author, Gretchen Rubin, to our show. She is one of today's most influential and thought-provoking observers of happiness and human nature.

Laura: In her books, Gretchen shares, insights, strategies, stories and tips that help people understand themselves and create a happier life. Her latest book is called, Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness. Gretchen, thank you so much for joining us again, we're so excited to have you back.

Gretchen: I'm so happy to be talking to you.

Laura: Talk to us a little bit about what motivated you to write this new book?

Gretchen: I've been writing and talking to people for years about happiness, good habits, human nature. I noticed that whenever the subject of decluttering, organizing, or anything related to outer order came up, people just got very fired up. There was just this special energy and excitement around these issues. Even something as simple as make your bed, it just seemed to make people feel really passionate about it. I have my secrets of adulthood, which are the little pieces of wisdom that I feel like I've gained through time and experience. One of my secrets of adulthood is that for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. People just kept saying that back to me, it really struck a chord with them. I thought, "I really want to understand why is it that outer order contributes to inner calm? How do you get it? How do you keep it? Why is there this connection?

Jan: How does outer order create inner calm?

Gretchen: It's not for everyone. I have the Happier podcast with my sister Elizabeth. Elizabeth is truly clutter-blind. She is one of those people who, it doesn't drain her, it does not overwhelm her, she just doesn't care. But for most people, outer order does contribute to inner calm. On the most superficial layer of life, it's easier to put things away, it's easier to find things, it's easier to clean. Research suggests that the average American adult spends 55 minutes a day looking for misplaced items.

Laura: That's crazy.

Gretchen: Just imagine what you could do with 55 minutes a day. Also, it affects our feelings of hospitality because you might be embarrassed to have people over. You don't want to entertain because you feel embarrassed about your space. Or your home is not a sanctuary because you feel restless and, "There's all these things I should do. But I don't want to do them, but I should do them. I feel overwhelmed by tasks.” It can be hard to focus.

If I'm walking into my office and I have to dig my way through a couple weeks' trash, papers, and coffee cups, it's hard to settle down. Sometimes things remind us of our fantasy-self, "I really was going to teach myself to play guitar." Or, "I was going to use these linen cocktail napkins." Or I have an unfinished project, "I need to finish that needlepoint pillow." There's all kinds of ways that our things can help us to feel focused and energetic and that we're projecting our identity into our environment. Or they can make us feel kind of hemmed in, cramped, distracted, and drained.

Laura: Whenever I get the urge to clean and declutter things, I always find myself on Amazon looking for different organization products, like a new bin or a new container. I thought it was really interesting that at the beginning of the book, you say we should not start getting more organized by buying new things. Why is that?

Gretchen: Absolutely. You are not alone. Many people are like, "I'm going to get organized!" They run out and buy binders or strange hangers and things like that. What you want to do is get rid of everything you don't need, don't use, don't love. You want to clear out anything that's clogging your system. Then you may find that you don't need stuff for your stuff. You don't need to buy more to just jam more into place. You don't need something to put a bunch of clothes under the guestroom bed because you got rid of all those clothes. Or you don't need to buy a binder for all those papers because you realize, "Hey, all this paperwork is online, I don't need to keep any of this paper. I don't need a special gizmo to jam a bunch." "I don't need a Lazy Susan or some kind of complicated set of risers to put my spice jars in a cabinet because now there's room in the cabinet, I could just put them in there. I don't need anything special to help me."

Jan: I love one piece of advice that you have. You say to ask yourself, "If I didn't already own that, would I buy it? And if not, why keep it?"

Gretchen: It's very easy to get things because we get them for free, or it's a really good bargain, or we registered for it when we were getting married and we didn't really know what we needed, or it was a gift. If you really use something all the time, you would go out and buy it. I would buy a printer. I would buy a headset. But there's things where I'm like, "Would I buy a rice cooker? No. Would I buy a giant mixing bowl? No." We don't need it, we wouldn't buy it now, so we don't need to keep it. A lot of times we have too many things like, how many wooden spoons does one household need? Not that many. You don't need 100, you don't need 50, you don't need 25, you probably don't even need 10.

