“Order is Heaven’s first law,” wrote the poet Alexander Pope, and one of the things that has surprised me most is the inverse relationship between clutter and happiness. In the context of a happy life, maintaining a roomy coat closet or a bare kitchen counter may seem like a trivial accomplishment, but somehow it can have a grand effect on your level of happiness.
For most people — and this is certainly true for me — outer order contributes to inner calm. When I’m surrounded by a mess, I feel restless and unsettled, but clearing clutter gives me a surge of energy and cheer (plus, it lets me find my keys).
Because the fight against clutter is a never-ending battle, I’m always looking for strategies to stop its insidious progress. For instance, 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: either I’d go systematically through my apartment shelves, starting at one end and finishing at the other, taking a few hours each time, or I’d go shelf by shelf in a more scattershot way, taking advantage of odd moments.
In general, my instinct to be methodical is very strong, but in this situation, I decided to follow the second path. I didn’t want this to be a one-time exercise, helpful only until the clutter snuck back in (as it always had before). Sometimes a looser, more spontaneous approach works better than a strict, demanding one — after all, I wanted to keep this resolution for the rest of my life. Now, every time I face a shelf, I evaluate the things I see and make sure they end up in the right place — whether that means they’re on the proper shelf, in the trash, or in the giveaway box.
So far, my organizing resolution is working well. Whenever I have spare time — say, when I’m waiting for one of my daughters to put on her nightgown before I read to her, or I have 10 minutes before I have to leave for an appointment — I evaluate whatever small area I happen to encounter: OK, time to throw out the carrots that have gone dry and limp. Admit it, there’s no reason to keep that lonely sock. That camera cord belongs in the cord basket. (Yes, I do have a wicker basket dedicated to camera- and phone-related cords.) Here, a few of my favorite organizing strategies:
1. The one-minute rule
I have an invaluable “one-minute rule.” It’s very simple: Any task that can be finished in less than one minute is something I must do. Hang up my coat, read a letter and toss it, put my umbrella away, answer an e-mail, note down a citation, pick up my phone messages, file a paper, put a cup in the dishwasher, put the magazines away...and so on. Because the tasks are so quick, it isn’t too hard to make myself follow the rule — and I get big results.
The one-minute rule frees me from worrying about priorities. When I stop to think, Should I straighten the kitchen or pay bills? or Should I answer e-mails or run my computer backup program? I sometimes feel haunted by the conviction that whatever I’m doing is the wrong thing. But with the one-minute rule, I can choose to do anything that needs doing, without delay, as long as I can do it within a minute.
2. Evening tidy-up
Another helpful strategy is the evening tidy-up. Before I go to bed at night, I usually spend 10 minutes putting stuff away — I close cabinet doors, put books on shelves, hang up jackets. It doesn’t take long, but it guarantees that the scum of clutter on the surface of our lives never thickens too much. This nightly tidy-up makes mornings far more serene and pleasant; I start the day feeling calm instead of as if I should be frantically gathering up toys, books, and shoes while also trying to get us all out the door for the day.
Visual order contributes to my happiness as well. I used to think it was a waste to worry about appearances, but now I make the effort to straighten stacks, to turn things right-side up, and to make piles look more pleasing.
For instance, I’d been keeping invitations, school notices, and various miscellanea posted on a bulletin board, but I pulled it all down and moved it into a file labeled “Upcoming Events and Invitations.” Since then, I’m no more or less organized than I was before, but our home’s visible chaos has dropped dramatically.
3. Clean Up and Cheer Up
Together, these kinds of strategies don’t take much time or effort, and results start to show very fast. In fact, clutter-clearing gives me such a boost of energy and relief that I’ve started doing it as a pick-me-up when I feel blue. I steer clear of items that are emotionally loaded (my clothes, my daughters’ toys), but tidying up a medicine cabinet always gives me a lot of satisfaction. In fact, I heard about a woman who ushered in each new year by throwing out every single thing in her refrigerator so she could start with a clean slate. I was shocked by the wastefulness of this action (she didn’t even have an exception for condiments!), but I absolutely understood the appeal.
William Morris once advised, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Making the time and effort to rid my apartment of things that are neither useful nor beautiful has made me feel lighter, freer, and calmer. How has decluttering affected your happiness? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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