Trouble with tidying? 6 skills that might be holding you back and strategies to master them

If the phrase “sparks joy” doesn’t ring a bell for you, you may just have been living under a rock for the last month or so (or maybe you were on a January social media or Netflix fast! Good for you, I did one of those last year and certainly felt the benefits! But I digress… 


For me, Marie Kondo herself sparks joy. I love her enthusiasm and the idea that all around the world women just like me are being intentional about how they want their space to look and feel. We really do live in a global community. It just delights me that a beautiful pint-sized Japanese woman is teaching Australians and Americans, and South Africans like me how to fold our clothes. I’ve also been doing Allie Casazza’s annual 30 day “Declutter like a mother” Facebook challenge. She has provided practical strategies and encouragement to work for just 30 minutes a day to clear out space so we can live our lives not just tidy up after them. I’ve loved seeing the way women on that group are cheering each other on and sharing their amazing progress with one another. 

I’ve also realised that for some of us, keeping our homes organised does not come quite so easily as it does for others. I am an occupational therapist and have worked in the field of mental health for nearly 13 years. I’ve worked with people with addiction, depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD and hoarding, to name a few. These, of course, are extreme cases but I believe that mental health is a continuum and we can all struggle at certain times in our lives. If you are struggling with your mental health, the evidence of that will likely show up in your home. Perhaps your struggle is due to grief, or the overwhelm of becoming a mom for the first time, or maybe just natural proclivities in our personalities that make us more susceptible to creating chaos out of order. 

I certainly fall into that last category! Though never diagnosed as ADHD I tend to float from task to task leaving a wake of unfinished jobs behind me. Soon after I got married my husband arrived back to our new marital home (a tiny one bedroomed flat) at 3 am after a late shift at the hospital. I was sitting on the floor surrounded by all our worldly goods in tears. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked. I think he thought the house had been ransacked. “Tidying!” was my woeful reply. You see I, like many of us, struggle with some of the executive functions needed to organise and maintain a tidy space.

 Nearly eleven years later I’m glad to say my professional training and lots of work on myself has led me to be a much tidier and more organised person (mostly). I now recognise the triggers that lead me  into a spiral of unhelpful behaviours, understand the skills that I need to work on, or compensate for, and have a strategy in place which helps me to stay on top of things. 

Occupational therapists help people to perform the tasks they need and want to do. We also help people figure out why they might be struggling and how to address those issues. We assess how people perform tasks, often by watching them doing an activity, and there are certain things that we look out for. One group of cognitive skills we assess is called executive function. 

According to wikipedia “Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”  Dysfunction in any of these skills, whether mild or severe, will manifest in your living space. Ironically one thing that can help improve your execution functioning is a clean, uncluttered environment, just the thing you are struggling to create! So it's all bit of a cycle. The good news is it can work both ways. With a bit of insight you can create an organised environment which improves your executive function and allows you to keep it that way. All it takes is knowing yourself a little bit.

 Depending on your source, there are a number of different skills listed, but here are some of the main ones:

  • Flexible thinking
  • Working memory
  • Self monitoring
  • Task initiation
  • Planning
  • Organisation 

I’m  going to define each skill, help you identify if this is a struggle for you personally, and give you some practical strategies to improve or compensate for it. Some of the strategies are relevant to different skills so I will explain them the first time I mention them and then juts list them going forward.

If you want to download a quick cheatsheet to remind you of these strategies click here. If you'd like to know more about how to invest in your mental health, you can follow me on my facebook page mental wealth

 1. Flexible thinking is the ability to roll with the punches and not be thrown off by deviations to the plan 

How do you know this is a struggle for you?

  • Does one unexpected change wreck your whole day?
  • Do you easily feel overwhelmed
  • Does the way your kids mess up your space drive you crazy?
  • Do you become angry if someone changes the plan?
  • Do you find yourself saying things like "Don't touch anything! Its my mess and I know where everything is!"
  • You struggle to find the EXACT right way to do a task
  • You don't allow anyone else in your house to help because they don't do it your way, but that means you are overwhelmed and never get on top of anything

How to help yourself

  •  Progress over perfection, done in real life is better than perfect in your mind!
  • If what you are doing is not working, try something else! You may have a pinterest perfect image in your head of how your pantry should be organised but if none in your family will ever stick to that you need to simplify
  • Remember what's really important to you: prioritise relationships over stuff. Does it matter that 

2. Working memory is the ability to hold lots of bits of useful information in your head while completing a task without being distracted. Why am I in here again?!

