How To Declutter With Chronic Illness

Whether or not you are looking to move, it’s important to declutter on a regular basis. 

Our stuff can weigh us down and affect our health. 

While recently cleaning out the shelves in my closet, I found some old CD cases from when I was a teenager and the dust on it made me break out into hives. I was breathing in that dust every time I walked into my closet. 

Navigating a chronic illness makes it difficult to find the energy and motivation to declutter. I find myself asking: 

  • If I pack up those items to donate, will I not be able to drive or type tomorrow? 
  • If I push too hard, will I run out of energy tomorrow? 
  • Will this small task really make a difference in my space? 

However, I’ve learned that less is more when it comes to stuff. The fewer things I have to dust and manage as inventory means more energy for what matters most. 

And less is more when it comes to pushing my body. I can’t do a lot in one day. 

However, I can take small steps to declutter my space that will still make a dent in the long run. 

My Decluttering Journey

As a teen, my mom would occasionally ask me if there were any items I wanted to donate. But I tended to keep all my clothes and my toys just went into the basement. 

I still laugh when I think about the college freshman moving into the dorm who had their parents haul a trailer with all of their stuff to move in. I compared myself to them and thought at least I’m not that bad with all of my stuff. 

However, I packed two vehicles full of boxes of clothes and furniture. My freshman dorm room was packed in so tightly you couldn’t see the wall anywhere above the floor. 

I moved back and forth every summer in college and during grad school until I got married. 

When I got my first apartment, and lived by myself I bought a bunch of organizing bins. I was hoping that the systems would help me stay organized. 

But those bins were overflowing with things that I didn’t actually use regularly.

But by the time I was 25, I realized that the secret to being organized was to declutter regularly.

I began by reading a few of the popular decluttering and books and they were really helpful.

The first time I decluttered I primarily just got rid of stuff that I hadn’t used in the last year or so. 

The second time I decluttered, I got rid of a few of my just in case items and duplicates, and I got a little bit better about being honest with myself about what I actually didn’t use.

However, what really helped me declutter was asking myself a few questions and trying to figure out what I was keeping that represented a fantasy self of who I no longer was. 

I also heard and decluttering expert say that if you can replace item for at least $20 or less then I could get rid of it without having to worry about replacing it. And that gave me a lot of freedom. 

So let’s break down some of these concepts. 

Grab What You Don’t Use

The first time I did an intentional pass at decluttering, I merely grabbed items I didn’t think I had used in the past year. 

Stop… see how hard I’m being on myself. Merely. 

I’m still working on seeing myself with compassion and I hope pausing to point that out will help you too! 

I got a few trunk loads and had to move less out of my apartment back to my parent’s house that summer. 

I continued to accumulate. 

Remove Duplicates 

I began to remove just in case duplicates. You see, I was the youngest grandchild on both sides and when my grandmas passed away, I was handed down a lot of their housewares, furniture, and other items. I was given two households of stuff! I felt guilty passing it along because it was high quality but I had to ask myself what I liked better. From there, I was able to get rid of what I didn’t need. 

Ask Whoever You Live With 

Then, as I was getting ready to get married, I did another pass getting rid of what I didn’t use but then I asked my fiance what he thought I didn’t use. 

Warning: Do this when you are mentally prepared to feel criticized. I found it hard to accept his thoughts graciously. 

I was definitely defensive at times about what I wanted to keep, but it helped to get an outside perspective. 

Once I turned all my hangers backwards to see what I actually wore, but it just turned into me ensuring I actually wore everything at least once and I used it like a checklist. I really did like all the clothes I had. 

This time, I’m digging deeper into my emotional attachments to items to see why I’m holding on. 

Be Honest With Yourself 

Let’s talk about scarcity mindset. I realized that I forced myself to use a lot of products (or keep them because I told myself I was going to use them.)

I had an epiphany that it’s okay to not like things. 

It’s okay to be done with things. 

And now I can pass them on. 

I don’t know why I put the unnecessary pressure on myself to like certain items. I think I was scared I would run out of what I did like and I wanted a back up plan. I’m not in that position anymore. 

