“Things went downhill when we had three family crises in a year,” said a new client who was explaining how her lovely home had evolved into a cluttered, chaotic mess.

It is very common for people to lose control of the order in their homes during times of crisis. Crisis situations that go on for an extended period of time consume time, energy and the motivation required to maintain an organized home.

It’s not uncommon for people to find that once they’ve gotten past the personal crisis–illness, death in the family, caregiving for aging or sick relatives, recovery from surgery–they have another crisis on their hands, a living space that is such a mess that they have no idea how they will ever get it back to its more orderly state.

Twice in the past year I’ve been thrown into crisis mode, first when my step-father began deteriorating mentally and had to have brain surgery and then when my disabled brother developed a serious infection in his artificial knee joint requiring surgery, weeks of IV antibiotics and another knee replacement. Both events were incredibly energy consuming for me because I was a key decision-maker, the coordinator of communication between family members, a key source of emotional support, and I had my own fears and other feelings to manage.

It was all I could do to get through each day dealing with the crisis at hand, much less tend to my small business and maintain order in my home. Those two crises were an opportunity for me to learn how to get through difficult times without losing control of other parts of my life.

Here are 6 of the important lessons I learned:

1. Identify tasks to be done no matter what.

Then do them! I am the money manager in our house. So, making sure bills got paid and that money was in the right accounts at the right time were two tasks I had to get done so we could avoid consequences like ruining our credit rating. Keeping us afloat financially during those difficult times helped ground me. I liked knowing that no matter what else happened, we were operating on a firm financial foundation.

2. Defer whatever tasks you can to other people.

Instead of trying to keep everything in order by myself, I asked my husband to do many tasks that normally I would have done to maintain our home and our lives together.
Also, people offer help during times of crisis. Let them! Last summer when I had bi-lateral bunion surgery I asked friends to help provide food and walk my dogs. They were happy to have something to do that would help me, and their help provided a type of emotional support I really needed.

3. Lighten your load by eliminating obligations.

It became clear to me pretty quickly that helping my mother and step-father through my step-father’s health crisis and staying healthy myself during that stressful process was more important than writing checks for a professional organization. I actually chose to resign from two volunteer positions because taking care of family and myself were the priority.

4. Control paper flow even if you can’t regularly process it.

You may not have time to do much with paper that flows into your house on a daily basis, but you can make sure that it all flows to the same place. That way, when you need to find something in that pile of paper, you have only one place to look. You might stack it in piles in your home office or get an open box and store it there. Just don’t let it float throughout your space!

If you want to go one step further, pull out bills and magazines/catalogs/newsletters. Put the bills in a highly visible location so you don’t forget about them and so they are easily accessible when you are ready to pay them. Place the magazine, catalogs and other reading materials in a location where you spend time reading. Removing those items from your paper pile will make it shrink and also make it easier to access things to read when you need a source of distraction.

5. Resist the urge to do nothing.

In times of personal crisis it is very normal to shut down because of overwhelm, fatigue, or just not knowing what to do. While it is important to take breaks to rest, recharge, and recover, it is not a good idea to go to ground and let everything go. It takes only a day or two for your space to go from being a peaceful haven to a chaotic nightmare. Then you not only have a crisis going on outside your home, but also inside your home. You have no safe place to retreat. Messy houses scream, “You slob! Why don’t you do something about this mess!” Make yourself do at least the bare minimum to maintain order, like controlling the paper flow, washing the dishes, straightening up daily.

6. Remember that maintaining a basic order will ground you during difficult times.

You may resist doing maintenance activities because you are exhausted, but if you override the urge to stop and plop on the sofa and instead do a few tasks to keep your space neat and organized, you will find that doing those things will help ground and calm you. You will then be better able to go out and deal with whatever challenge is going on. If you are physically incapable of maintaining order yourself, because of illness or disability, ask others to help you do that. Many people want to help in some way. Let them know that their help will ground you and facilitate your recovery.

Image: evelynshire

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