One of my key realizations about happiness, and a point oddly under-emphasized by positive psychologists, given its emphasis in popular culture, is that Outer order contributes to inner calm. More than it should.
After all, in the context of a happy life, a messy desk or house is a trivial problem—yet I've found, and other people tell me they feel the same way, that getting control of the stuff of life makes me feel more in control of my life generally. (Even if this is an illusion, it's a helpful illusion.)
But as much as most of us want to keep our home, office, car, etc. in reasonable order, it’s tough. Here are some myths of de-cluttering that make it harder than it needs to be.
Myths of Cluttering:
1. "I need to get organized." No! This is not your first step! Don't get organized.
2. "The more organized I am, the better." I fully appreciate the pleasure of having a place for everything, and perhaps counter-intuitively, I find it easier to put things away in an exact place, rather than a general place (“the third shelf of the coat closet,” not “a closet”). However, this impulse can become destructive: if you spend a lot of time alphabetizing your spices or setting up eighty categories for your home library, consider simplifying your approach. Also, some things simply won't stay organized, so it's not even worth trying; I’ve spent hours sorting magic markers and Calico Critters pieces, only to find everything a jumble the next day.
3. "I need to run out and buy some inventive storage containers." See #1. I love cunning containers as much as anyone, but I've found that if I get rid of everything I don’t need, I often don't need a container at all.
4. "I need to find the perfect recipient for everything I’m getting rid of." True, it’s easier to let go of things when they're going to a good home, but be wary of letting 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 create some kind of rigid system for moving stuff along quickly.
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 need gigantic stores of rubber bands or coffee mugs?
6. "Someday, 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. "After I lose some weight, I’ll fit into these clothes again." If you lose a bunch of weight, you’ll likely want to buy a new pair of jeans, not dust off the pair you bought seven years ago.
8. "I need to keep this to remind me of the past." I’m a huge fan of 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 high school, or can I keep a few? Do I need to keep a giant armchair to remind me of my father, or can I use a photograph? Mementos work best when they’re carefully chosen—and when they don’t take up much room!
9. "I need to keep this object to show respect for the person who gave it to me." You can love someone, but not want to keep a gift from that person. It's okay to pass an item along to someone who will appreciate it more.
What other myths am I overlooking? Do these ring true for you?
* I just discovered Geoff Manaugh's Bldg Blog—so much to see and read.
* My next book, Happier at Home, is inching toward completion. Just finishing the interior layout now. If you'd like to be notified when the book becomes available, sign up here. Now that the year has switched from 2011 to 2012, my publication date seems much, much closer.