I just wrote a book about this. Just the other day, I was in the kitchen and I noticed that we had two garlic presses. I'm like, "Why do we have two garlic presses? One garlic press is enough." I'm like, "Which one's the better one? Keep the better one, give the other one away." Then a day goes by and I'm like, "Why do we have any garlic presses? We buy the jars where you get it already minced up, it's called like Lazy Day Garlic. We don't use any garlic presses, why do we have two?" I have no idea. I've never seen them before in my life. And yet they've probably been in my kitchen for five years. Totally unnecessary.

Laura: In the book, you talk about how we can often justify keeping, say, our high school sweaters because they were from a fun time in our life and we want to be reminded of those memories. But you say we, maybe, could only keep one of those rather than keeping five. How can we prevent that emotional attachment to these everyday items that are preventing us from throwing them out?

Gretchen: I think it's really important to respect the emotional attachment. Sometimes people want to say, "Look, things don't matter. This is your past, get rid of it all." I just don't think that's the common experience of mankind. We do invest in powerful emotions and things. But, with the high school sweaters, one thing about mementos that's very helpful when you're trying to get rid of some of them, is to remember they do their job best when they're highly curated and few in number.

If you have one sweater that's like the sweater, your favorite sweater, or the first sweater you bought with your own money, or the sweater you wore to some special event, can it stand in for all the other sweaters? Having one is kind of fun; you have it on the shelf and you can look at it. Five starts to be so many that you need to put it in a box in a garage and you never look at it at all. It gets covered with dust and spiders, and you never open it because who can be bothered. It's better to have one. You can often take pictures of something. Maybe you want to keep one but take pictures of the other one because they're kind of variations on a theme.

But I do feel like sometimes things really do have emotional value and it's important to respect that. But then, sometimes people keep things and it's like, "I should keep them because they were important." But then you're like, "But do you really have strong emotions attached to them, like trophies or mementos?" Like, "I remember I went to Europe in high school and I stole an ashtray from every cafe we went to. Now I have these 50 ashtrays." It's like, "Are those really meaningful to you? Do you look at one and remember?” No, it's just a collection that you created, and it was a fun time. You can probably just take a picture of those ashtrays and get rid of them because they don't really hold powerful memories. Now, if it held a very, very powerful memory, then it might be worth keeping.

Jan: You talk about the duration effect; the longer you own an item, the more precious it becomes.

Gretchen: I feel this very powerfully, especially with children's toys. It's like, "We’ve had it for so long, how can we get rid of it now?” I'm trying to get rid of things as fast as I can so they don't take on that kind of value just from sheer endurance. I feel this way even with things in the kitchen, like, "We've had that platter for 20 years, why would I get rid of it now?" It's like, "Well, the question is, you've never used it, why have you been keeping it for the last 10 years?"

Laura: How often should we be going through our possessions and decluttering? Is this supposed to be an ongoing process? Or something we do every so often?

Gretchen: That is a really interesting question. I think, at best, it's something that you would do on an ongoing basis, and constantly be on the lookout for things, like the garlic press. I wasn't like, "Now I'm going to clean out my kitchen." It was more like, "Huh, now that I look in here, I can't help but notice there are two garlic presses." That's nice because then it's just part of your ordinary day. You're just going through your house and you're constantly culling. I think that's very helpful.

Realistically, I think some people don't do that. They just don't take that minute, or they can't face the decision fatigue. Maybe you do want to have some kind of schedule, whether it's spring cleaning, or it's your birthday, or you run out of hangers. I heard about somebody, I thought this was a good thing, that they had a certain number of hangers. If they ran out of hangers, they had to get rid of something because that's the only way they can get a hanger. I thought that was sort of clever. You could also give yourself five spare hangers, but then it's like, "Okay, now I've got to get back to my five spares."

I think it depends on the person. I do think that doing it on an ongoing basis means that you spare yourself having to do "The Big Clean." It's easier to keep up than to catch up. But I also think that for some people, realistically, they just don't do it that way. They kind of have to set it aside and do it in sprints instead of a marathon.

Jan: Share with us the advice you have on taking stock of the clothing that you have in your closet.

