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Podcast 72: Make Sure to Have “Room of Your Own,” Beware the Incomplete Upgrade, and My Parental Failure.

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: In episode 64, we introduced the segment of the “Happiness Hack.” Some listeners sent us their favorite hacks. Keep sending them in! We love reading them.

Try This at Home: Have room of your own. Maybe not an entire room, but some room.

Happiness Stumbling Block: The incomplete upgrade. Have you experienced this?

Listener Question: Missy “I’m moving in with my boyfriend. I don’t have a TV, but my boyfriend has one. How do I avoid spending too much time on the couch?”

Gretchen’s Demerit: I didn’t warn my daughter that once her cellphone screen cracked, she should go ahead and get it fixed, even though the phone was still working. Why? Because inevitably it will stop working at the most inconvenient possible time. Which it did.

 Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Elizabeth gives a gold star to summer traffic in Los Angeles.

Remember,  I’m doing weekly live videos on my Facebook Page about the podcast. To join the conversation, tune in Tuesdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

If you want to take the Four Tendencies quiz, it’s here.

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1pixHappier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #72

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Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin?” We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).  We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much.

HAPPIER listening!

“Just Like It’s Not Easy to Lose Weight, It’s Not Easy for People to Let Go of Their Past.”

Interview: Felice Cohen.

I learned about Felice Cohen when I, like twelve million other people, watched a short video where she showed of her 90-square-foot Manhattan studio. (90 square feet is about the size of a Honda Accord, if that helps you visualize how small this space is.)

Several people emailed me about the video, both because it was about dealing with possessions and home, which is a subject that I love, and also because — you can see that she’s reading my book The Happiness Project! Which was so fun.

To see the cameo of The Happiness Project, go to minute 1:01.

Now Felice Cohen has a new book about living in a tiny space. In 90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (or More), she talks about de-cluttering, organizing, and issues about how to live large in a small space.

I wanted to ask Felice for her thoughts on happiness, habits, and home.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Felice: Writing out a new To Do list. Seeing the tasks I’ve already crossed out makes me feel accomplished, while writing out new goals inspires me. A To Do list also adds structure to my day and frees up mental space I’d otherwise spend trying to remember all that I need to do. Best of all, these lists capture life’s moments. When I was the Chief of Staff to the president at Hunter College, I kept one large notebook and wrote down everything I had to do, often filling one or two entire pages a day. With each completed task, I would put one line through it and write the date. On occasion I would be asked days or weeks later if something ever got done. Looking back through pages to confirm, I would always be amazed by what I had succeeded at doing.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Healthy habits are cumulative. Eating right, exercising, working towards your goals and believing in yourself are investments for your long-term health and happiness. I now go into every situation with an open mind thinking it will have a positive outcome. And why not? Life is full of surprises and while things may not always go your way, having a positive attitude can at least reduce the sting when they don’t. Best of all, I know there’s always next time.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Exercise. While I also make sure to eat right and get enough sleep, exercise is crucial to my being able to write and organize a client’s home or office. I suffer from occasional bouts of lower back pain and when that happens I can barely stand up, let alone get anything done. As long as I exercise (cycle, walk, yoga, stand up paddle board) everyday, I’m okay. Plus, the endorphins are great and who doesn’t want to feel strong? It’s also part of my long-term goal to keep my body resilient to aging, so I can continue to do the things I love. Many people ask how I find the time. Simple. I don’t have a lot of stuff and I’m organized and efficient with my time. When you spend less time looking for stuff, cleaning stuff or working to pay off stuff, you’ll find you have a lot more time to do the things you love.

I also make my bed first thing every morning. It sets a productive intention to the day.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

When I lived in the 90-square-foot NYC studio, I didn’t have a kitchen and only a mini fridge. At first I went out to dinner or got take out every night. I was living on the Upper West Side where there are endless restaurants. I soon realized I was spending a lot of money, plus you don’t always know what’s going into the food. I had a toaster oven (where I made my Shrinky Dinks art), so I decided to put that to good use. I soon got really good at making meals in the toaster, plus got accustomed to making salads in the airplane-sized bathroom sink! I also gave myself an incentive. The money I saved from going out to eat, I put towards a new bicycle.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Upholder. All. Day. Long. I look at life as an endless road of possibilities. I grew up thinking I could achieve anything I wanted. (My mom was always taking me to the library and my favorite book was Girls Can Be Anything by Norma Klein. I was also a varsity athlete and was recruited to play two Division 1 sports. I loved competing, but more so, I loved the camaraderie of being part of a team. If we lost a game, I wouldn’t brood like some other teammates. Sure, winning was fun, but at that age, I knew that either outcome didn’t really matter. It was only a game. Life to me sometimes feels like a game. We can either enjoy it or be defensive all the time. I choose to be on the Enjoy It Team.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

