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?