Best-selling author Gretchen Rubin has found that keeping an orderly and well organized home helps us feel more in control of our lives. Her books include “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home” as well as her latest, “Outer Order Inner Calm”
Rubin took part in a Washington Post Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: I have trouble doing all that I’m supposed to do around the house.What are some daily habits to help keep things orderly and organized?
A: Try these habits: Follow the “one-minute rule” — push yourself to do any chore that takes less than one minute. Throw away the junk mail, put the peanut butter jar back in the cabinet, close the cabinet door, put your dirty socks in the hamper, hang up your wet towel.
Get rid of things if they break. When I went through our apartment, I was astonished by how many things I had kept even though they didn’t work.
Be cautious about letting yourself “store” something. Storing something means you don’t intend to use it much. Other than holiday decorations and seasonal clothes, you should strive to store as little as possible.
Do a weekly “power hour.” Keep a list of all the small tasks you’ve been postponing and, for one hour once a week, tackle them. Take the shoes to the shoe-repair place and run to the hardware store to get that strange lightbulb.
Q: My husband and I recently purchased our first house. We’re moving into it this weekend and are absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of stuff we own. My parents and aunt died recently, so we have inherited furniture, clothes, memorabilia, boxes of business paperwork, artwork, etc. Our apartment is bursting with the belongings from three separate lives on top of our own belongings. It’s almost to the point where decorating isn’t even a possibility, because packing boxes seem to be our most prominent feature. How do we begin to sort through all this stuff and decide what we want in our new home?
A: If you can hire a professional organizer, that might be money very well spent — just to help you go through it in a systematic fashion. It’s helpful to remember that you can show respect for someone’s possessions even when you’re deciding to relinquish them. Remember, too, that mementos more effectively do their work of holding memories when they’re carefully curated and small in size and number. When my grandfather died, I could’ve taken his roll-top desk, his favorite chair, his grandfather clock (he collected clocks) or the pocket watch he used as an engineer on the Union Pacific railroad. I didn’t need all those items, just one to remember him by. In fact, I didn’t even really need that, because I have my memories. But I do like having something of his. I chose the pocket watch. It does the work of a memento and is so much easier to manage.
Q: How do you feel about decluttering books, and how do you make your choices?
A: I love books and want to see them all around me! I’m fairly ruthless at pruning them. I get rid of books that are no longer of interest to me or out of date. I do often re-read or need to consult books for my writing projects, or I want to keep source material for books that I’ve published, so these books aren’t just decorations. That said, I love books — even in their simplest purpose as decoration. The bigger problem in our apartment is having room for everything we want to keep. For each of us, the question is, “Do I need it, use it, love it?” I love, use and need these books. But for some people, books might just be an aspect of a fantasy self, and it would be freeing to create space for other possessions on those shelves or to get rid of the bookshelf altogether.
Q: I am in my mid-50s and know I want to retire in three or four years. How would you suggest I begin decluttering and downsizing so that when I’m ready to retire, I don’t feel overwhelmed?
A: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Some people like big and bold action: “I’m going to spend the entire weekend tackling the garage!” Other people like to do a little bit at a time, such as half a shelf a day. Some people like to work alone; some like a companion. Some people want to throw money at the problem and hire a professional organizer; others can’t afford it or don’t want to do it. The first step is to think about what approach feels right to you. It’s a great idea to start thinking about this now. By giving yourself time, you have a lot of different approaches that can work. If you consistently do just a little bit each day for three years, you’d get a massive amount accomplished! It’s helpful to identify the people and organizations to which you can give and to get in the habit of making donations regularly.
One caution: Don’t begin by saying, “I’m going to get organized.” Get rid of everything you don’t actually need, use or love, and you may not need to get organized, because there won’t be much stuff left.
Q: We have a toddler and another child on the way. One of my toddler’s favorite activities is to dump all of his blocks out on the floor. How do we keep some semblance of order during this chaotic stage?
A: You’re in the season of stuff, which can be difficult for an orderly person. Some points to consider: Try to keep the amount of toys reasonable. The more blocks, stuffed animals and Legos there are, the harder they are to manage and the bigger the mess. It sounds as though your son is playing with these toys, so that’s good. It’s helpful to be organized — but not too organized. We can spend hours sorting and have everything messed up the next day. Can you limit the areas that have toys, or keep adults-only zones? Sometimes if you can retreat to an orderly space, it’s easier to cope with disorder elsewhere.
Q: How do you recommend organizing a garage? I need storage for yard tools, plant food and work gloves, an increasing number of outdoor children’s toys, a ladder, and more, and I’m getting overwhelmed by how much space the stuff seems to be taking over at the moment.
A: Do you actually need, use or love every item in your garage? A garage often becomes a place where we store things we’re not sure what to do with. For instance, if your children are playing with those outdoor toys, why are they in the garage? What tools do you actually use, or what do you think will come in handy one day? Ruthlessly go through the items before you try to organize the space. If you’re absolutely confident everything in the garage is needed and wanted, take some photos, take lots of measurements, make a list of what you need, and go to a good organizing store. But don’t buy containers just to cram more unwanted junk into place.
Q: If an item such as a stuffed animal or a baby blanket really brings you warm memories, do you have to get rid of it?
A: Absolutely not! My test is, “Do I need it, use it, love it?” If you love a baby blanket, keep it. I have a doll and teddy bear that I keep on a shelf with my collection of children’s literature. I don’t use them or need them, but I love them.
Q: There are so many items you have to store in your bathroom. It’s awful to try to fit all the spare toilet paper rolls and the shampoos and first aid stuff into the small cabinets in our small home. Any ideas?
A: Consider what doesn’t need to be stored in the bathroom. Your first-aid kit, for instance, could be kept elsewhere. I got a huge boost in our bathroom when I stopped storing toilet paper rolls in the tiny cabinet, but instead got one of those floor stands that holds four rolls on a vertical pole. So much space saved! When we’re figuring out placement, we always want to save the most active, valuable real estate for what is actually being used in that space. Shampoo, for example, lasts a long time. The spare shampoo bottle doesn’t need to be in the bathroom. Just because it’s a bathroom-related product doesn’t mean it can’t wait its turn in another place. Bathrooms collect giant amounts of stuff that we don’t use: abandoned beauty products, expired medication, five half-full boxes of Band-Aids. Push yourself to declutter and consolidate. You may end up with more room than you expect.
Q: Is it possible to become too decluttered?
A: As long as you pay attention to your surroundings, you can arrive at the right level of decluttering for you. Some people are abundance-lovers, and some people are simplicity-lovers. An abundance-lover wouldn’t want to get as decluttered as a simplicity-lover would. Some people want a capsule wardrobe; some people like having lots of choices! It’s really a question of what feels cluttered to you. So in my observation, it’s helpful not to try to jam ourselves into someone else’s conception of what our surroundings “should” look like, and focus on what we need, use or love ourselves. One person’s beautiful emptiness looks stripped and bare to someone else. Pay attention to your own preferences, and you will end up in the right place.
Q: My millennial son doesn’t make his bed. He lives on his own now, but how do I gently encourage him to do it so it would make him feel in control?
A: For many people, outer order contributes to inner calm. And for many people, making their bed helps them to feel as if their day has started well. But not everyone feels this way. If your adult son chooses not to make his bed, apparently he doesn’t find that to be useful for him. There’s no magic to making the bed beyond a person’s attitude.