I reminded myself, if I wouldn’t tell a friend what I was telling myself, I probably shouldn’t be telling that to myself. 

People Pleasing  

I began seeing items that I was only keeping in case that person came to my house and would ask where an item was. You see, they never asked where that vase or piece of decor was. It’s reasonable for people to change their decor every few years or even with the seasons. No one expected their gifts to be out on display. 

Then after Covid, there were people I hadn’t had over to my house in over two years. I realized I could let go of these gifts or hand me downs without guilt or shame. I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself to hold onto items that were no longer serving me or making me happy. 

Fantasy Self 

This year, I started to see the items I was keeping because they were things that would help me be the person I want to be. However, I don’t actually do these things. Here are some examples: 

  • Herb seeds – I have tried growing herbs at least 5 different times and I can’t keep anything alive other than basil and rosemary. The seeds I had were old anyway and probably wouldn’t sprout even if I did take care of them. 
  • Rinsed egg shells – I kept egg shells because I want to be the kind of person who fertilizes their house plants with them but I collected them for over a year and never did. 

Items I should probably declutter but I’m still debating if it’s my fantasy self or not: 

  • Yoga mat and block – I don’t even do yoga once a month now but I want to be the kind of person who goes at least once a week. We are moving to a place with carpet so I don’t even need the mat if I were to do a video at home. And yoga places have rentals… I’m still on the fence. I might need to try yoga a couple times on the carpet to see if I’ll be okay without the mat or not. 
  • Compost bin – For a good three years, I faithfully composted our vegetable scarps and dumped them in the woods behind our apartment (much to my neighbor’s chagrin…). After having kids, I told myself I’d give myself a break but here I am years later and I haven’t done it again. I have packed it in a box to go in the garage to re evaluate in a few months. 

What I’m really proud of, is that I’m getting better at trusting myself and knowing myself. I’m getting better at knowing if I truly will use an item and should keep it, or if it’s time to let it go. 

So far I have taken five full car trunks of items to the donation center, I have only regretted one item. And I’ll tell you what that item is later. 

How To Declutter With Chronic Pain 

Here is how I worked to declutter without triggering flares. 

I love Dana K. White’s method of declutter without making a mess. She sets out a: 

  • Donations box 
  • Trash box 
  • Recycles box 

She then instructs you to put other items in the first place you would look for them if you wanted to find them.

The only tweak I make to her suggestion for those with chronic illness is to have a “goes somewhere else in the house” box and not walk across the house every time you find something that goes there. 

  • Needs to be put away somewhere else 

I don’t have to put that box away on the same day that I put it there. In fact, I tend to sit down and look at the box and ask myself if it has a clear home and if I need to assign a better home to it or better label the new home. 

If you don’t have any issues with chronic pain or fatigue, you can totally follow her system of walking items that you find directly to their permanent home so that you don’t make a mess while you’re decluttering. 

At times when the fatigue is at its worst, I struggle to think and stand at the same time because of the energy that it requires. So it’s better for me to have that box in to sit down with it so I can put all of my energy into thinking. 

The Temptation To Sell 

You might have noticed that there wasn’t a sell box above.

In theory, it sounds good to cell or items because we spent good money on them.

However, we can’t make up the cost every time. And I have found that I just don’t have the energy to post items online because it takes time to post the pictures and reply to people and I have more important things to do and I make more per hour doing other work. 

Your situation might be different though if you are a stay-at-home parent or you have more margin space. 

I’ve worked hard to let go of the sunk cost and I really do find it satisfying to donate to local nonprofits who I know will be able to sell my items and sponsor programming and education for those who need it most.

What Is It Worth? 

Sometime (probably during grad school) I picked up a scarcity mindset that I had to save everything in case I needed it. 

I was drowning in medical bills (but here’s how I learned to save money with chronic illness), and knew I didn’t have extra cash to spare. 

What I didn’t realize then was all the energy I was using to manage the inventory. 

Now, I’ll consider if the item is $20 or less. If it’s less than $20 and I can easily buy it again, it will go in the donate box. 

If it’s $20-$50, I’ll think more about the last time I actually used it. 

