We’re talking decluttering to find outer order and inner calm with the master, Gretchen Rubin.

Inner Order, Outer Calm & Decluttering with Gretchen Rubin

Known for her ability to distill and convey complex ideas with humor and clarity, Gretchen Rubin breaks down how to better understand yourself and make change in the context of decluttering and simplifying.

This is the first episode in a three part mini series to help you simplify decluttering in real life, take it off of your to-do list, and help you take action.

Today’s episode is all about how to find outer order and inner calm.

We’re talking decluttering with the master, Gretchen Rubin.

Gretchen is one of today’s most influential thought provokers and observers of happiness and human nature.

She’s known for her ability to distill and convey complex ideas with humor and clarity in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience.

Basically, she’s no nonsense, knows what she’s talking about, does a ton of research, really digs into the concept and then is able to explain it in a way that helps you better understand yourself and ways to really make change.

Today we are talking about how she does that in relation to decluttering and simplifying.

She’s the author of many books including the New York Times best sellers, The Four Tendencies, Better Than Before, and The Happiness Project.

She also has a top-ranked, award-winning podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, where she discusses happiness and good habits with her sister, Elizabeth.

This is Gretchen’s second time on the Feel Good Effect, we are so excited to welcome her back!

Last time, we talked a lot about her study of happiness, understanding how happiness shows up, how we can have more of it, and also her book, The Four Tendencies, including a quiz that you can take to better understand your own tendency and how to leverage that to make habit change easier.

I encourage you to go back and listen, take the quiz, figure out your tendency, and then dive into this conversation on outer order, inner calm with Gretchen Rubin.

This conversation is actually the first episode in a three part mini series all about decluttering.

Who better to kick it off than the queen, Gretchen Rubin?

This mini series has a unified theme to help you simplify decluttering in real life, take it off of your to-do list, and help you take action.

On how she went from the Four Tendencies to her newest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm:

Gretchen started working on this book while she was working on the Four Tendencies, it was kind of like her “hookey book” when she needed to take a break.

Like many people, Gretchen finds it incredibly energizing to clear away things that she doesn’t need, doesn’t use, or doesn’t love, and she was always interested in why that is, why the joy seems disproportionate.

She felt like the buzz she got from cleaning her coat closet was bigger than it ought to be.

She also had always been enchanted by a book called, Food Rules, by Michael Pollan, which is a little book about how to eat healthfully well.

She always thought it would be fun to write a book like that, loving that you just get in, get out, and get all psyched up; it communicated the ideas in a very clear and concise way.

But of course, when she started adapting it to her own ideas it changed a lot.

So while Gretchen’s book didn’t turn out totally like Food Rules, it challenged her to still tackle it in a way that was very streamlined and clear.

It’s meant to be a book you can flip through and suck it in without a lot of time or energy, which is pretty consistent with the whole message of decluttering.

On why outer order really matters:

There are so many aspects to outer order.

Part of it is the convenience factor, it’s easier to find things, it’s easier to put things away, and it’s easier to clean when we achieve outer order.

But another part of it is more complex and emotional.

A lot of times when people are clearing clutter, they’re trying to let go of things that maybe make them feel guilty or fill them with regret.

In that context there’s guilt coming from all sorts of place:

  • The fantasy self: I got this because I really wanted to learn how to play the guitar but I still don’t.

  • The previous self: I used to fit into this, but now I don’t.

  • Spending too much money on something.

  • An emotional attachment: how could let this go?

There’s a lot going on when you’re clearing clutter, it’s not just sorting through whether or not you need like five hammers.

There are things that are harder to make judgments on.

So, Gretchen tries to have a lot of fun questions to ask that make it easier to recognize when it’s time to let something go.

“The deep irony is that many people, in search of clearing clutter, they run to a store in search for more stuff”.

One thing to do: always start by getting rid of things.

Whether you’re throwing them away, recycling, or donating, get rid of everything that you don’t want, because maybe you don’t have to organize it.

Starting by elimination is the best thing.

On finding the way that works for you:

Gretchen really emphasizes finding the way that works for you, which is part of what makes her work so powerful.

“Face clutter in a way that’s right for you”.

But is this something everyone should do?

According to Gretchen, not necessarily.

For example, her sister is what she calls “clutter-blind”, someone who just doesn’t see it and just don’t care.

At some point, there needs to be a level of order so you can go about your day and find what you need to find, but clutter doesn’t need to be cleared for the sake of it.

There’s no reason to make your bed other than it makes you happier, or more in control, or you enjoy your room more.

And some people are abundance lovers, they love collections, they love things going on, they love creative juxtaposition.

But even for abundance lovers, Gretchen believes will still feel better after getting rid of things they don’t need, don’t use, don’t love.

In the end, do it if it’s right for you.

It’s this tension between self-acceptance and self-improvement; accept yourself and expect more from yourself.

But if clutter isn’t bothering you and it’s not getting in your way, that’s okay.

