Gretchen Rubin: Simplify, Simplify, Simplify – Outer Order, Inner Calm
If you are among the ever-growing crowd of folks responding to the question, “How are you?” with a pained expression and the phrase “Crazy busy,” Gretchen Rubin is here to help. On the surface, this episode may sound like a conversation about organizational tips, but it goes much deeper. Gretchen has created a manifesto rooted in five pillars that serves as the modern version of Henry David Thoreau’s classic, Walden, helping us curate our habitats to support our essential selves.
“Do I love it? Do I use it? Do I need it?”
Announcer: The true WELLth podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones. Brighton Jones is the financial wellbeing company that partners with you to align your wealth, passions and your purpose so that you can pursue a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life. Learn more at brightonjones.com
Gretchen Rubin: We can all agree that in the context of a happy life, something like a crowded coat closet or an overflowing in-basket is trivial. And yet over and over people said, “When I get control of this stuff of my life, I feel more in control of my life generally.” They feel that way. I feel that way. And I have a lot of secrets of adulthood, and one of my secrets of adulthood is, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm.
Manisha Thakor: Welcome to the true WELLth podcast. I’m your host Manisha Thakor, and my guest today is Gretchen Rubin. An influential and thought provoking observer of happiness and human nature. Gretchen is the author of numerous books including four New York Times best-sellers: The Happiness Project, Better Than Before, The Four Tendencies, and Outer Order, Inner Calm, her most recent book which we’ll discuss in this episode. Gretchen’s books have sold over three and a half million copies worldwide in more than 30 languages, but it doesn’t stop there. Gretchen also hosts along with her sister Elizabeth Craft, a top ranking award-winning podcast, Happier with Gretchen Ruben. Has been interviewed by Oprah, eaten dinner with Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Walked arm and arm with the Dalai Lama, and has even been an answer on the game show Jeopardy. However, what many people do not know is how Gretchen started her career.
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah, so I started my career in law. So I went to Yale undergraduate and then I went on to Yale law school, and I was a very successful law student. I got and won a prize. I was the Editor-In-Chief of the Yale Law Journal, which is what Yale calls its law review. And I went on to clerk for Pierre Leval on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. And then also for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It was really when I was clerking on the Supreme court, I got the idea for the book that eventually became Power Money Fame Sex.
Gretchen Rubin: I very much knew what I wanted to do. I think sometimes people know they don’t want to do something, but they don’t know what they want to do. I was much more in the situation of, I liked what I was doing, fine. I didn’t really see what I would do next, but I really powerfully wanted to write that book. And so that was like, the gravitational pull of that was so strong, that essentially it was irresistible. In fact I did not resist it.
Manisha Thakor: When you hear that Gretchen Rubin has written a new book called Outer Order, Inner Calm. You might think, Hmm, is this just another take on tidying up and sparking joy? You would be wrong. Gretchen’s book is so much more. Rather than a rigid set of rules to follow, Outer Order, Inner Calm reminded me immediately of Henry David Thoreau and his iconic saying, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
Manisha Thakor: Thoreau, a 19th century writer and philosopher, was so fed up with modern life, which in his time meant the early stages of industrial revolution. That he wanted to return to basics with the hopes of experiencing life more deeply by paring back to the basics. So while Thoreau quite literally meant simplify in the sense of having less stuff. He also meant it figuratively as a philosophical framework for how to craft a life well lived. His resulting book, Walden, A Life in the Woods, was not a dogmatic prescription for everyone to follow, but rather the sharing of broad concepts or pillars upon which each reader could craft the life that enabled them to feel most alive.
Manisha Thakor: The same goes for Gretchen’s book. In Outer Order, Inner Calm, Gretchen organizes her thoughts around five core pillars. The key word here is pillars. This book presents a philosophical framework for how to live a good life. Under each of Gretchen’s five pillars are a range of tips and tactics to select from. The keywords here are to select from. What each reader takes away from this book will be different, but the end goal, the feeling of calm, ease, and happiness, is the same.
Manisha Thakor: In today’s 24/7 always on world, it’s harder and harder, quite literally, to find a quiet cabin in the woods. Thankfully, as you’ll soon hear, Gretchen’s latest book gives us a modern roadmap to craft our own unique Walden Ponds. So Gretchen, my version of retail therapy is going to the container store and coming home with boxes and bins to declutter and organize my home. I know a lot of people hate cleaning up like that, but I genuinely find it fun.