Gretchen: This is really hard for a lot of people. One thing is, realistically, do things fit? One of the things I've noticed is that people often feel it's very painful to get rid of things that don't fit. They feel that by getting rid of something that doesn't fit, they're kind of acknowledging to themselves that they will never fit into them again. That's a painful thing. What I can say to people that helps them get rid of those things that they haven't worn and haven't worn in a long time is, "Look, when, and if, you get back to that size, are you going to want to wear this thing that's been hanging in your closet for eight years? It's not fresh, it's not in fashion. You're not going to want to wear it. If you were a size six, you'd want to buy new clothes. Just go ahead and get rid of these things because they're not working for you now. Then you can get new things, if you want."

Another thing is, do you have too many of things that are basically fungible? Often people have something that they like to buy. For some reason, I cannot resist buying a black cardigan, I have many black cardigans. It's like, "How many does one person need? Not that many." If you have 10 pairs of khaki pants, if you have 30 pairs of jeans, really say, "What are my favorites and what really serve different purposes? Sure, you can have your cropped ones, your summer-weight ones, your winter-weight ones, and these serve something special." But then at a certain point, you get to a thing where, "I'm not going to wear my ninth favorite pair of jeans." Do you ever get to your ninth favorite pair? Unlikely. You can get rid of, lop off the ones that really are redundant. That also makes it easier to get dressed because then you're not distracted by a bunch of choices that you're never really going to make.

One of the things that's interesting to me, on the Happier podcast, my podcast that I do with my sister, she sometimes calls me a happiness bully because I can be insistent if I think there's a way for you to be happier. Sometimes, I beg my friends to let me come over and help them clean their closets and clean out their clutter because the contact high for me is creating outer order, I love it.

One thing that's happened over and over again is, I'll help somebody clean up their closet, we'll take out two or three giant bags of stuff to donate and the people look in their closet and they say "Now I feel like I have so much more to wear." When you get rid of everything that doesn't fit, that you really don't like, that's out of fashion, that's too many of the same identical, too many white blouses, too many black pairs of wool pants. Then you feel like, "Wow, I could wear everything in my closet. Now I see I have so much to wear." Sometimes, I think people feel like if they get rid of things, they'll be left with nothing or it will feel too spare. But in my observation, people often feel like they have more abundance when they've gotten rid of all the things that aren't really working for them.

Laura: What are the three questions that we should ask ourselves when we're trying to determine the fate of each possession?

Gretchen: Do you love it? Do you use it? Do you need it? If you don't love it, use it, or need it, it's very unlikely that you should have it. Just recently, I was over at my sister's house trying to help her clear clutter because she's very messy. She had a fax machine. It wasn't even attached to a phoneline, it was just in a cupboard. I was like, "Can we get rid of the fax machine?" She's like, "No, that's Adam's." That's her husband. I go to Adam, this is like 18 months ago. It's like, "Can we get rid of the fax machine?" He said, "No, it's perfectly good. A person might want to send a fax." I'm like, "Realistically, when was the last time you sent a fax?" He's like, "Well, but somebody might want to send me a fax." I was like, "Okay, I'm going to let this go for now." Then I'm back like two months ago, more than a year has gone by, I couldn't let it go. I was like, "Have you sent a fax? Has anybody tried to send you a fax? Have you realized that you would have to attach this to the phoneline for this thing even to work? Could you go to an office? Or a Federal Express? An office store if you desperately needed to send a fax.

Laura: Or you have apps on your phone now too.

Gretchen: Yeah, you could scan it. I mean, nobody does it. I'm sure there are industries where they do fax, but it's not his, he's a TV writer, he does not have to send faxes. Finally, it took me two goes at it over 18 months, I finally got them to get rid of a fax machine that they've had for 10 years that was huge. Those things are big, take up a ton of space, was totally useless because it wasn't plugged into a phone line. And yet, it's like, "Do you use it?" "No". "Do you need it?" "No." "Do you love it?" "Absolutely not." "Why hang on to this thing?"

