Fighting Clutter? Go Shelf By Shelf.

“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.)

How about you? Have you figured out strategies to help keep clutter under control? Do you find that clutter affects your happiness — or not?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

* My friend Susan Cain, Quiet: the Blog fame, sent me this fascinating link — to a “marital rating scale” for husbands and wives from the 1930’s.

* I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, please consider pre-ordering The Happiness Project! Pre-orders give a huge boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy it for yourself or as a gift, I’d so appreciate your pre-order! As a thank-you, if you do pre-order, I’ll send you a copy of my Happiness Paradoxes. Just email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com, with a note, “I pre-ordered.”

  • http://twitter.com/entirelysubject Jonas Tullus

    For me, getting rid of the clutter is the easy part ;)
    Keeping that part of me in check that will immediately start to recreate the clutter is really tough.

    Keeping as little stuff around as possible is definitely a good idea.
    Which reminds me of a great post I read the other day over here (http://www.raptitude.com/2011/01/i-dont-want-stuff-any-more-only-things/).

    Thanks for some nice pointers,

    Jonas

  • Mike

    I also take the one-shelf-at-a-time approach. I start with visible shelves, and then I move on to drawers, which always feel especially good to organize, because their organization is hidden from view, and thus more valuable as a task in itself.

  • http://findingpam.blogspot.com Tannehillp

    Clutered house equals a cluttered mind. I can’t function very well amongst clutter. I admit keeping the clutter down takes a lot of effort. Sometimes I am better at it than other times. Consistancy is not my strong suit.

    I like to time myself say with 20 minutes to see how much I can get cleaned.

  • http://twitter.com/Star_thru Mrs. Hwiggins

    I like this approach. Doesn’t sound so overwhelming

  • Marie

    I function SO MUCH BETTER in an uncluttered room. As an upper year student, I have learned that keeping my bedroom clean is especially important because seeing a messy bed or clothes on the floor is NOT conductive to a good study session, etc.

    I’m pretty good at keeping things in their place, but my roommates aren’t so much. They don’t mind seeing shoes all over the living room or dishes from the previous day hanging around. I have learned not to nag them to do it because I’m the one who likes it tidy, but our arguments come from the fact that if they see me picking up after themselves, they get mad!! I don’t understand why, maybe they find it insulting or something, but I truly don’t mind and would rather just do it myself than seeing it there.

  • jenny_o

    Decluttering and tidying are never finished. Even after things are in order, it takes regular work to keep them that way.

    And because of that, I fully agree that the “as-needed” approach to decluttering is probably a better method than the “clean sweep” approach for learning to keep things looked after, long term.

  • http://www.annpenhallow.com.au Ann

    Gretchen, I literally finished reading your book an hour ago, but I have been implementing a lot of your tips as I read over the past three weeks. The one-minute rule is gold! I’m astounded how clutter stays under control (and occasionally disappears!) by applying this rule.
    The evening tidy up has definitely boosted my morning happiness. Waking up to a clean kitchen and play area still puts a smile on my face!
    Thank you.

  • Design Elements Blog

    Gretchen, just finished reading your book for the 2nd time this week…THANK YOU!
    http://design-elements-blog.com/

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! I’m thrilled to hear that the book resonates with you. Thanks for
      letting me know!

  • NoClutter

    My parents set good examples for my siblings and me – always try to immediately pick up after yourself. That way things don’t get overly cluttered.

  • Susan

    Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, I used to thrive in clutter. Within the past year or two I have decided to try to do something about clutter to see if it made me any happier. Throwing things away generally makes me unhappy – I like my things! However I have just recently discovered you can have too much of a good thing, just as I have too many (old) clothes and too many coffee cups. It’s not huge but giving away a bunch of clothes and cups has really made me happier because now I have more room to see my clothes in my closet and every time I go to get a cup the cups aren’t stuffed into the cabinet on the verge of falling out. So, yes, as difficult as I find decluttering, it has made me happier.

  • CandyGeorge

    Isn’t this just plain common sense? Why is this a long blog post?
    Now perhaps children should be taught this, but grownups?
    I normally like most of your posts, but this one seems almost silly!

    • CW

      Well, CG — if you will read and see how many ADULTS she has touched then maybe it doesnt seem so silly. Grownups need inspiration and a bit of reeducation now and then.

  • http://www.motivationalmemo.com Petergjsinclair

    Thanks Gretchen….

    A cluttered environment is often the result of a cluttered mind…

    Here’s a few things that have helped me to date in the un-cluttering department…

    1. Tend your mind like a garden.
    2. Plant only good thoughts in your mind through reading, listening, and associating with positive materials and people.
    3. Pull out the weeds of negative thoughts and words by replacing them with positive thoughts, reinforced by a positive vocabulary
    4. Then repeat points 1 -3 every day of your life.

  • http://www.happylifementoring.com Jacqueline Johns

    Yes, I have been pleasantly surprised by the happiness- inducing side effect of order.