This is you if 

  • You are easily distracted or overwhelmed
  • You get started on one task and find yourself down a rabbit hole of different tasks 

How to help yourself

  • Be intentional. Before you begin a project pick a very specific task and do it to completion. For example go into a room you want to tidy repeating to yourself trash, trash, trash and only pick up what needs to be thrown away. That means no picking up the dirty plates, or folding the socks because before you know it you will be attempting to start something else and never feel on top of things.
  • Pick a keystone habit that gives you a quick win.  What I mean by this is choose a task that takes little effort but provides a reward: a hit if dopamine for a job well done. One example would be making your bed. Once you have the sense of accomplishment of seeing a task done it will motivate you to keep going and stay focussed
  •  Zone time and space and try and do it the same way every time.  We are creatures of habit. The more we stick to a habit the easier it becomes because we reduce decision making and thus the chances of getting distracted. So fold your laundry at the same time each day in the same place and you are much more likely to complete the task without actually wandering off to check your Facebook in the middle of folding socks.

3. Self-monitoring is having a realistic picture of yourself and your progress, neither overly negative or positive

This is you if

  • You always think you can fit more in than you actually can
  • You vacillate between “I can do ALL THE THINGS” and “what is wrong with me! I’m never going to get there!”  
  • You spend more time and energy avoiding tasks than actually doing them

How to help yourself

  • Practice makes progress and progress over perfection
  • Track your progress
    • Make lists you can tick off
    • Take before and after photos
    • Time yourself doing tasks so you have a realistic idea of how long things actually take!
  • Stay accountable by picking 2-3 tasks to do in a day, telling a friend, and asking her to check in with you later in the day 

4. Task initiation is the ability to get started!

This is you if:

  • You procrastinate like crazy
  • You avoid tasks (and areas) you find difficult
  • You end up doing things that aren’t that important to avoid things that are! 

How to help yourself

  • Move towards what you want not away from what you don’t. So think to yourself "I want to turn my bedroom into a sanctuary",  not "I’ve got to clean up this pigsty!" Your brain will resist starting tasks that feel negative but will move towards ones that feel positive
  • Progress over perfection! (yes again!) 
  • Zone time and space (see above)
  • Choose the time of day that works best for you. We all have different diurnal rhythms and forcing yourself to complete a task when you are in an ebb is just going to demoralise you.
  • Set a timer, play a song to encourage yourself to do a task you don’t like)
  • Choose a cue, routine and reward for tasks you might avoid. So put the kettle on (cue) empty the dishwasher (routine) and then enjoy your cup of tea! (reward). Before you know it you will be automatically unloading the dishwasher when you hear the sound of a kettle
  • Do it the same way every time. As I've mentioned the best way to reinforce a habit is to build those neural pathways by doing a task the same way every time. This reduces the need for motivation
  • Pick ONE thing that will make a difference and get it done. 
  • Don’t overwhelm yourself with information. Analysis paralysis anyone?


5. Planning is about organising time. Its about  managing current and future task demands and is related to your ability to prioritise tasks 

This is you if you struggle to:

  • Know what is important
  • Find it hard to choose what tasks to do
  • Flit from task to task
  • Have no idea how long things take  

How to help yourself 

  • Be intentional (see above)
  • Ask what is most important to me?
  • Hold yourself accountable
  • Make yourself a list at the beginning of each week and include ALL aspects of your life 
    • Work 
    • Self care
    • Social
    • Pick a keystone habit
  • What task will make the biggest difference?
  • Zone time and space
  • Finish one area at a time
  • Allocate set times to do tasks
  • Cue, routine, reward, same way every time, and link one to the next
  • Morning routine dishwasher, clean up after breakfast, laundry on  


6. Organisation is managing your space: the environment, tools and materials needed to complete a task. 

This is you if:

  • Your space is chaotic
  • You have too much stuff
  • You can never find your car keys!
  • You start baking a cake and realise halfway through you don't have any eggs

How to help yourself

  • Zone your space. If you carry out tasks in the same place each time you will have what you need a round you.
  • Put things back in the same place every time
  • Balance whats coming in with whats going out. 
  • Aim for beauty not to avoid chaos


I hope these tips have been helpful. If you want to download a quick cheatsheet to remind you of these strategies click here. If you'd like to know more about how to invest in your mental health, you can follow me on my facebook page mental wealth






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