I regularly hear this question: How do you manage decluttering (or cleaning) when you’re sick?
Or even more difficult: How do you make decluttering progress when you suffer from a chronic illness?
There are two reasons why I haven’t given an in-depth answer before. First, I don’t suffer from chronic illness and I try to stick to sharing strategies I’ve tested in my own home on my own self. Second, when I’m sick, I often don’t do the things I know I should do. I mean, I’m sick.
But last week, while getting my house ready to decorate for Christmas and suffering from some sort of ickiness, I thought a lot about this question. Today, I’m sharing what I’ve learned from my own experience and from those of you with chronic illnesses who tell me what has helped you.
So here goes.
Adjust your Expectations
Last week, I had big plans. It was Thanksgiving week and the major remodeling work in my house was finally done. There are still little things to do, but I could FINALLY put stuff back. Reclaim our garage.
I was very excited. With all the free time I was going to have, I would (surely) get it all done. I also had no doubt I would be able to work on areas that were cluttered even before the big upset caused by new floors and ceiling scraping.
All this decluttering was going to start on Saturday morning.
But on Friday night, my throat started hurting. By Saturday, I was a sneezy mess with half-closed eyes.
I was determined to still try to make some progress in my garage, but I couldn’t live up to the daydreams I’d had.
I looked for the easiest possible stuff to do. And even though hanging something on the wall or moving a guitar from the top of a pile back into the house isn’t dramatic at all, by the time I was completely exhausted and had to stop, I could see a difference.
Even though what I could do was so much less than what I wanted to do, progress happened.
Our garage is a little easier to walk through than it was before I started.
My expectation was to finish. When finishing wasn’t an option, I decided to aim for better. To get as much done as I could do before my energy was gone.
When I let “better” be my expectation, I was pleased with what I got done. Even if I’d stopped after moving the guitar, it would have been “better.”
Now, to be clear, temporary sickness disrupting my decluttering plans irritated me. I was inconvenienced and I pouted a little/lot.
For those who live with chronic illness, though, adjusting expectations is often a matter of grieving. You pictured your life/home being a certain way, and had no idea that chronic pain or exhaustion or sickness would be your reality.
Accepting your new, unwanted normal is hard.
Embrace “better” and do the easy stuff first when energy and opportunity coincide.
If you aim for “better” and do something every time you can, progress will happen. It will happen slowly, but it will happen.
Always Start with the Basics
As my week went on, I didn’t bounce back to health like I wished I would. My voice was completely gone by Monday, I blew through too many Kleenex, and I had little energy.
I gave up on the goal of having a sparkling, park-in-able garage. Instead, I focused on getting and keeping the house ready to decorate for Christmas.
That would have been the stuff I worked on around my “real” task of decluttering the garage. Instead, it became my focus.
Every time I had energy, I did the dishes. Every time I started with the dishes, they took a little less time than before and I could continue working on more basics until my energy was gone.
The basics have a shockingly positive impact on the look and function of a home, and neglecting them, even for the sake of doing something with more impact . . . has a shockingly harmful effect.
No complicated shelf-building or bin-sorting can have the effect I desire if my kitchen counters are piled high with dirty dishes. Sorry.
Focus on Visibility
When I had a little energy and the basics were already done, I moved on to my dining room. It’s a visible space and clutter there would make Christmas decorating impossible.
I didn’t finish the dining room with my first pocket of energy, but after a few small chunks of time spent in there (after doing a few newly dirtied dishes), it was clutter-free.
After that, I slooowwwwly moved to working in the living room. Little by little, at about one-fifteenth the rate at which I had planned to work, the living room was picked up and ready for decorating.
And every time I saw my clean kitchen or cleared-of-clutter dining room, I sighed in relief. And those sighs often gave me energy.
Don’t Leave Anything to Do Later
When energy is fleeting and unpredictable, the “take it there now” principle upon which so many of my decluttering strategies hinge is key. It’s everything, really.
I make more progress, real progress, visible and sustainable progress . . . when I eliminate halfway points. When I avoid procrastination stations.
This is hard, especially when conserving energy feels like it needs to be the top priority.
Logic tells me to move everything that I know needs to leave the garage to the doorway that leads into the house. Go ahead and do all that now, and then take it from the doorway to homes throughout the house.
But this is actually the worst thing to do.
Illness-related exhaustion comes on fast and strong and unpredictably.
Shoving an end table into the pile at the door might be the last thing I can possibly do today.
And if I have to stop at the point when a mass o’ stuff blocks my path to the couch, I’m left feeling frustrated and angry. And I’ve proven that trying to declutter or clean up or do anything in this state is not only pointless, but detrimental.
I’ve made a bigger mess, and now I can’t walk through my garage.
And that experience discourages me from decluttering next time.
But if I take the end table (or the coffee pot or the suitcase) to its home right away, the end table is in its home. If I can move something else, great. If not, the end table is in its home. And the garage is slightly less cluttered.
The one thing is done.
And having an end table in the right place and a slightly less cluttered garage makes me happy. And that feeling of happiness motivates to do a little more the next time I feel a burst of energy.
Pulling out one item at a time and taking it either to the back of my Suburban (to haul off to the donation place) or to its home (where I would look for it first), means I can be done when I need to be done. With nothing left in transition to do later. Without making a bigger mess.
If you don’t believe me, try it.
Now, I know I’m talking about Christmas decorating here, and many of you are where I was nine years ago when a few bursts of energy over the course of a week wouldn’t get me anywhere close to having a cleared space to put up a tree.
But all of these principles are still true over the long term, too. Using energy (however unpredictable or fleeting) wisely, on the things that will have the biggest, most sustainable impact, will change your home.
And if a temporary illness caused you to let it all go for a few days (like I tend to do), these same principles will get you back on track.
A few other things to help you:
Awkward Pauses (a podcast) – this is one that I’ve heard was very helpful for some with chronic illness
What is the (Very) Least I Can Do to Keep My House Clean (a blog post)
Decluttering at the Speed of Life – my book that will give you a game plan for decluttering your home, goes deep into grief, and has a chapter about accepting help.
How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind – my book that teaches you the mindset and steps to (finally) feeling in control of your home.