Secret of Adulthood: Outer Order Contributes to Inner Calm.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:


This is one of the things that has surprised me most about happiness and habits. For most people, an orderly environment helps them feel more energetic, more creative, and more cheerful. This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for most people.

In my forthcoming book about how we make and break habits, I explore the Strategy of Foundation. I argue that habits in four key areas — sleep, move, eat and drink right, and unclutter — strengthen our self-command, and therefore help us to keep our good habits. (To hear when my habits book goes on sale, sign up here.)

Of course, a major challenge with Foundation habits is that, ironically, they’re often the very habits that we’re trying to adopt. Outer order contributes to inner calm, true, but having inner calm makes it much easier to create outer order.

Do you find that working on the area of “unclutter” helps you? Does outer order contribute to your inner calm?

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  • aninchofgray

    Definitely! Which is why I should probably clean my office right now.

  • Diana Cherry

    loved this…very connected. Thought I’d share:

  • I try to clear my desk when I have to study. I consider it an investment into my productivity.

  • Lynn

    Yes, it’s true. I actually use cleaning/clearing space as a way to cheer myself up. I am a VERY cluttered person – objects find me and magically stick to me. No flat surface is safe from me. My life is an endless process of clearing up what I quickly and unconsciously cluttered up. I really believe that, at least for me, having less stuff is the only way to keep order. Reading Leo Babauta’s blog inspires me to push myself further, get rid of more. The more I get rid of, the more space I have, the better I feel.

    • Angela Sherman

      I am the same way with clutter! And also no flat space is safe from me either!

  • HEHink

    Yes. At times when I have felt stress about an area of my life I couldn’t control, I have found myself cleaning up and uncluttering, and it did have a calming effect. (And I found things I’d been looking for, too – isn’t that another Secret of Adulthood?) Maybe it is the act of doing what we can that calms us, sometimes.

  • Max_Freedom

    Yes, until someone at work comments that I must not be doing any work, if my workspace is so tidy and organized.

  • elisa

    I guess I will be the only one who will disagree, but I do. There are more important things in life and I very much prefer spending time doing research or with people I love than tidying up. Order is for me only the means to have an easier life (I need to know where my keys are, but I do not care whether they hang from a plain hook or a decorated one).

    • Jamie

      You may not like tidying up, but do you like how it feels once you’ve completed the task? Do you like spending time in the space you’ve just spruced up? Do you find that you circle back several times to check out your work? Just wondering. Kind of like the exercise habit, many people don’t like starting, but they feel really good once they’re done.

      • Stefan Denk

        Maybe not everyone does. I look at my two kids and they could not be happier than in a horrible mess _they_ created from the place I tidied up the evening before.

        Playing with them for years now, the only thing that counts is: are you able to find X when you need it? If you take 2 seconds to find it on a cluttered space that is as well as if you take 2 seconds to find it on a tidy space. Even better than if you first need to go through all your filers and drawers to find the thing and it takes you 10 minutes.

        Remembering where you put this damn thing is important in any case. The rest is just a question of what makes you happier: a tidied up place or a different activity you invested your time in?

  • Jamie

    The art of homemaking has been really pushed aside. I have never known anyone who didn’t get a personal thrill out of clearing out some space. There is accomplishment in that. However, most homekeeping is like a pot on the stove: you have to keep aware of it at all times. Everyday you have to check in with the laundry, the dishes, the “stuff” around the house. If you have a mentality that you don’t have to constantly be in management mode with your home then you’ll quickly find it all gets so overwhelming so fast. This was a big shift in thinking for me.

    • Mimi Gregor

      I, too, enjoy homemaking. I take pleasure in the fact that my home is a refuge from “out there”. We never need to “get away from it all” by going on vacations because when we are home, we ARE away from it all. Part of this stems from my being a minimalist; there is no clutter because I only keep what is useful and what is loved. Secondly, I have deeply ingrained work habits. I do certain chores at certain times or on certain days, and that way things don’t get out of hand due to procrastination. I have a compartmentalized laundry basket in the closet, and when I see that I have enough for a load of laundry — I DO it. It’s not like I’m going to the river and beating it on a rock… the machine does all the work, I just have to transfer it. It can be done even when I am still groggy. Meals are planned weekly and a list is made at this time for the store. That way, I can cook actual food instead of picking up the phone or throwing a box in the microwave.

      It may sound like I’m constantly doing housework or thinking about housework, but I’m not: once something becomes a habit, you no longer have to think about it… just do it. That’s part of the beauty of it! Because all this has become a habit, I never feel overwhelmed by everything piling up, and I have lots of free time so that I can read, meditate, and exercise… or whatever else I may want to do.

      • Jamie

        Where did you learn these habits? Were you taught this growing up? I am still learning all of this. My habits are not ingrained. I bet many people reading this read your habits and think you’re stodgy or a perfectionist. There is this certain recoil in someone saying they take their housework seriously.

