How the ’empty shelf principle’ can help you fight overwhelm

If you were ever to come to my house, you’d notice something a little weird. In pretty much every cupboard and set of shelves – whether it’s in my study, wardrobe or kids’ playroom – there’s always at least one empty shelf.


In the past, when a cupboard (or shelving unit) had stuff on all the shelves, I found it was really easy to keep adding stuff to them.

Then, when they got really full but we needed to fit more in, I’d re-organise those shelves, playing Tetris with all the items on them. A highly satisfying pastime until those shelves became so full that, at some point, I gave up any semblance of order and just started cramming stuff into them any old how.

Before quickly shutting the door on them.

Out of sight, out of mind. Right?

Except, every time I’d open that cupboard or walk into that room, I’d get stressed out.

Eventually I’d do a massive de-clutter to get everything ‘back under control’ again.

But then, inevitably, I’d start overfilling the nice, tidy shelves again.

One day, I saw something on a de-cluttering site about always keeping one shelf empty. They suggested this was an effective way to stay on top of clutter. And you know what, they were right. When I gave the empty shelf thing a try, what I found was that it forced me to be very mindful.

Every time I went to store something, especially if it put me in the position of ‘needing’ to use an empty shelf, I thought long and hard about whether I really needed that thing.

99.9% of the time, I didn’t.

Or, there was something else I could get rid of to make room for the new thing.

How does this ’empty shelf principle’ help with overwhelm?

Well, in the same way we leave shelves empty in our homes, we can also create ’empty shelves’ in our lives by keeping certain pockets of time in our days and weeks clear of any commitments.

For example: between 7am and 9am on a Saturday.

Or, between 5am and 5.30am every single morning.

Or, 6pm to 6.30pm every evening.

Or, all of these!

In the past, the absence of these ’empty shelves’ of time made it very easy for me to fill up every minute of every day. And then overfill every minute of every day.

These days, those protected pockets of ‘no commitments’ periods of time force me to be very conscious and intentional about what I do with the rest of my time. Because, if I’m not, my commitments tend to ‘bleed’ into those empty pockets and before I know it, every day is crammed full to the brim with ‘stuff’.

Maintaining those precious pockets of ’empty shelf’ time mean there is always buffer and whitespace in my day. And, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know how crucial those things are to, not just reducing overwhelm, but also having a happy, productive and meaningful life.


Do you maintain ’empty shelves’ of time in your day?

Comments 15

  1. Brilliant Analogy! Love this! Everyone needs ‘you’ time, no matter what you choose to do with it.

    I am ‘big’ on restructuring from time to time to ensure I have a ‘grip’ on life-it otherwise just seems like you are on a treadmill that keeps slowly increasing speed and incline. You have to stop and take stock, ‘clean and clear out’ the clutter. I also have a rule: if you don’t use it, wear it, have not touched it in a year (‘it’ being an item of use, not decorative necessarily), then put it in storage. If you still have not touched/used/missed it, get rid of it! Works fabulously. Thanks for this great reminder!

  2. I’m an undiagnosed ADHD sufferer who always struggled to cope with overwhelm due to disorganisation . ( my 3 sons are all diagnosed ADHD )
    Clutter sends me into a twist . I developed lots of strategies to get me through college days and early marriage/ motherhood .
    Many of the ideas you write about are how I have gained the organisation in my physical life and emotional life . I love looking in a drawer or cupboard and seeing space . I know when that space fills I will be overwhelmed . I try not to fill my days , allowing for nap time and walking with headphones by myself . I have a routine of dividing my day into units and allowing myself to complete small blocks rather than half finish lots of things. Admittedly it’s easier now my children have grown up but it still was achievable when they were young .

  3. H, this article really resonated. I haven’t read much from you for a while, so it’s interesting that something made me open this one, and it’s perfect for what I need now. I enjoy your writing, so I’m going to be reading more again. Thanks.

  4. I try to set “empty shelves” in my personal life, for example, always having a me night or morning on a weekend. However, now I’m going to try apply it to my home life, I have been decluttering my stuff for the last 4 years, but i think being mindful of maintaining an entry shelf or drawer will really help! Thank you!
    Quick question- how do you overcome feeling guilty for choosing your “empty shelf” over accepting a social invite? It’s becoming more frequent that I’m saying no to friends, in order to stick to my “empty shelf” but it’s making me appear to be less available and always busy, but in fact I’m just requiring me time (yes I’m an introvert!), starting some creative hobbies and keeping in line with my social budget. So in order to keep my sanity as finances in order, I commit to 1 social event per day on the weekend, and 1 paid social event per week. (And of course I allow flexibility with important socials like birthdays!) But I’m starting to feel guilty when i decline an invite or am being difficult to set a date because i require so much “empty shelf” space in my life, that my busy loving- extroverted friends don’t understand. Any tips or advice?!

  5. It’s an interesting phenomenon. I sorted my clothes using the konmari method & ended up with an empty shelf in the wardrobe. Without even realising I’ve created what you talk about here & it does feel great. A couple of times I’ve gone to put stuff on that shelf & decided against it. Thanks for explaining how it works!

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  6. this is great thankyou Kelly! … always so wise!
    uncluttering of everything is going on here!
    I always leave myself mind spaces!essential for my wellbeing!
    I realize easier at my stage of life but I’ve always needed time out!
    … I read “intimacy and solitude” by Stephanie Dowrick many moons ago and it so applies to moi!
    much love m:)X

  7. My thought is to be honest with your friends regarding your introversion and goals. If they are real friends they will understand and maybe emulate your behaviour.

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