Gretchen Rubin on messy office kitchen politics: "A lot of passive-aggressive Dilbert cartoons"

The "Happiness" expert talks to Salon's resident decluttering fan about her method for cleaning up your life

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 11, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

Gretchen Rubin (Matthew Smith "Salon Talks")
Gretchen Rubin (Matthew Smith "Salon Talks")

I am a person who has to change into a sweatshirt to eat pizza. I show up a day early for events I've booked incorrectly on my calendar. And I drop everything. All of this is my way of saying that I am not bragging when I say I am, in spite of everything, quite tidy. My files are well labeled and up to date. My wardrobe is stocked with items I love and use — including the pizza shirt. I put things away. Yet in spite of my relative household competence, I eagerly embraced Gretchen Rubin's new book, "Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room For Happiness."

The bestselling author of "The Happiness Project," "Happier at Home" and "Better Than Before," and host of the popular podcast "Happier," knows that decluttering can take many forms. My desk may be orderly, but my busy mind could use cleanup. And in my gusto to toss things out, I need to figure out how to slow down and savor them too. That's why I'm thankful Rubin has written a book for all of us — the neat ones, the controlled chaos ones, and anyone who shares a living space with someone whose approach to a pile of unopened mail differs wildly from their own. Rubin joined us recently for an episode of "Salon Talks" to talk about the joy of clearing out a cellar, and how you can tame the madness in your life in just one minute.

In all the conversation that we've been having lately about decluttering and cleaning, there are a lot of misconceptions. You bust one of them right in the foreword of your book — to the people who say things like, "But there's a method to my madness," and "My chaos is really not chaos for me, it's contained," and try to push back against the idea of cleaning. You make the case for why having a decluttered, somewhat more organized life is actually healthier for you.

It is, but I will say there are some people, a very small number of people, who are truly clutter blind. They don't see it, it does not bother them, it does not drain them. They literally are blind to it. My sister, Elizabeth, who's the cohost of the podcast, is like that. She would never close a kitchen cabinet door again in her life if she lived by herself. The fact is that those folks are pretty rare. For most people, they really do feel more calm, but also more energetic, more focused, even have a bigger sense of possibility when there's outer order — to kind of a crazy degree. It seems so trivial, yet over and over people report that they feel this really disproportionate boost when they get outer order.

But what that means is not becoming minimalist. This year there was a big to do about, "Oh my God, people want me to declutter. You want me to set all my books on fire, you're trying to take away my most prized possessions." That's not what this is about at all. What is decluttering then? What does it mean to actually have some outer order?

There are abundance lovers and simplicity lovers. Simplicity lovers are the kind of people who are attracted to minimalism and really like to pull back quite far, they like bare shelves and empty counters. Then there are abundance lovers, and those are the people who want shelves and shelves full of books. They want collections, they want choice.

Outer order and clearing clutter is really about just getting rid of the things you don't use, don't need, don't love. Even if you want to be left with many things, you don't want like the cable to nowhere, the bread maker you haven't used in five years. Those aren't adding any value to your life. Those are just clogging things up. Whether you want to get to minimalism, or simplicity, or abundance, it's getting rid of the stuff that isn't working for you. We're all going to put that place in a little different sweet spot.

That's another thing to remember, because sometimes people are like, "Well, everyone should be like this," when really that's just your preference. Like when a boss says, "A cluttered desk means a cluttered mind." Maybe to you, but that doesn't mean it's true for everyone. Some people like to have things out, they like unexpected juxtaposition. If they can lay their hands on whatever they need as soon as they need it, then their system works for them. There's no reason they have to adapt to your system. It's just your preference.

But there are people who say, "I need all my stuff. I need all of it. You're trying to make me take away the stuff that's important to me." You talk about the myth of someday, and you talk about the things that you feel maybe you needed in the past, or will need in the future. People who look backwards and look forward. How do we reckon with that?

