A Secret to Happiness? Don't Get Organized.

How to be happier.
Oct. 2 2009 6:19 AM

A Secret to Happiness? Don't Get Organized.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too ! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in—no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One of my favorite things to do is to help my friends clear their clutter. It’s less emotionally taxing than clearing my own clutter, plus I don’t have any delicious, horrible piles left to tackle (OK, maybe I do have one messy pile of shirts in my closet). As a consequence, I’ve seen a lot of clutter and heard lots of people talk about their thoughts about clutter. And I’ve reached an important conclusion:

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Don’t get organized.

When you’re facing a desk swamped in papers, or a closet bursting with clothes, or countertops littered with piles of random objects, don’t say to yourself, "I need to get organized." Your first instinct should be to get rid of stuff. If you don’t keep it, you don’t have to organize it.

A huge amount of clutter is the result of keeping things you don’t use. "Well, I don’t have that problem," you might think. "Why would I bother to keep something I don’t use?" But it’s easier than you think for this stuff to accumulate.

In fact, there are a surprising number of reasons to hang on to something you don’t use. Maybe you used this object in the past, and it has sentimental value—your 10-year-old’s old sippy cup. Maybe you wish you used this object, even though you never do—a set of hand weights. Maybe you want to pretend you live a life where this object would be useful—linen cocktail napkins. Maybe you’ve never used this thing, and you feel guilty about having wasted the money buying it—a bottle of decoupage glue. (All items that I held onto for years, without using, by the way.)

It can be painful to admit that you aren’t going to use certain possessions, but all that junk just gets in your way. Be honest with yourself.

When I’m helping people clear clutter, they often say, "I refuse to give that up! It’s got too much sentimental value to throw away." I’m a big believer in keeping things for sentimental reasons , but it helps to admit that that’s what you’re doing and to act accordingly.

For example, a friend was keeping a huge pile of T-shirts she loved in college but no longer wore. She wanted to buy a special set of plastic shelves to put in her closet to organize them.

Instead, I asked her, "Do you need to keep all these T-shirts, or can you pick a few to jog your memory?" With some coaxing, she got rid of most of them. Once she was down to two T-shirts, I asked her, "Do you actually wear these T-shirts?" She didn’t, so we moved them out of the precious real estate of her closet and stuck them on the top shelf of a little-used closet.

People also say, "No, I’ve never used that, but maybe I will! It might come in handy!" Maybe it will—or maybe it won’t. Ask yourself: How easy would it be to replace this item? Have I ever used it? What else in my life would have to change for me to use this?

For example, my sister had huge amounts of paper clutter, and when we started going through it, I saw that she was hanging on to all sorts of statements and receipts. She wanted to buy a file box to file it all away neatly, but I disagreed. "You should just throw these papers away," I said "Why do you them at all?" "Maybe I’ll need them," she objected. But she’d never needed them in the past, and it wouldn’t have been hard to get copies, if she would ever need them. So we tossed all of it. Much easier than organizing it!

No surprise, I’ve noticed that it’s the people with the worst clutter problems who have the instinct to run to a store and buy complicated hangers, drawer compartments, etc. I love and use that stuff, too, but now I never let myself buy an item until it’s absolutely clear that it will help me put objects in order that are truly necessary—rather than act as a crutch to move clutter around or to jam more clutter into place.

So the next time you have the urge to get organized, and especially if you feel tempted to buy organizing doodads, first push yourself to throw away or give away the things you don’t actually use. (Here are 27 bonus tips for keeping your house in order.) You may find yourself left with nothing to organize. 

Have you ever realized that you’ve been hanging on to something that you didn’t use? Why were you keeping it?

* Tonight I saw Marci Alboher, which reminded me how much I love to read her Working the New Economy blog. And oh, how I love stop-motion video—I watched this funny video on Gimundo .

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 28,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or e-mail me at grubin, then the "at" sign, then gretchenrubin dot com . (Sorry about that weird format—trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write "newsletter" in the subject line. It’s free.