Sometimes because something is good, meaning it would serve its purpose were someone to use it for that purpose, makes people think, "I should hang on to it." One thing to tell yourself is, believe that in the world there's someone who will actually put it to use. It's not doing anyone any good just sitting on my shelf year after year after year. I have a giant mixing bowl. It seems like it would be useful and yet I have not used this giant mixing bowl in 10 years. If I give it away, somebody else might use it every single day of their lives. Why don't I put it into circulation where it will have a chance to achieve its little destiny as a fax machine, or a mixing bowl, or a garlic press, or whatever it is. Better to get it into the hands of someone who could actually make good use of it.

Jan: I know you urge people to clear clutter before they move and not after. Tell us more about the thinking behind that.

Gretchen: People often comment on how moving is a great time to clear clutter. When you have to pay to have something boxed up, then moved, then unpack it and figure out what to do with it, a lot of times people are like, "I just don't want this thing. I don't want to buy a box for this giant metal mixing bowl." So they get rid of it. You want to do it at the front end because, first of all, you'll save money because you won't have to box it and ship it. Then, also, you'll save yourself time at the other end because you won't have to go through this decision fatigue of, "Where do I want to put this thing? Actually, I don't even want this thing at all." You can just get rid of it. You have this new pristine place that you're living, you want to just fill it with things that you really do need, use, and love. Moving is a great time.

You can even do a virtual move, which is when you do it in your imagination. You think to yourself, it's just a test. It's like, "Do you need it, do you use it, do you love it?" Another test is, "Would you move it?" If you wouldn't bother to move the fax machine, you probably don't need the fax machine right now. Why not go ahead and get rid of it? Another test is, "Would you buy it if you didn't have it?" I wouldn't buy a fax machine, because like you said, "Just use my phone." There's a million things to do to avoid the fax machine. If you wouldn't buy a fax machine now, you probably don't need a fax machine now.

Laura: What's your advice for going through papers?

Gretchen: One thing is, "Do you actually need these papers?" Often people keep things feeling like, "It's just easier to keep it then to decide to get rid of it." I talked to a guy who said he was going to put all this stuff chronologically in binders. Then he realized it was all related to pet insurance and he didn't need a lot of paperwork related to pet insurance, it also was all online. So we just got rid of all of it. One of it is, is it online so you don't need the paper? Another thing, could you find it online? Like manuals, a lot of manuals now are online, you don't need the paper manual, you can just get rid of that. Another thing is, can you scan it and keep a digital image of it? That's just so much easier. Then you always have it with you too, if you have it on your phone, or you have it in a Google Doc. It's a lot easier to keep.

A lot of times people keep things just on a vague notion that they should keep it. Say to yourself, "Have I ever used this?" If you keep a certain kind of receipt, or certain kind of paperwork, do you ever use it? If you've never consulted it, you don't need to keep it. It's very rare that there's something that's truly irreplaceable. If it is irreplaceable, you probably are quite aware of that. It's not like you think, "My birth certificate? When do I need that?" You know you need your birth certificate. But then there's a lot of paperwork where people are like, "Why don't I just hang on to this." Really press yourself because that stuff mounts up, then you've got to store it, then it makes it harder to find the things that you really need and want because you've got all this paperwork that you're dealing with.

Jan: What words of wisdom do you have for those of us who have unfinished projects hanging around the house?

Gretchen: What kind?

Jan: I love to go to craft stores. I really enjoy going to craft stores and buying fabric and buying things to make crafts out.

Laura: I was going to say and scrapbooking materials. It's been a great mother-daughter activity to go to the stores. But I don't know if we actually...

Jan: We don't really do them after we get the stuff. It's a great way to spend an afternoon but you kind of lack the time and motivation to really finish these unfinished projects so you have a lot of supplies hanging around, but unfinished.

Gretchen: That is a very common problem because it's so fun to buy this stuff, but it takes a lot longer to use it up, if you ever use it up. It's like buying stationery too. It's so fun to buy beautiful stationery, but how fast does a person use it? The easiest, quickest way to finish an unfinished project is to abandon it and to just say, "You know what, I am not going to finish this needlepoint pillow." Or, "I am not going to make a quilt out of this stuff." And to just really face the fact that maybe it seemed like it was going to be fun, but maybe it's too hard or you don't have the time. If you truly have more than you could use and you don't really foresee yourself using it, you might give it away. Again, it's more fun to think of giving it to somebody who would actually knit with it or do it, than it is to just hang on to it and have it pile up and you can get it off your shelf and off your conscience.