Gretchen Rubin: I definitely feel that way myself. I will, if I clear clutter, I feel amazing. I feel exhilarated. Way disproportionate to what I should feel, what makes sense, and people kept telling me they felt the same way. I would talk about happiness and good habits and human nature, and people would be very engaged. But then when I talked about something like make your bed, there was a special energy around it, and people were really, really excited and they’d laugh. People kept repeating that to me. They’re like, “Oh, I feel that same way.”
Gretchen Rubin: So I saw that it was something that a lot of people were feeling. Now I should say, not everybody feels this way. I do the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast with my co-host, my sister Elizabeth, and my sister is one of these people who’s clutter blind. She honestly doesn’t see it. She doesn’t care. Like, everything being equal, would she rather have everything tidy, sure, but does it make her feel overwhelmed? Does it really make her feel better to get everything organized? Not really. That’s a small number of people. For most people, they really do feel more focused, more energetic, and even they have a greater sense of possibility and a calm when they have outer order.
Manisha Thakor: Gretchen, a hallmark of all of your books is the deep multi-disciplinary research that you do in writing them. What did you find out when diving into this topic?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I think with the research. What I often see, and a lot of experts and a lot of researchers are like, “Well, what’s the best way? What’s the right way? What’s the most efficient way? Are people more creative if they’re in a messy environment or a tidy environment?” And then they do a study and they’re like, “Oh, this is what the study shows.” What the study shows is that people are different. It might work very well for some people, but what about all the people that it doesn’t work for? There’s a fascinating book called, Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. It’s about daily habits, and he looks at the daily habits of dozens and dozens and dozens of celebrated, highly productive, highly creative people. Painters, writers, choreographers, scientists, everything. And what you see is some people like things messy and some people like things neat.
Gretchen Rubin: And some people get up early and some people get up late. And some people drink vodka and some people drink coffee. And some work in a studio by themselves and some work in the middle of a crowd. And to me, what the interesting question is, not what is the best or what does the research show. The research shows that if I put a bunch of people in a laboratory in Princeton and tell them to invent four uses for a paperclip and a candle, what does that tell you? I don’t know. To me what’s much more interesting is, what do you need? What do I need? Where do I do my best work? And really think about that. Some people are simplicity lovers, some people are abundance lovers. Simplicity lovers are people like me.
Gretchen Rubin: I like a lot of bare counters. I like a lot of room on the shelves. I don’t like a lot going on. There are abundance lovers who love lots of stuff on the walls and piles of things that stimulate their creativity. And a lot of buzz and a lot of profusion, and collections and choice. Fine. Some people are abundance lovers, some people are simplicity lovers. But if I’m the boss and I’m marching around saying, “Oh, a clutter desk makes a cluttered mind. We’re going to have a clean desk policy in this office.” Well that might work very well for some people but not work very well for others. So I think that the question is not what is the right way, the best way, the most efficient way. It’s what’s the best way for you? What is the best way for me? And given that, how can we create surroundings that help us live the life the way we want?
Manisha Thakor: You know, in a prior life I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In a super contemporary, clean line, minimalist home, which I thought was the height of chic. And yet when my parents proudly showed a picture of my new home to one of their friends. The friend replied with a visible guttural reaction, “Ugh, that looks so sterile. Where are the family pictures? Where are the chachkas?
Gretchen Rubin: Yeah, no, it’s definitely true that an environment that to one person can feel like beautiful emptiness, to another person feels very sterile and stripped. I’ve had the same thing. A friend walked in and was like, “This is like a timeshare. I don’t feel like people actually live here.” And I was like, “I love it.” But it’s not that one way’s right, and one ways wrong, or one way’s more beautiful or one way’s better. It’s just that people have different preferences.
Manisha Thakor: Your most recent book, Outer Order, Inner Calm, has five pillars. Number one, make choices. Number two, create order. Number three, know yourself and others. Number four, cultivate helpful habits. And number five, add beauty. Can you give us a big picture overview of what these steps encompass? Let’s start with making choices.
Gretchen Rubin: If we ask ourselves, “Do I love it? Do I use it? Do I need it?” Which I think is the question to ask to decide if you’re going to keep something or relinquish something. That’s just going to help you get rid of everything you don’t need, don’t use, don’t love. And then you’re just going to have less to manage. Sometimes when people get started they’re like, “I’m going to get organized.” And I always say, “Oh gosh, don’t get organized. First clear out all the stuff that you don’t want, you don’t use, you don’t need,” because then you may not need to get organized.
