Some Surprising Observations About How to Fight Clutter.

One of the things about happiness that continually surprises me is the degree to which, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, and inner self-command.

In the context of a happy life, a crowded coat closet or an overflowing in-box is trivial, and yet such things weigh us down more than they should.

That’s why I follow habits like making my bed and the one-minute rule, and why one of the most important strategies of habit formation is the Strategy of Foundation.

Because I’m so interested in the connections among clutter, order, energy, habits, and happiness, I had to read Marie Kondo’s blockbuster bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

It was interesting for many reasons, but a few things struck me in particular.

For one thing, Kondo pointed out that advice for clearing clutter very often takes the form of “Start off slowly and discard just one item a day.”

This sounds very practical and sensible. However, she comments,

“I am not the kind of person who likes to plug away at something, one step at a time. For people like me, who do their assignments on the very last day right before the deadline, this approach just doesn’t work.”

In Better Than Before, my book about habits, I make a similar point. While taking small, gradual steps works well for many people, it’s also true that some people do better when they take giant steps.  Sometimes, counter-intuitively, it’s easier to make a major change than a small change. Both strategies can be effective — as always, the key is to know what works for you. Ask yourself, “Do I prefer to aim big or aim small?”

Also, some people (like me, for instance) are Marathoners, and some people are like Kondo — they’re Sprinters, who prefer to do their work right against a deadline. Again, it’s more important to know your style than to argue about what style is “better.”

On a different point, Kondo remarks:

“Many people get the urge to clean up when under pressure, such as just before an exam. But this urge doesn’t occur because they want to clean their room. It occurs because they need to put ‘something else’ in order…The fact that the tidying urge rarely continues once the crisis is over proves my theory…Because the problem faced—that is, the need to study for the exam—has been ‘tidied away.’

“This doesn’t mean that tidying your room will actually calm your troubled mind. While it may help you feel refreshed temporarily, the relief won’t last because you haven’t addressed the true cause of your anxiety. If you let the temporary relief achieved by tidying up your physical space deceive you, you will never recognized the need to clean up your psychological space.”

This reminds me of one of my most important Secrets of Adulthood for Habits: Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination. We may feel “productive,” because we’re busy and getting something done, but if we’re not aiming at the target we want to hit, ultimately we’re going to feel dissatisfied.

Nevertheless, it’s very common to want to clean up before settling down to a big project. That’s why it’s so helpful to maintain a reasonable level of order — it means we’re far closer to being able to work.

Have you found this to be true, yourself?

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I find it very pleasing to clean up my sewing room after finishing a significant project. Trust me, as soon as I start the next, it may quickly look again as if a fabric and thread bomb went off in there, but the feeling of peace and satisfaction I get from cleaning up before starting the next mess makes me really happy.

    I find the incremental approach good, although persistence in the increments is not always easy–life tends to distract with its many calls and responsibilities. Again, I say, my timer is my friend. If I set it for 15 minutes or half and hour and do NOTHING BUT the clean-up task I’ve set, whether paper or housework, I do better.

  • little c

    I have been hearing about Marie Kondo’s book and her philosophy, and have been doing a bit of decluttering myself lately. I have found her concept of keeping things only if they “spark joy” to be surprisingly helpful while doing so — there are things that I have been holding on to for various reasons but not using, and they have been inexplicably making me feel burdened and adding to my clutter, and I have not been able to justify getting rid of them (“I have hardly used it!”, “maybe I’ll need it one day”, “but it was a gift from Mom” etc). However when I look at them and ask “but does it “spark joy” and realize the answer is “no” (the sweater is itchy, not joyful, etc) it is a lot easier to get rid of and I feel less stressed and more calm already!

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Have nothing in your homes that is not beautiful and useful (William Morris) is approximately his statement. I think he is right . . . although I violate that thought like crazy.

      • Penelope Schmitt

        believe to be beautiful and know to be useful. There.

    • phoenix1920

      WOW–this is SOOO illuminating. My nature is a rebel and I probably set too much stock in general in how I feel (whether I feel like cleaning clutter, etc) but this is a way to harness that. Often when I clean clutter, I try to be too logical, but it is so much effort and I often don’t feel like cleaning clutter because I don’t have the mental energy at the end of the day when I have the time. But in tuning to my nature, I work the best using my gut and my feelings. Just letting my gut make the decision to keep X or Y based on whether I feel a “spark of joy” or that sense of being burdened–what a great thought!

