Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

How to Find Peace by Tidying Up

Use the science of cognitive behavioral therapy to organize your home.

Posted May 25, 2019

WavebreakMediaMicro/Adobe Stock
Source: WavebreakMediaMicro/Adobe Stock

Don't you love it when your home is clean and organized? There's something deeply satisfying about being in a space that's free of clutter and where everything has its place. We feel more relaxed and can focus our attention.

Unfortunately for many of us, the idea of an organized home feels like a faraway dream. Between busy schedules, an abundance of stuff, possibly kids, and feeling overwhelmed, just getting the dishes cleaned feels like a major victory. And each day the clutter grows.

I recently spoke with professional organizer Alejandra Costello on the Think Act Be podcast, to get her insights on how to maintain an organized home. I was struck by how much overlap there is between the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and the approach she described—no wonder her videos have been viewed by millions of people around the globe. 

If you've struggled to declutter and organize your home, keep these principles in mind as you plan your attack:

Declutter, then organize. 

Alejandra recommends a specific sequence for tidying up. "You don't want to go into a space and just focus on How can I organize this better?" she said, "without first asking yourself, Is there anything that I can eliminate here? The more you remove from a space, the less you're going to have to organize."

So the first step to getting organized is "going through and eliminating the things you're not using, you don't need, you don't love," she said. "Then it's about setting up the system." 

Keep in mind that the more stuff you have, the harder it will be to stay organized. For example, it's much easier to keep your closet neat when you have half as many clothes.

Shift your perspective. 

Our thoughts have real effects on our feelings and actions, and can make it harder or easier to organize. Watch out for automatic thoughts that might trip you up:

  • What if I need this later on? While it's always possible you'll need an item you tossed, "it's a big if," said Alejandra. "A lot of time you may not even remember that you let go of that item or that you once had it." She recommends focusing on how your life will improve by letting go of the item. If someone else needs the item, you can also think about how much use they'll get out of it. 
  • I'll miss having this if I get rid of it. Focus instead on the freedom you'll feel from letting go of something you probably don't need. It's one less thing that will need to be cleaned, stored, packed, unpacked, or thought about. Once you get rid of it, "you never have to maintain it ever again," Alejandra said.  
  • But I spent so much money on these things. As with any "sunk cost," the money you've spent is gone—whether or not you keep the items. The relevant question is, Will your life be better or worse by getting rid of them? Don't allow the sunk cost to cost you even more by taking away from your current enjoyment of your living space.  

Trust yourself. 

Your difficulty in parting with your possessions might be driven by a lack of trust in yourself. Use decluttering as an opportunity to recognize your ability to deal with potential future problems.

"Trust yourself that if the situation arises where you need that item again," said Alejandra, "you're going to be resourceful enough to find a solution or alternative to using that thing." For example, you might "repurpose something else, or borrow that thing from a friend, or—worst case scenario—you'll have to go out and buy it again."  

You can use similar thinking to trust your ability to handle any (unlikely) regret you'll feel about having parted with a sentimental item. 

Practice acceptance.  

As with any task, decluttering and organizing go much more smoothly as you release resistance to reality. Accepting doesn't mean approving of something; it just means acknowledging how things are. You can start by accepting that your current state of (dis)organization is what it is. From that place of acceptance, you can take action to make improvements. 

Other forms of acceptance can include:

  • Letting go of the mind's grip on items you need to part with.
  • Recognizing that you are more than the sum of your possessions.
  • Accepting that you can't hold onto every memento.
  • Accepting the discomfort of parting with possessions.
  • Accepting uncertainty about whether you'll need something later on that you're getting rid of.
  • Accepting that your organization will never be perfect.

Break down larger tasks. 

The two biggest reasons we put off a task we need to do are 1) we're not sure how to get started, and 2) we think it's going to be unpleasant. Breaking down big jobs into little ones addresses both of these obstacles—and it's exactly what Alejandra recommends.

"Pick one high-priority project that’s interfering with your quality of life," she said, "and break it down into several tasks that take about 20 minutes each." For example, one sub-task for cleaning the closet might be just going through your shoes—that's it. "This way each task is one you can start and finish in a short amount of time," said Alejandra, rather than thinking you have to "find ten straight hours on your calendar to tackle this one space."  

I really like the idea of working consistently for a limited amount of time, which I use routinely in my clinical practice (and my own life; I generally write in 25-minute blocks). By knowing you're only going to be working for about 20 minutes, you'll feel more inclined to get started than if you're facing hours of uninterrupted work. 

Do 3 daily tasks. 

Personally I find that I tend to tidy up when I have a lot of dedicated time for it, and in the interim, I let things pile up. But just as with breaking down big tasks, we can maintain a neat home through regular upkeep, rather than waiting until the place is a complete disaster. 

"Pick three tasks that will have a big impact on your well-being," said Alejandra, "and do them daily." A good place to start is spending 15 minutes (set a timer) putting stuff away. Simple tasks, done consistently, will make your home "drastically more organized"—and much more enjoyable to be in. 

ALPA PROD/Shutterstock
Source: ALPA PROD/Shutterstock

Not surprisingly, an effective approach to organizing your home includes cognitive, behavioral, and mindfulness-based strategies—mind, body, and spirit. Ready to live in a tidier home? Enjoy the freedom you'll feel from applying these principles as you declutter and organize your space.   

The full discussion with Alejandra Costello is available here

LinkedIn Image Credit: George Rudy/Shutterstock