December. There’s a holiday craft fair in Manhattan that sells enormous gingerbread cookies from a farm upstate. Those cookies are my kryptonite. (Okay, that and Nutella.) The key I found to battling things that interfere with healthy habits is to give in to them once in a while. (In my case, a few weeks out of the year.) It’s something I look forward to and enjoy. I mean, what else am I going to live for? Kale? Be real.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Embrace. Habits to me signify change and change represents new possibilities. I’ve met many people whose first reaction is to resist change. “But I’ve always done it this way.”  I think they fear it will make their lives harder. Many of my clients have a hard time getting rid of stuff. “I might need that one day!” We get attached to things and don’t think we’ll be able to live without it. But there is not one person who I’ve helped get rid of bags and bags (and for many, more bags!) of stuff who didn’t feel happy and free when I was done. Just like it’s not easy to lose weight, it’s not easy for people to let go of their past. Once I explain getting rid of stuff does not mean they’re forgetting their past, but making room for their future with new experiences, they’re more able to part with things they no longer have use for but are keeping out of habit.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

A boss at my alma mater: the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I helped run orientation for 4,500 new students every summer for seven years. My boss had many rules, but her most important – “Better 10 minutes early than one minute late,” was etched into our brains, ensuring that we’d be where we needed to be and on time. That maxim has benefited me numerous times ever since. Whether I was catching a flight, working with a client or even meeting a friend, being early not only keeps my stress level down, but I have also met new people and seen sights I would otherwise have missed.

7 Reasons I Disagree with Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”

I love the subject of clearing clutter.

For me — and for most people — outer order contributes to inner calm. I feel this phenomenon in my own life; it exhilarates me in practice and fascinates me in theory.

So I was eager to read Marie Kondo’s blockbuster bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. And I found it thought-provoking, and I got some great clutter-clearing tips from the “KonMari method.”

I also have some profound disagreements with Marie Kondo.

As I write in The Happiness Project, and Happier at Home, and Better Than Before, I’ve come to believe deeply that we all must find the way to happiness and good habits that’s right for us.

There is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution. Just because something works for you — or Marie Kondo — doesn’t mean that it will work for me. We can all learn from each other, absolutely, but there’s no one way to achieve anything. You indulge in moderation; I abstain. You exercise in the afternoon; I exercise first thing in the morning. You like lots of abundance; I like simplicity. No one’s right, and no one’s wrong. It’s what’s true for the individual. (You can read more about this in Better Than Before, in the chapter about “Distinctions.”)

And Marie Kondo does argue for the one best way. And here’s the thing: you read five pages of this book, and you know that Marie Kondo is an extreme, idiosyncratic personality. Which I love! Which makes the book much more interesting! But what works for Marie Kondo isn’t necessarily a great guide for what works for another person.

From her own description of herself, she makes it clear that she’s a simplicity-lover, who likes to take big steps, who’s a sprinter, and a person who  who doesn’t feel strong emotional attachment to possessions. (Though at the same time, she shows a strong feeling of animism, which I found intriguing.) But some people are abundance lovers, and some people like to start small, and some people are marathoners, and some people have strong emotional attachments to possessions. So her guidance may not work for you.

Here are the 7 main concepts where I disagree with Marie Kondo:

 1. She advises putting every item in a category on the floor as the first step in clearing clutter.

She advises that that if you’re cleaning your coats, take out every single coat, if you’re clearing your bookshelves, take out every book. In my experience, this can easily become overwhelming and lead to more clutter that lasts a long time, because people bite off more than they can chew. Know yourself.