If it’s more than $50, I usually will email my husband to ask if he’s okay with us getting rid of it or not. 

TIP: Yes, I said email my husband. We tend to keep texting for more urgent matters and we use our personal emails to ask each other non-urgent questions, especially things that might need further discussion. 

Figure Out What’s Worth Rotating 

One night when we had a babysitter for an evening meeting after kids went to bed, I told the sitter I would pay her extra per hour if she did some chores while he slept. I asked her to go through the kid bookshelf and make a pile of books for each holiday season. So there was a stack for: 

  • Christmas 
  • Easter 
  • Fall/Halloween 
  • Thanksgiving 
  • Valentine’s Day 
  • Etc. (I’m not sure why we don’t have any St. Patrick’s Day Books?) 

Anyways, I had her put them in boxes and the next day I labeled them by holiday with a sharpie so I could read them when I opened the hall closet. 

But you know how when you see something everyday you stop seeing it? 

I totally forgot to pull out the Valentine’s Day books last month. I decided to set a calendar alert to pull out the Easter ones for the end of March, I’ll let you know if I am able to actually follow through on that or not. 

I have to remind myself that it’s okay to experiment and I can learn that a system isn’t a good fit for me. 

I have gone back and forth on rotating seasoning clothes based on the size of my closet. Consider what things you can rotate. But also be observant of what you find yourself not rotating in and be quick to get rid of it. 

The Container Concept 

I had a realization last week though that the reason I was avoiding hanging clothes in my closet is because the closet was too full and I was having to shove the hangers in which was flaring my joints. 

Now, I recognize that I need to pull out my sleeveless tops and tanks (that I don’t wear as undershirts) and put them in the spare bedroom closet so I can easily put my clothes in and out. 

I started making the containers and spaces the boundaries and limits on how much stuff I can have.

Part of the reason I was struggling with so much clutter is that I didn’t give myself limits on how much I could buy, particularly when an item was on sale. But I’ve learned now that I can only store as much space or as many items as my space allows. And actually there’s more freedom within these boundaries because my stuff doesn’t bleed over into other parts of the house. 

So now if I need to get rid of stuff, I will assign myself a container whether it’s a closet or a bin or a box, and I’ll let that be the determining rule on what I can keep or not keep.

I have also found this concept helpful with kids. For kids artwork the container is the number of clips we have on the fridge. And then there’s another small box where they can put their favorites. The box is the bad guy, not me.

Stop Making Decluttering Goals 

Yes, you read that right. 

Instead of thinking about it as goals, I just imagine myself working through a checklist. If I make big goals and deadlines, I’m tempted to push myself too hard and then I end up crashing later in the week. 

It really doesn’t help me to say I’m going to have my entire house decluttered by the time we move. That just wasn’t realistic. 

And I’m just too tempted to push myself too hard and then end up doing last overall because I stole from Future Days.

Now I have a list with subcategories separated it into what kind of day I’m having. For days that my hands and wrists are flared, I’m not going to organize a closet where I’m having to use fine motor skills like taking clothes on and off of hangers. But on that day I can open and move bins back and forth in the bathroom and easily drop items into the trash box or into a recycle box. 

On days where I’m struggling with a lot of fatigue, I will use the time to research different list that have hundreds of items to declutter to see what I haven’t thought of myself 

Progress Over Perfection  

Over the last couple years, I’ve realized that I tend to avoid things if I can’t do them perfectly. It’s a procrastination and avoidance mechanism I’m still working through. 

To me, the right way of doing things is no longer applicable. 

There are no more shoulds. 

I used to should myself into pushing myself too hard and causing flares that I didn’t need to. 

  • I should be able to clean out this entire closet today
  • I should be able to purge all my unused items out of the kitchen today

But the shoulds got trumped by a lack of energy and the pain. And it was really hard to be honest with myself that my limits were shrinking. But I had to realize that I could still make progress one baby step at a time.

Break Spaces Down 

I used to think it was ridiculous to set a five minute timer to declutter, but now I see the value in taking small steps of victory. Before my health crashed, I decluttered my entire bedroom closet in an afternoon but this time around, I’ve just decluttered the left bedroom closet shelf. And sometime later in the week, I decluttered the right bedroom closet shelf. 

