How to Organize With Chronic Illness

In my last post I covered how to declutter with chronic illness. I will tell you that the most important step of organizing is to get rid of what you aren’t using. So if you haven’t read that yet go back and read it. (You can ctrl+click to open it in a new tab to read next.) 

I used to be a pretty organized person before I became chronically ill. I had some good detailed systems in place and I learned how to use bins, boxes, and baskets to my advantage. However, when I started to really struggle with fatigue and the pain moved to my arms, I knew that something had to change.

Things that I used to put away turned into piles around the house. My clothes stayed in a pile on top of the dresser instead of putting them away. My paper stayed in an inbox instead of going into files. 

Here’s some of the big lessons that I learned about how to get and stay organized, despite having a chronic illness. I hope you learn some tips to try! 

How To Organize With Chronic Illness

First, focus on just organizing. Don’t try to clean or declutter too. It might be too much. If you notice that something needs to be cleaned, write it down on a to-do list for a future day. Stay focused on one task at a time. 

I’m really glad that I didn’t try to declutter and organize at the same time. I found that I needed a few passes of decluttering before I was ready to organize. 

Don’t waste time organizing things that you will eventually get rid of or purge. 

Just like I talked about in my decluttering post, after you’ve gotten a lot of your spaces decluttered, work on setting small goals with your organizing. Just work on one drawer or one shelf at a time. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. 

The biggest take away I want you to learn is to work on macro organization instead of micro organization. 

Why You Should Macro Organize First Especially If You Are Chronically Ill 

I can’t take credit for this concept. It comes from Cassandra Aarssen of Clutterbug

It was a huge light bulb moment for me when she described her different organizing styles. 

One of the axes on her quadrant of organization is macro vs micro organization.

Whether or not you prefer macro or micro organization, she recommends that everyone begin their organizing by putting everything into bigger categories. Then, only after you have gotten everything into macro categories of organization, should you put the energy into micro organization. 

I realized I was being way too hard on myself by trying to meticulously organize our stuff into all of these little subcategories. 

I was in too much pain and didn’t have the energy to micro organize.

Micro organization felt like Mount Everest, so that’s why I wasn’t doing any organizing at all. 

And if I spent time micro organizing a closet or my bathroom drawers into pretty little containers, I struggled to type or to drive the next day. 

Let me give you some examples of what macro organizing looks like in different places around the house.

Macro Organizing The Bathroom

I used to have a lot of little drawer dividers in my bathroom to keep things separate. But when that caused too much pain, I started using bins without lids. Now here’s a look at what my bins look like:

  • Dental care – Toothbrushes, spare toothpaste, floss
  • Hair care – Leave in conditioner, dry shampoo, hairspray 
  • Shower – Bar soap, razors, shaving cream, shampoo, conditioner 
  • Moisturizers – Face, body, hands 
  • Immune boosters – vitamin D, vitamin C, mushrooms, herbs 
  • Bath toys 
  • Cleaning products 
  • Current vitamins – I put all my open bottles in one bin so that I can pull the bin out and then sit on the ground and parse the vitamins for the entire family. 
  • Back up vitamins – And the extras that I buy in order to get free shipping go here

All of these are in bins that don’t have lids I can easily slide in and out. I like the bins that are only about 4 to 6 inches tall so I don’t lose things in deeper bins. Even with clear bins, I tend to lose things in the middle if they are taller. 

Macro Organizing The Bedroom

When I have pain flares, I struggle to fold clothes or put them on hangers. 

My macro organization solution is to simply lay things in drawers or bins. 

I no longer fold my sweatshirts. I set them in the drawer so that I can grab them when I need them. Since I got rid of the sweatshirts I don’t wear and only kept the ones that I truly love, I have the space to just lay my sweatshirts horizontal and I can grab which one I want.

I lay my tank tops across the width of the drawer. 

In my undergarment drawer, I actually just stuck an old shoe box inside to divide the drawer in half. One side holds tops and the other has bottoms. It works really well.

Also, I do not fold any of my kids clothes, because they just mess those up don’t they?

Quick Tip

One thing my mom taught me is to measure different spots on my arms and hands to be able to measure things without a measuring tape. Now I know the distance from: 

  • my fingertip to the bottom of the palm of my hand
  • my finger tip to my elbow
  • the palm of my hand to my elbow
  • my finger tip all the way to my shoulder. 

I have these in a note on my phone and it’s really handy for when I’m organizing a space because I struggle to pull out a tape measure, but I can use my own body to measure things. It makes it easy while shopping to know these approximate measurements too since I can’t lug a purse around with a bunch of tools. 

Ironically, my mom did also carry a tape measure but she actually never got the tape measure out of her bag, she would always measure things with her hands and arms. 

