Further Secrets of Adulthood:
I write about this subject throughout Happier at Home, especially in the chapter on “Possessions.”
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I'm deep in the writing of my next book, Before and After, about making and breaking habits, and there's nothing more satisfying than reading the success stories of people who have changed a habit. If you have a Before-and-After story of a habit you changed, and you're willing to share it here on the blog, please contact me here. Once a week, I'll post a story. We can all learn from each other.
This post is back by popular demand.
One of my great realizations about happiness (and a point oddly under-emphasized by positive psychologists) is that for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. More, really, than it should. After all, in the context of a happy life, a crowded coat closet is trivial. And yet over and over, people tell me, and I certainly find this, myself, that creating order gives a huge boost in energy, cheer, and creativity.
But as much as most of us want to keep our home, office, car, etc. in reasonable order, it’s tough. Here’s a list of some myths of de-cluttering that make it harder to get rid of stuff.
Myths of Cluttering:
1. “I need to get organized.” No! Don’t get organized is your first step.
2. “I need to be hyper-organized.” I fully appreciate the pleasure of having a place for everything, and perhaps counter-intuitively, I believe it’s easier to put things away in an exact place, rather than a general place (“the third shelf of the linen closet,” not “a closet.”) However, this impulse can become destructive: if you’re spending a lot of time alphabetizing your spices, creating eighty categories for your home files, etc., consider whether you need to be quite so precisely organized.
3. “I need some more inventive storage containers.” See #1. If you get rid of everything you don’t need, you may not need any fancy containers. Be very wary of the urge to “store” something. Except for things like seasonal clothes and decorations, if you’re “storing” something, that’s a clue that you don’t really plan to use it.
4. “I need to find the perfect recipient for everything I’m getting rid of.” It’s easier to get rid of things when you know that you’ll be giving them to someone who can use them, but don’t let this kind intention become a source of clutter, itself. I have a friend who has multiple piles all over her house, each lovingly destined for a particular recipient. This is generous and thoughtful, but it contributes mightily to clutter. Try to find one or two good recipients, or if you really want to move your ex-stuff in multiple directions, create some kind of rigid system for moving it along quickly. We have a thrift shop two blocks from our apartment where we send a lot of stuff.
5. “I can’t get rid of anything that I might possibly need one day.” How terrible would it be if you needed a glass jar and didn’t have one? Do you have gigantic stores of things like rubber bands or ketchup packets? How many coffee mugs does one family use?
6. “I might get that gizmo fixed.” Face it. If you’ve had something for more than six months, and it’s still not repaired, it’s clutter.
7. “I might learn how to use that gizmo.” Again, face it. If you’ve had a gizmo on the shelf for a year, and you’ve never used it to make gelato or label a sugar jar, it’s clutter.
8. “I might lose a ton of weight and then I’d fit into these clothes again.” If you lose a bunch of weight, you’ll want to buy a new pair of jeans, not a pair you bought seven years ago.
9. “I need to keep this as a memento of a happy time.” I’m a huge believer in mementos; remembering happy times in the past gives you a big happiness boost in the present. But ask yourself: do I need to keep all these t-shirts to remind me of college, or can I keep a few? Do I need to keep an enormous desk to remind me of my grandfather, or can I use a photograph? Do I need fifty finger-painted pictures by my toddler, or is one enough to capture this time of life? Mementos work best when they’re carefully chosen – and when they don’t take up much room!
10. “I need to keep this, because the person who gave it to me might visit my house and be hurt when it’s not on display.” Is that person really likely to visit? Is that person really likely to remember the gift? Will the person really be upset by the lack of viewing of the gift?
11. “If I have any available space, I should fill it up with something.” No! One of my Secrets of Adulthood is Somewhere, keep an empty shelf. It’s funny; people often ask me, with open suspicion, “Gretchen, do you still have an empty shelf?” Yes, I do! Want to see it for yourself? Watch here in the behind-the-scenes-of-Happier-at-Home video; the shelf appears at 6:40. (Gosh, it was fun to make that video.)
12. “Yay, it’s free, I should take it!” Be very, very wary of accepting something because it’s free. It’s so easy to take that water bottle or tote bag, then realize that you’ve just brought more clutter into your house.
What other clutter-clearing traps have I overlooked? Do you fall prey to any of these?
This week’s video story: Sometimes it’s the things that we don’t do or say that reveal our character.
To appreciate this story, you really have to know how much my father dislikes doing yard work. I can just see that lawnmower, with its fluffy cap of snow.
Not to say anything, anything…well, we all know how hard that can be. How about you? Can you think of something that someone didn’t do that revealed something important?
If you can’t see the video, click here.
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“In a true history or biography, of how little consequence those events of which so much is commonly made! For example, how difficult for a man to remember in what towns or houses he had lived, or when! … I find in my Journal that the most important events in my life, if recorded at all, are not dated.”
Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 1855
I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own life. Often, I don’t even realize that an important event in my life has even happened, until some time has passed. For instance, I remember the minute I first laid eyes on my now-husband, but I didn’t make a note of it. Or the moments when I’ve had the ideas for all my books. Such moments strike me hard, hard enough that I can remember them, but somehow it never occur to me to record them.
Have you found this to be true?
For instance, I remember the tremendous relief I felt when I noticed a pattern among certain books, plays, and movies that I dislike. For instance, I can’t stand to read or watch Oliver Twist, The Fugitive, Atonement, Othello. Can you see the pattern?
It’s the theme of unjust accusation. I can’t stand the theme of unjust accusation. I’ve never seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption, even though people keep telling me that it’s a great happiness-related movie, because of the unjust accusation. It’s a little sad to realize that we can’t encompass everything–I find it very painful to relinquish the fantasy that with enough effort, I could appreciate everything, even unjust accusation, which appears so often–but it’s also very freeing. (I must confess, however, that my various book groups sometimes get impatient with my question, “Does this book have unjust accusation?” Usually I can smell it a mile away.)
Once I realize what I don’t like, I can avoid it (more or less).
The same thing happened with pesto. And with drinking alcohol. And with board games.
Just today, I realized something else that bugs me. I dislike being asked to identify my “favorite.” Some people seem to love this exercise. Favorite book, favorite movie, favorite restaurant, favorite memory.
I, however, find this exercise distressing. First of all–how can I possibly pick something like a “favorite” book? It’s impossible! And to me, picking a “favorite” somehow makes all the other options seem less interesting. I don’t even like picking something like a favorite part of the day. Sometimes, like Maria, I’ll pick a few of my favorite things–but I can rarely pick just one favorite.
But some people love to consider questions like this.
How about you? Do you enjoy identifying your favorite, or not?