  • ChrisD

    I read Marie Kendo’s book over the summer and I LOVE it. Even as I was reading it, she gave me permission to get rid of so many things. (not all clothes come to you to be worn out, for some of them their purpose in life is to teach what you don’t like. Let them go). I sorted through all my clothes immediately after reading the book. Though on my paperwork my progress is more slow and steady.
    I don’t think I did as good a job at sorting through things as I would have done with someone standing over me saying: ‘are you SURE’, but I’ve made very good progress.
    The overall philosophy is exactly the same as William Morris. But if one sentence could convince us to throw out our rubbish we wouldn’t buy the book. Here are 100s more sentences to help us let go of our rubbish.
    The only bad thing is that she talks about chucking everything in the rubbish, I’m glad I can give things up for freecycling or charity BUT it does take longer.

  • RuthieP

    This is TOO TRUE! I’m a Sprinter and then find myself tidying my desk or updating my calendar with important to-do items instead of actually completing my task! I drive myself mad with it – thankyou for the extremely logical explanation, that helps me immensely

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    Your insight that ‘working is a form of distraction’ is very…well, insightful. Because it takes the finite time and energy to work on one thing, which is probably something difficult/frightening to begin, and use it on another task like laundry or errands because they ‘have’ to be done. De-cluttering your home and office is as necessary as any of the other daily tasks we do to maintain a home/life, but the approach of limiting clutter in mall bursts makes it less of a burdensome project and more of a healthy habit. I’ve found it true that a de-cluttered outer space truly does contribute to a calm, clear inner self. Better decisions and more happiness will arise from that tidy space than one filled with stuff that no longer serves us, or serves only as a distraction to the more important life work at hand.

  • NJ Darling

    Just got the book yesterday and started in. Wow! Radical de-cluttering for sure. I desperately need to tidy just for my peace of mind. One of my biggest obstacles is the concern that I shouldn’t just send it to the landfill. somebody might need it, want it or it might be useful some other way, for example lightly used art supplies, a door I had replaced, etc. Resolutions for these thoughts makes the process extremely difficult for me.

    • gretchenrubin

      I find it much easier to de-clutter when I have a recipient in mind for the things that I’m clearing.
      It adds a lot of work to the process, but I agree, I just don’t feel right about tossing things that are still useful.

  • Karen

    I find these clutter clearing articles useful as I haven’t formed consistent habits to keep things cleared away! I have a different reaction also. I find that I would like to know more about how to declutter and organize the inside of my computer. I see lots of articles about email but not many about how to set up a internal filing system so that you can find the files you need quickly and easily. Do you have any resources on this topic? Thanks as always!

    • valleycat1

      Karen – this is a fairly succinct summary you might find helpful

      Basically, an organized set of computerized files is based on the same principles as an organized home. Declutter, get rid of what you do not need or use frequently, then organize. Set up a few major categories of file folders (I have the ones I go to most directly on the desktop) depending on what kinds of information you are organizing. Use simple broad names for these home folders. You can select multiple documents using the control key, then move them all at once to a folder Over time, you may see a need to set up some sub folders. And if you are saving a lot of documents, come up with a system that makes sense for you and rename them fairly consistently, with the main keyword you think of as the leading word in the name. If you have saved a lot of links or items from the internet, you might want to use a pinterest account for those.

    • Marie

      From the “Get It Done Guy,” I’ve picked up the idea that one should “file for retrieval.” So when filing, whether paper or electronically, I always have to ask myself where I am most likely to look for it first. Also, if I’m not likely to look for it in my files (as opposed to googling it), why keep it?
      I do like Aaron Couch’s advice, too.

    • Joanne

      Look into Evernote. It is fabulous! A digital brain so to speak. The software has an open architecture so you can set it up the way that you think not how others expect you to think. Search YouTube to learn ideas on how different people us it. There is currently no fee for the basic version. The Premium edition has a minimal monthly fee. I am an evangelist and ambassador for the program for the sole reason that it has helped me enormously. Everything in one spot that syncs miraculously from the web to my desktop to my phone. Simply incredible. Also a great way to go paperless.

  • Gracie

    Interesting – I would always have a cleaning marathon before an exam and the reset of the time hated cleaning. I just thought I was putting off studying!

    • Guest

      For me cleaning before an exam was putting off studying.

