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A Clean and Tidy Home Can Boost Your Mental Health—Here's Where to Start

Shelby Deering

Feb 27, 2023

Take small steps toward a cleaner home and improved well-being, even if you're totally unmotivated.

Some symptoms of depression are well known: lethargy, a loss of interest in things you once found enjoyable (known as anhedonia), hopelessness, and deep sadness. But there are other depression warning signs you may not be aware of: stacks of dirty dishes in the sink; a towering pile of unfolded laundry that you washed days ago; boxes, wrappers, and bags dotting the disheveled landscape of your home.

We're all prone to messy moments, but when intense disorganization is accompanied by symptoms of high stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression, it's often an indicator that you may be struggling with your mental health.

The Proven Link Between Home and Mental Health

Mental health struggles, like depression, interfere with levels of motivation, energy, and interest.

It's no wonder that less-than-ideal mental well-being can often lead to unorganized surroundings. According to the DSM-5, the handbook that mental health professionals use to guide their diagnoses, the criteria for depression include a diminished motivation and interest in activities, a slow-down of physical movement, loss of energy, and indecisiveness—all things that usually come in handy in order to keep your home clean and organized.

Clutter can make it more difficult for you to enjoy a space.

Scientific studies frequently find correlations between mental wellness and clutter. For example, one 2016 study from the University of New Mexico found that clutter directly interfered with the participants' ability to feel pleasure in a space.

Disarray at home is associated with higher stress levels.

The tricky part is, if you're grappling with your mental well-being, but still desire a clean, organized home, you may, unfortunately, find yourself trapped in a vicious cycle, something Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD, clinical health psychologist and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, believes is a common chicken-or-egg dilemma.

"Recent studies have shown that clutter in our homes is associated with higher cortisol levels [our stress hormone], but it's still unclear which comes first," she says. "Is it that when we are under stress, our ability to maintain a well-organized home becomes impaired? Or when our home is in disarray, does that make us feel more stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious?"

She believes it's a combination of both—high stress prevents us from organizing our homes, but the clutter itself can also lead to stress.

Disorganization can affect relationships and other lifestyle factors, causing a negative snowball effect.

Shira Gill, organizing expert and author of Minimalista, thinks clutter goes even further than taking an emotional toll on your mind, indirectly affecting other areas of our lives. She says clutter can additionally lead to relationship strains, along with financial stressors, which can include late fees on lost bills and overspending by buying duplicates. Clutter can also distract you from focusing on other priorities.

The Positive Benefits of a Clean, Organized Home

Experts agree that tidy, organized spaces can improve mental health. Gill says that a well-edited home can create "a whole cascade of mental health benefits," which can include a sense of clarity and control, an improved quality of life, a boosted sense of confidence, an increase in productivity, and a more tranquil atmosphere.

But whether you're dealing with a mental health condition or not, organization takes time and commitment. It's just more difficult when you finally get yourself out of bed and you're faced with a choice: shower or fold laundry? Cleaning may feel like a superhuman effort, but know that even if it's simply putting a dish away, it can pay off in big ways for your psyche.

"Decluttering requires decision-making, emotion regulation, prioritization, and patience," Dattilo says. "We receive important cues about how we're doing by what we're doing, and when we maintain an organized home, we reinforce the message that we are worth the time, effort, and practice it takes to live in a cared-for and curated space. In the same way that a cluttered space can make us feel overwhelmed and anxious, a well-organized and tidy space can make us feel calm and safe."

How to Get Organized—Especially if You're Unmotivated

01of 07Break every cleaning task into (much) smaller tasks.

Even if you don't wrestle with more serious anxiety or depression, the undertaking of tidying an entire room or bursting closet can be extremely overwhelming, Dattilo points out. Make your clean-up goals as small and doable as possible—and completely let go of perfection and all-or-nothing thinking. Try breaking up each cleaning job into small (smaller!) chunks by reducing its size or scope. Dattilo recommends "setting yourself up for success by starting with a drawer, a bookshelf, or the kitchen pantry."

02of 07Befriend your timer.

Another fantastic way to make cleaning and organizing to-dos less daunting is to set a timer and stop cleaning the second it's up. Try Gill's "15-minute win" trick.

"Set a timer for 15 minutes and knock out a single drawer," she says. "When you successfully tackle one shelf, clear a surface, or edit a single drawer, you'll start to see yourself as someone capable of getting organized, and gain the energy and momentum to keep going, one small project at a time."

03of 07 Try a helpful cleaning method, like the 'Ski Slope Method.'

Borrow the genius "Ski Slope Method" for decluttering from licensed therapist-turned-interior-designer Anita Yokota. In her latest book, Home Therapy, Yokota uses a mountain ski slope analogy to describe a helpful way to manage and tidy your home. "The idea is to imagine your messy room like a ski slope. If you try to go straight down, the steep angle feels scary and overwhelming. But if you traverse the slope—skiing from one side to the other—you lessen the angle and make it down the mountain without even noticing. Instead of looking at the room from front to back, look at it from corner to corner," she writes.

Pick one corner or section of one room and dive in, moving on to a corner on the other side of the room next, "like you would traverse a mountain," Yokota says in her book.

04of 07Create simple systems.

When you're depressed, burned out, or anxious, it can be difficult to think clearly through all the "mental clutter" you're dealing with as well. That's why it's key to have some straightforward systems in place that will make it easier to keep your spaces in order."Take note of the items you frequently misplace and create a clear and designated home for each one," Gill says. "For example, the keys can go on the small hook by the door, your phone can always be returned to the charging station in your office, and your sunglasses can live in your daily handbag when not in use. The key is to pick one intuitive and designated spot and commit to it."

05of 07Cultivate a mindful approach.

Dattilo says organizing is a great chance to practice mindfulness. "Commit to 'single-tasking,' and give whatever you're doing the attention it deserves," she explains. "Make the process meaningful or interesting in some way. By approaching it this way, even the most mundane task becomes a little more interesting. And anything that increases our enjoyment of a task increases the likelihood that we will do it again."

06of 07Ask yourself questions.

When you're decluttering with improved mental health as a goal, it's important to ask yourself questions that can help you focus on creating a space that supports your goal. Gill says the following questions are "rooted in abundant thinking" and will support you as you "keep things that are truly meaningful and functional for you in the present."

  • Does this item support my current values and priorities?

  • Does this item fit in with the vision I have for my ideal home?

  • Could this item be useful/helpful for another person?

  • Would I buy this item for full price today?

  • Would it impact my daily life not to have this item?

  • Is this item really worth the space it's taking up in my home?

  • Is this item adding value to my life right now?

07of 07Bask in the glory.

When you've organized the junk drawer or taken on the linen closet, and you've done this task while stressed or blue, take time to really celebrate yourself and your accomplishment. This was no small feat.And by the way, you won't have just cleaned something up: you'll have moved your body, stimulated your brain, and taken your mind off of your worries for a few minutes. That's a really big deal."Spend time in your clean space," Dattilo says. "Let yourself enjoy it. When we take care of our home in an intentional and loving way, we send an important message to ourselves that we are worth the time and effort it takes and that we are deserving of a comfortable and well-maintained living space."

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