If you really do want yourself to use it, you might just say that you can't buy anymore until you've used up what you have. It is much easier to buy it and to get your stores outstripping what you're going to actually put to use. It's interesting about buying, there is a pleasure in buying. You might say to yourself, "The fun of this, for us, was in the buying of it, now it's achieved that purpose. We've had our fun and now we're going to give it away because we're done with it. We've had our relationship with this thing. It's fulfilled its destiny, as to me.

I remember with my daughter's school, I just called them up and was like, "I got all these art supplies, do you want them?” They're like, "Yeah, just bring them over." I took them a box of stuff. That was great because I was like, "Here it's going to this school."

Laura: It's getting used.

Gretchen: But even anywhere. I think there's people who are always looking for supplies and probably who use quantities of it. Getting a great deal on really nice supplies, they be thrilled and then they would use the things too. There is a whole category of things that are fun to buy. For some people, it's kitchen gadgets or fancy ingredients, cookbooks, stationery. Things like bath salts, where there's a pleasure in buying them, but they don't get used up very fast. You want to be aware of that, that can be a kind of clutter.

Laura: Let's say that we've gone through our place, we consider it to be clean, and it's giving us outer order and inner calm, which is making us feel really good. How do we avoid that clutter problem from coming back? And how can we be smarter shoppers in the future?

Gretchen: With shopping, one thing to do, if you are an impulse shopper online, which is very common. It's 11 o'clock and click, click, click, click.

Laura: Can't get to sleep.

Gretchen: One of the things you can do very easily is to delete your account. That means you have to shop as a guest, which is not insurmountable. If you really need something or want something, it does not take that long to enter your billing information, your credit card information, and your shipping information. That is not that big a deal. But it's enough of an inconvenience, late at night impulse shopping, probably you're going to say, "It's just too much trouble, I'll deal with it tomorrow." And you just never think of it again.

Here's something unusual, I have been surprised by how many people have told me that they do this, which is you shop with no intention of purchasing. Back to this idea of the fun of purchasing, for some people there is a pleasure in putting something in their cart and picking and choosing, and putting things together and kind of claiming things like, "This is what I want." Then they just delete it, they just never buy. Maybe you just say to yourself, "Maybe I find it kind of fun to do that. But I'm just going to say to myself that I'm not actually going to buy." Again, deleting your account makes that easier to do because it's just hard to actually buy. But you can recognize that that is a pleasure on its own. Maybe that's the pleasure that you get. You don't have to worry about the purchasing.

If you are an impulse shopper in person, one thing you can do is to not take a basket or a cart. People take much less, as you might expect, if they have to carry those things around. Or you can also say that you're only going to go back for an impulse purchase after you've made it all the way to the cash register. Once you've completed all your plan shopping, then you have to go back for something. A lot of times it's like, "Oh my gosh, I don't want to find my way back, all the way back to that part of the store. I'll just get it next time." And you never think of it again.

Here's a funny one, shop with a man. If you're a woman, women spend less time shopping when they're with men than they do when they're by themselves, with other women, or even with children, which I thought was interesting. The amount of time you spend in a store is very correlated to how much you will buy.

Also, don't touch anything and don't eat or drink anything. These are things that get you buying, which is why they want you to touch, and eat, and drink, and have samples. Why there's all these impulse purchases right by the checkout where you're standing and waiting and you're like, "I could really use a purse-size hand sanitizer." It's like, "Okay, you never felt the need for that before, but here it is going into your cart." No, don't have a cart. And don't, don't, don't add something at the last minute. You have to do a whole lap around the store before you can add something else to your cart.

Jan: Gretchen, how do you think people can determine if clutter is getting in the way of their happiness? What kinds of questions should you be asking yourself?

Gretchen: Does it bother you? Do you feel weighed down by it? Do you feel better when it's cleared up? Do you feel a greater sense of energy or lightness? People often use metaphors of lightness, I feel like a backpack is off my back. I feel like I've lost 10 pounds. But then there are people who just don't care, like my sister, she just is clutter-blind. She just doesn't care. She makes an effort because she has a family and they care. But she wouldn't close the kitchen cabinet door ever again if she lived by herself, she just really doesn't see it.

