The relationship among our mental health, order and cleanliness — or a lack thereof — is strong, but like most relationships, it’s not simple. “We know there’s an association, but an association doesn’t mean we know that one thing causes the other,” said Dawn Potter, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
The premise that one’s space reflects one’s mental health can be particularly defeating if you’re already in a bad place mentally or physically, Davis said. Many of the symptoms of depression that make it difficult to care for ourselves also make it difficult to care for our homes, such as fatigue, no or low motivation for even small tasks, loss of interest in activities and difficulty concentrating.
The shame of having a home that fails to meet society’s standards can paralyze, and often silence, people who need help managing clutter.
“You can’t divorce feelings of self-esteem and self-worth from these societal expectations, especially for women, of keeping house,” said Judith Kolberg, an Atlanta-based professional organizer and the co-author of “ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.” “It doesn’t take long in this business for those issues to come up and for you to notice the overlap between mental health and organization.”
For someone with anxiety, chaos can be the enemy. When we’re anxious, we seek control; decluttering and organizing provide it. But overwhelming clutter can make it hard to even start. And for people with attention disorders, there’s often too little focus — or too much, causing them to fixate on one thing at the expense of others — to complete a task.
In Davis’s case, instead of beating herself up over the laundry, she came up with a system that worked for her and her family. She combined her closet and the children’s closet into one space next to the laundry room. She eliminated drawers and hangs just a few items, relying instead on bins for everyone’s clothes.
On her Struggle Care TikTok account (@domesticblisters), which has 1.2 million followers, she shares small and attainable cleaning, organizing and other “care” tasks tailored for people with mental health issues, neurodivergence, chronic pain or sickness. They’re also for those in the midst of temporary life stages, such as people experiencing grief or trauma, those in the postpartum period or people caring for small children or another family member. Through her book, “How to Keep House While Drowning,” her Struggle Care platform and social media, Davis is trying to divorce morality from household chores, all while offering tips to tackle those very chores. “You’re not a bad person just because you have dirty dishes in your sink,” she said.
Allissa Haines, 46, knew she needed to prepare her order-seeking self before moving in with her partner and two kids, 8 and 11 at the time — all of whom have ADHD. Haines has experienced depression and anxiety, and she wanted to set up their 1,600-square-foot bungalow in Sharon, Mass., to work for everyone. During the pandemic, when everyone was home, Haines found inspiration and practical tips and worksheets on Struggle Care’s TikTok account.
She and her partner built a tiny office in the backyard where she runs her marketing and consulting practice, writes, records a podcast about massage therapy and chills out. She also set up systems using schedules and cleaning worksheets (from Struggle Care) and got bins and caddies for toys, arts and crafts, and school supplies. She and her partner share household and parenting duties. And she has learned the power of closing the kids’ doors, recognizing that not everyone shares her need for order.
“I’m definitely an outer-order, inner-calm kind of person,” she said. “There’s this decision fatigue that happens when things aren’t somewhat organized.”
We asked our sources how to cope with clutter, whether you’re temporarily struggling and stressed or you have chronic mental and physical health challenges. Here are their suggestions.
Jettison judgment. There’s a reason your dishes are still in the sink, but it’s not because you’re a bad person. Letting go of the shame and other people’s expectations will go a long way in making cleaning and decluttering less taxing. “You deserve kindness, regardless of your level of function,” Davis said. “I’ve never seen anyone shame themselves into better health.”
Start small. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Focus on one task at a time, such as loading the dishwasher. And when you do something, give yourself credit. The smallest change, Potter said, is still a change, and both your home and brain benefit from forming a new habit. Pick one that takes the least amount of time (one load of dishes) or one that can have the biggest effect in easing your day and calming your mind (clearing bathroom counters or trimming back entryway thickets).
Buddy up. Ask a friend to join you for a 20-minute cleaning blitz or an afternoon of dancing and dusting, virtually or in person. The goal is to fight boredom and distraction and have someone on your side in the battle. Professional organizers can fill this role, too, as can productivity apps, such as FocusMe.
Reframe obligations as self-care. Davis assigns herself the same five tasks each night to “close her kitchen,” knowing she’ll wake up the next morning thanking the person who did the chores the night before. “It’s my way of caring for future me,” she said. Be sure to put a time limit on it and “clock out,” ending your housework shift with a hard stop and giving yourself permission to take the rest of the night for yourself.
Closing rituals are key for home offices, too, said Catherine Avery, a productivity and ADHD coach. She advises ending your workday with three steps, which should take no more than five minutes:
1. Clear your desk.
2. Write down three wins of the day, including one act of self-care. This reflection is particularly important for those with ADHD, she said, because “we often hurry off to the next thing without noticing we’ve accomplished something.”
3. Write down three goals for the next day.
Break it down. Kolberg advises clients with attention deficit disorders to organize items visually. If tackling a room is too much, divide it into zones and pick one (or more) that you have the time and attention for, such as everything above your shoulders, below your knees or in one corner.
Davis’s most popular video is of a tidying method that approaches each room as having only five categories: trash, dishes, laundry, items that have a place and items that don’t have a place. Once trash is in the bin, dishes are in the sink, laundry is in the basket and items with a home are put away, you’re left with a more manageable pile. Only have time for two tasks? Focus on safety and sanitation: dirty dishes and items that can trip you up.
Close the door. “If it’s not a case of rotting food, if it’s not creating a physical hazard, and it’s just distracting, get it out of sight and out of mind,” Potter said.
Open the conversation. Sharing spaces with others? Talk to them about how to best share tasks. The key is to focus on what works for each person and how their habits affect the household. If clutter and cleaning (or lack thereof) affect relationships, they can’t be ignored. Make it clear who’s doing what, perhaps by posting a chore chart.
Rest. Remember: You’re not a machine. “People forget that an important part of being productive is not being productive all the time,” Kolberg said. Take breaks. Being constantly on the go isn’t the same as getting anything done, especially if it’s at the cost of your mental and physical health. The body and mind need rest to recover. Those messes will be there for you to tackle when you have the energy.
Perfection? Pitch it. Shift the focus to function rather than perfection. The purpose of laundry is having clean clothes, not a closet ready for a Container Store photo shoot. Ask yourself before diving into a project: What do I need out of this? (A path through the teen’s bedroom? A clear entryway?) Then let yourself stop when you reach that attainable goal. “Good enough is perfect. It’s not settling,” Davis said.