    When your home is neat you just FEEL GOOD! Like magic!

    It seems so simple and so unrelated, but it’s not.

    Live Life Happy!

  • Cyndi

    I like this!

  • http://womanlaughing.blogspot.com juliana

    Thank you for this! Very inspiring and helps that it’s one shelf at a time, instead of the whole house at a time :).

  • http://10stepstofindingyourhappyplace.blogspot.com/ Galen Pearl

    Your post just triggered an epiphany for me! I teach legal writing and contract drafting. I tell my students all the time that they should never have any clause or even any word in their documents that they can’t justify.

    Yet all these years my house has been full of things I can’t even remember that I have! If I would just practice what I preach, my house would be decluttered in no time.

    How to do it? Just like you said, shelf by shelf. Just as I tell my students–go through each part asking yourself what this part contributes. Start with the big parts–sections. Then work your way down–paragraphs, sentences, words.

    See, I’ve known this all along. I just never applied it at home.

    Thanks! I’m going to start today!

    PS–Loved your book.

  • Diana

    I realize I tend to use school holidays when I am off work with my children as cleanup days. Last night I was inspired to clean out their bookshelves and put all the series books together (after reading this post). It was a bigger project than I thought, but the shelves look amazing–like a bookstore. It motivated me to do a thorough clean-out of the playroom (it helps that we are snowed in today in Minneapolis)–we’re taking a break from it now, and my boys (9 year old twins) are up and down on the whole idea, but we are making a lot of progress.

  • http://unfacebook.blogspot.com/ Laura

    The One Minute Rule might possibly change my life! Or at least my piles of clutter. Thanks for sharing something so brilliant in its simplicity.

  • PNWGal

    OOoooh, this could be up there with identify the problem…..very helpful to me!

  • earthgirl

    I like these ideas. I myself do alot of them. I usually have a box, one or two getting filled with stuff as I go through shelves or closets, and then off it goes to one second hand store. Going through things happens pretty regular here but I have kept onto things too long and had a hard time getting rid of things too. I guess cleaning out has rubbed off on my kids. Last week my daughter decided to clean her whole room, closet, under bed boxes, shelves, just randomly, and who was I to argue.It was great.She pushed a whole book shelf out into another space where I found it, I was a bit put out at first, just stumbling upon a shelf, and it was full of chapter books she didn’t want.I was appalled, getting rid of that many books.I have a soft spot for books. But after thinking and calming down ,she was doing a good thing.So I after going threw the books, to make sure they were not really sentimental or my favorite picture books etc, I gleaned a half dozen and the rest went right in bags and off to the library that day!She didn’t want the shelf either but convinced her she could store something else useful on it ,plus her Dad had made it for her when she was 3 ,but she had not remembered that.So it found a new spot in her closet.
    It’s a good feeling.
    I really like the evening tidy up, feels good to leave the house all tidy in the am, and I usually must clean the sink after dinner and have tidy clean counters.
    Sorry to rattle on a long story here, it just fit to perfect.

  • sprockette

    I have a big problem – unlike you, attempting to declutter my house does not energize me – it makes me feel that it is a job that will never, ever be done and it feels overwhelming and depressing as hell. It stresses me out to even start because then I focus on how I will never be done without devoting the next 6 months to decluttering. Help! I wish I were more like you, but I’m not… :(

    • Karen

       “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

  • Beththebug

    Check out this website: http://www.flylady.net. There is a ton of information, but don’t be intimidated. Flylady recommends de-cluttering (or doing any task) for 15 minutes. Great stuff!

  • http://twitter.com/ClaireTompkins Claire Tompkins

    I like the scattershot approach myself. I pick up a dirty glass from the nightstand and take it to the kitchen. In the kitchen I find dishes to be put in the dishwasher so I do that. Then I see a jacket slung over a chair so I take it to the closet. In the closet I find some garments that need cleaning so I take them to the hamper in the bathroom. And like that.

    I find that it keeps my energy and attention on the task when I can stay in motion.

  • ace

    Just started the shelf-by-shelf strategy in my office.  Already, I can see order forming among the pencils, paper clips, and note pads.  I found 3 bottles of Elmer’s glue, all bought because I couldn’t find the one I knew I had “somewhere.”  Things are going to get better, and I feel empowered every time I spend just 10 minutes on my drawer of the day.   Thank you, Gretchen.

  • Gedwards55

    I have a five minute, once a week, routine for keeping my car under control.  On Sundays, when I take the trash cans down to the curb, I pause at my car.  I throw away any stray trash or Post-It notes that I have taken care of.  Water bottles go directly into the recycle can.  On my way back up the drive and into the house, I grab the extra sweaters and books so that I can put them away inside (which I do right away ~ I do not allow myself to “set down” anything that I bring in, everything gets hung/shelved). 
    The whole event takes, literally, 5 -7 minutes and it makes my whole week brighter, each and every time I get into my car.

  • ash

    I love this thank you I have been struggling with this for months.