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Gretchen Rubin | Home Front

Gretchen Rubin
Jun 02, 2016

Gretchen Rubin is the author of “Better Than Before,” “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.” Her books have sold more than two million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages. On her popular weekly podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin,” she discusses good habits and happiness with her sister Elizabeth Craft.

Rubin started her career in law and was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized she wanted to be a writer. She lives in New York City with her husband, two daughters, and dog.

Every week, Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than ten years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Today we have Gretchen Rubin chatting with us about how to be happy at home and other topics of interest to all of us. Gretchen, author of "The Happiness Project," "Better Than Before" and "Happier at Home" has a huge readership for her books and online writings and her podcasts. Her books have sold more than two million copies. I went shopping with Gretchen in New York a few weeks ago for her favorite organizing ideas, since keeping order is one of the ways we can live happier. Read my story here. How can we change habits and in turn change our lives? She's got a lot of ideas. So let's chat.

Hey everyone! I'm very HAPPY to be talking to you today. Thanks, Jura, for having me!

You have so many books on the same topic at this point - finding happiness in one's everyday life. If you were going to write a new book on a new subject, what would it be? I've noticed a lot of authors have more than one book on the same self-help subject, so I'm definitely not singling you out.

I wrote two books on happiness, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. My most recent book Better Than Before is all about how we make and break HABITS. That's related to happiness -- because why bother with our habits, except that we think they can help us to be happier, healthier, more productive, more creative? -- but it's a subject that required a massive amount of new research and analysis. Habits! Such a fascinating subject.

How do you change a bad habit. I really can't get myself to care that much about the cluttered look of my closets. Yet, it does bother me.

In Better Than Before, I identify the 21 strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. One strategy is the Strategy of Clarity. It's much easier to change a habit when we're very clear about WHY we're doing it. Sounds like you aren't yet clear on whether this is something you care about, or not. No need to worry about your closet just because you think you "should"! Only if it's something that's actually important to you. Get clarity, and habit change will be easier.

Is there a place in your home that is still messy? Does it bother you?

It's more the problem of roving clutter. Today it's my desk, tomorrow it's my daughter's closet, another day -- when are we going to drive to Housing Works to drop off those boxes?

Hi there. My question is in regards to my own quest for finding my purpose and moving to a career that defines what I was meant to do and bring to the world. Can you recommend any process, mentor, teachings or practices that assisted you in the transition you made from law to the voice you are today for many. Thank you. @AnnMarieBrucia on Twitter.

I didn't use a particular resource myself, other than a book called something like "How to Write and Sell Your Non-Fiction Book Proposal." A terrific book on this subject is by Michael Melcher, "The Creative Lawyer." It's aimed at lawyers, but really applicable much more broadly. Full disclosure, he's a friend, but I truly think this is one of the best books of this kind.

How long do you think you can come up with ideas for more happiness? It seems like it just keeps going on and on. Do you actually learn things each week that you didn't know?

Happiness encompasses some many gigantic topics: relationships (parenthood, marriage, siblinghood, friends), health (diet, exercise, sleep), art, nature, creativity, productivity, work, money, possessions, clutter....I could go on for hours! So I never feel like it's running dry. If anything, as my understanding grows, the subject becomes more vast.


How do you decide how many books to keep? It's a huge problem for so many of us.

SUCH a hard question. I use to keep every book, as a kind of reading diary. That's too many books. Now I try to keep only books that I can imagine re-reading, or someone in my household reading. Or something that's just so interesting or unique that I need to keep it. Also, books  that I used as research for books that I've written, or that I can imagine using as research in the future. This includes A LOT of books. I try to cull constantly, to make room on the shelves.

I *always* feel better when I'm organized. If I find 10 free minutes and organize one of my 8 junk drawers, my day is rainbows and unicorns. The problem is finding the time, or not feeling overwhelmed by it all. House, job, two kids, etc. How do we get in the habit of organizing? How do we do it without being overwhelmed? And where do we find the time?

That is a MAJOR theme in Better Than Before -- how to stay on top of clutter, a little at a time, so it doesn't become overwhelming. Some ideas: ONE-MINUTE RULE--anything you can do in less than a minute, do without delay (hang up a coat, print and file a document). TAKE ONE THING WITH YOU--when you go from room to room, carry one thing. You don't need to take it to its ultimate destination, just get it closer. POWER HOUR--once a week, for one hour, tackle the nagging tasks you've been postponing. Replace that lightbulb, see if that appliance is broken or just needed to be fiddled with, etc.

