Control your external environment and set the tone for your internal environment.

Creating a small space of beauty

It was three months past my initial diagnosis of depression, and I was finally starting to feel better. I wasn’t on medications yet, but the classes, journaling, and therapy helped me make progress.

That Tuesday morning in my DBT (dialectical behavioral training) class, we talked about the impact our environment has on our mental well-being. “Simply creating a small space of beauty for yourself helps. It gives you a place to go where you know you can breathe. It’s one space you have under control.”

Chaos around us – chaos within us

Our environment has a tremendous ability to influence our state of mind. When we see chaos around us, we feel chaos within us. The more we have an organized environment, the easier it is for us to breathe.

And yes, this goes for us creative folks, too. In another support group, one woman confessed “I love a messy space. It feels lived in.” Another chimed in, “A neat and tidy space feels stuffy to me.” There’s validity in these statements, too. If we’ve grown up in a clean, but cold and rigid, home, then neat and tidy may suggest something uncomfortable to our psyches.

That said, there’s a difference between creatively messy — walls covered in artwork and monitors in sticky notes — and an unhealthy environment.

Looking around my house

After that Tuesday morning class, I went home and took a look around. My depression had taken a serious toll on our home. Staying at home during my sabbatical, I was responsible for everything inside the four walls our house, including laundry and cleaning.

Our environment has a tremendous ability to influence our state of mind.

As I walked around, I just saw mess everywhere. I had piles of dirty clothes on the floor of the bathroom, outfits I’d tried on and decided against wearing on the floor of my closet; the bed was unmade. The linen closet overflowed, and I discovered that our daughter had started hiding little packets of food in the cabinets.

In the kitchen, the process of finding a spatula had become an Easter egg hunt, and the pantry was full of expired cans. The living room was no better, with random knitting projects sprawled across the sofa and spilling onto the floor and puzzles and fabric left randomly on tables. I hadn’t even gotten to my office yet, where I knew piles of paper covering books and urgent to-dos awaited me.

It was overwhelming.

I had no clue where to start.

I spent three days back on the couch, where the mess stared at me accusingly.

Finally, I did something simple. I took my side table and cleared it off. The shawl I wore a few days earlier got tossed into the closet. Dirty napkins went into the garbage. I grabbed some wood cleaner and a towel, and I wiped down the cabinet.

It was fifteen minutes of work, and I was done. I had an island of peace in the living room.

There’s a difference between creatively messy — walls covered in artwork and monitors in sticky notes — and an unhealthy environment.

Here’s the Plan

Energized, I came up with a plan that I still follow today. It helps me, and I thought it might help you:

I am only “allowed” to do one hour of housework a day.

This is a mindset issue for me. When I have just one hour to do what I can, it is easier for me to focus and ignore distractions. I am also disciplined about keeping this time limit; I set a timer at the start and work until the timer ends. This one detail may be the single-most important part of this entire system for me.

I have a reward planned for when I finish. 

Most days, this is either working on a knitting project or reading a book. Lately, it’s been working on a blog post.

I focused on one room at a time.

I started in one small area (like a coffee table) and worked my way around to the rest of the room. Any item I found that did not belong in that room (such as toys) got dropped off in the room it belonged to. I did not take the time to put it away “properly.” (More on this below) Closets and cabinets each counted as a single room.

I finished that room “all the way.”

Mirrors were cleaned, furniture wiped down, beds changed (the only time I might break the one-hour-rule would be to run dirty bedsheets through the wash so that I could make the bed later), and the room was dusted and vacuumed.

Not putting things away nicely in their proper rooms as I got started was critical to my success. In every prior cleanup attempt, this is how I got derailed: Cleaning up my bedroom, I would find a toy on the floor. I would go to my daughter’s bedroom to put it away, only to find that I couldn’t put it away because the stuffed animals were blocking the toy box, or the toy box was half-hidden in the closet and inaccessible. Trying to do one small task — putting away a toy — became an hour-long project that completely took me off the initial task I wanted to complete. It always left me feeling frustrated and unaccomplished.

Under my system, I knew I would get to that room, and that toy would find its true home — just not today.

After I finished that first room, I moved on to the second and repeated the process.

If I had an item that belonged to a previously-finished room and I could easily put it away, then I did so. Otherwise, I created a place to put the things that needed be addressed the next time I got to the room.

What I discovered

As each room was finished (and finished completely), I discovered a couple of things.

First of all, an hour is a LOT of time. Knowing that I only had an hour made me tightly focused me extremely productive. I was surprised at how much I was able to do when I looked back at what I’d finished. Most rooms were done in only two or three hours. (Meet yourself where you’re at: if all you can do is 15 minutes or 30 minutes, just do that — you’ll still get to everything!)

Secondly, I moved fewer and fewer items from one room to another as I progressed; it was almost like the mess was starting to clean itself up.

Third, my breathing patterns changed when I walked into a finished room. My breaths slowed down and became deeper.

Fourth, I felt a sense of accomplishment and my guilt lessened. I had a plan, and I was executing on it. It didn’t take me away from other things I needed to do (like picking kids up from school or cooking dinner).

Fifth, it was contagious. My husband was more diligent about tidying up after himself, and he helped me get our daughter to be better at doing so, too.

Sixth, I tossed a lot of stuff. At the start, I was really good at separating trash from donations. By the end, it was all trashed because that final step of getting it to the Goodwill meant that those bags just piled up in the garage. I was just transferring the mess, not cleaning it up, so it all got a new home in the garbage can.

Easy to maintain

But here’s the best part: maintenance became easy. We have a large home, and in one week, I might only clean one or two rooms. I started setting Mondays aside to go back to those finished rooms and finish them again. Now, I change sheets and start laundry every Monday and finish by vacuuming our entire second story floor. I now get that done in about 45 minutes and then finish laundry throughout the day as time permits. Tuesdays are bathrooms, and those max out at the one-hour time limit — including sweeping and mopping.

The kitchen gets wiped down after dinner every night (generally fifteen minutes), and Wednesdays are the deep-clean days when I clean out the microwave and wipe down the oven. In one hour of work, the kitchen sparkles again.

Seeing peace around me reinforces a peaceful mind for me, and that is absolutely priceless.

Thursdays are a “rest” day, and on Fridays, I vacuum the second story again and take care of the living room and my office (usually 45 minutes, all told).

Once a week, I tackle a bigger project, like re-organizing the pantry or the linen closet. I limit myself to an hour on those projects and just do what I can in that timeframe. Usually, I get it all done.

This is not to say that my house is spic-and-span and inspection ready. We are real people, and we live real lives. As I write, there are Christmas presents littering the living room floor, dirty dishes in the sink, and the dishwasher needs to be cleared out.

And yet, I can focus on writing right now, because I know: I will get there. I have a plan. I am freed from guilt and anxiety. Seeing peace around me reinforces a peaceful mind for me,

and that is absolutely priceless.


Visit Teresa at

Mother, knitter, founder of Wounded Birds Ministry. I work with those living with mental health disorders. Visit Teresa at
Mother, knitter, founder of Wounded Birds Ministry. I work with those living with mental health disorders. Visit Teresa at

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