Fighting Clutter? Go Shelf By Shelf.

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“Order is Heaven’s first law,” wrote Alexander Pope, and one thing that has surprised me about happiness is the significance of clutter to happiness. In the context of a happy life, a roomy coat closet or a neat kitchen counter seems trivial—but somehow, it can have a disproportionate effect.

For most people, and certainly for me, outer order contributes to inner calm. When I’m surrounded by a mess, I felt restless and unsettled, and I’m always surprised by the disproportionate energy and cheer released by clutter clearing—plus, I’m able to find my keys.

Fighting clutter is a never-ending battle, and I’m always looking for strategies to stop its insidious progress. I recently resolved to “Go shelf by shelf,” then drawer by drawer, then closet by closet, through our apartment.

I weighed two approaches to this resolution: to go systematically shelf by shelf through my apartment, starting at one end, ending at the other, taking a few hours each time, or to go shelf by shelf in a more scattershot way, taking advantage of loose bits of time.

My instinct to be methodical is very strong, but in the end, I decided to follow the second path. I didn’t want this to be a one-time exercise, helpful for a brief time, until the clutter crept back in (as it always does). Instead, I want to train myself to use this approach for the rest of my life: now, every time I face a shelf, I evaluate the things I see there, and make sure they’re in the right place (on the proper shelf, or in the trash, or in the give-away pile).

So far, this resolution is working pretty well. Whenever I have a few minutes of idle time—when I’m waiting for my daughter to put on her nightgown, or I have ten minutes before I leave the apartment—I evaluate whatever small area I happen to encounter. Ok, time to throw out the grapes that have gone wrinkly. Admit it, there’s no reason to keep that mateless sock. That camera cord belongs in the camera-cord basket (yes, I do have a basket dedicated to camera cords).

Like the one-minute rule and the evening tidy-up, the shelf-by-shelf resolution has two advantages: it doesn’t take much time, and results start to show very fast. I’ve been trying to cultivate the shelf-by-shelf habit for just a few months, but I can see a drop in clutter and a rise in orderliness. Also, helpfully, this exercise has given me a much better sense of where to find the things I already possess, which cuts down on annoying searches.

William Morris admonished, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Going shelf-by-shelf is helping me get rid of stuff that doesn’t meet that standard. (If you’re struggling with clutter, check out the 11 myths of de-cluttering.)

From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.



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