My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Fighting Clutter? Go Shelf By Shelf.

Cleanshelves

“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.”