How do you teach your children to be organized and happy?

I have to say, I think we parents have less influence over this than we imagine. I think a lot of organization and happiness is hard-wired within a child. That said, I think if we're organized and happy ourselves, that's a good environment for children to be so, as well.

I've donated and thrown away a lot of items in my apartment to make better use of the space. The one thing I have a hard time keeping under control is paper: medical info, taxes, mail, etc. How do I set up a better system?

Paper is tough. Some questions to ask: If you tossed it, could you get it again easily? (old bills). Is the info online (appliance manuals). Will it quickly get outdated (travel info). Have you ever used it before? (if not, unlikely you'll need in future). Tax stuff you need to keep. Mail--set up a system so that you toss unnecessary mail in the trash or recycling RIGHT AWAY. If you're filing, never label a file "Miscellaneous!"

If you make happiness your goal, aren't you setting yourself up for failure? Bad things happen. Down times come. Isn't the goal to lead a rich and fulfilling life and to be able to keep going when life throws curve balls?

I would never say that the goal is to be happy 24/7. That's not realistic, and it wouldn't even be a good life. Sometimes it's appropriate to feel unhappy, angry, guilty, resentful, etc. For me, the aim is to be as happy as I can be, under the circumstances.

How much and in what way(s) do your ideas match up with Marie Kondo's? Whole hog vs incremental improvement seems like one obvious difference.

How funny that you asked that! I just YESTERDAY posted about that question. I loved Marie Kondo's book, but I didn't agree with it entirely, so wrote a piece, "7 Reasons I Disagree with Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up."

Do you struggle with the paper (hard copy) v. virtual (online) thing? I have lists in both places, recipe links & printed copies, online & paper calendar...etc. It's impossible to keep them in sync but I can't totally give up either way. Help!

It's tough. I myself still lean toward paper. I keep my calendar in ye olde Filofax, I keep paper files related to events and travel...for me, that's still easier and quickest.

How do you keep your home organized when your spouse and your children are active and aggressive Agents of Disorganization?

It's not easy. Some ideas: Keep them out of certain areas, so you don't have to worry about those areas. Make it very easy to put things away (don't over-sort, make it easy and convenient to pick up). Make a game of clearing up -- "Can you beat your old time?" "Bet you can't get this clean in ten minutes!" Did you ever read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? She pretends to be a wicked queen who is inspecting the work of the imprisoned princess who is forced to clean the kitchen. I heard one funny solution: a  reader said that her kids always left their clothes inside out, so that she had to turn them right-side out. Then she realized, "I don't have to do that!" so the clothes are washed and put away inside out, and the children have to deal with it when they put the clothes back on.

Hello. I have a once-beautiful Persian Tabriz rug that's in a sunny location in our beach house that has faded badly from the sun. I was heart-broken when I discovered the sun's damage to my rug. I took the rug to the dealer where I bought it, thinking that maybe the rug was defective. The dealer assured me that there was no defect with the rug. Do you know of any solution to this, other than replacing the rug? I don't think I could find another like this one as it was very hard to find one that suited me well. Hope you can help!

The sun really does horrible things to our furniture, fabrics and rugs. I wonder how long you left the rug exposed to natural light but in a beach house - it's even brighter in that environment. Actually, some designers are using faded rugs in their designs as they feel that that the fading gives a nice patina. If you really love the rug, just learn to live with it the way it is and love it for what it is. Otherwise, sell it and buy something else that speaks to you and invest in room darkening shades.  I know how disappointing it is to have something you love damaged.

I would love it if you would address friendships on your blog or podcast - how to make friends after 30. I find living in a new city to be a major stumbling block to happiness and I don't think it's been one for you, but I know that much has been written on the subject! Also, as an attorney who would love to leave her job, I salute you!

People say this a lot -- that one of the biggest challenges for adults is making friends. I've written about it, for instance here: 8 Tips for making friends; Want to make friends? 8 tips for making yourself likable; 7 tips on how to make friends and influence people--18th century version. Friendship is also a subject that Elizabeth and I often discuss on our weekly podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. It's such an important subject. One interesting book is "MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend" by Rachel Bertsche.

