For the past decade, Gretchen Rubin has been delving into what makes us happy. Her 2009 breakout book, The Happiness Project, rode to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list and took readers along for the ride on her search for happiness.
Since then, Gretchen has continued sharing her insight into what makes us happy—and why. With her latest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness, she looks at how to create a peaceful environment in an increasingly chaotic world. She sat down with us to talk about why she chose to focus on decluttering and why it’s so important for our happiness.
Live Happy: There seems to be a lot of interest in organization and decluttering right now; can you tell me why that is?
Gretchen Rubin: I do think it’s something people are always interested in. But I do wonder if right now, the world feels like a very noisy, overwhelming place. It seems like there’s so much going on and so much to deal with. I wonder if that’s making people think, “You know what? I can’t control the world but I can control my coat closet, and if I can’t bring down the level of noise on the outside, I can at least get everything more orderly within my immediate environment, and that will help me cultivate that sense of calm [and] it’s going to make me feel better.”
LH: Is it harder to declutter these days? It seems like we have more stuff…
GR: Well, I do think it’s easier to buy more stuff. I think for a lot of people, things like online shopping have made it a lot easier in a way that maybe isn’t good.
So, one of the things to do is understand where you might be tempted. Some people do a lot of online shopping. For them, [I’d say] delete your accounts. Every time you buy online you have to shop as a guest. That’s just a little bit more inconvenient and it’s probably enough that a lot of people won’t impulse-buy because it’s just a little bit of a nuisance.
Part of it is just knowing what might cause you to buy things that you later regretted or realized you didn’t need.
LH: What was it that made you personally interested in taking on this topic and giving us a great game plan for getting through all this clutter in our lives?
GR: Ever since I wrote The Happiness Project, I’ve noticed how energized people are around the subject of outer order. People are not that energized talking about exercise, which is a habit that is very important, but it’s not like there’s this buzz around it.
I became more interested, like, why is that? And I realized it’s because outer order contributes to inner calm for most people. Over time, I became more and more intrigued by it and wanted to focus on it.
LH: We know that there is this great relationship between outer order and inner calm, but can you explain to us how it works?
GR: Life is easier when you get rid of things you don’t need, don’t use, don’t love. I mean, you can find your keys more easily, you can clean and dust and vacuum more easily, you can put things away more easily. Life is just easier. It’s easier to make a decision like ‘What am I going to wear to work tomorrow?’ because everything fits and you’re not fighting your way through a bunch of stuff.
LH: A lot of people can’t even imagine that they can get to the point that you’re talking about, where you can truly declutter. What’s so wonderful about this book is you tell them how to do that—but as you mention, it’s hard to maintain. How do you keep from re-cluttering?
GR: There are a lot of little habits that you can follow that make it a lot easier. One is the one-minute rule. Anything you can do in less than a minute, do without delay. So, if you can hang up your coat, if you can print out a document and put it in the file where it belongs…if you could put the cap on the toothpaste and put the toothpaste back in the medicine cabinet, just go ahead and do it. This doesn’t take any time or energy out of your day because these are small tasks, but it gets rid of those little tasks that very quickly mount up if you’re not careful, and then you feel like, “Oh my gosh, everything is such a mess.”
LH: One thing in your book that I really wanted to talk about was your “mock move.” Can you tell us what a mock move is and why it’s so helpful?
GR: Absolutely. One of the most valuable times for clearing clutter is [when you’re] moving. Because you’re faced with, “do I really want this and do I want this to the point where I am going to pay for a box and a mover to move it and then figure out what to do with it on the other end?” A lot of things just fail that test.
Because we get so used to our stuff, it’s hard to evaluate it. So, a mock move just changes your perspective and then you say, “Okay, well I have this fax machine from 10 years ago. It still works. Nobody ever sends faxes anymore, but it is still working. Why would I get rid of it? It’s perfectly good. But would I move it? There is no way. Why would I move a fax machine? I haven’t used it in 10 years.
So, there’s something about doing a mock move that often helps people see that they don’t really value something, because if you wouldn’t pay to move it, and you wouldn’t pay to buy it, you probably don’t use it, need it or love it. So that’s a really helpful question to ask yourself.
Hear our complete interview with Gretchen Rubin on the Live Happy Now podcast.