Q&A: Gretchen Rubin on getting control of your stuff

Gretchen Rubin
Apr 18, 2019

Gretchen Rubin is a best selling author who has found that keeping an orderly and well organized home helps us feel more in control of our lives. Her popular books such as "The Happiness Project" and "Happier at Home" have made her an in demand speaker on the subject of happiness. Her latest book "Outer Order Inner Calm" offers specific steps for creating a more serene environment, including getting rid of things we don't need. Gretchen lives in New York with her husband and two daughters.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating, design and decluttering 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 organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A 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 your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Gretchen Rubin has spent a decade researching what makes humans happy. Her realization that order contributes greatly to a peaceful and happy life was the kernel for her latest book "Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make Room for Happiness." Gretchen's book has 120 short and specific tips and ideas as to how you can create order and keep healthy habits going. If your desk is piled with papers or your closets are jammed, consider what a difference it would make to yourself and others if you dealt with these issues. Gretchen's award-winning podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin and her many books provide ideas on how to live a better life. Gretchen lives in New York with her husband and two daughters. Let's chat.

Hello everyone! I'm very happy to be joining the conversation today to talk about one of my favorite subjects: how outer order contributes to inner calm.

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 more in control.

For many people, outer order contributes to inner calm. And for many people, making their bed helps them to feel like their day has started out 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.


If an item such as a stuffed animal or a baby blanket really brings you warm memories, do your really have to get rid of it?

In my view--absolutely not! My test is "Do I need it, use it, love it?" If you love a baby blanket, keep it! I myself have a doll and teddy bear that I keep on a shelf in the midst of my collection of children's literature. I don't use them or need them, but I love them.

Sorry to be off-topic, but need color help, so Jura, this is for you. My Colonial foyer faces W/NW so is rather dim and shady especially on lower level. Would like a BM suggestion for an off-white, cream, light tan or something that isn't too yellow and doesn't have red or green undertones. Foyer leads into kitchen which was just painted Revere Pewter, but foyer walls not right up against entry to kitchen. Using Simply White on all trim and ceilings, and on risers of staircase. Need to narrow the paint selection! Thanks!

I like Shaker Beige or Manchester Tan by Benjamin Moore.

Good morning, asking early, and thank you in advance. My husband and I recently purchased our first house and are moving into it this weekend, and we are absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of *stuff* we own. My parents and aunt passed away recently, so we have inherited furniture, clothes, memorabilia, boxes of business paperwork, art work, family history; in short, right now our apartment is bursting with the belongings from three separate lives, on top of our own belongings. My question is, how do I/we even begin to sort through all this stuff and decide what we want in our new home. Right now, everything is in boxes, not clearly labeled, and it's just a stressful jumble. It's almost to the point where decorating isn't even a possibility, since packing boxes seem to be our most prominent feature. We want to have a nice home, but are currently drowning under *stuff*. Help!

This is tough. Of course you're grateful to have all these possessions from your family, but it can be overwhelming to manage. 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 (and also to help you deal with the logistics and emotions). It's helpful to remember that you can honor someone's memory, and show respect for their possessions, even when you're deciding to relinquish those things. 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 things, just one thing to remember him by (and 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. And if things hold no memories for you, but were important to someone else--well, they're not important to you.

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Do you think it feels better to donate your unwanted things to a place that can really use them or where they will be appreciated? Or is it okay to just load it up in bags and drop it off at the nearest charity.

It's nice to feel that our possessions are going someplace useful, but "dropping them off at the nearest charity" seems likely to accomplish that purpose. It's often difficult or impossible to identify the perfect recipient in advance.

I see a lot of books in photos of your home. How do you feel about decluttering them and how do you make your choices?

For my part, 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, out of date, etc. 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 for me, these books aren't just background decoration. That said, I love books even in their simplest purpose of background decoration! So for me, they serve that purpose as well. The bigger problem in our apartment is having room for everything we want to keep. I think that 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.

Our 1925 craftsman bungalow has several built-in glass-front cabinets. For the bookshelves in the living and dining room, this has worked out beautifully. However, in the kitchen, all of the upper cabinets are glass front! Other than transferring everything (cereal, dried fruit, baking soda etc.) to tasteful glass jars, what can I do to make this look less terrible? I've grouped things together, but it turns out a group of canned refried beans and soup looks no better than one by itself. Or do I just need to push harder for a kitchen pantry, and leave all of that space for "decorative" storage?

I don't know the answer to this, but on a practical level, is is possible to paint the glass -- or replace it (though maybe that would be expensive)? That solution would allow you to use the cabinets but without the visibility. That would seem like the simplest solution.

What are some of the daily habits you discovered help keep things orderly and organized? I have trouble doing all I'm supposed to do around the house.

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’d kept even though they didn’t work.

Be very 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, run to the hardware store to get that strange lightbulb.

I've recently gotten a kick in the butt about organizing and downsizing. We had to move an elderly relative with hoarding tendencies into senior living, downsizing from a large house to a small apartment. It wasn't an entirely voluntary move, either, so between the relative's refusal to help pare down and insistence on bringing as much as possible, the apartment is so full that there is barely enough room to walk, no empty wall space, no empty shelf space, and an overall feeling of claustrophobia. And then we had to go through what was left. After exhaustive searches for specific sentimental items, valuable items to hold for the relative in storage, and financial records, we finally called it quits and called in pros. Multiple thousands of dollars later, the house is clean and what was left was donated or sold. Don't be this person. Take care of your stuff while you're able to, because you don't want your relatives to do it for you when it's become an emergency. Now that that house is taken care of, we've turned to our own and are taking some pretty hard looks at what we need and what we don't need. It's nice to open up the closet and see labeled bins instead of stacked mess. It really is an anxiety-reliever!