      I think all these “truisms” are broad generalizations with limited applicability for many. We are complex beings. But if it woks for you, go for it.

  • marjorie

    YOU TOO can have the book-print skirt, Gretchen! (It’s made to order — just send the Etsy seller your measurements.) There’s a version featuring classic book covers, too. (Meh, I find that pretentious.) I wish there were a banned-books version — I’d be all over that one! Thanks for the link.

  • vbateman

    The one minute rule does not work for me because it usually takes about 15 seconds and then I try to squeeze several more things in which then results in my going completely off task and neglecting that thing or things that I should have gone on to after the first less-than-a-minute item.

  • April Ellis

    Gretchen, thanks for posting the link to the blog post about the literary Bat Mitzvah – loved it! 🙂 I would have been so thrilled with a party like that as a kid.

  • Kiwi_girl

    The strategy that has best worked for me and my partner is to set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes once a day (or every couple of days). For some reason, this works well knowing it only has to be done for 20 minutes! That’s 40 minutes of cleaning between us both and we get a lot done!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great strategy —

  • Laura Miller

    Thank you so much for blogging about this book! I love, love, lover her approach. I must be a sprinter. Traditional organizational books leave me feeling hopeless. Her book makes me feel hopeful. (I’ll check back after a few months… lol) I suspect the tricky part will be negotiating with my sentimental husband. He has lots, and lots, and lots of things that bring him joy and frequently laments that all of our problems would be solved if we could just buy a bigger house.

  • katiekate

    Kondo’s point is that ‘marathoning’ is not a good strategy for decluttering, no matter what your preferences are, because you never have the full benefit of putting your space in order.

    I think that one of her main insights is to ‘sort by category’ – so much more sensible than going room by room, since one of the problems with clutter is that it hides!

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  • Roy valenzuela

    Fantastic Article!… As a trainer the first thing I address with my people are all the distractions in their lives that have compromised their health. I have them take a sheet of paper and divide it down the middle and to the left list the essentials of life to daily living and to the right all those things that impress themselves as ‘essentials’ but rather, like a flame, consume the basic needs/ the actual essentials.

    Cleaning up, eliminating clutter, and then maintaining it throughout the minutes of the day is more essential to change than the actual exercises.

    Of course I come along side and model the whole thing from beginning to end.

    Each is left with a change of habit that permits for the release and replacement of the individual items on the right side of the page ( those neutralizes of those essentials on the left side).

    I can guarantee a lasting change with this approach while not focusing on the aesthetics…. As a matter of fact the renewed health contributes a 100% to maintaining these new habits that then leads to structure, enterprise, ingenuity, magnanimity, charity, and of course elevated levels of job performance.

    Relationships are also better addressed, managed, and happily maintained.

  • Allison

    I really enjoyed Marie’s book, and I am definitely one of those people who did a super clean before exams and big papers in college. My quiz results tell me I am a Rebel, so I guess I just want to clean when it’s time to do something else! I don’t know how much I buy of her idea to thank each item before you send it on its way, but there is definitely an element of happiness to be found in the sort of minimalism she espouses.

  • BMA

    Apart from the ‘Does it spark joy?’ question, which I agree is surprisingly helpful, one other idea from her book has stayed with me. That is, when you are choosing a place to store something, you should choose it based on how easy it will be to ‘put away’ and NOT how convenient it is to take out.

  • Tiffany Turley

    I was wondering if you had read this book yet! Love hearing your perspective on it. You’re right – Very similar to many of the points you make in your own books.

  • Nigel Mark Steele

    Hi Karen, If you are looking for a solution that is based on a P.C. or Laptop then firstly all the library must be on a different hard drive than the operating system. Windows usually runs on the C: drive. If your computer does not have another internal drive then you should buy an extra internal drive (or have one fitted) or an external drive to store your files. The best way to set up a library of files is within folders that have names in capital letters very much like a filing cabinet or other paper based filing system. I have for example a PERSONAL folder I store my banking and personal letters in folders within this folder. I have a films folder which again has sub folders for children’s family and adults, I have other folders for music software books magazines and the inevitable TO BE SORTED folders!! I hope this helps regards Nigel

  • L Drahos

    I just finished the book today. I can not function in a cluttered environment and I’m definitely going to do what she suggests. I’m giving the useable stuff to our local Salvation Army. It is a money raiser for their cause. I love the words, “does it spark JOY?” I’m sure this is the key to decluttering or tidiness.

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