A Surprising Happiness Booster? Cleaning My Office.

One of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood: Outer order contributes to inner calm. Clutter seems like a trivial matter, but I always find that I feel more serene and cheerful if my apartment and office aren’t too messy.

Along those lines, I’ve learned from my happiness project to be wary whenever I have the urge to “treat” myself, because often my treats don’t make me happy in the long run. For instance, one of my “treats” is to let piles of papers, clothes, books, and dishes pile up–which ends up making me feel less happy.

In fact, when I want to calm myself, or cheer myself up, I often take an hour and clean my office. For instance, this morning. My office had become a wreck, because I wasn’t taking the time to put anything away. I kept putting off little tasks, thinking, “It’s more important to answer my emails,” “I need to get this little piece written first,” “I need a break, I don’t want to deal with this now,” but finally, I got down to it.

I set aside an hour and tackled the mess. Methodically I entered reading notes, copied information, filed, wrote emails, tossed papers, wrote a thank-you note, took coffee cups to the kitchen, got rid of empty yogurt containers, etc. One of my daily habits is to take notes on a scratch pad–mostly to-do reminders–and these multiply quickly. I worked my way through the items on those sheets so I could toss them out.

I even dusted.

Now when I look around my office, I feel a shock of relief. All those clean surfaces! No more stacks of papers and books teetering on the edge of the desk! No more feeling harassed by uncompleted tasks! It gave me a real boost.

As Samuel Johnson wrote, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.”

  • Anne

    I agree. I try to keep on top of things (and succeed most of the time) by having a rota of chores. Every room gets cleaned and straightened once a week, per a schedule app I have on my iPad. After the first week, it’s no big deal.

    There’s also a list for weekly chores like recharging my cell phone and checking to see whether I need to re-order the cat’s medicine. I stay fairly organized this way, and this makes life a lot more pleasant.

    • Kat

      Same here! I use an app called “Errands” and I can’t live without it now. What do you use?

      • Anne

        “HomeRoutine” by Wunderbear

  • Asha Dornfest {Parent Hacks}

    The universe is speaking to me! I’m sitting at the dining room table b/c my office is a mess…and I’m “checking in” (but, really, I’m procrastinating about cleaning my office.) That’s it! After I’m done with this comment the laptop closes and I’m getting started! Thank you, Gretchen. Such smart insight about our “treats” being “non-treats.”

  • peninith

    I loved your recent post on ‘how much time do you spend looking for things?’ My ‘office’ is as much my sewing room as my desk. I started working on some things for a soon-to-arrive baby, and ribbon that I had bought for two projects seemed to have disappeared in the burgeoning messiness of my work space. I followed two suggestions that came along with your post . . .
    (1) look for a lost item by cleaning up; and
    (2) look for a lost item where you would expect to find it.
    At least two corners of my sewing room are significantly tidier, and as I might have guessed, the reels of ribbon–lime green with a yellow stripe and brown with blue polka dots–appeared in a welter of ribbon, trim and bias tape that had become untidily tangled in the box set aside for them. Yes, order is the gateway to serenity–and completed projects!

  • Laura Vanderkam

    I have never managed to keep a clean desk. I’ve realized that when I file a paper, it’s dead to me. Gone. Unless it’s top of desk, it’s not on my mind. So in learning to “be Laura” and realize that what makes other people happy won’t make me happy, I’ve decided that I don’t need a clean desk. Unless my office is being photographed or something.

  • Jennifer Gagliardi

    I completely agree that getting rid of clutter increasing my happiness level at least a few levels. I love the feeling of cleaning up a room, getting rid of things that need to go, and dusting the space. It feels so refreshing to walk into a clean space and know that you can find anything you need to. I absolutely love decluttering!

  • Shari

    You have inspired me to tackle my office desk. Filing has never been my favorite thing to do. However, I agree about outer order. It certainly makes me a happier person.

  • Kathy

    I was just thinking this morning that I have some piles in my office I need to deal with. Restoring order is energizing and happy-making!

  • WordsnWorlds

    I found this quote and had copied it down. It supports your idea that cleaning cheers a person up.

    “I got the blues
    thinking of the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how
    it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor.” D. H. Lawrence

    I think it’s all along the lines of what is within your own personal
    realm that can be acted upon and controlled. To make a difference with
    regard to the things we can control (i.e. straightening up the office)
    builds a well of protection and a feeling of well being from which to draw upon against the things
    we can’t control giving us the ability and confidence to go forward and tackle whatever comes next.

  • Julie (drinkwineandgiggle.com)

    I relate to what you’re saying Gretchen. Letting clutter linger on my desk or around the house makes me feel like I’m being more flexible and easy going. But I can only take it for so long and then it has to go in it’s designated place. I find my mind can’t focus with too much piling up and I become unproductive. A spurt of tidying up allows me to clearly see what it is that I have to do and get on with it.

  • I luuuuuuuv this post! I, too, find happiness in an orderly home or office. Creating external calm opens the way for internal calm. Even back in school days, I seemed to engage in a flurry of housecleaning just before studying for final exams. It wasn’t so much a procrastination tool as the need to get rid of clutter in my living space so that I could study at a clean table and get rid of clutter in my mind. Same holds true now. And for those days when I just can’t seem to get started, I use my mother’s old trick – set a timer for 15 minutes and do as much as you can in just that time. It’s amazing how much can be cleaned in just 15 minutes. Added bonus: once started, I often keep going beyond the 15 minutes. Thanks for the inspiration! Dawn, of Choosing the Better Life (www.choosingthebetterlife.com)

  • chacha1

    I don’t love the actual processes of housework, but I really do love being able to do something that is so simple, and so fast (usually), that offers such an immediate reward. It’s like baking cookies. You do a little work and you have a treat. In the case of housekeeping, the treat is a clean tidy space that reminds me why I love my home.
    I find it much easier to concentrate and to be productive when my space is clean and neat.

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