Clear the clutter and your mind, even when motivation is scarce.
Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
From early fall through the coldest months of the year, I’ve learned to expect (and manage) my seasonal affective disorder (SAD). As someone who also lives with an anxiety disorder and identifies as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I tend to look for the things I can control in my world.
Every August, without fail, I sit down to write my “winter prep list,” in which I check off areas of my home that need organizing and decluttering. Usually by November, my old coats have been donated, the floors have been scrubbed, and everything feels as if it’s in its proper place.
One of my first lines of defense in the battle against mental health challenges has always been to get organized. I’m preparing for those tough days when I won’t be able to lift a mop, let alone put a plate in the dishwasher.
It turns out my thinking is rooted in scientific studies that show organization is an effective tool to achieve a healthier life, both mentally and physically.
One study found that the physical act of tidying up one’s house can make a person more active and healthier overall.
Many professional organizers sing the praises of improving one’s mental health through organizing, including Patricia Diesel, an organizing expert, clutter coach, and the creator of a program called Mindful Tools for Organized Living.
As a certified chronic disorganization specialist and a hoarding specialist, Diesel has witnessed the power of organization in people’s lives.
“Addressing the emotional and mental components of clutter is critical to the underlying cause. I believe that clutter is an outward manifestation that mirrors the body and mind on overwhelm,” she explains.
If you’re in the throes of depression or healing from a panic attack, the thought of cleaning can certainly be overwhelming. But I also know clutter tends to make me descend even further into a negative mood. So, I’ve discovered my own ways to tackle organization without letting it tackle me.
Here are five ways to muddle through the clutter, even on your most challenging mental health days.
1. Throw perfection out the window
Even when I’ve been at my lowest, I’d often put pressure on myself to make things look “perfect.”
I’ve since learned perfection and mental health conditions tend to be in direct opposition of one another. The healthier route is to accept that my house may not look flawless during the winter months. If things are generally organized, I can accept the wayward dust bunny that may cross my path.
Diesel agrees with this approach as well.
“Organizing is not about perfection,” she says. “It’s about a quality of life standard. Everyone’s standards are different. As long as the organized environment is in alignment with those standards and it is not infringing upon a quality of life that is obstructing or detrimental to that person’s life, then usually a person will find acceptance and peace from that.”
Let go of your idea of “perfect,” and instead aim for a level of organization that doesn’t hurt your quality of life.
2. Break everything down into bite-sized pieces
Since overwhelm is a big deal to those who wrestle with mental health disorders, like anxiety, Diesel recommends breaking up an organization project into palatable pieces.
“I help people look at the overall project that needs to get done… then we break it down into different categories. Then we rate the priority of each category, and begin with the level that reduces the anxiety the most,” she explains.
“The goal is to have the person see the entire project, and then help them see how to accomplish it in a manageable way.”
Diesel recommends devoting 15 to 20 minutes per day to doing things that need to get done, like doing a load of laundry or sorting the mail.
Often, a little effort can reinvigorate the mind and build momentum toward increasing a feeling of motivation. But that’s not always the case if you’re living with a mental health issue. Be kind to yourself if you miss a day or are only able to commit to 10 minutes.
3. Let go of items that don’t serve you
Physical clutter often creates clutter in the mind, especially if that clutter has taken over your life and space. Diesel helps those with hoarding disorders, sharing tips that can benefit non-hoarders as well.
“It’s not so much about getting organized as it is about how to release and part with their things without shame or guilt. Once this is accomplished, the organizing is usually not an issue,” she says.
Diesel emphasizes the importance of considering what makes an item truly “valuable” as opposed to something you think might be valuable based on fear or other emotions.
4. Remove distractions
Being highly sensitive means I have a sensory disorder that can become overloaded very quickly. Loud noises, an abundance of clutter, and a to-do list in plain sight can instantly break my focus and pull me away from whatever project I’m working on.
When I’m getting organized, I make my surroundings as soothing as possible through peace and quiet. I set aside a block of time when I know I won’t be pulled away.
5. Visualize the end result
Out of all my mental health challenges, seasonal depression is the one that wrings me dry of any motivation to clean or get organized. Diesel says that’s because depression can create a mindset that feels defeated. In this case, it’s key to emphasize the final goal.
“I help people see the vision of the end result, and we use additional tools to help that vision come alive, whether it’s with a vision board or through journaling. The overall goal is to help them feel empowered,” she says.
And if all else fails, remember that you can always ask for help if you need it.
“People who suffer with disorganization is the body and mind on overwhelm, so having a support system and mindfulness tools to go to is extremely important for stability. Support is paramount,” Diesel says.
Shelby Deering is a lifestyle writer based in Madison, Wisconsin, with a master’s degree in journalism. She specializes in writing about wellness and for the past 13 years has contributed to national outlets including Prevention, Runner’s World, Well+Good, and more. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her meditating, searching for new organic beauty products, or exploring local trails with her husband and corgi, Ginger.