I’ve had to reframe it and break my spaces into smaller zones. While decluttering, I’ve broken spaces down into individual shelves and drawers to declutter. So my check list that I mentioned above breaks things into much smaller areas. Each day I did one of the bathroom shelves and one of the linen closet shelves out of time. I didn’t have the energy to declutter the entire closet in one day and it ended up taking me more than one week. But that’s okay.

Every item that I decluttered was a big step in the right direction even though it looked small.

Celebrate Every Victory

I have had to reframe my small steps in decluttering each as their own victory. Even if it’s one drawer or one shelf at a time, the momentum will make a difference over the course of six months or a year. 

Even though things didn’t look Pinterest-worthy at first, I know that I’m getting there slowly. And getting there slowly is better than not getting there at all. 

It’s really important when you have a chronic illness to pace yourself. It’s not a race. It’s not a competition. So here are some of the rules that I set for when I knew I needed to stop. 

When To Stop Decluttering

If you start getting symptoms, that is your body telling you to slow down. I’ve had to take these signals as a gift, and realize that it actually puts me in more control of my health. 

I’ve learned that if I stop when I start to have a flare, the flare will actually be shorter. I can get more done in the long run if I stop immediately. 

So stop when you are: 

  • Feeling fatigue – if you start to feel tired, it’s okay to stop. 
  • Feeling pain – again, don’t steal from tomorrow 
  • Sensing other symptoms – sometimes I get heart palpitations or a headache if I push too hard 

In addition to the physical symptoms, here are some other boundaries I gave myself for when to stop working: 

  • When someone in the family needs your attention – beware of going into hyper focused task mode where you are rude when someone interrupts you. 
  • Feeling decision fatigue – I catch myself pacing a room when I start to freeze up. 

Sometimes I only need to stop for an hour to rest and then I’m ready to work again.

If I’m feeling decision fatigue, I will take a picture of the space before I sit down.  I can use more energy to think while sitting down and then when I get back to the space I can quickly use my energy to put those items in the donation or trash box. It’s okay that I don’t have the energy to stand while making those decisions. 

Continuing Decluttering Systems 

Here are some tips I’m working on implementing to keep our space declluttered. 

Donation Box 

For long-term maintenance, I now keep a donation box in our spare bedroom closet where I can easily drop items that I know I want to donate eventually and when that box skips full that I can make a run to the center. 

Get Rid Of Gifts Sooner 

As I stated above I’ve struggled with people pleasing tendencies and I tend to keep gifts longer than I realize. I’ve now set the soft boundary that a month or two after I receive the gift, if I’m not loving it or if I don’t use it regularly it’s okay to pass on to another person. 

I know the people that love me have my best interest in mind and they don’t want me to keep items that feel like a burden and that aren’t actually helpful. My friends and family aren’t mind readers or psychics, and it’s okay that they occasionally pick out an item that isn’t a good fit. 

I’m sure that I’ve also given gifts as well that weren’t a good fit. I can still be thankful that they thought of me in that moment and be appreciative with the gift while also letting it go. 

Buy Less

One common theme in my declutter was stockpiling too much when items went on sale. I’m learning I don’t need to buy a year’s supply of soap when it goes on sale because they tend to have soap sales every three months. So I only need to buy one or two extras during the sale. It’s helpful to keep the container concept in mind. I only have space in my bathroom closet for one or two extra soaps.

My Only Decluttering Regret 

The one item I wish I hadn’t decluttered is an animal print scarf. I think I thought scarves were going out of style so I got rid of it, but then I pulled out a shirt that I wanted to keep and I wanted to wear it and I wanted that scarf for it. However when I zoom out to the big picture, I’ve been able to get rid of so many items that no longer serve me. It’s easier to dust my house. It’s easier to find things. There are just so many benefits that outweigh not having that $18 scarf. And I’m so proud.

I can have grace with myself that there was one item that I shouldn’t have decluttered. And that’s okay if the decluttering doesn’t have to be perfect. 

What strategies have you found helpful in decluttering? Tell me your tips below! 

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