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When sheer willpower just isn’t enough.

Life can get messy — in more ways than one. And when you’re handling mental health issues or a chronic health condition, everyday cleaning tasks can take a back burner to other forms of self-care. Fortunately, we have some strategies you can use to keep your surroundings tidy, so you can focus on healing in a clean, more soothing space.

How did I get here?

If you have depression, other mental health issues or a chronic health condition, you might find it difficult to keep up with daily tasks. 

Depression and other conditions can make you feel exhausted and zap your concern about things that were once important, like daily cleaning. And if the mess gets out of control, you might feel overwhelmed or even ashamed.

Go easy on yourself, says Dr. Jennifer Yarnell, psychologist at Geisinger.

“If you’re having a tough time mentally or physically, thinking about why you can’t seem to manage daily duties can lead to feelings of shame,” she says. “Many people see their home as a reflection of themselves. The expectation may be that if my house is organized and spotless, then I have it all together. This is an unrealistic perception and tends to lead to even more stress as well as feeling like a failure.”

Focusing on what you can do, rather than why you’re overwhelmed with clutter, can help ease the feelings of guilt or shame. Telling yourself to lower the bar of perfectionism and then practicing acceptance of your limits at the time can be helpful.

Where to start

OK, so you’re ready to put your home back into some sort of order. But with piles all around, where should you start?

One way to approach cleaning is to think about where you and your family spend the most time and begin there, focusing on what you need to clear for the room to be functional again.

Other tips for cleaning:

  • Pick up any garbage and dispose of properly
  • Find items that don’t belong there and set them aside (outside of the room)
  • Find items that do belong in the space but are misplaced and put them in the right spot

Once the space looks clearer, you can see what needs cleaning. Also, those other piles might turn into another task, like dishes or laundry. 

Small, simple steps can help you see the bigger picture. Pressuring yourself to get everything done in one day is unrealistic and not helpful to the task at hand.

“Go at your own pace, pay attention to how you’re feeling and take breaks when you need to,” says Dr. Yarnell. 

Helpful tips for cleaning

Even if you feel empowered by a quick cleanup in the moment, depression and other conditions can make your motivation wane over time. Coming up with a few tricks to help you better manage your home, even when you’re not feeling up to the challenge, can make a big difference.

Set a timer

If you’re not sure how much effort you can put into cleaning, setting a timer can help. Commit to at least 10 minutes of cleanup in one space and see how you feel afterward. If you can keep going — great. If not, that’s OK, too. Celebrate your accomplishments either way. 

Break up your tasks

You can use the timer method multiple times throughout the day to help break the cleaning into more manageable chunks. 

Focus on busy spaces

Taking time to make the busy areas of your home more functional can help you get through your days more easily. Some high traffic areas can include:

  • Kitchen
  • Bathroom(s)
  • Hallway(s)
  • Entryway(s)
  • Family/living room

Clean as you go

Taking a little extra time to put things away and clean up as you’re completing other tasks, like taking a shower or making dinner, can help tame messes so they don’t become monstrous. Some ideas:

  • Put away ingredients after you use them while cooking
  • Wash dishes after cooking and eating
  • Wipe down counters/floors when there are spills

Fight procrastination

Leaving things for later might seem easier, but taking time to pick up messes when they happen can prevent small situations from turning into big problems down the road.

“Sometimes self-care can include thinking about your future self,” says Dr. Yarnell. “Ask yourself: What small task can you do now to set up your future self for success?”

Dr. Yarnell also says taking a break to clear your head can be helpful. “Simply walking outside to take a deep breath can be a moment away to regain your focus on what you need to do next.”

Manage expectations

Keep in mind that you don’t have to make spaces spotless. Even a little cleaning can help make your surroundings more functional. Remember, you determine what works for you and your household.

Ask for help

We all need a little help sometimes. The challenge is knowing when to ask. Feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt can get in the way. Talking to your family and friends about the situation might help, and they can lend a hand to get you out from under the clutter.

Maintenance and more help

When you’re dealing with depression, sometimes just getting through one day can be challenging. So, what about the rest of the week?

Here are some ideas for maintaining your space and cleaning habits:

Create a cleaning schedule: Designate certain days for certain tasks or pick one room per day to clean. Seeing a list and crossing off tasks you’ve completed can be great for motivation. Even if you can’t complete everything on the list, you still got more done than if you did nothing at all.

Stop clutter where it starts: Mail arrives every day and can easily pile up. Sort mail as it comes and keep a recycling or garbage bin nearby to make the process easier.

Keep cleaning supplies nearby: If you’re low on energy, grabbing cleaning supplies when they’re nowhere near the mess can feel daunting. Stock rooms with staples, like dust rags and disinfectant wipes, to make cleaning easier.

Cut yourself some slack: You’re going through a difficult time — treat yourself with kindness. Dr. Yarnell suggests bringing things into your home that give you comfort. “Perhaps buy or pick some flowers to put on your table or use an oil diffuser with your favorite scent,” she says. “These can be reminders to be easy on yourself.” 

And remember that you’re not alone. Mental health professionals are trained to help you feel better. Reach out when you need help. 


Next steps:

Self-care: 5 ways to take good care of yourself
8 ways to improve your mental health
7 signs of depression you shouldn’t ignore

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