In my study of happiness, I've realised that for most of us, outer order contributes to inner calm More than it should. In the context of a happy life, a messy desk or a crowded coat closet is a trivial problem, yet getting control of the stuff of life often makes it easier to feel more in control of our lives generally.
When I'm surrounded by a mess, I feel restless and unsettled. When I clean up that mess, I'm always surprised by the disproportionate energy and cheer I gain, plus I'm able to find my keys. A friend once told me, "I finally cleaned out my fridge and now I know I can switch careers." I knew exactly what she meant.
“I don’t panic at the prospect of an unexpected guest or an emergency repair. I’m pleased to show my space to others.”Credit:Stocksy
By getting rid of the things I don't use, don't need, or don't love, as well as the things that don't work, don't fit, or don't suit, I free my mind – and my shelves – for what I truly value. And that's true for most people.
Often, when disorder starts to creep in, I think, "I don't have time to fight my way through all this stuff! I'm too busy to deal with it!" But I've learnt that by managing my possessions, I can improve my emotional attitude, my physical health, my intellectual vigour and even my social life.
Now, no matter how busy I am, I force myself to take at least a few minutes each day to impose some order. If I'm feeling overwhelmed by multiple writing deadlines, I spend 20 minutes cleaning my office, because I know that clearing my papers clears my mind.
I've also found that once I start, it's easier to keep going. A friend told me, "I woke up one morning and, on impulse, decided to tackle my basement. I spent my entire Sunday down there, and I was so pumped by the end that I wanted to keep going all night. I got up early on Monday morning just to sit there and gloat. It gave me such a lift at the start of a tough work week."
We want to cherish our possessions and we also want to feel free of them. I want to keep every toy that my children ever loved, but I also want to have plenty of space in our apartment. With outer order, we achieve that balance. Outer order offers nine promises, as follows.
IT SAVES TIME, MONEY, SPACE, ENERGY AND PATIENCE
I move more smoothly through my days. I don't waste time searching for things; I don't struggle to put things away; I don't have to run out to buy a duplicate of something I already own. It's easier to clean. I feel less frustrated, less rushed and less cramped. I'm not frittering my life away on trivial chores and annoyances.
IT FOSTERS PEACE WITHIN RELATIONSHIPS
I spend less time nagging at or arguing with other people. I avoid boring questions like, "Where's my passport?" "Where's the toner?" "Who left the mess in that room?" "Where does this go?"
IT CREATES A FEELING OF SANCTUARY
I experience true leisure because I don't feel pressured to jump up and deal with a mess. Once visual noise is eliminated, there's more room in my mind, my schedule and my space for creativity activity. Instead of being sources of stress, my home and my office are places of comfort and energy. I can revel in the beauty of my possessions because I can see and reach everything easily. I have plenty of room for everything that's important to me. Our physical experience colours our emotional experience, and when my body is in a place that's orderly, my mind becomes more serene.
IT REDUCES GUILT
I feel relieved of guilt about the possessions I've never used and the projects I've never finished. Because I make better use of what I already own, I can buy less in the future. And I know I'll leave a lighter burden for others to handle after I'm gone.
IT ALLOWS ME TO PROJECT A MORE POSITIVE IDENTITY TO MYSELF AND TO THE WORLD
I feel greater self-possession; I feel more self-assured and capable. Once I've cleared away the things I don't need, use or love, my surroundings reveal to me, and to others, the things that matter most to me. Careful curation means that my space and my possessions reflect my truest identity.
IT RELIEVES ME OF THE FEAR OF PEOPLE'S JUDGMENT
I'm more hospitable because I can invite people over without hours of preparatory cleaning. I don't panic at the prospect of an unexpected guest or an emergency repair. I'm pleased to show my space to others.
IT REFLECTS WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW IN MY LIFE Because I've let go of things that once played an active role in my life, I have more time for what's important right now. No more giant toys from my children's babyhood, no more rows of law books crowding my office shelves. I keep a few precious mementoes from the old days, but most of my space is devoted to what's important now.
IT CREATES A SENSE OF POSSIBILITY
When stuff piles up, I feel paralysed. Digging myself out of the mess seems insurmountable, so I stay stuck. When clutter is gone, I have more choices about the future: what to buy, what to do, where and how to live.
IT SHARPENS MY SENSE OF PURPOSEFULNESS
I know what I have, why I have it, and where it belongs. I make good use of everything I own. There's nothing random, no uncertainty, no default choices. I'm surrounded by meaningful possessions ready for me to use them.
Our rooms shape our thoughts and by improving our surroundings, we can improve our state of mind.
Because our minds feed on the experience of our five senses, pleasing our senses raises our spirits. Given how much clutter affects my own happiness and the enthusiasm for this subject in popular culture, I'm surprised that researchers haven't investigated the effects of clutter more thoroughly. The studies that exist address questions such as whether it's "better" to be organised or messy. To me, the answer seems obvious: it depends. We're all different.
We all must face clutter in the way that's right for us. We differ as to what possessions we value, in the kinds of surroundings that we find pleasurable. There's no one "right" or "best" way to create a better life.
In fact, we should work to create outer order only if it makes us happier. There's no magic in making a bed, or filing papers, or emptying an in-box each night. These efforts are worthwhile only if they bring us more happiness. For some people, what looks like disorder works just fine.
Why, then, do so many experts insist that they've found the one true and right way? It's a fact about human nature: when getting advice, we love to receive a precise, standardised template for success; and when giving advice, we love to insist that the strategy that works so well for us will surely work for others. But each of us must find our own way.
Some people want to clear a little clutter each day; some people want to work for 14 hours straight. Some people struggle with overbuying; some people (like me) struggle with underbuying. Some people feel a strong emotional or mystical attachment to possessions; others don't feel much connection to objects. Some people curate their possessions with great care; others put little thought into what they buy and where they put it. Some people are powerfully attracted by the promise of minimalism. Some people aren't.
Nevertheless, while each of us might define and achieve outer order in different ways, it's clear that for most people, outer order does indeed contribute to inner calm.
I'm often asked, "Given the problems of the world, isn't it superficial and silly to devote time and energy to tackling clutter?" We may be right to be worried about the problems of the world, yet the promise of outer order is something that we can tackle on our own, right now. By doing so, we help restore our equanimity and this isn't a futile or selfish gesture, because that equanimity makes us more effective when we seek to address the problems of the world.
Edited extract from Outer Order, Inner Calm (Hachette Australia) by Gretchen Rubin, on sale now.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 17.
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