My mother is one of those naturally tidy/organized people, so I grew up in a home that was "together" even while she raised three kids as a single mom on a secretary's salary. I'm not naturally gifted like she is, for me it's work, but I appreciate the peacefulness a "together" home brings--however chaotic things were outside our home, inside it was under control. However...I when I mention this--that I prefer a tidy home--I often get ridiculed. Tidy people like my mother are OCD (probably, but so what?), no one ever wishes they spent more cleaning the bathroom, they would never give up playing with their kids to do something as silly as dusting, things like that. The inference is that a clean, organized house is the sign of someone with the wrong values and nothing much important going on in life. Do you ever run into this?

Sounds like a false choice to me: "Either you're a compulsive cleaner who spends the whole day scrubbing, or you're a relaxed, fun person who makes time to play with the kids." Can't you be orderly and fun-loving? Seems like there's time to load the dishwasher AND play Monopoly. This is back to the idea of clarity. In Better Than Before, I talk about the Strategy of Clarity -- when we understand ourselves, our own values, our own temperament very clearly, it's easier to follow through with the habit, even when other people disagree. If having an orderly household is something that makes you happier, it's worth some effort.

when you say "...toss unnecessary mail in the trash or recycling RIGHT AWAY,' I certainly agree, but would recommend tearing it up first, at least in half ... some of that stuff has info that could be identifiable, like startup fake credit cards with low interest rates or even AARP cards trying to get you to sign up, all of which someone could return in your name and have an account somewhere.


Do you have any suggestions for dealing with boxes of old photos and albums that are crumbling?

It sounds heartless, but if  you don't recognize the people in the photos, get rid of them (give away or toss). Otherwise, sort through them and pick the genuinely good ones: actually meaningful. There's something powerful about a photo--it feels WRONG somehow to throw away a photo of someone we love. I know someone who has never tossed a holiday card that has a photo on it, because she just can't bear to do it. But really, these photos don't have any particular value other than their ability to remind us of the people, places, and experiences we love. And we don't need boxes and boxes for that. Plus memento objects are more meaningful when they're carefully selected, and relatively few in number. Too many photos might means you feel overwhelmed and never look at them at all! while you might look at a few albums.

Listening to Elizabeth and you on the Happier pocast always makes me feel better about life. Love the fact that you are both very realistic about the topics you cover.

That's so nice to hear! Thanks for listening. We're having so much fun doing it together.

Have you found that having color in your environment increases happiness? Or is this a very personal choice.

I think this is personal. People want such different things from their environments. E.g., light -- I'm super-sensitive to light, am so much more comfortable in a room with lots of light, but some people don't seem to care as much about that. As with so many things, key is to KNOW YOURSELF and what appeals to you.

I suffer with some anxiety I think, although it's never been diagnosed. It often manifests in the form of procrastination - for example I'm very anxious about my teeth have nightmares about them falling out, etc. and as a result I have been putting off going to the dentist for about a year because it panics me, but the fact that I haven't been makes me more anxious! Is this common and are there any straightforward ways to help? I know it sounds like "just do it!" would make sense, but I'm physically incapable of doing so (unless someone else is relying on me - typical obliger!)

I'm not qualified to say whether you might benefit from professional help or medication. Apart from that, can you tap into your Obliger side? Could you say to a friend, "Come with me to the dentist, and I'll take you out for lunch afterward, to say thank you." Then you'll have to go, because your friend is going with you and would know if you didn't follow through, and is looking forward to seeing you for lunch. something like that?

Gretchen-- How do you find the time to read books each week? I'm jealous!

This is an utter mystery to me. I feel like I have NO time to read, and yet each week, books get read. If I'm traveling, I read on the plane, so that does explain a lot of it. But still, somehow I'm sneaking it here and there much more than I realize.

I moved my shredder to close to the front hallway and now shred things right away as I deal with mail. It doesn't take up much space and It's under a small table, so not so noticeable. It's made things easier.

Great solution! The more steps we can eliminate, the better. That's the Strategy of Convenience, from Better Than Before. One of the most powerful habit-change strategies out there.

Time's up, everyone! Thanks for joining the conversation. Onward and upward!

It has been a pleasure working with you these last few weeks. You have so many ideas and it's been wonderful that we could share them with our readers. Keep us posted on what you are up to. Meanwhile, next week join me for Cortney Novogratz.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin is the author of “Better Than Before,” “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.”
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