In her newest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm, Gretchen Rubin gets to the heart of a surprisingly simple—yet life altering—fact. For most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. But unsurprisingly, a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t work, proving far too rigid and unyielding.
The key, as Rubin outlines, is in customizing our approach to life’s ceaseless waves of clutter, and fitting solutions to our specific preferences, challenges, and ingrained routines. From that point, we can infuse new structure into our lives, making them more productive, healthier, and boundlessly creative.
Recently, Gretchen spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright, touching on her motivation to solve life’s nagging problems, how she covertly cleared out her sister’s shower, and why Philip Pullman is the prime architect of her reading list.
READ IT FORWARD: Throughout all of Outer Order, Inner Calm, I felt like you were talking to me, because I am a bit of a clutter container. Every surface in my home is filled with clutter. Why did you decide to write this?
GRETCHEN RUBIN: I’ve been writing and talking to people, and thinking about happiness and human nature for years. Something that kept coming up over and over is that for most people—not for everyone but for most people—there’s a real connection between outer order and inner calm. People would say to me over and over, ‘I make my bed. I feel amazing. I cleaned out my closet. I feel like I have a whole new lease on life.’ It seems there’s this really disproportionate connection between outer order and inner calm, and a sense of energy and purpose.
You can do something small, like clean out your coat closet, and then all of a sudden a work project seems easier. It has this universal lifting effect. I really feel that way myself. I often will clutter clear for medicinal reasons if I need a lift. So I wanted to explore that, and talk about the easy tips and strategies that people can use to try to get clutter under control and to keep it at bay. Once you’ve created clutter, like you say, clutter creeps in.
RIF: It’s fascinating because you talk about some of the reasons why we hold onto clutter. I live in a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, and yet I hold on to a lot of things meant to decorate a larger home someday, things for a life I want to lead, not the one I’m leading right now.
GR: I was just talking to a friend last night, he said, ‘that’s for my Hudson Valley house, which I don’t have.’ Furnishing the fantasy life, a lot of clutter comes from that, or a past life, like I’m keeping these business suits because for a long time it was really important. I don’t need them anymore, but it feels weird, it feels uncomfortable, to let them go. That’s a big reason people hang onto things; for a self that is not the actual self right now.
RIF: Right, it feels like if I let go of this, I’m shedding a part of who I was, and that feels really scary.
GR: Or the possibility that I have all this yoga equipment and I’ve never really done yoga, but if I have the stuff maybe I will do yoga, or I have all these things for cooking. I never do cook, but if I give them away then I’m admitting to myself that I have no intention of cooking for the foreseeable future. I think it can be painful.
RIF: In this book, there are tons of easy, actionable items for us to do. Like what can I tackle in one minute, or if it actually takes less than one minute, do it now.
GR: Do it now. So many people have told me that that has completely changed their life, because it gets rid of those tiny tasks that are not overwhelming on their own, but they accumulate. You walk into your office and you’re like, oh my gosh I just have to walk right back out because there’s the dirty mug and there’s the pen that’s out, and there’s the letter that you didn’t throw away, so now you have to re-read it. If you just get rid of the stuff as it comes up, you get clutter-free with no time at all.
RIF: Yeah, as I read that, I looked over to a chair where there were four coats that were piled on top of the chair.
GR: Here’s my thing about coats. Do you have hooks? I’m not a coat hanger. I cannot put a coat on a hanger. It’s just hard, but I got hooks and it changed my life because I will use a hook. So, use a hook if you can, it’ll change your life.
RIF: For my bathrobe. That’s one of those things that doesn’t have a place.
GR: One thing that I discovered from talking to people that I don’t struggle with, but turns out is a thing for people, is what do you do with something that’s neither clean nor dirty. It’s not dirty enough to go into the laundry, but it’s a shirt you wore for a couple of hours. For some people, that feels wrong to put it back with everything else, and so they would leave things out in these liminal places because they didn’t know what to do with them. The answer is to create a place for things that are neither quite clean nor dirty.
RIF: The chair, for me.
GR: Yeah, I have the floor-drobe. I just dump it on the floor. I don’t even put it on a chair, just kick it around. We all have that, the weird places in our house or apartment, the in-between zones.
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RIF: You really say there’s not a one size fits all method. Some de-cluttering books that I’ve read are like, ’this is the only way.’ But I love that you say if you love to be surrounded by stuff, that’s okay. Just make sure that it’s a level that you’re achieving happiness.
GR: That’s exactly right, because I think some people feel like there’s one right way to do it, so if it feels wrong for them they blame themselves or think they need to change.
You mentioned a perfect example, which is minimalism. I’m against the argument that everyone should try to be minimalist because some people really love simplicity. I’m a simplicity lover, where I love bare shelves and clean surfaces. But there are people who are abundance lovers, so they want collections and profusion and a lot of stimulation, but nobody likes clutter, things that you don’t use, don’t need, you don’t love. But to say there’s a certain absolute level which is the right level, I think is incorrect. Get rid of the junk, and maybe you have many things left over. Maybe you have one little vase with one rosebud sticking out of it. That’s for you to decide.
RIF: I’m a maximalist, but I don’t love the piles of catalogs from the mail.
GR: Right, or the cord to the thing that you don’t know what that’s to. You can get rid of that, but then you enjoy the thing. If you’re a maximalist, then you will enjoy the things that you love even more because you can shine a spotlight on them and nothing is interfering with your beautiful collection of whatevers.
