Clean Nest = Happy Nest (or How to Clean Out Your Closets)

by Kim on May 16, 2012

I’m reading a killer new book. It’s called The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, and it totally epitomizes a lot of the things I’m hoping to explore through this blog about life and happiness. I’m only 50 pages into it so far, so I can’t exactly write a full book review yet, but it’s already touched on so many great points that I couldn’t wait to start talking about it!

Basically, the author, Gretchen, decided to devote a year to learning how to be happier. Since she already had a wonderful life, the project was more about discovering ways to better appreciate her life and to squash all of the petty concerns and negative energy that threatened her ability to do that. She started by analyzing her life and identifying the good and the bad (in her words, the things that brought “joy, satisfaction, and engagement” and those that brought “guilt, anger, boredom, and remorse.”) She then defined 12 resolutions that would theoretically boost her happiness by nurturing the good and fighting the bad, and she started tackling one resolution each month.

Her January goal was “boost energy.” Under this general umbrella goal, she defined more specific mini-goals, like “exercise better” and “tackle a nagging task.” But the mini-goal that spoke to me the most was this one: “toss, restore, organize.”

I’m kind of a neat freak, so when my house gets too cluttered/disorganized/dirty, it causes me major anxiety. The worse it gets, the more stressed I am about it and, sadly, the more unmotivated I am to do anything about it. This has become a real issue lately since we’ve had a baby. Suddenly, there are all these new objects in the house that don’t really go anywhere yet, so they just collect on counters, coffee tables, and floors. I used to always wonder why people complained about their houses being a disaster when they had a baby–I mean, the baby’s not running around messing things up. But the problem is that you acquire so much new stuff in such a short period of time that your house inevitably feels more cluttered, even if you do find legitimate places to store everything. For example, in our living room, we now have an activity mat and a swing, baby toys and blankets clustered on the couch, and the car seat in one corner. Those are just the changes to one room, and it’s not even the baby’s room.

As Gretchen mentions in the book, “physical surroundings influence spiritual happiness.” So true.

A couple weeks into my maternity leave, I knew this was a problem. On top of the baby stuff, there were several trouble zones (read: closets) in our house that were loaded with clutter and nagging at the back of my brain, causing me stress even when I wasn’t actively thinking about them. Specifically, there was the kitchen pantry (where I couldn’t jam in a can of soup anymore without serious finagling), our bedroom closet (which was loaded with clothes I never wore), and the entryway closet (which housed our depressing Shoe Mountain).

Even though I knew it wouldn’t ultimately take that long to organize these closets, I just sooo didn’t want to do it that the thought of this task caused me more stress than just dealing with the messes.

Finally, I reached a tipping point. After mentally slapping myself around a bit, I made the commitment to just do it already.

I’m much better at getting things done if I can take the time to plan out when and how I’ll do them in advance (unlike my husband, who is of the let’s just do it right this second mentality–which is more ideal, in theory, but ultimately just way too stressful for me). So instead of forcing myself to dive in right away, I scheduled one closet-cleaning project per day for the next three days.

Project 1: The Bedroom Closet

I started with the bedroom closet for a couple reasons:

  • I was dying to get all my maternity clothes out of there. Even though I could have still worn those clothes for awhile (they were definitely more forgiving to my soft postpartum bod!), I saw this as kind of a ritualistic parting with my pregnant body and was excited to make the transition back into normalcy.
  • I needed to transition from winter to summer clothes. My summer clothes were stored in the basement, and with the warmer temps, my winter clothes were suddenly looking very dark and sad-looking.
  • I knew it would be the greatest triumph, and I wanted to start with a bang, hoping the high would ride out through the other two closet projects.
So I went to work creating three piles: Maternity – Store, Winter – Store, and Donate.
I really tried to play hardball with myself on the Donate pile. Just because I still liked something didn’t mean that I should keep it. For each item, I had to ask myself:
  • Will I wear this? Even if my first instinct was “sure, I could see myself wearing this,” I had to make sure that didn’t just mean “I kinda like this.” If I hadn’t in fact worn it in the past year and couldn’t think of a time/place I’d actually wear it now, it was gone.
  • Does this fit/look good on me? I forced myself to part with a lot of things that I loved, but that just never really fit quite right or didn’t flatter my body, especially post-baby. (I used to have this really really bad habit: I’d find something I loved, and if they didn’t have it in my size, I’d settle for the closest size up or down. I’ve nipped that one in the bud, but still had some remnants of bad decision-making lying around.)
  • Am I just keeping this because I feel guilty about buying it? Gretchen talked about this in her book, calling it “buyer’s remorse clutter.” I’d keep something for a long time, knowing I’d never wear it, just because I felt bad about buying it and wanted to somehow “use it up” by keeping it for a respectable period of time. Obviously this wasn’t getting me anywhere.
  • Am I just keeping this because I hope I’ll fit into it someday? Gretchen called this “aspirational clutter,” and I think every woman has at least a little bit of it. Hanging on to your “skinny jeans” is one thing, but if you’ve got stacks of things that are realistically two sizes too small and have been for years, it’s time to let go.
  • Have I kept this way longer than I should have? This is called “crutch clutter” in Gretchen’s book, and includes things that you might still use but shouldn’t. For me, this included a hoodie that I loved but that had a big stain on it in a super prominent spot (“Maybe it’ll come out!”), and a pair of jeans that I loved but that had a hole in the crotchal region (“I could get it patched!”). I also had a top with a hole in it that I knew I wouldn’t wear again but was keeping solely because it had been expensive. What??
I ended up with a huge bag of donations, and some of it went straight to the trash (see ya, holey hoodie–even Goodwill doesn’t want you). It was such a load off, to not be confronted with my mistakes every time I looked in that closet! And, ironically, I felt like I had so much more to wear in the end–partly because I’d discovered a few things I’d forgotten I had, and partly because everything in my closet was now something I’d realistically wear. Also, as Gretchen points out in her book, people tend to be happier when they’re confronted with fewer choices (check out this interesting article in the Economist about choice).

