The Happiness Project - Clear A Surface

From Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, here's a simple tip for clearing clutter in your life.

One of the most striking things I’ve discovered since starting my happiness project is the influence of clutter on mood. For most people, outer order contributes to inner calm; a messy coat closet, for instance, is clearly a very trivial element in life, yet clearing out that messy coat closet gives a disproportionately large happiness boost.

Over and over again, people tell me that they’ve gotten a huge charge from tackling messy areas. I think it comes from fostering a sense of control, and order, and space, and a feeling of freedom from stuff.

Fighting clutter, though, is a never-ending battle. I’m always looking for little ways to stop its insidious progress through my apartment. I’ve been trying this resolution, with good results: Clear a surface.

I arrived at this resolution when I was visiting my sister recently. She and her husband just had their first baby, so their house was bursting with the usual new-baby clutter: presents, new childcare gear, unopened mail, etc.

Their kitchen counters were stacked with stuff, and there was stuff on the floor, too. But their table was beautifully, perfectly bare.

“Did you agree never to set anything down on your table, to keep it looking nice?” I asked. Not infrequently—for instance, in my family when I was growing up—the table, or one end of it, becomes the dumping ground for every member of the family.

“No,” she answered, surprised. “For some reason, we just never put anything there.”

That’s when I started to notice a new Secret of Adulthood: A clear surface tends to stay clear. Tidy areas stay tidy; messy areas stay messy. A bedroom chair piled with a few items of clothing attracts more clothes. One box in the office hallway quickly grows into two boxes, then a stack of boxes. Put one piece of paper on a corner of your desk, and before long, there will be a yellowing stack of papers two inches high.

So now, when I look around our apartment or my office, I try to clear off surfaces. It’s funny how this mission allows me to spot clutter that I’d overlooked before.

Bare surfaces give a wonderful feeling of space and tidiness. Even if you’re not a fan of the minimalist aesthetic, you’ll probably enjoy a room more where things are where they’re supposed to be, without lots of stuff parked “temporarily” in random spots. Nice bonus: when most things are put away, it’s easy to find any particular object. If you put your keys down on a counter that’s otherwise bare, you can easily find them again. If you put your keys down on a counter that’s cluttered, you might spend fifteen minutes hunting for them.

Now, when I walk around my apartment and office, I look for objects that could become toeholds of clutter. By forcing myself to stand for five minutes, deciding whether I really need to keep a particular piece of paper, and if I do, where to put it, keeps me from having to deal with a gigantic stack in a few months.

Are all the surfaces in my apartment bare? Oh, no. Especially here at my desk – I have multiple piles. But following this resolution means that I have fewer than I would otherwise have, and that’s a start!

By Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. Buy The Happiness Project book here!