I think that's why you really just have to ask yourself, "Do I used it? Do I need it? Do I love it? Why do I have it?" Because you start thinking, "These were suits that I had when I first got out of law school and they were great then, but I have a totally different job now. They're still perfectly good. I was happy when I wore them. Maybe someday my toddler daughters will want to wear them." No, they're really not going to. "Maybe someday I'll want to wear them again." Very unlikely. Are you going to want to wear suits from 10, 15 years ago sometime in the future? When you really relentlessly ask yourself these questions, pretty soon you surface these falsehoods that you're telling yourself, like, "Someday someone will want this, or maybe this'll be handy again." If you haven't used it in such a long time, can you really foresee a future where you're wearing a corporate pantsuit? Maybe, maybe not.

It's so much about your identity. It's so much about, "But that's who I was." You talk about maybe you don't need all five of your college sweatshirts, maybe you can get that feeling of connection with your former self with one sweatshirt.

Then you can take pictures of the other ones. I'm a really big believer in taking pictures, because usually what people want to hang onto is the memory. The photograph gives you the memory, you don't have to actually have the item. When you have mementos or souvenirs, it's better to have just very few and have them be the perfect example. But you don't need a million. If you have one seashell from the beach, you don't need 25 seashells from the beach. It's not adding anything more, you just need the one. Same thing with the sweatshirts. If you're just keeping them for memories sake maybe you don't even need one, maybe you just need the photographs.

Gretchen, I'm going to make a confession to you. I'm actually really good at decluttering. I'm actually a pretty clean person. I live with three other people who have different styles, different standards. You talked about this on a blog post recently. So tell me a little bit about how we live with different styles, especially maybe if you're the, let's call it the neat one.

It's a big source of conflict. It's funny because it turns out my husband and I are very well matched in terms of outer order affinity. I kind of took that for granted, but it turns out when you ask around, it's a very, very common source of conflict. I think it's worse between couples than it is between parents and children, because you feel like they're more doing it on purpose. The children have their own issues that are super annoying as well.

If this is your way of separating from me, I understand. You are asserting your independence by leaving your socks in the middle of the living room floor, and I can work through it psychologically. But when it's your partner…

The one thing I would say is, first of all, willingly, searchingly, go through your own clutter and deal with your own clutter. Because if you deal with your clutter, sometimes that person gets excited and follows suit. That happens surprisingly often. And often your annoyance with their clutter will go away if you have more control over your own things, and you've gotten rid of your own clutter.

It's funny because a lot of people are like, "Well, I'm the neat one. I don't really have problems with clutter." I'm in your house and I'm like, "In what sense would you describe yourself as the neat one? Because I'm not so much picking up that vibe from you." A lot of times our clutter seems completely justified. "Of course I left this project out on the dining room table for a month, but I'm about to finish this at any minute, so I just want to leave this ready for me to do whenever I want. Your clutter, all those crumbs you left out on the kitchen counter, what kind of barbarians are we? You can't live like that." It's like your clutter's bugging me. So sometimes it's that people are more attuned to other people's mess. If you get control of your own stuff, sometimes you feel less annoyance with the way other people are living.

I think that sometimes you do have to say that, "I am the neat one." It's not exactly a Felix and Oscar situation, but maybe decide, "I am going to be the one who's going to be closing the kitchen cabinet doors." Like, that's not the guy I married, or whatever.

And figuring out how to do that in the context of emotional labor. How do I manage that, and how do I coexist harmoniously with people who have different styles?

You've put your finger on something that's very important. Often people want to say, "I'm right and you're wrong," when really it's a matter of preference. It isn't a fact that one of us has to convince the other to see things our way. To you it's not important that the bed be made. You don't care if the bed is made, so you don't want to spend your time making the bed because you honestly don't care. I like the bed to be made, but why do I get to be the boss of you and tell you to do something you don't think is important?

There's no magic to making the bed, there's no reason to make the bed unless it makes us happier. It makes me happier, it doesn't make you happier, so let's work this out. You could choose to make the bed out of love for me, because it's important for me. I could make the bed every day because it's important to me and I don't want to fight about it. We could take turns. There's a lot of solutions, but I think people sometimes are coming from a place of one person's right and one person's wrong.

Don't even get me started on office signage. I want to write a book about office signs. I always make a beeline for an office kitchen to see what people have done there, because they've always done a lot. A lot of passive-aggressive Dilbert cartoons. A lot of times people have very different perspectives of what is right behavior. It is not the fact that one person's right and everybody else is wrong, it's they have different ideas.

