Feeling Trapped Beneath Your Clutter? Five Simple Steps to Reorganize Your Home (and Life)

How to develop good cleaning habits, no matter the mess

by Cameron Sidhe

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

I have been a messy person my entire life; organizing and cleaning has never come easily to me. This is partly due to being bipolar — my environment often reflects my mood — but it also has much to do with how I was raised and the attitudes toward cleanliness imparted by my parents.

Cleaning was always used as a punishment: instead of being told “go to your room,” I was often ordered, “go clean your room,” with a fear of looming inspection and inevitable failure. My parents did not realize that they shouldn’t have punished the behavior they wanted me to model and should have instead made cleaning seem enjoyable through games and exercises. However, now that I’ve grown up, it’s my responsibility to undo this vicious cycle and learn to keep things tidy and organized.

I know I am not the only one who struggles with this sanitary seesaw, where your house slowly descends into anarchy to the point that degriming your space seems impossible. Perhaps, like me, your difficulty with cleaning stems from growing up in a chaotic environment or never being taught how to organize a space. Perhaps your issue comes from problems with executive function, fatigue, or depression.

Regardless of the reason your space is messy, it’s time to take control of your cleaning habits — not out of guilt or shame, but out of self-love and self-respect. We often fail to recognize how much our surroundings change how we feel, both about ourselves and about others. Dirty homes are stagnant homes, where energy gets stuck and cannot provide the rejuvenation we need.

Here, for good, throw out your guilt about having a dirty room — and get ready to throw away some other things too!

Step one: identify your issue with cleaning

There are two different types of issues with cleaning, connected to nature and nurture. Some people struggle with cleanliness because of an illness or neurodivergency, which could be anything from paraplegia to PTSD.

On the nurture side, cleanliness is often deeply connected to attitude, to our feelings about ourselves and our feelings about cleaning. Like me, you may have been punished through cleaning, or you were frequently shamed about being a “slob,” “pig,” “filthy,” etc. These incidents may have given you such intense shame that you didn’t even feel like trying.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Being called names isn’t just hurtful, it’s also fatalistic, making the problem seem like a character flaw rather than something you can change. Language has an incredible ability to hurt or heal and, unfortunately, you have been on the receiving end of its deadly capability to stunt self-esteem.

Being a neat and tidy person is encouraged in society, but not being able to keep things clean doesn’t make you a bad person. Just like a mental illness or a physical impairment, it’s not your fault but it is your responsibility. Consider learning good cleaning habits to be a component of your recovery, or an aspect of self-care. And it is — living in a safe, organized environment is necessary for our well-being. It’s a form of therapy that needs no insurance, no copay, and no paperwork.

Of course, you may have a mix of both of these problems, or perhaps your issue stems from something I haven’t even considered. Regardless, it’s important to know the root of your problem; if you don’t, it’s nearly guaranteed to return. Just like an alcoholic needs to probe into the pain that causes the addiction, you need to demystify your problems with organization so that you can tackle them effectively.

Before you even touch a broom or a sponge, take some time to reflect on why it’s so hard for you to keep things clean. Think about what attitudes your family imparted to you about cleaning and jot down any significant events you can think of that revolve around tidiness. Is there a particular memory that sticks out when you consider this aspect of your childhood? Perhaps it was later in life; maybe you noticed you found it more difficult to keep things clean after a traumatic event or an injury.

If you are feeling very stuck about what might be causing it, I recommend you switch up your Netflix nights by watching Hoarders. It can be quite hard to stomach, but it can also help to shed light on your own problems with cleanliness; sometimes it is easier to recognize something about ourselves when we see it in other people.

Step two: practice aspiration

You might wonder why this step comes before any actual cleaning; isn’t aspiration a little wishy-washy, not the grimy-washy we need right now?

Well, no. We start with aspiration because you need to change your perspective around cleaning and develop a self-image of an organized person before you put in the work. You need to clean within yourself before you can clean outside of yourself. Aspirations are an excellent way to do this clearing, and aspirational mantras are precisely what helped me break through the years of being told — and believing — that I was always going to be a messy, dirty person.

Aspirational phrases help you get to where you want to be by tricking your brain into thinking you’re already there. Many of the greatest leaders have noted that “what we think, we become”, so it’s important to think about yourself in a way that reflects what you want to be. They are also a form of mantra, which is a phrase that you repeat to center your mind on a goal or an idea. Some believe that mantras are magical, a petition to the universe to bring you the outcome you desire, but they can also be viewed through a more practical lens as a way of priming your brain to favor actions that bring success.

