How to live a clut­ter-free life

A new book has some ex­cel­lent tips on how to work around the men­tal block that keeps you from tidying your space

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SHELVES piled with stuff you never use. Draw­ers you’re scared to open be­cause they’re so full you might never get them closed again. Stacks of old pa­pers ly­ing on top of the fridge. You’ve tried to sort it all out but some­where along the line you al­ways give up be­cause the job is just too big and daunt­ing.

Amer­i­can life­style guru Gretchen Ru­bin has an in­ter­est­ing the­ory for why many peo­ple fail in their tidying ef­forts: it may be down to per­son­al­ity type. In an in­spir­ing new book, Outer Or­der, In­ner Calm, she shares some prac­ti­cal tips to help you get rid of your junk once and for all – and then keep your home clut­ter-free.


Be­fore you get started take some time for a bit of self-re­flec­tion. How do you man­age ex­pec­ta­tions? For in­stance, if your boss has set a dead­line or a friend has asked you to help with some­thing, do you plunge right in and sort it out or do you tend to pro­cras­ti­nate? Or if you set your­self a goal of get­ting fit or stick­ing to some New Year’s res­o­lu­tion do you gen­er­ally tend to fol­low through?

The first is an ex­am­ple of an outer ex­pec­ta­tion and the sec­ond is an in­ner ex­pec­ta­tion. Ru­bin has de­vised a frame­work which dis­tin­guishes peo­ple based on how they re­spond to these two types of ex­pec­ta­tions. Check which cat­e­gory you fall into and see which tech­niques you can use to in­spire your­self so you fin­ish your de­clut­ter­ing job.


Re­spond read­ily to outer and in­ner ex­pec­ta­tions.

Best ap­proach Upholders grav­i­tate to­ward to-do lists, sched­ules and plan­ning. So if you want to tackle a messy room, first slot that task into your calendar a few weeks in ad­vance, set­ting re­minders. When the day rolls around you’ll be rar­ing to go.


These peo­ple ques­tion all ex­pec­ta­tions. They’ll meet an ex­pec­ta­tion if they think it makes sense – es­sen­tially, they make all ex­pec­ta­tions into in­ner ex­pec­ta­tions.

Best ap­proach Questioner­s of­ten raise ques­tions like, “Why tidy a room if

we’ll just mess it up again?” Remind your­self re­peat­edly of the time, space, and seren­ity you’ll gain by clear­ing clut­ter.


Meet outer ex­pec­ta­tions but strug­gle to meet in­ner ex­pec­ta­tions.

Best ap­proach To meet in­ner ex­pec­ta­tions obligers need outer ac­count­abil­ity, so to clear clut­ter, cre­ate ac­count­abil­ity. In­vite a friend to keep you com­pany; promise some­one you’ll de­liver your hand-me-downs; in­vite some­one to stay for the week­end.


Re­sist all ex­pec­ta­tions, outer and in­ner.

Best ap­proach Rebels do what they want to do. Remind your­self that clear­ing clut­ter isn’t some­thing you should do, or that you must do, or what oth­ers ex­pect from you – it’s what you want.

These peo­ple also tend to like a chal­lenge. “My part­ner thinks I can’t clear these stor­age shelves in one af­ter­noon. Watch me.”

GET­TING STARTED Be a tourist in your own home

Visit ev­ery room. See what’s inside ev­ery cabi­net, drawer, closet and crawl space. Don’t feel pres­sure to deal with it, just look.

Use a photograph to eval­u­ate

Tak­ing a photo helps to see a space with fresh eyes and gives a mea­sure of de­tach­ment that can help you de­cide what items should stay and what need to go. Then, once you’ve cleared the space re­fer back to this be­fore im­age. It’s a big morale booster to see visual proof of what you’ve ac­com­plished.

What are your biggest peeves?

Clut­ter comes in many forms. Clothes, toys, pa­per, kitchen etc. Make the biggest ef­fort to deal with the kind of clut­ter that both­ers you most.

Top tips for in­stant re­sults

Of­ten peo­ple put off tidying be­cause the idea of do­ing their whole house in one go is too over­whelm­ing. But you don’t have to do it all in one go. Even just mak­ing a few small changes can pro­duce no­tice­able re­sults.

Go shelf by shelf

When­ever you have a few min­utes to spare clear a small area. Ad­mit it, there’s no rea­son to keep that hair­brush with the bro­ken han­dle. That cell­phone charger be­longs in its drawer.

In ac­tive ar­eas keep sur­faces bare

Put away kitchen ap­pli­ances you don’t use ev­ery day; don’t cram stuff onto ev­ery inch of your desk – rather put it away in draw­ers.

Ev­ery­thing looks bet­ter on a tray

Even when things are in the right place, they may look messy and scat­tered un­til they’re con­tained in some way. A tray (or a bas­ket, bowl or plate) pulls in­di­vid­ual items such as per­fume bot­tles, spice bot­tles or cof­fee-mak­ing ma­te­ri­als into a pleas­ing col­lec­tion.

HOW TO KEEP IT NEAT Fol­low the “one-minute rule”

Do any task that can be fin­ished in less than one minute, with­out de­lay. Hang up a coat, read a let­ter and toss it, put a doc­u­ment in a file, throw away a pen that doesn’t work.

Don’t put things down, put things away

If you hear your­self say­ing, “I’ll put this here and deal with it later,” be­ware!

Take one item with you

When­ever you walk from one room to an­other, take one thing with you. Lit­tle by lit­tle, things will be­gin to move into place.

Clean as you go

Clean as you cook, hang up your clothes right af­ter you put on your py­ja­mas, put files back in the fil­ing cabi­net as soon as you’ve re­trieved what you need. If you clean up af­ter your­self along the way, clut­ter stays far more man­age­able.

Hold­ing bins

Con­sider cre­at­ing hold­ing bins for all the ran­dom stuff your kids leave ly­ing around. Keep these bins some­where in­con­spic­u­ous yet con­ve­nient and when you want to cre­ate more or­der, put their out- of-place items in their bins. It’s a lot quicker and eas­ier than putting things away in their proper places – es­pe­cially if you don’t know where those things be­long.

Cre­ate a wait­ing room for stuff

We all have items that are wait­ing to go some­place else: pack­ages to be mailed, books to be re­turned to the li­brary, shoes that need fix­ing. Of­ten, we just leave such things out on some ta­ble or counter with the in­ten­tion of at­tend­ing to them but this can go on for months. To ad­dress this mess, cre­ate a “wait­ing room” – a shelf in a cup­board, a cor­ner of the garage – where such things can be prop­erly stored as you pre­pare to deal with them.


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