This is one of the things I really like in all of your books, that you come at it from that perspective that there isn't just "My way or the highway. If you follow my rules exactly everything's going to be OK." What I like about this book, as a somewhat orderly person, is that this also speaks to people like us. If you're someone who maybe gets a little enthusiastic, maybe over enthusiastic, you need this book as well. Talk to me a little bit as someone who maybe gets a gung ho sometimes about throwing things away, what I can get out of this as well.

There's something that I've noticed called the frenzy of the clear. There's the rapture of the deep, where you don't want to come up.

The call of the void.

The call of the void, yep. So there is something, the frenzy of the clear, when you just get so excited by seeing all this outer order come out that you just start throwing away things willy nilly. I experienced this with a friend recently. I was helping him clear his clutter in his home office. He was just getting faster and faster, and everything was just going. I really didn't have to do anything, I was just standing there as moral support. Then I noticed he threw in an unopened package of padded mailer envelopes. I'm like, "Why did you throw this away? This isn't even opened." He said, "Oh, those things never work." I said, "These things always work. Why are you throwing these away? I'll take it, I mail books all the time."

Sometimes you do have to watch out, especially if it's not your things. You can start throwing things away. Especially with children, we don't always know what other people value. It's not always clear to us what's really important. So you do want to be respectful of other peoples' property rights, and to say, "I'm not going to go through your closet and get rid of things before I check with you." Because you can get very excited and you're like, "You'll never do it on your own, I need to do this." It's one thing to do it with the plastic containers in the kitchen, it's another thing when you're going through somebody else's clothes closet.

 It just comes back to really interrogating your process, and really taking that step and asking, "Do I need this? Does this have purpose in my life, have I used it recently? Am I anticipating something that's never going to happen?"

You've talked in your previous books these four basic types of personalities. I'm like you, we're upholders.

Upholders are sort of like, "I don't understand why you can't just put your things away as you go. Just commit." But not everybody's an upholder, it's a small fringe personality type. I do think that it is really important to understand how people could do it a different way, because if you expect everyone to be able to do it your way, then a lot of times they can't. So you have to think about how would I tailor it?

For instance, questioners are people who always want to know why. If you walk up to a questioner and you're like, "We need to clean the basement this weekend," they're not going to cooperate. It's like, "Why are we cleaning the basement at all? We never use it. Why are we cleaning this weekend? That's an arbitrary day. Why do I want to spend my Saturday doing that? I don't get it." But if you're like, "You know what, we need to clean the basement this Saturday because we're having the electrical work down in the basement. If the workmen come and they can't get to where they need to get, we're just going to spend all this money just while they're moving furniture around. If we clean it out, they'll be able to just get in get out. It'll save us a lot of money." So this is why we're doing it, this is why we're doing it at this time, this is why it makes good sense. Then they'll cooperate.

But for someone like me I'd be like, "OK, I guess that's what we're doing this weekend. Fine with me."

Sounds like a great weekend.

I look forward to that.

Cleaning a basement? When do we get started?

I remember I woke up in the middle of the night recently. I was like, "The utility closet, ooh, I'm going to go down there right now." I've been walking by that utility closet just gazing at it.

Bring your label maker, that's sweet.

But that's not true for everyone, as you may have noticed. I'll bring in my friends to let me help them clear their clutter. It's also the contact high of seeing all the order without the emotional drain of making the decisions about your own stuff.

I've done that too. Come over to somebody else's house and just run the paper shredder.

It's the greatest thing.

That is a damn good afternoon. Pour some wine, I'm good to go.

If you give me as much coffee as I can drink, I will do it. Not everybody finds that to be fun.

Not everyone gets that high.

This is the good thing to remember is if you do not find it fun, you probably have a friend who if you said, "Would you like to come?" they are being very honest when they say that they would enjoy it. Bring that person along. For many people, it's easier when they have a companion. It helps them stay focused and there is the help with the grunt work. I'll run the shredder while you're going through the bookshelf. I'll hold open the bag while you put in the stuff. There's just something nice about having somebody keep you company.

Also, sometime people just want you to witness.

I wrote a story about this. A friend of mine, when she was dying, we decluttered. It was just about sitting with her and having someone listen to her say, "This is my t-shirt from when I was backpacking." That's exactly it. It's just about having someone witness it, and then you can let it go.