Because sometimes we go through seasons of stuff, too, things that we need or want now but don’t need later.

Having children creates seasons, even older children are messy in their own way, but seasons pass.

There is also this idea that even people who don’t mind clutter should mind it, like there’s an unspoken social norm; then you hear from people who don’t mind the clutter, “I don’t care, but I care that you care”.

But this is interesting because it’s about preferences, “what I prefer is right, and what you prefer is wrong”.

Maybe for some people, a cluttered desk means a cluttered mind, but if you are making people adopt your habits, you may be interfering with what may work best for them.

For some people, clutter really does have a purpose.

As a writer, one of the things Gretchen does is take a bunch of notes and compile them into a document without particular order.

And what she’s found is that sometimes she gets ideas from unexpected juxtapositions.

And some people might use documents that way, there might be ten piles but they know exactly where things are.

So if that works, then why use a filing cabinet?

On navigating wanting structure but needing to self-discover:

“It’s a fact about human nature, when getting advice, we love to receive a precise, standard template for success. And when giving advice, we love to insist that the strategy that works for us will surely work for others, but each of us must find our own way”

People love Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and the thing is, that she has one right way: you do things in a certain order, and you take out everything and put it in a pile.

Some people find that exciting, that she’s giving you one right way to fold, one right approach.

But still, Gretchen hasn’t met very many person who have truly followed her system; people naturally pick and choose based on what works for them.

There’s no need to beat yourself up for not following the full method, not everyone has the time or energy to spend a weekend purging.

But you could do just one shelf today, and tomorrow another.

“It’s amazing. If you do a little bit of work consistently, what you can do over the course of a couple months is astounding”.

People often underestimate what they can do in the long run, and they often overestimate what they can do in the short run.

A really good question to ask yourself to help know if something is going to work for you: when have I succeeded in the past?

One thing that Marie Kondo says, that Gretchen does think is true and is in part why her system is effective, is that if you’re going through ten or so items in your closet at a time, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of making an argument for every item.

You really do have to say to yourself, “do I really use it, need it, or love it?

You have to ask yourself the hard questions.

On carefully curating:

Have things because you actually want it, or use it, or need it, or love it; don’t have things that are just hanging around by default.

One place this comes up is with mementos.

If you have a lot of something that takes up a lot of space, maybe you can keep one little component of it, one figure from your children’s Fisher Price collection.

And that one piece can stand for all of the other pieces, and you can even photograph it all before decluttering so you won’t forget what the pieces were.

We don’t need all the things, we just need to remember all the things.

And when you carefully curate things, they are infused with more meaning, because there’s one thing that is standing in for everything.

It’s a mindset shift; it’s not about organizing for organizing sake, it’s about curating the things that mean something to you to make space for what you need in life.

On power hour:

Part of power hour is all the stuff that needs to get done to create outer order.

And part of it is the clutter in your mind, the things that need to get done that just don’t get done, things that can be done at any time but also at no time.

Power hour is a way to pull all those tasks together.

Just write down anything that you think you would want to do (“adulting things”), and then for just an hour on the weekend try to go through as many of those as you can.

And the thing that’s crazy, is that you kind of underestimate what you can get done if you just do things consistently.

If you do keep a list and then every week you do power hour, you start getting a lot done, because in the end, the stewing is worse than the doing.

Power hour is a way to make time for the tasks that just seem to linger.

Some couples like to divide and conquer with power hours, which is a great way to run a house.

It’s not about assigning a task, it’s just about a task that needs to get done, and dedicating some time to do it in an efficient way.

And when you do it, you’ll feel amazing!

It’s the same way Robyn talks about exercise: if you don’t want to do it now, just focus on the afterglow.

On the 10-minute closer:

Gretchen also has another strategy, her 10-minute closer.

10-minute closer is a transition; it doesn’t matter what the transition is, it’s just a way to mark it.

Before you’re going to move to the next part of your day, take 10-minutes and just get everything organized.

This is one of those things that might sound too simple, but try it.

It’s so much nicer to come back to your desk when you’ve already taken the time to put everything away.

We’re so focused on helping children with transitions, we give them warnings and we sing songs, because we know they need to prepare themselves.

But adults need that too.

The 10-minute closer is a way to shut down one area, which helps you move to the next, and when you return, it’s ready for you.

It can help with healthy eating too; research is supporting that it’s healthier for our bodies to go through a period of not eating.

For example, you might want to have dinner and then not eat again until breakfast, which allows your body to shift into another mode.

Snacking doesn’t allow for that shift.

So, if you’re trying to eat healthier, this idea of transitioning into “closing the kitchen” can help encourage healthy eating.

Robyn likes to take this idea of a 10-minute closer and use it to get ready for the next day by making lunches, packing a gym bag, having her daughter pick out her outfit, all the things that seem to cause a lot of drama in the mornings.