Gretchen Rubin: You may not need to buy a filing cabinet if you get rid of all your paperwork, because you realize it’s actually all online. If you get rid of all the cords that you have no idea where they go to, maybe you don’t need a special basket to put your cords in. So making choices, and making choices is very, very exhausting. It’s one of the big reasons that people accumulate clutter, is that a lot of times it’s just easier to keep something than to decide, “Should I keep it? Should I get rid of it? Should I give it away? Do I need to recycle it? Do I need to shred it?” All these things. You’re just like, “No, it’s just easier to jam it under the bed.” But eventually somebody has to do it.
Manisha Thakor: Do I love it? Do I use it? Do I need it? I am definitely going to be asking myself those questions when I get home tonight. Let’s move on, create order.
Gretchen Rubin: That’s, you want things to be in their places. You want to put things away. You don’t want to just put them down. You’re not just sticking them someplace where you have a little bit of extra space. You want to put things away so that you can find them easily. Like, “Where do the batteries go? Where does your passport go? Where do paper clips go?” Nothing is more annoying than knowing that you have three hammers floating around your house but you have no idea where to find them. So then you have to go out and buy the fourth hammer because you’re like, “I can’t find my ruler. Where’s the stepstool?” Have orders so that you can find things.
Manisha Thakor: Yeah, it’s so true. Someone once told me, “Manisha, if you have one nail file, you’ll always be able to find it. But if you have two, good luck getting your hands on a nail file when you actually need one.” Your next pillar on the surface isn’t one that I would immediately associate with this topic. It’s know yourself and others. Tell us about this concept.
Gretchen Rubin: Know yourself better is like the simplicity and abundance question. A lot of times we don’t really have a sense of our preferences or the things that might be getting in our way. So for instance, one thing that some people feel very strongly and other people don’t really have a problem with is “procrasticlearing.” Procrasticlearing is when your procrastination takes to the form of urgent clutter clearing. So this is the person who never feels like vacuuming or never feels like cleaning out a bookshelf except like, “Oh, the annual report is due. Clearly I cannot move forward on this project until every floor in my house is vacuumed.” That’s procrasticlearing. It’s not helpful preparation because it’s not setting you up to begin the task. You’re not putting papers away so your desk is clear. You’re off alphabetizing your spices. That’s procrasticlearing.
Manisha Thakor: This process of knowing yourself. Reminds me of the episode we did with Jonathan Fields, in which she talked about the lost art of regular self-inquiry in the manner of the Greeks or the Stoics. And that’s a great segue into your next tip, which is cultivate helpful habits.
Gretchen Rubin: Habits. One of the things about clutter-clearing that can be very frustrating, is you spend an entire weekend cleaning out your office, and then two weeks later it’s like nothing ever changed. And so the habits is about how do you create habits so that having created order, you can easily maintain it. It’s much easier to keep up than to catch up. But once you catch up, how do you maintain it? So that’s things like the one minute rule, which is anything you can do in less than a minute, just do without delay. If you can hang up your coat on a hook instead of throwing it on a chair, just do it. And little habits like this really can help you keep outer order going, which is good because you don’t want to have to keep doing these sort of extraordinary efforts.
Manisha Thakor: Ooh, the one minute rule. When I get home, I am totally looking around for things I can do in a minute. Tell us about the final pillar; add beauty.
Gretchen Rubin: Because why do we want outer order? We want it because we want our lives to feel happier and more rich, and easier and more convenient. And by adding beauty, we really make our surroundings more attractive. So that’s things like, everything looks better on a tray. If you’ve got a bunch of stuff, put it on a tray, it looks great, or bring some touch of nature indoors. It’s very pleasing, whether that’s a plant or something like pine cones or seashells, or the print of a fern frond. There’s a lot of ways to find your signature color.
Gretchen Rubin: On the Happier Podcast, we talk about signature color, and people love choosing their signature color. And then it also decreases decision fatigue, because it’s like things in your house tend to match more if you have a signature color. You feel like you’re projecting your identity because you’re like, “This is my signature color.” And when you have to go pick up something like a phone case or a bowl, you’re like, “Oh, I will get it in celadon green because that is my signature color.” So all these things work together to really create that outer order that can make us happier.