To start, pick a simple phrase that personifies what you want to be, like “I am tidy,” “I am neat and organized,” or “I am a clean person.” Notice that these all focus on “I am,” which makes you identify with that particular characteristic — the opposite of fatalism that binds you to something you don’t want to be.

Repeat this phrase throughout the day as many times as you need to make it stick. It’s especially helpful to repeat your aspirational phrase when you confront a messy area in your home, because as you associate yourself further with tidiness, the clutter will contradict your self-image, forcing you to deal with it in order to retain a coherent image of self.

When you change your self-image to that of a tidy person, you will no longer feel like cleaning is hopeless, but that it’s an inevitability, an assured outcome based on your innate characteristics. Now, you feel confident that you can get a space clean and keep it clean for good.

Step three: break your home up into zones and then break those zones up into action items

I got this idea from watching a video by How To ADHD where she works with a professional organizer to take charge of her space, and I was blown away by how helpful it is. This is probably the most tedious part of learning to clean, but it builds the foundation for keeping things clean in the future. You may rebel against it or think it’s a waste of time, but I encourage you to give it a shot; it’s the planning phase of developing your good cleaning habits.

So where do you start? Start with a single room and write down every little thing that needs to be done in that room, like “pick up all the trash” or “put away the laundry” or “sort the silverware by type and put in appropriate slots.” The more granular you can make your list, the better. Do this room by room, and don’t forget spaces like hallways, porches, and foyers.

This can genuinely be tiring if you have issues with executive dysfunction, so you may need to do the assessment over a few days, and that’s fine. Planning phases for professional projects can take weeks or even months, so don’t feel the least bit bad if it takes you more than an afternoon.

After you’ve completed your assessment, type everything up by room and print it out to be crossed off as you complete the work. You can make it as fancy or as simple as you want, from a bullet point list to a chart with slots for multiple cleaning times. Take some inspiration from professional cleaning charts used by house cleaners if you’d like, and make it look very official!

I recommend that you either laminate the sheets or put them in a page protector so you can use them more than once, and then you just cross items off with a dry erase marker. Put it in a place where you can refer to it, and then begin to work on each task defined there.

After a few rounds of cleaning, you will probably be able to get things clean without the chart, so consider it your training wheels as you develop these good habits.

Step four: choose a daily time slot to clean and stick with it

The less intimidating you make cleaning, the more likely you are to want to clean and to be ok with doing it. You should cut out SMALL chunks of the day to tidy up rather than feeling you need to take an entire day to clean the whole house.

I take half an hour before bed to clean, and here’s why. Cleaning keeps me away from my phone while I wind down for bed; research shows exposure to the blue light emitted from screens can disrupt the circadian rhythm, preventing a restful sleep. Other non-screen activities like reading a physical book or doing a craft can help with this as well, and you might find that you want to switch it up a few nights a week and go with another wind-down activity.

Cleaning provides that last little feeling of accomplishment, so I go to sleep in a good mood. I am an anxious person and I often find myself staying up too later just thinking about all the things I need to do or fretting about what I might have forgotten. I have found that when I’m cleaning for half an hour, I often remember things I might have forgotten to do during the day and I can then stop for a minute and do them, or at least jot them down so I don’t forget. This means that when I flop into bed, I can tell myself that if I didn’t think about it during that half hour, it’s probably not important enough to worry about. I can go to bed with a clear conscience, assured that I’ve tied up all the loose ends of my day. I encourage you to develop a cleaning ritual where you set aside time each day to keep your own space clean. If you have children, this would be a great way to help them develop good habits, as well as an opportunity to get some private time that’s dedicated to your own wellbeing.

Step five: rinse and repeat

Habits, of course, need to be done habitually. See this as a project to undertake over a lifetime rather than a quick fix to get a magazine-worthy living space.

Like any life change — developing an exercise routine, kicking an addiction — learning to be clean and organized takes time, practice, and great patience. Don’t beat yourself up if you struggle at first or find yourself going back to ways you lived before, because it can be difficult to cement a completely new way of living. Most of all, be kind to yourself as you learn this new skill. Anything worthwhile will be at least somewhat uncomfortable. When you feel those old thoughts about cleanliness creeping up, honor them and recognize that they had a place in your life, but they don’t anymore.

If you’ve worked through the suggestions here and feel you need more guidance, I recommend you get a copy of the workbook Organize Now! to create checklists. Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life is also a good guide that delves a little further into the psychology of cleaning. When you’ve decluttered, it’s a great idea to check out some feng shui guides to ensure you are maximizing the benefits of your hard work.

I hope this article has imbued you with a sense of hope that you, too, can become a neat and organized person. Happy cleaning!

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