She likes to set aside 10-minutes the night before to take care of and set up for success the following morning.

And it doesn’t always go that way, but it makes a difference.

The morning is especially important because it sets the stage for the rest of the day.

If you start off always feeling 10-minutes behind, it’s not a great way to start off.

Doing things the night before is a really great practice.

On how to work within a household of different preferences for clutter:

This is really hard, and it comes up all the time in houses, with roommates, and in offices.

One thing that Gretchen suggests, is to really get in control of your own clutter.

And here’s the thing that really happens, often when one person clears their clutter, other people want that.

Not necessarily the clutter-blind, but most people do find that desirable.

Even in cases when there’s “a neat one”, the neat one may tend to move stuff around on the surface but may not be getting rid of deep clutter.

If you are a neat one who maybe lives with someone a little less bothered by clutter (and maybe a Rebel type from the Four Tendencies), getting control over your own clutter just may make a huge difference.

Tip: it can help if things have a specific place that they go, rather than just on an open shelf.

If you’re a neat one, it’s important to know that not everyone is good at this, and you can help facilitate it by creating systems and getting rid of stuff that’s in the way.

A reminder for those of you who know about the Four Tendencies: you do not tell a Rebel, “you have to do this”, that only makes them want to resist.

What you can do, is remind them why they want it or why it’s important to you.

Lead by example and focus on the things that you can control, first.

For Obligers who feel stuck in decluttering:

For Obligers who just feel stuck in this process or who are overwhelmed with getting started, there are some specific strategies to help facilitate decluttering.

  • Have people over and that will get you to clear your clutter, and you can really embrace it and go for a deep declutter.

  • Hire a professional organizer.

  • Have a friend who can hold you accountable to taking time to clear clutter.

  • Hold yourself accountable to a future self, and make it a goal to try and deal with the clutter by the end of the year.

  • Think about how it might benefit other people in your household to create an environment where they can thrive.

  • Another idea, is to say, “I need to do this for myself if I’m going to be there for other people”.

There are a lot of ways to build outer accountability, but that’s exactly what Obligers need.

On where to start in this process:

There are just dozens and dozens of these little gems in Gretchen’s book.

But Gretchen’s number one tip for getting this process started: don’t get organized.

Don’t run out a buy a bunch of containers, just start by asking yourself, “Do I need it? Do I use it? Do I love it?”.

Sometimes we use things that we don’t really love, sometimes we love things that we don’t really use.

And even in this decluttering process, Gretchen believes that there is still room in our lives for the things that we just love, even if they aren’t serving any practical purpose.

But if you don’t need it, use it, or love it, that’s when you can release it.

And when we get down to the things that we really want, it doesn’t need to be organized.

“You don’t have to get too complicated when you’re down to what you actually use”.

On what Gretchen’s excited for now:

For Gretchen, outer order is just delicious; she loves hearing about people’s relationships with their possessions.

She’s excited to have her book out there into the world and talk about it.

Additionally, Gretchen and her sister are planning to do a series of live shows on their podcast, The Happier Podcast.

They’re excited to take this on the road and meet people face to face.

Where you can connect with Gretchen:

You can grab Gretchen’s newest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make Room for More Happiness, here!

You can check out The Happier Podcast, hosted Gretchen and her sister Elizabeth for more on happiness and good habits.

Gretchen’s website is a great resource.

She posts observations on happiness and good habits for human nature, information about all her books which all have tons of resources attached to them, like one-pagers, nutshell guides, and discussion guides.

You can take the Four Tendency quiz here.

2 million people have taken this free quiz now and it will tell you if you’re an Upholder, a Questioner, an Obliger, or a Rebel and what that means for you.

She’s also on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @gretchenrubin.

On what it means to be healthy:

“For me, being healthy means having energy, being pain free, and having a body that will do the things that I want it to do… eating healthy, getting my sleep, being pain free, being strong”.

Guest Bio

Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the block- buster New York Times bestsellers, Better Than Before, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. She has an enormous readership, both in print and online, and her books have sold more than three million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages. She makes frequent TV appearances and is in much demand as a speaker. On her weekly podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, she discusses good habits and happiness with her sister Elizabeth Craft. Rubin started her career in law and was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized she wanted to be a writer. She lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.


The Secret to a Happy, Healthy Life, with Gretchen Rubin

Take the Four Tendency quiz!

Gretchen’s books:

  • Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness

  • The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too)

  • Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life

  • The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun

The Happier Podcast with Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen’s 2019 tour dates

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, by Michael Pollan

3 More Feel Good Effect Episodes You’ll Love

Paring Down to Create More, with Melissa Coleman

How to Get Unstuck and Simplify, with Ashley Gartland

One Little Word, with Ali Edwards


  1. Share it via FacebookInstagramPinterest, or Twitter

  2. Leave an honest review on Apple Podcasts. Your ratings and reviews help more people find the show!

  3. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

This post contains affiliate links.

Share this Post