Manisha Thakor: Usually I’m super disciplined about spending money and rarely buy things I don’t truly need. But I live in Portland, Oregon now and it can get pretty rainy. And so I recently started this ritual where I bought four sets of sheets in different colors and different fabrics, and I’m now rotating them with the seasons. And it’s a really small joy, but there’s something that I just really look forward to when it comes time to change to the next seasons sheets.
Gretchen Rubin: Well that’s a beautiful example of add beauty, because you found the thing that resonates with you and that’s worth a little splurge. In The Happiness Project I read about indulge in a modest splurge because sometimes … There’s over-buyers and under-buyers, and you sound like you might be an under-buyer like me. And sometimes under-buyers don’t buy things even though they would give them immense pleasure, and it’s like that is the purpose of having money and financial freedom and security. If you’re like, “Wow, I would really, really love a pair of flannel sheets for the winter.” It’s like, you can have that pair of flannel sheets.
Manisha Thakor: I love that term under-buyers. I am definitely one of those for sure. Does it follow then that under-buyers have an easier time with outer order?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, it’s interesting about under-buyer’s and outer order … Because you would think that under-buyers would not have a problem with with clutter because they don’t want to buy things. They don’t like to go out, they don’t like to spend, they don’t like to shop. They don’t like purchase. They don’t like the inconvenience of it all, but actually because they … And maybe I wonder if you’ve experienced this, because under-buyers hate the thought that they might need to go out and get something.
Gretchen Rubin: Like I said, this idea is very unattractive to them. They will hang on to things because they’re like, “Yeah, I have this really ugly purple sweater that somebody gave me as a gift and I don’t like wearing it. But what if something happened where somebody is like, ‘Oh, I really need you to wear a purple sweater,’ and then I would have it. But if I didn’t, I’d have to go out and get it. I just can’t even stand the thought that I might.” Under-buyers can sometimes hold onto things where it’s very improbable that this thing would ever be useful.
Gretchen Rubin: It’s like, yeah you’ve had this breadmaker for five years and you’ve never made bread. Why do you think you’re going to want to make bread next year? It’s like, that’s a risk you can tolerate, but to an under-buyer it’s like, “But what happens if I go through this phase that I want to make bread?” So under-buyers have to think about that kind of clutter, which is like, you can let go of things. The world will not end if you have to run out to the department store and buy a purple sweater or whatever. If you ever do, which probably you won’t.
Manisha Thakor: I am totally guilty of that. I have some grilling tools that I’ve not used in years. And every time I think of getting rid of them, this voice in my head says, “But if you need them one day you’ll have to go out and buy them, and Manisha, you hate shopping.” But thanks to you in this conversation I am going to get rid of them. Speaking of getting rid of, I feel like a trend I’m hearing more and more conversation about is downsizing.
Gretchen Rubin: Well. It’s interesting that you mentioned downsizing because that’s clearly something. I think that’s one of the reasons why outer order is kind of a hot topic right now, is because I think a lot of people are sort of in this season of stuff. Because they maybe have children of their own, but they’re also dealing with parents and stuff coming down to them and helping their parents deal with it or maybe receiving it. So certainly issues related to that come up a lot. How do you deal with somebody who’s not willing to face what needs to be done? Another thing that comes up a lot is the emotions tied up with possessions, and some people want to say, “Look, possessions don’t matter. Things are not important. Only people matter. Relationships matter, and you should just get rid of all this stuff. It ties you to the past. Just get rid of it.”
Gretchen Rubin: That is not in my judgment, the common experience of mankind. People for the most part, not everyone, but most people value possessions and we use possessions to project our identity into our environment. We use possessions to remind us of the people and places and activities we love. And possessions I think, to most people, matter. And rather than saying, “Well you should get rid of everything.” I think what’s helpful, if people are feeling overwhelmed, is to say, which is the truth, “Possessions that are meant to spark memories do that work better for you if they are carefully chosen and few in number, rather than having a ton.” So for instance, “Oh my son is little. He’s in kindergarten and I’ve kept every piece of paper that he brought home from school. I have the finger paints, I have the spelling, the spelling exercise, I’ve got it all.”
