Ready, Set, Pare Down!

On a light note, ‘tis the season for spring cleaning. And my closet could really use it. My clothes look like a kudzu plant gone wild—even after organizational guru Marie Kondo helped me weed out everything that didn’t spark joy. I’m sure you feel it too… I was just reading that the average woman only wears about 10% of the clothes she owns. No wonder paring down is suddenly all the rage. Gretchen Rubin shows us all how it’s done in her new book, Outer Order, Inner Calm, and our conversation below…

Katie Couric: Why do you think we’ve become sort of obsessed with paring down our possessions as a culture lately? What are we really addressing here?
Gretchen Rubin: I think many elements contribute to the current interest in outer order. People feel overwhelmed by what’s happening in the world and feel confronted byuncertainty and anxiety, and one response is to create more order in our personal surroundings. “I can’t control the world, but I can control my closet.”

At the same time, many people are in the Season of Stuff with young children, while also dealing with possessions being handed down to them from earlier generations. That means people have a lot of items to manage.

Also, I think people are increasingly attracted to having experiences in ways that don’t involve accumulating things. Renting a cocktail dress, streaming a new album, reading an e-book, using ride-share, riding a city-bike, using your phone to take photos instead of a camera…these solutions make it possible to have the same experiences without ownership.

And of course Marie Kondo’s show Tidying Up!

Katie: I have to say I tried Marie Kondo’s method and it was great, but you really don’t want to see my closet right now.  How do you declutter and *stay* decluttered?
Gretchen: From my observation, there no one “right” way to clear clutter. Some people are minimalists; some love abundance. Some people want to take ten minutes each day for a month to clear; some want to do an all-day marathon purge. Some people feel a deep emotional attachment to possessions, others don’t care much.

When we approach outer order in the way that’s right for us, it’s much easier to create and maintain it.

Marie Kondo’s method works very well for some people, but it’s a very specific, structured system that doesn’t appeal to everyone. I think there are many ways we can achieve the aim of outer order – not just one way.

Katie: What are some of the most common challenges you see people struggle with?Gretchen: Some issues come up over and over. For instance:

  • Impulse shopping
  • Procrasti-clearing
  • Furnishing a fantasy identity – I myself only recently gave away a pair of leather pants. Leather pants! What was I thinking?
  • Treating yourself to a mess
  • Stockpiling (how many glass jars does one family need?)
  • Saving things instead of using thema personal challenge for me. I buy a new white t-shirt and “save” it for months)

Katie: What are some of your favorite tips?
Gretchen: I have so many favorites! For instance…

  • Observe the one-minute rule
  • Identify your beneficiaries
  • Abandon a project – it’s the easiest way to get something finished!
  • Create a “bowl of requirement” when you travel, where you keep keys, sunglasses, phone, sunscreen, etc.
  • Find a place for items that are neither dirty nor clean
  • Store things at the store
  • Use hooks instead of hangers
  • Choose a signature color
  • Include a fragment of nature
  • Someplace, keep an empty shelf; someplace, keep a junk drawer
  • Remember love (the most important tip of all!)—keeping those old school papers or t-shirts is an expression of love

Katie: You say that we maintain outer order more effectively when we do it in the way that’s right for us. How do we know that about ourselves?
Gretchen: Because we all do better when we create outer order in the ways that suits us, we need to know ourselves. Consider questions such as:

  • Is your clutter forward-looking or backward-looking?
  • Are you an abundance-lover or a simplicity-lover?
  • Are you an over-buyer or an under-buyer?
  • Are you a counter-filler or a counter-clearer?

Katie: How does “Outer Order, Inner Calm” relate to your other work?
Gretchen: My subject is human nature, and each of my books goes deep into some aspect of human nature. For instance, The Happiness Project explores happiness, Better Than Before explores habit-formation, and The Four Tendencies sets forth my personality profiles. As I’ve talked to people about their happiness and habits over the years, I noticed that people (including me) were weirdly energized by clearing clutter. For example, one of the most common happiness-project resolutions is “Make your bed.” I’d always been intrigued by the connection between outer order and inner calm, so I decided to write a book to examine the question. But then that raises another question: how, then, do we create and maintain outer order? Outer Order, Inner Calm offers more than 150 suggestions.

Unlike my other books, Outer Order, Inner Calm is written as a series of short, punchy paragraphs. I’ve always admired Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules, and the structure of that book inspired me (of course, once I started writing my own book, the structure evolved). Outer Order, Inner Calm is a book you can read quickly, in any order, to give yourself ideas. I often find that when I read a book like this myself, I get the urge to jump up to clear clutter. This book is meant to do just that—get readers off their feet to declutter and organize, to make more room for happiness.

Katie: Most of us realize that we feel better when our environment is reasonably orderly. So why is it such a struggle?
Gretchen: There are so many reasons, including:

  • We’re pressed for time so take short-cuts
  • We don’t want to face tough choices, like “Do I need this?” “Do I already own this?” “Does  this still fit?”
  • We feel emotionally attached to possessions, so it’s hard to say good-bye
  • We simply don’t have enough room to put things away or don’t have a system for where things belong
  • We’re furnishing a fantasy self (“I’ll become a gourmet chef!” or holding on to an outdated identity (“I might need the formal business suits again one day”)

Katie: What are some strategies that surprised you?
Gretchen: One of my favorite and most surprising tips is: Don’t get organized! When you’re facing a desk covered in papers, or a closet bursting with clothes, or countertops littered with piles of random objects, don’t say to yourself, “I need to get organized.” No!

Your first instinct should be to get rid of stuff. If you don’t own it, you don’t have to organize it.

Many people get very distracted by trying to create the best system for organizing their closets, filing papers, and so on. But in my experience, if you spend a lot of time tossing, recycling, or giving away the possessions you don’t need or use, you often don’t need much organization.

Also, it’s surprisingly effective to see clutter out of context. One problem with clutter is that after a while, we stop seeing it. We’re so accustomed to the giant pile of clothes draped over the chair or the towering pile of papers sitting in the corner of our office that we don’t realize that we’re living in a mess. Nevertheless, that disorder makes it hard to find things, makes us feel less hospitable, makes it difficult to use our surroundings—and just looks ugly.

To make it easier to “see” clutter, it’s good to shake ourselves up. Photographs help us see our surroundings in a more impersonal way. Similarly, moving clutter out of its usual place makes it easier to see where possessions more properly belong (and if there’s no place for something, it makes it easier to get rid of it).

Katie:  How can we make it a more enjoyable process?
Gretchen:  A few ideas…

  • Add a touch of luxury: cut flowers, really nice sheets, a fancy bathrobe
  • Make it fun to get the job done—try to beat your best time for cleaning the kitchen; pretend to be a stranger, like someone coming in to stage the house for a sale
  • Try “pairing” — i.e., listen to a favorite podcast while cleaning out the garage or sorting laundry

Katie: What’s the most useful test for deciding what to keep and what to donate, recycle, or toss?
Gretchen: Ask yourself, “Do I need it? Do I use it? Do I love it?” If not, you should get rid of it. When in doubt, toss it out! Or recycle it, or donate it.