A camera pans around Abegael Milot’s bedroom. The floor is largely invisible, hidden by piles of clothing. Four large plastic baskets are stacked on top of each other, some filled with laundry, others with electronics. On the desk and bedside table are eight abandoned cups of coffee. On the floor are two half-empty water bottles, a novelty bottle of tequila with a glass cactus inside, and a pet feeder.
“Today we’re going to clean my depression room,” the 24-year-old YouTube star, who posts videos as Abbe Lucia, tells the camera. “I’m afraid the only way I can get myself to clean this room is to film it.”
The term “depression chamber” is relatively new, popularized by videos on TikTok and YouTube that have garnered hundreds of millions of views. But experts have long recognized the link between messiness and mental health. The clutter that can accumulate when people go through a mental health crisis is neither a form of hoarding nor the result of laziness. The culprit is extreme fatigue, said N. Brad Schmidt, a leading research professor of psychology at Florida State University.
People are “often just so mentally and physically drained that they don’t feel like they have the energy to take care of themselves or those around them,” Schmidt said, adding, “They just don’t have the capacity to engage in cleaning and maintenance they probably once did.”
A cluttered home can also contribute to feelings of overwhelm, stress, and embarrassment. And while tidying up won’t cure depression, it can boost your mood. If it seems impossible to keep your environment tidy, here are a few tips to strategically clean to optimize energy and space.
Focus on function, not aesthetics
For KC Davis, a licensed professional counselor and author of the book “How to Keep House While Drowning,” her clutter problem intensified when her second child was born in early 2020. “I’ve always been a messy person,” she said, “but it’s always been functional.” Suddenly faced with a new baby, postpartum depression, and a pandemic, Davis realized that without any systems, she was in over her head.
While working to tidy up her house, Davis began posting videos of her progress on TikTok, where she now has 1.5 million followers. Turned off by much of the self-help and cleaning content with what she called “boot camp posts,” she took a softer, more pragmatic approach. Her systems are realistic about her abilities and focus on having a livable space, not a spotless one.
One of her most popular strategies is “clean up five things,” the idea that there are only five things in a room: trash, dishes, laundry, things with a place, and things without a place. By focusing on one category at a time, she doesn’t get overwhelmed when it seems like there are 100 different items to put away.
Davis is also a big believer in what she calls “closing tasks,” inspired by her time as a server. She often doesn’t have the energy to clean her entire kitchen every night, so she started doing just a few small tasks, “as a favor for the future so I can set myself up for success in the morning.”
“I broke away from the idea that it had to be all or nothing and just started thinking about function” when it came to cleaning, she said. “When I think ‘What do I need in the morning? ‘ I can suddenly get specific.” She makes sure she has plenty of clean dishes and counter space so she can make breakfast, empty the trash, and sweep up any crumbs. “What feels like this big, never-ending task is really just 20 minutes of my day,” she said.
For people who are really struggling, Davis stressed that things can be ugly, but shouldn’t be unsanitary. If you don’t have the energy to wash all your dishes, clean one or two for your next meal or use paper plates. If the laundry involves too many steps, don’t worry about folding; wrinkles never hurt anyone.
Make homeworking better for you
People who are neurodivergent, with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, or other executive function problems also often struggle with excessive clutter. Like “depression chambers,” the term “piles of doom” has gained popularity on social media to describe the random things that pile up that you don’t know what to do with. Almost everyone has a junk drawer or two in their home, but these piles of junk are more ubiquitous for people who struggle with executive functioning.
Lenore Brooks is an interior designer who specializes in working with people who are neurodivergent. When her sister, who has ADHD, lived with her for a short time, Brooks discovered that there were many resources to help children with ADHD or autism stay organized, but virtually none aimed at adults.
Much of Brooks’ work revolves around helping her clients deal with seemingly endless messes; they feel like they are constantly cleaning but the mess is always there. People with ADHD especially struggle with this because, she said, “it seems like decision fatigue almost all the time. ‘I can’t decide what to do with it, so I’m just not going to do anything with it.’https: //news.google. com/__i/rss/rd/articles/”
The first step, Brooks said, is to really pay attention to the items you tidy up often. Then find better places for them to live. “What I talk about a lot with my clients is systems,” she said. “Finding out why things are where they are, why clutter is piling up where it is, and then changing the design or organization around how people actually use their homes.”
These changes can be simple. For example, if you find yourself constantly removing pens from the cushions of your living room sofa and coffee table, consider designating a place to keep the pens in the room where you actually use them.
Stop the problem before it starts
Once your space is tidy and relatively tidy, try to take a few minutes each day to keep it that way. Davis recommended setting a timer for five or 10 minutes and getting as much care as possible during that time. “I tell myself, ‘I don’t have to finish this task, but I’ll get up for eight minutes to do it’https://news.google.com/__i/rss/rd/articles/” she said. “Most of the time I’m amazed at how much I can do.”
And don’t forget that it’s normal to have some clutter in your home. The TV remote, your glasses, mail you need to sort, an art project you’re working on: “They’re the signs of life in your house,” Brooks said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.