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One habit that I try hard to cultivate is to stay on top of clutter.

Clutter seems trivial, but I’ve found — and many people have told me that they’re the same way — that clutter weighs me down more than it should.

Something like a crowded coat closet or an overflowing inbox is a petty problem, but then when I clear out that area, I feel so much more energetic, creative, and happy. It’s weird.

I have a lot of habits that I follow to stay on top of clutter. I follow the one-minute rule (anything I can do in less than a minute, I go ahead and do without delay).  I don’t get organized. For more tips to beat clutter, check here.

Because I’m focused on clutter-busting, I’m now very wary of anything that’s free. Getting something for free makes it feel like a treat—and oddly, it makes me feel greedier. I’m excited when I get something without paying—even if it’s something I’d never choose to buy. For instance, getting free food and drink is a challenge to my healthy eating habits, and in fact, research shows that getting a food or drink sample makes shoppers feel hungrier and thirstier, and puts them in reward-seeking state.

Also, an important strategy for habit-formation is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting, and getting something for free can provide loopholes. For example, we can use it to argue that “this doesn’t count,” as in “These cookies are compliments of the chef, they’re free, they don’t count.” But everything counts.

Now, instead of unthinkingly accepting a freebie, I ask: would I choose to buy this thing? @gretchenrubin  (Click to Tweet!)

If not, I probably don’t really need or want it, even if getting it feels like a treat.

When I spoke at a company, I mentioned this habit during the question-and-answer period. Afterward, the event organizer said, “I know this is ironic, but here’s a little something for you.” He handed me a company water bottle and a box of fancy chocolates.

“Thanks!” I said. “This looks great, even if it is free.” We both laughed—but in fact, I  really didn’t want those freebies. My family already has a lot of water bottles (because these days, they’re so often given out for free), and I don’t eat chocolate. I appreciated the kindness and generosity of the gesture, and I accepted the things, because I didn’t want to be rude, but I had to figure out ways to get rid of them usefully, which was a bit of trouble.

How about you? When you consider the sources of clutter in your life, do you find that freebies make up a percentage of the stuff?


Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Ross Pollack.