The Question isn’t What’s in Your Closet but Why?

Earlier this year I decided to clear out the guestroom closet that had become a free for all. I pulled everything out and was dismayed by the 4 years accumulation of stuff that I found and did my best to sort and shift.

Recently, I also attempted to organize years’ worth of loose photos. A few weeks into this heroic endeavor, multiple stacks, and several wastebasket loads of photos…. I gave up. Organizing closets and photos, or any area out of order, can loom large, making us feel defeated before we even begin.

Luckily I came across a new approach and way to view my stuff in Gretchen Rubin’s new book Outer Order Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness.

The concepts of decluttering and organizing are hugely popular and there are a ton of books on the subject. In addition to Rubin’s book I found Martha Stewart’s latest Martha Stewart’s Organizing, Kyle Chayka’s The Longing for Less, and several books by Japanese sensation Marie Kondo, best known for coining the phrase ‘Does it Spark Joy?’

What is different in Rubin’s book is the ‘how’ of adopting change to fit lifestyle as opposed to a methodology. It reads like a guidebook balancing practicality with real life.

Here are a couple of her thoughts to consider: “there is not a best way to create a better life” and “for some people what looks like disorder works just fine.’” Isn’t that freeing! I took copious notes but a lot of it is common sense for example: “If you don’t own it you don’t have to organize it.” The book is broken up into 5 short chapters.

Here’s a snippet from the introduction:

  • Outer order saves time, money, space, energy, and patience
  • Outer order creates a feeling of sanctuary
  • Outer order reduces guilt and
  • Outer order creates a sense of possibility

Making choices: Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it? These questions are not an end in themselves. Rubin unpacks a mini psychology lesson, not a one size fits all approach.

The author explains “Outer order isn’t a matter of having less or having more; it’s a matter of wanting what we have.” This can serve as a launching point, making space to step back and assess what you have and lead to the process of deciding: do I need it, use it, or want it.

In addition to examining our stuff, Rubin’s approach tells us to ask ourselves what the purpose of doing a task is. If you set out without a clear purpose for cleaning your garage, you may get distracted and not finish. But if your purpose is to clean the garage so you have a place to park your car in the winter, chances are you’ll succeed.

Doing the simplest of task such as making your bed each morning, can set the tone for the day. Rubin admits some will disagree and take delight in not making their beds “Everyone’s happiness looks different.”

Tips: Don’t stockpile unless you plan on using it. Beware of fake work — spending a lot of time on a project. Perfecting something can become time consuming with little results. Beware of the Endowment Effect — freebies, giveaways, collecting for collecting sake.

The author sites an observation by David Ekerdt, a professor of sociology and gerontology: After age fifty chances that a person will divest himself or herself of possessions diminishes with each decade.

Gretchen says our identity plays into our reasoning, keeping too much stuff can keep us stuck. If you have a box full of mementos, sort through them and save a few to display. I encourage everyone wanting to make a fresh start to dive into this book for a deeper explanation and exploration of how to create order and find the happiness of inner harmony.

So often in life, I’ll be learning something new in one area only to find lessons reasserting themselves elsewhere. That place happened to be in Anne Tyler’s latest book The Redhead by the Side of the Road about a quirky, doggedly determined, yet endearing character named Micah. Micah is a neat freak but it’s not working out too well for him. For Anne Tyler Fans this is CLASSIC Tyler style.

My boxes of photos have not gone anywhere, while the closet is growing stuff inside it again. But I’m energized knowing I can start small and keep consistent: one day at a time.

Spring Cleaning Reading List

Confession time: I am the absolute worst at keeping everything clean and neat. Some people are extremely organized, and I’ve never been able to understand how they got that way. Other people turn to cleaning and organizing precisely when they feel stressed, as it gives them a measure of control over their environment and gives them something else to focus on for a while. Then there are people like me whose homes and work spaces always seem to be in chaos, as other priorities always seem to trump cleaning and organizing. Whether you’re extreme like me or fall somewhere else on the neatness Bell curve, here are some books that will help us out.

First, let’s talk about clutter. There’s no point in cleaning if there’s stuff to be put away, purged, or repaired, right? This logic is usually what keeps me from progressing with any home organizing or cleaning project. Fortunately The Home Decluttering Diet: Organize Your Way to a Clean and Lean Home by Jennifer Lifford exists. A rare combination of visual appeal and useful information, this book takes you through each room of your house and helps you make those tough decisions about what to keep and what to send away. Within each room, Lifford breaks the work down into smaller projects that are easier to chip away at so that procrastinators like me can’t use the “I don’t have time to do the whole room tonight” line. Every. Single. Night.

If this book doesn’t appeal, try the more direct Unf*ck your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess by Rachel Hoffman. While the title is eye-catching, the blurbs on the back by personal heroes Kelly Sue DeConnick and Cory Doctorow are what sold me. It’s based on a 20/10 system where you clean for 20 minutes and then take a 10 minute break. While this might sound completely obvious to the Martha Stewarts of the world, I need this actually written down so that I can give myself some breathing room when it comes to tackling what is already going to be an unpleasant or at least not fun project. If you’re a professional procrastinator or are really good about ignoring random junk piling up in your entryway, this book might be for you (and it’s definitely for me.)

However, if you think reading a how-to manual on decluttering is too remedial or an insult to your intelligence (seriously, there is no judgement here!) you may find inspiration from someone else’s journey to live a clutter-free life. Year of No Clutter by Eve O. Schaub shows the psychological side of clutter and hoarding. While she spends a year tackling her “Hell Room” where stuff has just piled up in overwhelming chaos, she also explores hoarding in general through some of the recognizable media out there: the TV show Hoarders and the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. As Schaub conquers her psychological clutter, you may find yourself inspired to roll up your sleeves and tackle your own “Hell Room.”

Now let’s talk about cleaning. I think you can learn a lot about them just from their titles: The Cleaning Ninja: How to Clean Your Home in 8 Minutes Flat and Other Clever Housekeeping Techniques by Courtenay Hartford and Clean My Space: the Secret to Cleaning Better, Faster–and Loving Your Home Every Day by Melissa Maker. Both books break down cleaning challenges into smaller tasks, explaining the more difficult ones in detail while also not talking down to you. There are tips for the best kinds of cleaning equipment to own (I bet my cats would love a feather duster!) and professional advice for every level of cleaner (let’s call it slacker–like me– to pro).

Finally, I turn my gaze to organization. After all, it’s the last hurdle after conquering clutter and busting those dust bunnies. And I’ve found the perfect-for-me book: Organized Enough: the Anti-Perfectionist’s Guide to Getting–and Staying–Organized by Amanda Sullivan. There’s some overlap here with decluttering, but the sections on which types of paperwork to keep and for how long really shine. The book is divided into two sections. The first part helps you learn to think differently about your stuff and your habitat. The second part cultivates specific skills that will aid you in staying organized for good. That’s great news for people like me who want to put in the work once and just be done with it.

If you don’t want to spend tons of precious time dealing with the stress and emotional work of decluttering, cleaning, and organization, join me in my spring cleaning quest that all starts with the right book.