2.  She advises having a joyful relationship with every item you own.

She recommends asking yourself whether an item “sparks joy.” This is a terrific question, and can be very helpful. But I don’t think I can realistically expect to have a joyful relationship with every item in my apartment. I find it exhausting even to contemplate having an emotional reaction to so many common objects. It’s true, though, that for many people, “spark joy” has been a revelation. Know yourself.

3. She advises clearing clutter alone and in quiet.

For me, that’s very true. For many people, it’s helpful to have a clutter-clearing partner. Another person can help with the grunt work, give advice about what to keep or discard, and can make a chore more fun. Know yourself.

4. She suggests taking everything out of your handbag, every day.

This would not be a good use of my time or energy, and I don’t think it would achieve anything. On the other hand, when Elizabeth and I talked about “the challenge of switching bags” in episode 55 of our podcast Happier, many listeners let me know that they followed Marie Kondo’s suggestion, with great success. Know yourself.

5. She suggests going big and doing a giant purge rather than tackling a little clutter each day.

But, as I write about in Better Than Before, some people like to start big, and some like to start small. It’s exhilarating, and highly productive, to tackle a big, one-time goal, and a clean slate is powerful — it’s also true that we can get a lot done, by doing a little bit each day over a long term. Know yourself.

6. She says that the best time to start is early morning.

That’s true if you’re a morning person, but I doubt that’s true if you’re a night person. Know yourself.

7. She suggests that folding is the best way to store most clothes.

She’s a big proponent of folding — and a very particular method of folding. I myself just can’t handle that high level of commitment to folding.

Know yourself. Use what works for you.

The problem arises when you beat yourself up for not being able to do things the KonMari way, “the right way.” When it comes to clearing clutter, there is no right way, only what’s right for you.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Marie Kondo’s book. I found it thought-provoking, helpful, and engaging. The minute I finished the book, for example, I got rid of a million coats.

Here’s the thing. As I was writing Better Than Before, it seemed so obvious to me that there’s no one “right” way or “best” way to change habits. So why, then, do so many experts assert that they’d found the one true way?

There’s something about human nature…when it comes to getting advice, we love to be given the true plan, the precise template that’s going to reveal exact directions to success.

And when it comes to giving advice, it’s easy to assume that because some strategy works well for us, other people will use it with equal success.

But it’s always a matter of the individual.

I learned a lot of little things from Marie Kondo, but there was one big thing I learned: that we should stay grateful for our possessions — for having served us well, for embodying someone else’s affection for us in the form of a gift, or for giving us a thrill upon purchase. An “attitude of gratitude,” for even inanimate objects, makes us happier. I know that I’ve never let go of an old laptop without taking a moment to think, “Farewell, my old friend, we’ve had some great times together, but now it’s time for you to rest.”

The relationship between possessions and happiness! One of the most fascinating themes I’ve ever studied.

Did you read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? What KonMari Method strategies worked for you — or not?

Got the Urge to Do Some Spring-Cleaning? Avoid These 5 Classic Mistakes.

It’s spring! (In my part of the world, at least.) And with spring comes the urge to do some spring-cleaning. The warmer weather and the fresh breezes make me want my home to feel orderly, spacious, and clean.

So far, I’ve tackled three kitchen cabinets, a closet, and my pile of white t-shirts. It feels great.

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. I write about this connection in Better Than Before, in The Happiness Project, and in Happier at Home. (All New York Times bestsellers, I can’t resist adding).

This connection fascinates me; 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. And clearing clutter is so energizing and cheering!

I’ve learned the hard way, however, to avoid these classic mistakes during spring-cleaning, or clutter-clearing generally:

1. Don’t get organized.

When you’re facing a desk swamped in papers, or a closet bursting with clothes, or counter-tops littered with piles of random objects, don’t say to yourself, “I need to get organized.” No!

Your first instinct should be to get rid of stuff. If you don’t keep it, you don’t have to organize it. My sister wanted me to help her organize her papers, and after we threw away the papers she didn’t need to keep, there was nothing left to organize. Excellent.

2. Don’t buy fancy storage gizmos.

Ironically, it’s often the people with the worst clutter problems who have the instinct to run to a store and buy complicated hangers, drawer compartments, etc.  Don’t let yourself buy an item until it’s absolutely clear that it will help you organize objects that are truly necessary—rather than act as a crutch to move clutter around or to jam more clutter into place.