In addition to clothes, I also purged the closet of some other random stuff we didn’t need. For example, I have a habit of keeping boxes of various sizes around, “for wrapping Christmas gifts in.” (Hoarders, anyone?) Turns out I don’t give that many shoe-box-sized Christmas presents. See ya, random box collection.

Project 2: The Kitchen Pantry

This project wasn’t nearly as daunting as the bedroom closet, but it would still be a huge win. I also knew it would be a big point-winner with the husband, who had complained about its out-of-controlness several times before.
When we first moved into this house, I remember thinking the pantry was HUGE. But you know how that goes. Over time, it became the home not just for canned and dry foods, but also for the steamer, food processor, cake containers, paper plates, our travel coffee mug collection, and a million other odds and ends. They all seemed to legitimately belong there, but the poor pantry was bursting at the seams. When I needed a place to put baby bottles and milk storage bags, my first instinct was to turn to that familiar spot. And it was officially time for a pantry overhaul.

Questions I asked myself during the pantry project included:

  • Will we actually eat this? We had canned goods that we were keeping because, well, canned stuff never goes bad…but I had to face the fact that we’d never actually eat some of those weird soups. And when food pantries are constantly asking for this stuff, there’s no reason to keep it buried in the back of a pantry forever.
  • What can I do to just use this up? There was some stuff that we would eat, but just hadn’t (mostly because I’d forgotten it existed). Like pasta. It was time to have a spaghetti night or whip up a lasagna and just get it over with.
  • How often do I need to access this? In other words, can this go into storage in the basement instead? For example, we got 2 cake containers for our wedding. In 2.5 years, I’ve never used either of them. But if I did need to transport a cake someday (or, God forbid, two cakes), I’d remember that these things existed, and I could go get them from the basement.

After cleaning stuff out, the next step was to organize. This involved sorting things by type so I’d actually remember what was in there (pastas here, cans here, kitchen tools here, rice/couscous boxes here, etc.). It also involved making things as compact as possible–say, by stacking the cans and packing the baby stuff together into one container.

Project 3: The Entryway Closet

This was definitely the easiest project, but I saved it for last because it was the least urgent to me. While sorting through the Shoe Mountain, I had to ask myself all of the same questions as I did during the bedroom closet project, plus these:

  •  Are these comfortable? Every woman knows the comfort bar is a little lower with some shoes, like high heels, so you have to know your tolerance levels. But if you say you can deal with the slight pinch of a certain pair for vanity’s sake, and then you never actually wear them, it’s because your feet are getting in touch with your brain and convincing you to pass on them for something more foot-friendly. By getting rid of them, you can free yourself of guilt from not wearing them and avoid the whole “should I/shouldn’t I” drama everytime you’re dressing up for a wedding.
  • Are these still wearable? I personally hate buying shoes (I know, I’m a mutant woman), so on the rare occasion I actually find a perfect pair (with the trifecta: look good, feel good, and don’t make my feet too sweaty), I will wear them way longer than I should and refuse to accept that they have been reduced to shreds of fabric and rubber held together by one fraying thread. This is even more important with athletic shoes, which may still look ok but have put in their time.
  • Are these practical? For example, I once bought a pair of suede boots. And I live in Wisconsin. This is impractical.


Phew. Who knew it was possible to ramble on for so long about cleaning closets? The life of a housewife, folks…

Conclusion: cleaning these closets has definitely had a noticeable impact on my happiness/stress levels at home. And they all took way less time than expected to clean. Should have tackled this a LONG time ago!


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