For most people, they feel more focused. They just feel a greater sense of peace and relaxation when things are orderly. People have different levels. Some people need a very high level, some people kind of in the middle, some people very low, some people not at all. Of course, that's a common source of conflict when you have a household or an office space where people have different senses of what feels right. Sometimes you have to work that out, which is often a source of conflict among people.

Laura: When you were on before, you talked about the one-minute rule. It was so great, I was wondering if you could reiterate that for our audience who didn't listen to it before?

Gretchen: The one-minute rule is a favorite. It's the idea that anything that you can do in less than a minute, you do without delay. If you can hang up a coat instead of throwing it on a chair, or you can glance at a document and put it in the right folder instead of just putting it down on your desktop. This just keeps all these tiny tasks from accumulating on the surface of life. But it's good for really busy people, because you might say to yourself, "Look, I've got three kids, I've got a full-time job. I've got a million things going on, I don't have time to spend an hour going through my medicine cabinet." It's like, okay, that's fine. Absolutely, that might be your experience.

But there are things that you can just do in the course of your ordinary day, as you're going through your very busy life, that will keep a level of orderliness that might make your life both calmer and also easier. When all that stuff is put away, it's easier to find things, you don't spend a lot of time panicking because you can find that form from school, or the car keys, or your grocery list, or whatever. "Where's the dog leash?" If every time you put the dog leash back on the hook, then it's always there when you're looking for it. That just brings down your stress level, it makes things easier.

The one-minute rule is a really easy, practical way, even for very, very busy people, to maintain a certain level of order. Over and over, people say once you start doing this, it's amazing how far it takes you. A lot of things, if you do them a minute at a time, you can get pretty far.

Jan: Gretchen, as you know, our show is called Nobody Told Me! We do always ask our guests, "What's your nobody told me lesson?" So now the second time around with you on our show, what's your nobody told me lesson about decluttering and organizing and inner calm?

Gretchen: Nobody told me how individual people are. There's always this impulse to have the right answer, the best way, the most efficient solution. People want to tell you that and people will ask for that. They want like, 'tell me the way to do it.' What nobody told me, and it really took me a long time to figure out is, there really isn't a one best way that we do best. We achieve our aims better and maintain those aims better when we really tailor our solutions towards ourselves.

Here's a good example. I try to do a 10-minute tidy-up in our living space every day, just take 10 minutes and just tidy things up. For a long time, I was trying to do it before bed because that seemed like the logical time. Go to bed, it'll help me get everything organized at the end of the day. But then what I realized is, I'm a morning person. I'm very, very tired by the end of the day, I have a very low energy level, I don't feel like it. But I'm high energy in the morning. Now I do the 10 minute tidy up first thing in the morning. Yeah, I come down to a messy surrounding, but then I clear it up. It's so much easier for me to do that in the morning than to try to do it at night.

It doesn't really matter. Why not suit myself and my own sense of energy rather than thinking, you should do this last thing of the night. On paper, it sounds like this is a good end-of-day thing to do. But in practice, that was the wrong way for me. I'm not saying it's the wrong way for everyone, it's just the wrong way for me. I had to suit it to myself and now I'm much, much, much more consistent on doing it because it fits my temperament.

Laura: Gretchen, how can people find you on social media and learn more about the book?

Gretchen: I'm all over social media and I love to connect with listeners, readers, and viewers. Hit me up with insights, or observations, or questions. @GretchenRubin all over Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, @GretchenRubin. I have a website, gretchenrubin.com. There's just way more there than you would ever want to know about outer order, or good habits, or happiness, or the Four Tendencies which is my personality framework that divides people into four categories. gretchenrubin.com. I also have a podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. You can find that on my website, or anywhere you listen to your podcast, you can just look for Happier with Gretchen Rubin. It's a weekly podcast about how to be happier that I do with my sister, Elizabeth.

Jan: Gretchen, we thank you so much for joining us again. This has been a delight.

Gretchen: It's so fun to talk to you again. Thanks for having me back.

Jan: Our thanks to Gretchen Rubin. Again, her latest book is called Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness. Again, her website is gretchenrubin.com. I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.

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