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Building Better Habits: Order Can Create Inner Calm

unpacksuitcaseOne of the first things I did after I got home from Australia — after repeatedly hugging every family member and racing from room to room like a puppy — was to unpack.

This was something I learned from my husband.

When I was younger, I followed the “unpack as necessary” approach. I’d leave my suitcase open on the floor, and take out things as I needed them, or when I felt like putting a few things away. It took a few days to empty the suitcase.

But over the years, I learned that this approach drove my husband nuts. It bugged him to see that open, half empty suitcase.

So a while back, I decided that I could unpack immediately, out of love for him.

And I quickly realized that this approach was much better. So, although I didn’t feel like unpacking within the first hour of getting home, I did — and it was a huge relief to have that task accomplished. Unpacking isn’t hard, but it feels hard.

Also, what a relief to have everything put away. I reminded myself, yet again, of that Secret of Adulthood: Outer order contributes to inner calm (more, really, than it should).

It was funny, about this trip. I was gone for a week, and although I’ve been away from home for longer stretches, this felt much longer. Partly, it was the fact that I was so far away; not just traveling around the United States, but on the other side of the world. But I didn’t anticipate how jarring it would be to cross the international date line. Even though I rationally understand it, of course, there really is something deeply disconcerting about traveling into tomorrow, and then back again into yesterday.

Apparently, it’s not true that people rioted in England in 1750, when the country adopted the Gregorian calendar, to demand that their “eleven days” be restored. But even if they didn’t actually riot, I understand why they might have felt like rioting. It was very weird to see the calendar jerk forward and back, even though I knew that my life was rolling ahead as usual.

Another Secret of Adulthood: Someplace, keep an empty shelf.

Now, what’s so great about an empty shelf? An empty shelf shows that I have room to expand — I’m not crowded in by my stuff, I have order and space.

For most people outer order contributes to inner calm, a subject that I explore at some length in Happier at Home and also in Better Than Before. For most people, outer order helps them stick to their good habits.

We can all agree that in the context of a happy life, something like a crowded coat closet is trivial, yet over and over, I find that getting control of the stuff of my life makes me feel more in control of my life generally. And if that’s an illusion, it’s a helpful illusion.

A friend told me, “I finally cleaned out my fridge, and now I know I can switch careers.” I understand exactly how that feels.

Some people say, “Gretchen, do you really have an empty shelf?” I really do (though I have to protect it against my husband, who never sees an empty shelf without wanting to stick something on it — is this related to the fact that I’m a Finisher and he’s an Opener?). If you want to see my empty shelf, watch here at minute 6:41.

The opposite of a profound truth is also true, however, so someplace, I also keep a junk drawer.

How about you? Do you have an empty shelf, a junk drawer, or both?

Building Better Habits: Order Can Create Inner Calm

Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the award-winning author of The Happiness Project, a #1 New York Times bestseller. You can also watch the one-minute book video. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central.

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APA Reference
Rubin, G. (2018). Building Better Habits: Order Can Create Inner Calm. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 6 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.