3. Don’t save things for the hazy future.

Some things are  worth keeping — but not most things. I was once helping a friend clear her clutter, and when I gently suggested that she might give away that pantsuit that she wore to work eight years earlier, she said, “Oh, but my daughter might want to wear those one day.” Really? I don’t think so. If you get a new dog, you’ll probably want a fresh dog bed, and if you lose a bunch of weight, you’ll probably decide to buy a new pair of jeans.

4. Don’t “store” things.

It makes sense to store holiday decorations, seasonal clothes, baby things you intend to use again, and anything else that’s useful for a particular time. But often, when we “store” something, it’s because we know we don’t really need it, or use it, or care about it much, but we just want to get it out of the way. Usually, it’s easier to throw something in the basement, attic, or garage than it is to figure out what to do with it. But in the long run, it’s better not to “store” that stuff but to give it away, recycle it, or toss it right away — without an intervening period in storage.

5. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Things often get messier before they get tidier. If you dump out every drawer in that big chest, you may run out of energy and time before you’re finished sorting through all of it. Take one drawer at a time. Of course, sometimes it’s necessary — and even fun — to spend a whole day or weekend clearing clutter, but often, it’s more realistic to tackle smaller aims.

Remember, we often over-estimate what we can do in a short time (one afternoon) and under-estimate what we can do over a long period, a little at a time (spending thirty minutes a day clearing clutter, for a month). Keep the process manageable.

What are your tips for clearing clutter? What mistakes have you made, in the past?

Are You Clutter-Blind? Or Do You Know Someone Who Is?

One thing that continues to surprise me about the nature of good habits and happiness is the degree to which, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. More, really, than it should.

In the context of life of a happy life, something like a crowded coat closet or an overflowing in-box seems trivial—and it is trivial—and yet I find that I get a disproportionate charge of energy and good cheer from clearing clutter.

An orderly environment makes me feel more in control of my life, and if this is an illusion, it’s a helpful illusion.

Many people feel that way, and even people who thrive on a little chaos tend to have a limit, and enjoy orderliness to some degree.

Oblivious to Clutter

However, there’s a group of people who seem oblivious to clutter. They don’t appear to see it at all. Just as some people are color-blind, these folks are clutter-blind.

“Clutter-blind” doesn’t apply to the people who can stand to see dirty dishes scattered around, because they know if they wait, a spouse will collect the dishes — perhaps complaining all the while; see these crucial facts about shared work.

The fact is, very often, people in a couple or in a group have different levels of tolerance for clutter, and the ones with the least tolerance end up doing the most tidying, and the ones with more tolerance end up doing less. Again, this is a problem of shared work. However, in most cases, the messier ones would eventually cave and do some clutter-clearing, too. They want to be in environments that are reasonably orderly (though others might disagree by what is “reasonable”).

But some people don’t seem to register clutter, ever. A friend told me, “My husband never notices anything. As an experiment, when we got back from a trip, I left a suitcase full of his dirty clothes right in front of the front door, so he’d have to step over it to get in the house. I wanted to see how long he’d put up with it.  After a month, I called off the experiment and dealt with the suitcase myself.”

Have you found anything that works?

If this describes you — I’m curious:

  • Does clutter simply not register, or does it just not bug you?
  • Do you ever feel there’s any value in creating an orderly environment, even if disorder doesn’t particularly bother you — or is it not worth the energy and time?
  • Do you have trouble finding things, or do you know exactly where to find your belongings?
  • Is this a source of conflict with other people, or do they accept this aspect of your nature?

 

If this describes someone you know :

  • How do you deal with this aspect of their personality?
  • Is it possible to cajole folks like this into being more orderly, because it’s important to you, or is it impossible, because they simply don’t see it?

 

Over and over, I’ve been asked, “My spouse is clutter-blind. Living in a big mess just doesn’t bother him/her, and nothing I say or do makes this person help me keep things orderly. It makes me crazy, but I don’t think it’s fair that I have to do all the clutter-clearing, just because my spouse doesn’t care. So what do I do?”

What should that person do? Have you found anything that works?

In my limited observation, such folks often just can’t be changed. They’re not thoughtless or rude; they simply can’t address clutter because they don’t see it.