Gretchen Rubin is a New Yorker with the first and last word on finding happiness. Her mix of philosophy and practicality has sold more than 2 million books, made her top of the New York Times bestseller list, and has been translated into over 30 languages. Here, she shares her thinking on how sorting out your possessions can make you happier at home – no matter what kind of mayhem surrounds you…

I’ve often felt a yearning to escape from the ties of ownership. I’ve wanted to dump the entire contents of a chest of drawers into the trash rather than endure the headache of sorting the good from the bad. Years ago, walking through a convenience store parking lot in some small, nameless California town, I had a sudden vision of abandoning everything, my possessions, relationships, ambition, to disappear, unencumbered. I knew that in many cases, my possessions blocked my view and weighed me down.

I wanted to feel more in control of stuff. Here’s how I did it.

Resolution: Engagement
Cultivating my possessions wasn’t a simple matter of organisation, elimination, or accumulation; it was a matter of engagement. When I felt engaged with my possessions, I felt enlivened by them, and when I felt disengaged from them, I felt burdened.

My goal, then, was to rid our home of things that didn’t matter. First: identify, arrange, and spotlight meaningful possessions; second, to get rid of meaningless stuff.

Resolution: Cultivate a shrine
To give more prominence to precious possessions, I resolved to cultivate a shrine. It sounded a little grandiose, but the word helped me approach the task more enthusiastically: it sounded more intriguing than sprucing up the apartment. By “shrine,” I didn’t mean a niche with candles, flowers, and a statue, but an area that enshrined my passions, interests, and values. It made me more mindful of the possessions that were most meaningful to me:

Photos
We usually walked right by them without seeing them. How could I focus our attention on our photographs? I’d create photo galleries. Halloween pictures, annual family Valentine’s cards… I knew we’d appreciate them more if they weren’t continually on display.

Keepsakes
In a little-used cabinet, I came across the china pink flamingo that I’d taken as a keepsake after my grandmother died. I set it on a bookshelf alongside the glass bluebird that my other grandmother had given me. After all, I couldn’t engage with objects if I never saw them. Poignant that my long relationship with my beloved grandparents could be embodied in a few small objects. But the power of objects doesn’t depend on their volume.

Work
I decided to make my apartment’s tiny office a Shrine to Work. I’d never tried to make it beautiful and distinctive – partly because it’s so small, but mostly because I just never bothered. I consolidated boxes of stationery to save space, bought two attractive cardboard boxes to hold small office-supply items, and then, in a fit of obsession, I even lined up the labels on the spare reams of printer paper. For weeks, I’d been planning to buy pens, because I could never find one, but I discovered 15 jammed in an overlooked drawer.

Fun and Games
A bookcase became the Shrine to Fun and Games. I filled its shelves with board games, puzzles, and five glass apothecary jars filled with tiny toys that we wanted to keep but didn’t belong anyplace. The lovely silver rattles that were baby gifts. The favourite toys I’d saved from my own childhood.

Resolution: Go shelf by shelf
One thing that has surprised me is the significance of clutter to happiness. For me, fighting clutter is a never-ending battle. I was eager to find additional strategies to stop its insidious progress. I resolved to “Go shelf by shelf,” then drawer by drawer, then closet by closet, to consider each of our possessions:

Did one of us use it or love it?

Would we replace it if it were broken or lost?

If so, was it in the right place?

If not why keep it?

In the span of a happy life, having a messy desk or an overflowing closet is clearly trivial, and yet creating order gives a disproportionate boost of energy and cheer. Professional organisers estimate that the average American spends almost an hour a day searching for things. I decided to tackle clutter opportunistically. I didn’t want this to be a onetime exercise, helpful for a brief time, until the clutter crept back in (as it always does). Instead, I wanted to train myself to use this approach for the rest of my life. For that, I’d have to set the bar low.

As I walked around the apartment, I tried to see it with fresh eyes – the slightly panicky way I see it just before guests arrive. When I really looked, I found a shocking number of things that had been plunked down in the wrong place, sometimes for years. For instance, four years ago, I absentmindedly set my Walkman on top of some books on a bedroom shelf. Still there, exactly where I’d left it. I saw two clocks with dead batteries, a pile of unread books stacked on the floor in a hallway corner, a mirror leaning against a wall, unhung.