Macro Organizing The Kitchen 

For my kitchen goods, I use my biggest baskets and separate them by different categories of items. 

I used to have all my baking supplies set out in micro organized compartments, but now I use bins by kind of recipe or macro category. Here are some:

  • Hummus – Tahini, lemon, garbanzo beans
  • Grains – Rice, quinoa, other heirloom grains
  • Dried beans
  • Dried lentils
  • Mud balls – This is one of our favorite snacks we make in the food processor so I’ve put all of the ingredients in one spot so I can pull it down at one time.
  • Baking supplies – Flours, chocolates, sugar substitutes  
  • Tea bags – all of these are in one bin that I can pull down from the top shelf because they are lightweight

Consider what kind of category bins you could use. One friend has a sushi making bin.

Tip: I get most of my non-perishables from Thrive Market. It’s kind of like Whole Foods meets Amazon but with Sam’s Club or Costco prices. You can check it out here. 

Using these bins without lids enables me to quickly grab things and plop them back in. 

How To Reduce Your Pain While Organizing

Another big take away that I got from Cas’ macro organization was how to be more efficient. Even though it’s not my personality, I realized that I wouldn’t open drawers or lids because I was in too much pain or it took too much effort. 

It was a huge light bulb moment for me when I realized I could use bins without lids. Not only was it a huge shift for me, but kids are more likely to put things away when they are easier to put away.

It’s easier for me to put things away when I don’t have to  lift a lid or open a drawer.

And yes, that means I need more shelves and I can’t stack as much, but the benefit of having things more easily accessible means I’m more likely to put them away. 

I am so glad that I’ve learned to work around the pain in this way.

How To Pace Your Organization With Chronic Illness

Many of us who struggle with chronic illnesses and autoimmunity also have fatigue. As I covered in my post on how to declutter with chronic illness, pace yourself and set small goals. 

I can’t emphasize enough that you’ll want to work on decluttering and get rid of as much as you can before you buy organizational tools.

It’s most efficient to get rid of things so that you’re only organizing for what you need.

How To Save Money When Organizing

I heard an interview with organizing expert Susan Santoro about how she saves money while organizing. 

Long story short, she is a military mom who moved a lot and got savvy with cheap organization. To get organized and be eco-friendly, she simply used cardboard boxes and empty food containers before recycling. 

She keeps bobby pins and hair supplies in a sour cream tub. She uses cardboard boxes as drawer dividers. It’s genius!

Being chronically ill is really expensive but you can still get organized and not spend a ton of money on items. So cut the lids off of your boxes and get to repurposing. 

RELATED ARTICLE: How To Save Money When You’re Chronically Ill

How To Label Your Organization

I used to get really frustrated because my family didn’t put items away back in my designated and labeled bins. 

I realized I wasn’t using big enough labels. 

I had a little label maker that only printed up to a half an inch of font. Even though I used the largest font in all caps, my family didn’t see it. It blurred into the background. 

I bought some larger tags and wrote the macro categories on them. 

It’s in bigger letters so it sticks out. This helps my family maintain organization.

For times when I’ve also really struggled with brain fog, I have found these labels really helpful. 

How To Organize With Brain Fog

In addition to making sure that you label everything, you might find that visual organization is better for you.

This is the other axis of organizational style from Cas of Clutterbug: hidden vs visual storage.

Her big idea is that some people like hidden storage where you can’t see it and other people like visual storage where they can see all of their items. 

Some common visual storage ideas are:  

  • Pegboards
  • Clear containers
  • Open shelving

You get the idea.

If you want to see all of your things, you might be a visual organizer. If you struggle with brain fog, it can be really helpful to organize your things so that you can see it all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought extra pantry essentials or other items because I couldn’t see them and I assumed we were out. 

The other way I like to organize visually is inside a drawer. I use the Kon Mari folding method so items are folded upright. Then, I can see all my t shirts like they were hanging file folders. I also fold most of my pants so that I can see them all at one time. 

Even if you prefer hidden storage, if you struggle with brain fog, you might find that keeping your items visually organized might suit you better so that you can find what you’re looking for and you can recall where you put it.

I hate brain fog so much, and even though I have identified most of my brain fog triggers, sometimes when I’m in a grocery store or go to a new place, I can’t control my environment and I end up with really intense brain fog. 

Use Macro Organization For Chronic Illness

Macro organization is the best tip for how to organize with a chronic illness. 

Organization was another place in my life that I realized I needed to embrace progress over perfection.

Getting everything macro organized in the right bins without a lid has empowered me to stay organized. 

I do prefer more hidden storage because I don’t like seeing my clutter. But there are a few areas that I do prefer visual organization. I like it in my office space where I can see my notes and things that I am afraid I might forget. 

Have you heard of macro organization before? What area will you tackle first to macro organize?

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