RIF: Exactly. I really felt seen when I read that. Another part that I felt like you were speaking directly to me was to not go overboard on finding everything a perfect box from the Container Store. Does everything need a label? Perfectionism is sort of the enemy of this de-cluttering, right?
GR: Well, you can get really swept up in that. It’s the people that have the most clutter who are the most attracted to super-advanced gizmos. I think that I learned that from my sister, Elizabeth, who is very messy. One of the things I learned from her is to always go through and see do I even need to keep this at all. She will see it like, ‘I can imagine that I would buy this special file box and I would put it all in there.’
Or, you could just throw it away because you don’t need these papers. You don’t need those six bridesmaids dresses. We don’t have to get special hangers for them because you can give them away because you’re never going to wear that again. Get rid of it. Then, a lot of times you’re left with so little that you don’t need a special container. You can just put it on a shelf.
RIF: Read it Forward is all about readers, and one of my problems is I hold onto books that I’m meaning to get to. So, how can we tackle clutter, specifically in the book world? It’s great to have books on your “to be read” pile, but how do you prevent it from getting out of control?
GR: I’ve thought about this a ton because I’m a gigantic reader. I try to use the idea that I can’t buy more new books until I have significantly tackled old books. Now, sometimes you just can’t resist and you go and you buy it, so that’s great. But I think if you get too far out, you feel paralyzed. It’s more like you want to feel like you’re keeping them in motion.
If somebody gives me a book and I don’t actually want to read it, I say to myself why don’t I give this to somebody who I know would like to read it, because what happens to me? I don’t know if you experience this where a book can block you. Like you’re thinking, I really should read this XY book, but I don’t really want to, so I do other things rather than read. Whereas if I would just say I don’t want to read XY book, I’m going to give it away, so now I can read the books that I want to read.
If I don’t like a book, I just stop reading it. When I’m reading things that I love, I find time to read all over the place. When I’m trying to plow my way through a book that I don’t really like, I make much less time for reading.
GR: One thing that I think is helpful is to have a place where I keep the books that I want to read. It used to be that they would just be one on the side table. One is on the coffee table. One is by the front door, you know? So now ,when I finish one book, I go right to the pile and these are the books that I’m choosing from. Am I in the mood for children’s literature? Am I in the mood for non-fiction, or fiction, or whatever? Seeing them all together inspires me to keep going.
RIF: That’s good. What I do is once I’ve read it, unless it’s some incredible keepsake book that I will want to come back to again and again, I don’t need to keep it. Now it’s up here in my brain, and I can give it to someone else who will enjoy it.
GR: It’s funny that you say, that because for years I used it as a diary of my life. I wanted to keep everything I read, because it was like it’s going to remind me. You just can’t do that because if you’re a real reader, you’re going to drown.
I also have changed my standard of what it takes for me to keep a book. It used to be my presumption was that I kept it. Now, my presumption is I’m going to give it to somebody else who would like to read it unless there’s some reason why I think I would re-read it, another member of my family would re-read it, or it’s close enough to a subject that I write about that I could imagine that at some point I would want to consult it again. It’s still a massive number of books, but there are books that are moving.
RIF: We have rules now. So, this book is actually illustrated, there are about 50 line drawings. Did you do these?
GR: No, no. I did a book where I had photographs that I took, but this is the first time it’s been illustrated this way. It was super fun to add that, I think it adds a lot to the liveliness.
RIF: I love that there’s one tip about when you’re traveling to create a tray where you’re going to put your cell phone, your keys, the bowl of requirement, and to see it illustrated. I’m like, I could do that with the ice bucket.
GR: It was interesting to see someone else’s take on it, I think it’s fun. This is a book where it’s meant to be a psych up book. You’re going to read this book, and you’re like, I’m halfway through and I’ve got to jump out of my chair and start clearing clutter. It’s supposed to do that, and so I think the illustrations make it feel more fun and lively to get you in that mood.
RIF: What do you hope readers take away from reading this book? I think that sense of energy and empowerment is totally there.
GR: I think…it solves a nagging problem. Like the bowl of requirement, I just noticed that when we were traveling as a family, I misplaced things because nothing had a place that it was supposed to be. Let’s create a place where it’s supposed to be. So it’s just a nagging thing that now you have the tiniest solution to it. For some reason, it gives you a completely disproportionate boost in happiness.
Instead of feeling guilty and like I should hang up my coat. Why bother to hang it up if I’m just going to get it out again? Just put it on the hook. These little solutions can really make a difference.
RIF: This morning, I just noticed I have all these dusty lipsticks, so obviously I never wear them. I’m like no, not going to wear orange. Bye. I just threw it away.
GR: Yes. Go shelf by shelf, whenever you’re confronted with something. It’s bizarre how you’ll have these things in your environment for years that you don’t even notice. Then, when they’re gone and you have that clarity, it feels great.
RIF: The thunk of them into the trash can was the most exhilarating feeling.
GR: My sister is super messy, and I went over there. The number of hair products in her shower, I was like my heart is going into a shock here. What do you actually use Practically none of that, you know? I think I can significantly improve your shower experience by getting rid of all these products. She didn’t even notice them, but then when they’re gone it seems so much cleaner. Things that you don’t use, I feel like they have little souls that are feeling sad and lonely and bereft and why don’t you ever use me? I’m orange lipstick. I look good, and you’re like, I don’t have time for that.
RIF: Yeah, exactly. It was never working on my skin tone, and now I’m going to just put you out.
GR: Let it go, yeah.
Author Photo: © Elena Seibert