Before I began my own journey towards a Tidy Life, I was deeply sceptical as to whether or not there was a link between physical clutter and mental mess.
Could my messy home really be a sign that my mental space was far from clear?
My mum regularly told me when I was a teenager that she could predict an oncoming episode of depression, low mood, anxiety or self-doubt based on whether or not I was picking up my dirty socks. Like an earthquake expert, she could see the signs before I even felt the tremors.
As a teen I tended to view her predictions as codswallop of the highest order. As an adult I view her as a genius Mystic Meg-type, with piles of dirty clothes and chocolate wrappers instead of a crystal ball.
My adult life has, at times, been marked by struggles with anxiety, depression and bereavement. Having experienced these difficulties in the era of the smart phone, I have a photographic record proving just how correct my mum was. It could not be more evident to me now that the link between a messy mind and a messy home is strong. Observe, the Claire in her two natural habitats.
The first, we shall call the Tidy Life Claire. Calm, cool, collected, confident and in control, she lives in a habitat like this:
Stressed, depressed, overwhelmed and out of control. The Messy Life Claire lives in a habitat surrounded by half-finished projects, rubbish, and miscellaneous detritus. It looks something like this (this wasn't even a particularly bad day):
The starkness in the difference between these two sets of photos - taken only days apart - really helped solidify my belief that getting tidy can be the vital first step to a tidy mind.
Having transformed my lived environment into a place of calm has been a game changer. Am I always happy as a result? Of course not. I'm still human. Am I always super tidy? Don't be ridiculous. I'm still human. But am I significantly more content and in control? Yes.
I am not alone in suffering from mental health illness. In fact, a quarter of British adults will experience mental health issues each and every year. Much like physical illnesses, mental health issues rarely get better on their own. We have to treat them and - again like a physical illness - early treatment is always best.
I am not a mental health professional. I am a professional organiser and declutterer - no years of medical school required. If you have concerns about your mental health, reading my blog is not going to be your best course of treatment. Talk to your GP or a mental health professional about your concerns and follow their advice. My advice is intended only as a supplement to professional medical help or as a preventative measure to help ensure continued mental health, much like we eat our greens and go to the gym for our physical health.
Are you unhappy because your home is a mess? Probably not. Is your home a mess because you are unhappy? Possibly.
The link between mental health issues and our lived environments, although well documented in numerous scientific studies, is not a simple one. It does not always follow that you are depressed, so you are messy. Nor does it follow that you are messy, so you are depressed. Maybe you're just messy.
What can be done to achieve a tidier home and a tidier mind? This can feel like an overwhelming challenge, especially for those living with mental health issues. Here are a few key lessons I have learned along the way to help you in your journey to a Tidy Life.
1. Leave the negative self-talk at the door
If you wouldn't say it to others, don't say it to yourself. Negative self-talk is one of the most damaging and detrimental habits of people with mental health issues. It builds self fulfilling prophecies of failure, doom and future misery. If you look around your home and tell yourself you're a disgusting failure who doesn't deserve nice things, chances are you'll start to believe just that. Even if you truly do believe these things, you are now officially banned from saying them to yourself. No more.
2. Embrace self-forgiveness
The next step is to talk to yourself in a positive, forgiving way. Again, you don't have to believe what you're telling yourself at the start. But the more you repeat it, the more it will start to sink in. No child is born believing that they're a failure, that they're worthless. They learn these things - incorrectly -as they grow. But that does not make them fact. Your mess does not make you a bad person. Tell yourself that daily. Tell yourself that you deserve better and that as an act of forgiveness you are going to build yourself that better life that you deserve. The more you practice these self-loving affirmations, the stronger your self-esteem will grow. I promise you, one day you really will believe these wonderful, self-loving things.
3. Commit to not adding to the mess
You've acknowledged your mess in a positive light and forgiven yourself for creating it. But where to start clearing it? This can seem like a daunting task. If it seems insurmountable, rather than over-stretching yourself by trying to tackle it all, commit to not growing the mess for a day, two days, a week. You'll wash your dishes after use (you can ignore the others already there if they're too overwhelming), put your clothes into the laundry hamper (don't feel you have to start tackling laundry right away though) and put the book back on the shelf once you've finished reading it.
4. Dance the timer tango
Congratulations! You've succeeded in not adding to your mess. The mess hasn't gone away though. It is now time to start tidying it. You can do this all at once, or you can do this in stages. I would normally recommend that little by little is the best approach, to save from exhausting yourself physically and emotionally. To this day, my favourite way to tidy, declutter or clean is what I call "dancing the timer tango." Using an egg timer or the timer on your phone, set 5 minutes and get to tidying. Do all you can for 5 minutes. Then STOP. Stopping is the key here. Rest for a while, then, if and when you feel ready, repeat the process. As time goes by you may feel able to increase the time you set yourself. 10 minutes. Quarter of an hour. A whole hour. I actually enjoy racing my timer to see how much I can get done these days. Who knew that was possible?
5. Positive reinforcement
Rewarding your victories, however small, will transform the tidying process and your negative self thoughts. Don't beat yourself up for "only" achieving 5 minutes of tidying today. Congratulate yourself for your success in achieving 5 minutes of productive tidying. Again, this idea is centred on reducing negative self-talk and introducing positive self-talk.
6. Ask for help
If you have followed all of these tips, but the job ahead still feels too large to tackle alone or is overwhelming to think about, consider hiring an expert to help in the process. A professional organiser and declutterer will provide you with the encouragement, motivation, positive reinforcement and advice that you need to get the job done.
The process from Messy Life to Tidy Life won't happen overnight. Like all things worth having in life, you'll need to invest time and effort into achieving your Tidy Life. But let me tell you, as one who has put the work in, boy is it worth it.