Clothes
I noticed that some prime closet real estate was occupied by a few scarves. They were beautiful, but I never wear scarves. Never. “I could put these on a high shelf,” I reasoned, “or…” In one stroke, I freed valuable closet space, gave my mother something nice, and relieved myself of the twinge of guilt I felt whenever my glance fell on the neglected scarves.

Clean as I go
When I found stale corn flakes in a silverware drawer, or a clump of toothpaste dried to the medicine-cabinet shelf, I took the time to clean up, instead of making the empty promise “I’ll deal with that later.”

Buy what I need
As an under-buyer, I often decide “Maybe we don’t really need this” or “I’ll buy this some other time.” I suffer needless annoyance because I don’t have what I need or I’m using something that isn’t exactly suitable. By contrast, over-buyers tell themselves: “This might come in handy, someday.” Over-buyers suffer needless annoyance because of the time, money, energy, and space necessary to support their over-buying. I finally prodded myself to buy a new toaster.

Clear surfaces
Surfaces should be used for activities, not storage, I instructed myself, and I cleared them wherever possible.

Resolution: Think about appearances
I wanted my apartment to be less cluttered, and also to look less cluttered. As our messy piles of T-shirts showed, I’d never gained the knack for folding items properly. I knew just whom to ask for a folding tutorial. I practised, I folded all my T-shirts, and I got a real charge from seeing the smooth, flat piles. There’s a surgeon’s pleasure that comes from sheer order, from putting an object back neatly in its precise place.

For the same reason, in the kitchen, instead of keeping measuring cups and spoons loose among the coffee mugs, I gathered them in a plastic basket. It was really no easier to find them, and yet the appearance of greater orderliness was satisfying.

Problem objects
Here are patterns of likely clutter:

“Cute” kitchen objects that don’t work very well.

Broken things. Why was it so hard to admit that something was broken – defective toaster, that frog clock, our three crippled umbrellas, the cracked vase? Ditto with tech gadgets that we’d replaced yet, inexplicably, also kept the broken or outmoded version.

Things that seemed potentially useful but never did get used (oversized water bottle, complicated corkscrew).

Duplicates – how many spare glass salsa jars can we use?

Things I wanted to “save.” What’s the point of fancy bath gel if it never leaves the container?  Spend out, use things up.

Beautiful, useless things. Two sets of china baby dishes. Lovely, but what to do with them? (I never did come up with a satisfactory solution and just stuck them at the bottom of a little-used drawer.)

Things meant to encourage me to undertake disagreeable activities. Years ago, I bought a digital recorder, because I hoped that if I had the proper tools, I’d do interviews. But I didn’t really want to do interviews, and having the recorder didn’t change that .

Things that were neatly put away. No matter how nicely organised, useless things make clutter.

Things we never used. It was time to give away the rice cooker I gave Jamie for his last birthday.

Sentimental objects. I couldn’t keep every toy or book my girls had ever loved.

I started a memory box for each.

Resolution: Avoid the endowment effect
As I went shelf by shelf, I became increasingly cowed by the power of the “endowment effect.” This psychological phenomenon means that once I own an object, I value it more. I might not have particularly wanted that purple freebie coffee mug, but once the mug was mine, I’d find it hard to give it up. I became more cautious about what I acquired. I turned down conference swag. I ignored bargain-buying opportunities.

The result
Efforts proved to me that happiness is not having less; happiness is not having more; happiness is wanting what I have. And this truth has an important corollary: If I don’t want something, getting it won’t make me happy. Declaring that we’d all be happy with more, or with less, is like saying that every book should be a hundred pages long. Every book has a right length, and people differ in the number of possessions, and the types of possessions, with which they can meaningfully engage. When I know exactly where to find the things I’m looking for, and I can easily fit a letter into a folder or a towel onto the shelf, I have a comforting (if illusory) sense of being more in control of my life, generally.

Eliminating clutter makes the burden of daily life feel lighter. Little things, very little  nevertheless, they made a real difference to my comfort with my possessions.

Gretchen Rubin’s new book, ‘Better Than Before’ published by Two Roads, £16.99, will be available 13th March 2015; gretchenrubin.com

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