There's a short book called "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death-Cleaning" and it's all about this challenge. It argues that we should all go through our own stuff, so that we don't leave an enormous, exhausting job for someone else to deal with.  In my observation, clearing out a big house with garage, attic, basement, pantry, multiple bedrooms can just feel too overwhelming for a person. If you'd like them to tackle the stuff sooner rather than later, you might have to find a way to help them get started or sort through it. Just seems so gigantic that people do nothing.

We have a young toddler and another child on the way. Any advice for keeping some semblance of order (which I have discovered DOES make me feel more calm!) during this chaotic stage? One of my toddler's favorite things to do, for example, is to dump all of his blocks out on the floor. Sometimes he will pick them all up again but then immediately dumps the box out...again. UGH.

You're in the Season of Stuff! and to an orderly person, this can be difficult. Some things to consider: trying to keep the number of toys reasonable. The more blocks, stuffed animals, Legos, etc., they harder they are to manage and the bigger mess they make. It sounds like 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 having 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. If nothing else, remember "The days are long, but the years are short." I couldn't wait to get rid of our giant plastic slide and play kitchen, but now the memory of them is very sweet and I think, "Remember the days of the play kitchen?"

Here is my article about Swedish Death Cleaning and the book that Gretchen referred to.

Hi, I am in my mid-50s and know without a doubt that I want to retire in 3-4 years (the very long days and weekends required are taking a toll). How would you suggest I begin decluttering/downsizing now so that when I'm ready to retire, I don't feel overwhelmed? Any suggestions gratefully accepted!

There's no one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, some people like doing something big and bold -- "I'm going to spend the entire weekend tackling the garage!" Other people like to do a little bit at a time -- e.g., 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. So the first step is to think about what approach feels right to YOU. It's a great idea to start think about this now. By giving yourself lots of time, you have lots of different approaches that will work. If you do just a little bit each day for three years, you'd get a massive amount accomplished, if you're consistent! It's helpful to identify the people and organizations to whom you can give, and to get in the habit of making donations regularly, so those things actually leave your space. 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's just not much stuff left -- it doesn't need to be organized.

Did you interview a lot of people for this new book? Do you and your friends talk about getting rid of stuff a lot - seems like its a huge topic among people of all ages.

You're right, this is a subject that people talk about a lot. For most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, and getting rid of excess possessions is a way to create inner calm -- and also a sense of energy and possibility. I cleaned out my utility closet recently, and I keep walking past it, just to gaze at all the open space and organized stuff!

The person with the glass-front kitchen cabinets could apply window film, or have the glass etched, to make them opaque.

How do you recommend organizing a garage? I need storage for yard tools (shovels, string trimmers, brooms), things like plant food and work gloves, an increasing number of outdoor children's toys, a ladder, etc. -- and I'm getting overwhelmed by how much space the "stuff" seems to be taking over at the moment. It's a two-car garage, but a tight two-car space -- not a ton of room if both cars are pulled in.

The first question is: do you actually need, use, or love all the stuff that's in your garage? A garage often becomes a place where we "store" things that 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 things do you think, "this may come in handy one day?" RUTHLESSLY go through the items that are in there, before you try to organize it. If you're absolutely confident that 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! A huge percentage of U.S. households can't fit a car into their garage, because they're using it for storage.

There are so many things you have to store in your bathroom. It's awful to try and fit all the spare TP rolls and the shampoos and first aid stuff into the small cabinets in our small home. Any ideas?

Consider what things don'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 TP 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 where to put things, we always want to save the most active, valuable real estate for the things that are actually being used in that space. Shampoo for instance. One shampoo bottle 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 in the house. And go through your stuff! Bathrooms collect giant amounts of stuff that we don't use: abandoned beauty products, expired medication, five boxes of bandaids, all half-full...push yourself to declutter and consolidate. You may end up with more room than you expect.

That sounds like a great idea! And 15 -20 minutes a day, I think I can handle that. Is it possible to become too decluttered?

As long as you pay attention to your surroundings, you can arrive at the right level of decluttering FOR YOU. As I write about in the book, 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 go. Some people want a capsule wardrobe, some people like having lots of choices of what to wear! 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/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.

I loved working with Gretchen Rubin again. I always learn something after being with her or reading her books and posts. Next week join me and Kennesha Buycks of Restoration House to discuss how to create restorative spaces in your home. 

Is there research to suggest that there really is a correlation between outer order and inner peace?

There's a lot of research, but I have to say in my view, it's more helpful to ask, "How do I feel? For me, does outer order contribute to inner calm, or not?" Whatever research shows about generalities, it's certainly true that some people are like my sister Elizabeth (co-host of the Happier podcast). She's clutter-blind: clutter doesn't drain or bother her. So for her, outer order isn't important. For me, it matters tremendously. Same with creativity. There's a lot of research about "for creativity, what's better, messy or orderly?" And if you look at the habits of highly creative people, you see that some are very messy and some are very orderly. IT DEPENDS ON THE INDIVIDUAL. For me, that's more interesting than general studies. Though I love reading those studies, and understand why they're useful in some ways.

Thanks everyone! I really enjoyed this conversation. It's great to talk about outer order, inner calm, and the challenges that we all face. Onward! --Gretchen

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 and organizing.

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Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin is the author of “Outer Order Inner Calm,” “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.”
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