I was messy from the beginning. As a child, keeping my room clean was impossible and picking it up was the bane of my existence. Approximately twice a year, I spent a weekend folding crumpled clothes, worming under my bed to clear out the odds and ends, and lining up my stuffed animals.
I loved how it felt when it was all done: being able to see the carpet, the calm energy of an orderly bookshelf, the crisp sheets. All of those things brought me so much joy, and I vowed to keep it clean forever.
But no matter how hard I tried, the clothes always found their way back to the floor. Even worse, I shared a room with my sister, who was obsessively neat. “It looks like a bomb went off in here,” my parents would exclaim as they tucked me into bed. I labeled myself as messy and lazy and desperately hoped that the transition to adulthood would transform me into a Mary Poppins on steroids.
No such luck: I graduated from college, got married, and worked in the highly organized world of clinical research. I could keep track of thousands of data points of patients on drug trials and loved nothing more than a beautifully organized spreadsheet, but keeping my house clean still eluded me. And I hated this about myself.
And of course, once I had kids, the work multiplied, with onesies to launder, pump parts to wash, blue Diaper Genie bags to take out to the trash. I didn’t magically become neat then, either.
Instead, I cringed whenever I had to open the door for a neighbor or the mailman, offering them a peek into our never-clean house. Whenever friends “dropped by,” I sat in a pool of shame as their eyes surveyed the toys covering the floor.
I tried harder. I bought an app that organized housework. I tried the Apartment Therapy January cleaning challenge. I followed different cleaning schedules I found on Pinterest. Everything worked until it didn’t. I’d have a week of late nights at work, or a stomach bug would tear through my house, and I’d get so knocked off course there was no hope of coming back.
Then I discovered Struggle Care on Instagram.
The account is run by licensed professional counselor and mom KC Davis (who’s on TikTok, too). And it is, dare I say, real. There were no sparkling countertops, nor did it showcase an influencer with perfect makeup and hair. Instead, it was full of realistic ideas to combat “care task struggles” – keeping the house clean, brushing your teeth, and taking care of your mental health. One post stated, “Care tasks are morally neutral. Being good or bad at them has nothing to do with being a good person, parent, man, woman, spouse, friend, Literally nothing. You are not a failure because you can’t keep up with laundry. Laundry is morally neutral.”
When I read those words, my soul rested. Here was compassion instead of shame. I immediately started listening to her podcast and got a copy of her book, “How to Keep House While Drowning.” And one concept stuck out to me in particular: executive function. It was a powerful concept for me, one that I found downright liberating.
I spoke with Davis about this concept. She told me, “Picture that your brain is an airport, and the different planes are your thoughts, your feelings, various information- what you’re seeing and hearing, a task on a to-do list. Executive functioning is the air traffic control office. Picture how many planes are in the air at any one given time, trying to land and take off at an airport. The planes coming in are the thoughts and the information, your emotions. And then you have all these planes going out: your actions, the things you need to do, your behavior.”
At any given time, you have to be able to identify all the planes up in the sky. Not only that, but you need to be able to land all of the planes, in the correct order, getting them to their correct hubs, all the while monitoring planes that are taking off.
I’m sweating just thinking about it.
The combination of executive functions allows for something called task initiation. Davis says task initiation includes, “identifying what needs to be done, making a mental plan for how you are going to do those things, which includes taking in all of the factors necessary, you’re making a motor plan of action, and then you are sending a signal to your body to initiate that movement.” People with ADHD, PTSD, autism, and depression are often familiar with task initiation difficulties because these conditions, as Davis says, “famously create problems with executive function.” However, every person with a brain will experience difficulties with task initiation, and situational factors such as pain, trauma, grief, chronic stress, hormones, and sleep deprivation can all impact this function.
Davis explains task initiation is not just the “tell that plane to go” step; the physical action is preceded by a lengthy cascade of mental steps. “What am I feeling, what am I thinking, what other things need to be done, how many steps are there to this laundry, how do I feel about that, which of these steps am I going to do first, I really don’t want to do it, how do I self manage and soothe that feeling, and how do I make myself tell that plane to go?”
Is this why we ate takeout for the first three months after I had a baby? Yes, yes it is.
Davis explained to me that executive function is not an infinite source: “Your brain draws on a single resource of limited capacity to do executive functioning.” That’s why some days, a person will be fully functional, while other days, systems will be completely offline. [[cutThis can make people with executive dysfunction feel as if they are lazy on the days when it is offline because they know that sometimes they have none of these issues.]]
So how can we hone our skills? Davis offered several tools that have made a difference in my household.
Evaluate which steps of a task are creating a bottleneck
Davis recommends looking at care tasks: the tasks that happen over and over, like laundry, dishes, and cleaning the floors, to find the gridlocks and come up with creative solutions.
When she realized folding clothes was the step of laundry she hated the most, she simply cut it out. She explains that each family member has their own baskets for shirts, shorts, etc. And rather than getting folded, the clothes simply go into each family member’s baskets. She also hated bringing clothes to different rooms in the house, so now they have a family closet, which eliminates the need to run around to different spots in the house.
While I still feel the need to fold my clothing, I’ve stopped folding towels. Now, rather than a dryer full of towels waiting to be folded, and holding up all other loads of laundry, I simply throw them into a blue (how we identify clean towels) basket and bring them to the bathroom.
Use a nonjudgmental, self-compassionate voice when talking to yourself:
Davis shares plenty of practical tips on cleaning when overwhelmed, but the single most helpful tool I learned from her is self-compassion. She shares different phrases that you can replace your… less than kind self-talk with.
For instance, instead of “I need to finish this,” try, “How can I move towards this?”
“How can I move toward a clean desk?” is a lot less daunting than “This desk is a mess and I need to clean it before the guests arrive.”
Know when to seek help
“I think most of us have this idea that there’s this official level of distress that you have to be in to deserve to reach out for extra help,” Davis told me. She completely rejects that: “It’s important that everyone understands that if something is distressing you, you’re allowed to reach out and get help for it.” It doesn’t have to meet some objective threshold of awfulness. You don’t need a diagnosis. “If it distresses you, and you think that you would like to have some more skills to deal with it, you get to ask for help.”
When I accepted the idea that care tasks are morally neutral, I was able to slip out of the shame straight jacket and make small progress toward cleaning goals. Each night, I prep the counter for the next morning. On good days, when my executive functioning is firing on all cylinders, I wipe the full counter. When it’s not, I clear just enough space to prep lunches the next morning. Both are fine. I’m fine.
I will never have an Instagram-perfect home. But now I have tools to make my home work for me, and a quote from Davis has a permanent home on the whiteboard above my cluttered desk: “Imperfection is required for a good life.”
Laura Onstot writes to maintain her sanity after transitioning from a career as a research nurse to stay-at-home motherhood. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids binge-watch TV. She blogs at Nomad’s Land, or you can follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.