        • Mimi Gregor

          I’ve just always been an orderly sort of person. Yes, my mother was also orderly, so I may have learned some of it there. I just found it to be logical to keep everything in its place so you don’t have to conduct a search to find it, and to get rid of stuff if I’m no longer using it. If it’s around, it must be either cleaned or cleaned around, so it has to earn its place in the house.

          No, I’m not a perfectionist. The place doesn’t have to be antiseptic. Just clutter-free and without visible dirt. There is plenty of scarcely seen dirt to go around, have no fear! My tastes run more toward “shabby chic”, so it’s all run-down and second-hand rather than something out of HG. But it’s all useful and loved. I think of my home as my refuge and I want it to be as stress-free as possible. Minimalism helps contribute to that feeling for me. Others may find a place more crowded with memorabilia soothing to them, but I’ve always maintained that one can keep the memories without keeping the memorabilia.

          • Jamie

            Maybe this is one of those things with parenting where they say “more is caught than taught”. So both of you probably caught a lot of good routines. For those of us who didn’t catch the good routines we hear all those routines as “perfectionism” even though it really isn’t. I hope one day I can keep consistent good routines. I feel like it is always a two steps forward, one step back process.

        • HEHink

          I think what Mimi says is true – some of us just naturally develop these helpful habits, and others of us don’t. The beautiful thing, though, is they can be learned! Sandra Felton’s books have been very helpful to me as I work toward implementing more of these habits. She is a self-proclaimed “Messie,” so her work takes you through her cluttered “before,” her discovery process, and her less cluttered “after” (which sounds a lot like Mimi’s original post.) 🙂

  • Arlene @Nanaland

    I have always said that a cluttered home leads to a cluttered mind. When you cannot make a decision to toss yesterday’s paper, how can you make a decision about anything!! I strongly agree with your premise as it is one I have held for years!!

  • Dana Laquidara

    Not only does outer order lead to more inner calm for me, but it also enhances my creativity. My writing flourishes when I simplify. I write about this here:

  • This is so true and I must admit something I struggle with now that I have two young children. As a writer, I find that taking time out to declutter helps me focus.

  • Renae Gregoire

    I’m in the “outer order, inner calm” camp, too. I work from home, so I try to make my family understand that because “THIS” is my office, I can’t have dirty socks and all sorts of mess lying around. I take time each morning to tidy up because a tidy environment keeps me sane 🙂

  • Angela Peinado

    I totally agree. After reading the Happiness Project I planned some months for specific cleaning. I scheduled May to clean my downstairs closet which also serves as our file room. Got that done and slowly doing it all over the house. For June it is the garage.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    YES! Just got back from a week away at a family wedding and I swear one of the things I most looked forward to coming home was having time to tidy up in my sewing room before the next stage of my projects!

  • chacha1

    I find it very difficult to be productive if my environment is cluttered. Everything I do is time-sensitive, and too many things on the desk at one time equals time wasted organizing the workflow rather than just doing the work.
    My desk at work is ideally 60% empty space, 20% reference material and work-in-progress, 10% personal things, and 10% the detritus of the day, to be cleared away before I leave. Stacks of files and stacks of paper give me agita.
    Optimal Object Density has gone down in my home as I have learned how best to engender peace and comfort … to me that means, being able to walk through the door after work and not be faced with piles of unfinished business, unfiled papers, random crap on the flat surfaces. I like for the apartment to be in a state where we could have people over at an hour’s notice, and if it’s just us, to be in a state where there is nothing to be done beyond fixing, eating, and cleaning up after dinner.
    It has taken me several years of conscious effort to change certain habits. Dropping stuff on the dining table was a big bad one. 🙂

    • HEHink

      2 things: 1) Your desk space formula is fascinating! Did it naturally develop that way as your habits developed, or did this come from some other source?
      2)Totally with you on dropping stuff on the dining table. Current problem is that ours is the first surface we get to when we come in the door. However, that won’t be the case when we move to a new home in a few weeks and the dining table won’t be on the same level as the entrance. I’m excited about creating a new system for dealing with our stuff as we come in.

  • Debbie

    The Flylady website (she also has at least one book) is a good resource for people who are trying to develop habits related to clutter. One of her suggestions is to set a timer for 15 minutes every day to declutter one area. “You can do anything for 15 minutes.” I am definitely more productive, and much happier, in an uncluttered environment.

  • Mimi

    I LOVE this! I printed out your pic and put it up in my new home office. We lost our home and almost all of our belongings last May 31st in the El Reno tornadoes. We just rebuilt and moved into our new home January 31st. My personal New Year’s goals for 2013 were to tame the paper tiger, reduce clutter, and simplify my life and home as much as possible. I was well on my way when the tornadoes came and finished my work in progress. Now, due to the insurance claim process I am feeling overwhelmed with paper again (receipts and documentation). But, as far as every other area, we have made the commitment to becoming minimalists with our new possessions and lifestyle. I tell people that last year we were made minimalists by force, but from this point forward we plan to be minimalists by choice! This has been the hardest thing we’ve ever faced, but the life lessons we’ve learned have been invaluable!

    I have looked around your site and love your work! What a blessing! I’m going to find your books asap! 🙂

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