If you’re reading this article, you either never learned how to get organized, or you’ve fallen out of your usual routine. In all likelihood, neither is your fault. And now that you recognize the problem, you can take action.
Below, find an exploration of why it’s so easy to become messy, how it relates to mental health, and practical tips on how to be more organized.
We tend to think of being messy as a “bad habit” because it makes us feel bad about ourselves. But when you recognize the causes of being messy, self compassion comes more easily.
Struggling to stay organized happens to most people at one time or another. Figuring out why you’re struggling can also help you make your life easier.
If you never learned organization skills firsthand, you might struggle with them as an adult. It could be that nobody in your home life was organized when you were growing up. Or everything seemed to be in its place already and nobody ever showed you how they did it. Either way, you never got to see the process in action, and didn’t pick up the skill by example. There’s no shame in that.
While there’s no shame in being messy, that doesn’t mean it can’t negatively impact you. BioMed Central published a study in 2020 which found that children who grew up in disorganized household environments experienced higher rates of emotional struggles and dysregulation. You might currently feel that the disorganization in your living space causes emotional upset. If you’re experiencing that, know that your reactions make sense.
Of course, there are exceptions to this pattern. For instance, some people grow up in messy households and react to that by becoming very organized. But even in those cases, those people learn how to do it from somewhere. So: don’t give yourself grief if this is hard for you. It isn’t too late to learn a new skill to help your physical environment and mental health.
Being disorganized can be seen as a form of executive dysfunction. This is when your brain has trouble self-directing and sequencing what needs to be done. And this ability to self-direct and manage oneself can fluctuate greatly over time.
Anybody can struggle with executive dysfunction for various reasons, including as a “behavioral symptom” of ADHD and neurodivergence (according to the Cleveland Clinic). Whatever the reason for your executive dysfunction, one piece of knowledge can guide your efforts to make it better: executive function is impacted by stress levels.
Your ability to sequence must-do items and organization processes can suffer when you’re stressed. Responsibilities to take care of others in your life, like becoming a parent or a caregiver for aging family members, can zap the energy you need to stay organized. Daily life stress, work, or school pressures can just as easily contribute to (temporary!) lowered executive functioning level. And, stress can doubly impact your organization levels if you are neurodivergent.
So, if you’ve fallen off your usual organizational routine due to an increase in life stress, know that what you’re experiencing makes sense. It’s likely not permanent. If this is a symptom of a condition you have, keep in mind your executive dysfunction may not always be this bad.
If you already struggle with mental health, it might feel like getting organized is the last thing on your priority list. Depression, for instance, can reduce our energy levels, making it difficult to complete daily tasks like showering or cooking. Alternatively, major life responsibilities can understandably push organization down the list of priorities.
So, why spend your limited energy on organizing your living space if everything is already hard to do?
Having a messy space can be an indicator that your mental health is struggling, and can make your mental health worse. A recipe for a downward spiral. Verywell Mind explains that disorganization makes focusing and productivity harder. When you organize your physical space, you can both feel more comfortable in your environment and free up mental space to focus on other things.
On the flip side, getting organized can boost your mental wellness and make you feel more in control of your environment. While you may not have control over life stress, responsibilities, and your predisposition to mental health struggles, you can take control over being messy. So why not do so?
Feeling overwhelmed about the idea of cleaning? The New York Post cites a 2023 poll indicating “90% of Americans say they get anxious cleaning their home.” So whether your living space is physically messy because you don’t know how to clean, you’ve gotten really busy, or your mental health is struggling, it’s understandable if you don’t know where to start.
When you learn to get more organized and be less messy, it won’t happen overnight. We can work in baby steps to declutter our physical spaces and free up room in our minds, one small habit at a time–and with support along the way.
Need help to start learning new skills and rebooting your space? Check out our practical tips below for some manageable ways to get started with organization.
Productivity and self-help site SelfStart talks about the importance of breaking down tasks and using timers to get things done.
If you’re facing the looming responsibility of being less messy, that task might feel so big and stressful that it’s impossible to complete. Breaking things down into smaller pieces allows you to get a foothold in your problem area. Before you know it, tiny bits of progress add up. Soon you’ll find your whole area cleaned and organized.
DBT Tools educates about building mastery, which is a contributing element of emotional regulation. This DBT skill helps folks work through tough feelings they are battling and get to the other side of completing tasks. And, the more often you build mastery of a skill, the more manageable it feels to work on in the future.
Instead of setting aside three hours to do a massive deep clean of your kitchen, bathroom, car, or backpack, try setting a ten-minute timer every day. Does ten-minutes feel unmanageable? Start with five, and work your way up as you gain confidence in your skill.
Feel like it’s impossible to even think about all the different tasks you need to do? Try following an already made cleaning checklist or guide based on the space you are trying to organize.
Take what works in these lists and leave the rest. If they are too long or overwhelming, start by picking one or two items that you feel most drawn to. Or, use other peoples’ ideas as inspiration when you chat about your struggle here.
Even when tasks drag you can still make them fun. Invite a friend over to clean with you, or make plans to call someone while both of you clean your respective spaces, if you’re feeling lonely. This process is known to work even for people with executive function disorders, and it’s called “body doubling.”
It’s okay to ask for help when you’re struggling. Most people have struggled, themselves, so they won’t judge. Turning cleaning into a social plan can help you not dread the task.
That said, not everyone has access to in-person social support. Working in silence can get old really quickly. So, throw on a pump up playlist, a gripping podcast, or the next episode of Marie Kondo’s Netflix show. Cleaning-related TV shows can feel especially inspiring. You might not even notice your timer going off!
You’re not bad if you can’t stay organized. There’s no shame in it. But you may choose to take action if it can put you in a better headspace.
While being disorganized can stem from various life experiences and stressors, it’s never too late to learn new skills and improve your space. Through practical, manageable steps – and with emotional support as you go – anyone can start the journey towards a more organized, less stressful life.