Gretchen Rubin: That’s no fun for anyone. No one’s ever going to go through four boxes of indistinguishable finger painted, today’s green, now it’s purple, now it’s yellow. That’s no fun. If you make a folder of the five best things from kindergarten. That’s something that you can manage, because you can put it in a cool file folder box and put it on a shelf, and that’s the year of kindergarten. And then you’ll have first grade, and second grade and third grade. And you could sit down with your son when he’s in third grade and say, “Let’s look at what you did when you were in kindergarten,” and you look at five things. And it’s the five best things because you picked the best things or the most typical things, and that’s manageable and that’s fun. And those things are saturated with memory. That’s much better than the four boxes of stuff.
Gretchen Rubin: No one’s going to go through it, it’s too burdensome, and eventually you’ll get a flood in your basement. It’ll all get moldy and you’ll end up throwing it away, because you can’t care for it or you’re overwhelmed by it. People who are like, “I have boxes and boxes and boxes of family photos.” No one ever goes through 10 boxes of family photos, because most of them are not good or they’re very redundant. Or people have their eyes close, or, “I don’t even know who this is,” or everyone’s back is to the camera. If you go through and really pick the best ones, then people can sit down and enjoy them. They’ll be like, “Oh, it’s Thanksgiving. Let’s look at the family photos,” and they’ll go through a box. So they’re actually serving that purpose better. So if you do feel a strong connection to emotions, and you do put a lot of value in your possessions. I think it’s easier when you respect that and try to amplify that, rather than dismiss it or pretend like it’s worthless or should be ignored.
Gretchen Rubin: Here’s a great example. For me, my grandfather died. Now, my grandfather had his roll top desk. My grandfather had his grandfather clock. He collected clocks. So I associate him in my mind with clocks. My grandfather also had a pocket watch because he was an engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad. Knowing the exact time was super important to his job, and his pocket watch was very, very important to him. I could keep the desk, I could keep the grandfather clock, I could keep the pocket watch. I could keep all three. I don’t really need any of them to remember my grandfather. I don’t really need anything, but I would like something. I would like something that was his to remember my grandfather, but I’m going to pick the pocket watch because that goes on a shelf. It’s very beautiful. It’s small. I can easily move it around.
Gretchen Rubin: What am I going to do with a desk? A big roll top desk. I live in New York City. Like that thing, what am I going to do with it? And then I move. Maybe I have room for it now. What am I going to do? So I picked the thing that’s very saturated with emotion, but also the thing that’s easier to manage. A lot of times we can make those choices, or we could pick a typical thing. I’m going to pick one typical thing. I’m going to pick one shell. I don’t need a bowl full of shells. I don’t need a drawer full of shells. I’m picking the one beautiful shell and that’s going to bring back all the beach vacation memories that I need.
Manisha Thakor: 20 miles Northwest of the bustling city of Boston, Massachusetts, there stands a plaque that commemorates the spot where Henry David Thoreau’s cabin once stood. Inscribed upon it are the words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” This is why Gretchen’s insights are so powerful. Her five pillars; make choices, create order, know yourself, cultivate helpful habits, add beauty, provide you with a modern day philosophical framework to carry your own habitat. Be it in the woods, the suburbs, or on the 18th floor of a high rises, and ensure your life is not frittered away by detail. Typically, at the end of an episode, I like to share my top three takeaways from the interview itself. This time I thought I would do something slightly different.
Manisha Thakor: Gretchen mentioned that many people use Outer Order, Inner Calm as an idea generator, and I can see why. When I read a book, I like to make notes of my major takeaways on the inside cover for easy reference. The three insights that I felt could most help me find outer order and inner calm at this particular moment in my life were; one, nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started. Two, one of the biggest wastes of time is doing something well that didn’t need to be done at all. And three, what we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while. Just as seasons change in nature, I’m sure if asked a year from now, I’d select three totally different insights from Gretchen’s work to be guided by. But what would remain constant is the use of this book as a flexible treatise on how to simplify, simplify, simplify.
Manisha Thakor: As always in this episode show notes, we’ll have a link to Gretchen’s books, website, podcast, and all social media handles. We’ll also have links to the book Gretchen referenced by Mason Currey and of course to Thoreau’s, Walden. Lastly, if you know of someone who would find this episode useful, please text or email them a link right now. It’s a small simple act that could lead to someone you care about experiencing outer order and inner calm in their lives. I’m Manisha Thakor and that’s it for this episode of true WELLth.
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