Tag Archives: order

“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.

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.

Podcast 62: Don’t Accumulate Excessive Amounts of Things, It’s Tough When Worlds Collide, and I Fail to Visit the Park.

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

Update: Back in episode 27, in late August, I gave myself a happiness demerit for not really having a “summer.” I’ve always wanted to have a summer experience (even apart from family vacation) that’s different from the rest of the year. As promised, Elizabeth checked in with me, to ask if I have a vision for the upcoming summer. I need to apply the kind of approach that I used with such success in The Happiness Project. If you have any ideas, let me know!

Try This at Home: Don’t accumulate excessive amounts of things. Soy sauce packets, freebie mugs, egg cartons, rubber bands, etc.

 Happiness Stumbling Block: It’s tough when worlds collide.  For instance, Elizabeth felt very stressed out when Henry and I showed up on set while she was working on that TV show, to record our Very Special Episode 60.

Listener Question: “I’m a Questioner married to an Obliger. How do I make sure that I help make sure that his desires get met?” To learn about Questioners and Obligers (and Upholders and Rebels), go here.

Gretchen’s Demerit: I didn’t visit the flowering trees in Central Park. Again.

Elizabeth’s Gold Star
: Elizabeth gives a gold star to Adam for holding down the home front — without complaint — while she was in New York City for several weeks.

Remember, if you want to request bookplates or signature cards for a mother in your life, to make the gift of a book more special for Mothers’ Day — or if you want a bookplate or signature card for yourself! — you can request them here.

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #62

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“I Was Drawn to the Notion of Freeing Up Time and Space and Energy for the Things that Matter Most.”

Interview: Joshua Becker.

Joshua Becker and I met during a conference in Portland, Oregon — I was very interested to meet him, because I’d read posts on his site, Becoming Minimalist.

Within the larger subject of happiness, one of the most complex, and emotionally charged, is the role of possessions and happiness.

I write a lot about this issue in The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. And in Better Than Before, I write about the distinction between simplicity-lovers and abundance-lovers. I think it’s safe to say that Joshua is a simplicity lover! (Now, some simplicity-lovers say that simplicity is the true abundance…but there’s a difference between simplicity-abundance and abundance-abundance.)

Joshua has a book that’s just about to hit the shelves. He describes  The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own as “a book about owning less, but it’s more than that. It’s a book about generosity and intentionality and learning to pursue happiness in more fulfilling places than the acquisition of money or possessions.”

I was intrigued to hear what he’d have to say on the subject of habits, happiness, and minimalism.

Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Joshua: Absolutely! In fact, the work I do today is based on a lightning bolt moment. Eight years ago, while cleaning out my garage, I was introduced to the idea of intentionally owning fewer possessions during a short conversation with my neighbor. At the time, this was counter-intuitive to me. I’d spent most of my life pursuing and accumulating as many material possessions as I could afford. But when my neighbor introduced me to the idea of minimalism, I was immediately drawn to the notion of freeing up time and space and energy for the things that matter most. Ever since then, I’ve worked to keep my possessions at a minimum and help others discover there is more joy to be found in owning less than we can ever discover pursuing more.

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

It is important for me to clear distractions—both at work and at home. Distractions can come from any number of places, but I often find that removing physical distractions (clutter) from my environment provides me both calm and focus. For me, this means something simple: clearing my desk at the end of the workday and cleaning my kitchen at the end of the evening so each day begins fresh. Recently, somebody advised that I do the same with my computer (shutting browser tabs, saving and closing documents at the end of the day)—I have been enjoying that routine for the past few weeks.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I’m not sure I’d classify it as a habit—I usually think of it as more of a temptation that often gets the best of me. But internally, I’ve struggled with jealousy as long as I can remember. For example, I often find myself becoming envious of the skill and success of other writers or of those who are younger but have seemingly accomplished more. Sometimes I find motivation in this envy, but most of the time it is crippling and burdensome.

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

One important realization that I made recently in life is that my predisposition does not determine my future. For the longest time, I would excuse negative habits as “just the way I am.” Often times, with an almost defeatist attitude, we make excuses for our negative behaviors or unhealthy habits by appealing to an unchangeable, internal force that makes decisions for us. And while our specific personalities certainly do make some habits more difficult to implement, it is important to realize the opportunity to create new ones is always available to us.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Minimalism served as a catalyst to embrace greater intentionality in all areas of my life. Eight years ago, I would never have responded to this question by saying I embrace habits. But today, I do. In fact, I see them as essential to living my fullest life possible.

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

Leo Babauta’s writing on habit creation has been very influential in my life (Zen Habits). I recommend his work to everyone. His approach is practical, helpful, positive, and encouraging.