Then you can let it go. "Oh, my mother gave this to me and I remember we had such a lovely time. I was so thrilled to have just the right thing." You're like, "Wow, that was really great." Then they can release it.

I don't know if you're like this, but as an upholder, I'm pretty good about letting go of stuff, but you say in this book it's not just about the stuff. What I have is mental clutter. You talk about clutter as not just physical. It's the projects. How do I declutter from certain actions? How do I give myself permission to stop watching this TV series that I don't really care about? Or how do I accept that maybe I'm not going to learn Portuguese?

One thing, for many of the things you mentioned, is to abandon a project. You have to be willing to just be like, you know what, I'm not going to learn Portuguese, so I'm not going to keep that loop open. I'm not going to keep the Duolingo app on my phone. I'm not going to tell myself, there are those books and I keep meaning to study them. I'm not really going to. Just get them off your shelves and off your conscience. There's just so much freedom in abandoning a project. If I buy a guitar because I'm going to teach myself guitar, and then I have it sitting around my house for a year, and then I get rid of it and give it to somebody who would actually use it, then that's a positive thing. I get to release myself from the expectation, which was probably unrealistic, and then put it in the hands of somebody who will make good use of it.

I think most of us really do want to see possessions be well used. A really good argument for getting rid of things like clothes or whatever is if I am not wearing it, I should get it into the hands of someone who will actually use it, enjoy it, and get good value out of it. Having it just sit in a closet is not doing anybody any good. But abandoning a project can be surprisingly emotional because then you're really acknowledging to yourself, not only am I not going to learn Portuguese, I'm going to give up on learning Portuguese. For some people they want to pretend like at any minute they're going to restart.

You know what? I've been to Lisbon, it was fine. It was totally fine.

I have a friend who, after age 50, taught himself French and is now fluent in French. You could do it. You could do it and that's almost more painful. If it were something like, "Could I become a soprano opera singer?" No, you could not. "Could I become a ballet dancer on the stage?" No, you could not.

Portuguese you could learn, but are you going to? One of the things, if you are having trouble letting go of a project is, is there something more manageable that you can commit to? Would I give myself a month to do it everyday? If I don't, then I'll just assume that it's sort of a fantasy ambition of mine, it's not something that I really want to work toward now, at this time. It could be that at some other time you'll decide you want to do it again, but for right now it's not something that you're actively pursuing.

That brings me to something that I also completely love that I do in my own life. I live and die by my timer. Because you are all about, just set yourself a time limit for something, especially the stuff that's really hard for you. That is a really great way to manage the stuff. Be consistent with it. So talk about the one minute.

The one-minute rule is great. Anything you can do in less than a minute you do without delay. So if you can hang up your coat, or you can print out a document and put it in the right file. That gets rid of this tiny task that accumulates on the surface of life, and they're all inconsequential on their own.

And literally set the timer. Just set the timer.

Right, absolutely. People are like, "I don't have the time and energy to deal with clutter," so this is something you can do without any extra time or energy, it's literally just as you're walking through your day. You're just like, "Oh, I could dump this on the floor, or I could put it on the shelf where it belongs. OK, I'll just put it on the shelf. I could leave this bottle of pain reliever out on the counter with the lid off, or I could just put the lid back on and put it back in." It's less than a minute, I'm going to do it without delay.

That's really good, too, because what we do every day matters more than what we do once in awhile. So if every day you're doing the one minute rule, then if you could only do a big cleaning once every six months, it doesn't matter as much because you're doing it consistently. You're creating order, and then you're also maintaining order. So before too long it really does start to make a difference. Over and over, people have told me that they've been surprised by how well this works.

Along the same lines is Power Hour. This is for all those tasks that contribute to clutter, but it's like when are you going to do them? You keep a list. Let's say I have a pair of shoes that I keep them out on the kitchen counter to remind me I need to go to the shoe place. A week goes by, a month goes by, I haven't gone to the shoe place. So I put that on Power Hour along with things like, get the pants hemmed, get that weird light bulb from the hardware store, things like that. Then just for an hour, set your timer, use your favorite alarm sound to make it fun, and just try to knock those things off your list. What people say over and over is, a couple weekends go by and it is amazing how all these little tasks get done.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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