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When You’ve Hit Your “Can’t”: Organizing Strategies for Chronic Pain or Fatigue Sufferers. Part One

“I’m pushing myself beyond my limits because I’m so blasted frustrated that I can’t get stuff done like I was able to 18 years ago” –S.

Woman with headache

Are you one of the millions of people who suffer from chronic pain and/or fatigue? If so, some cleaning or organizing tasks might be bigger than you can handle at one time, due to physical or mental stresses. I interviewed eight people who deal with chronic pain and/or fatigue to learn what some of their strategies were for coping with daily living and completing their organizing and cleaning tasks. Here are four strategies that synthesize what we discovered and shared.


According to a 2008 study by Baliki et al, (as cited in Institute for Brain Potential, 2017) the brain of a chronic pain sufferer has less deactivation then a normal brain in equilibrium. That means that it is hard to “shut off” parts of the brain, such as when a person wants to relax, or focus on a task. Therefore, it follows that practicing mindfulness could aid a person who chronically suffers pain and/or fatigue.

One person described herself as living “with constant pain, but over-ride[s] it mentally. [She gets] out of [her] head and work[s] through it” –W. Every time she is preparing to leave a room, W. puts things away where they are supposed to go. This strategy works for some people. Others, like D., are working toward accepting themselves and “what [they] can realistically do”. D. often has “trouble with the guilt of not being able to get as much done as [they] feel like [they] should”. If this is also the case for you, it may be beneficial to talk about your experiences. Other people, like, L. are working on remembering to “take it slow”. Whatever strategy works for you, try to be mindful, or aware, of what you are going through and how you can work with that.

To Multi-Task or Not to Multi-Task

Some people “jump from chore to chore, as it can be a way to cope with ADHD” –F. For example, R. will wash one sink-full of dishes, set the second sink-full in to soak, then swap the laundry, then do another task, and finally return to the dishes. This strategy works really well for some people. For J., “it works better if [they] focus on one area at a time, even if it means something else [didn’t] get done”. For me, an anxiety sufferer, I find that I avoid feeling overwhelmed by repeating a mantra my husband has taught me, “Pick one thing and do that thing”, and then following it. Whether you decide to multi-task or not, it should work for you.

Establish Routines That Make Sense to You

I am very unlikely to scrape the cat pans in the evening when my family is wanting to relax, but I am more likely to scrape them in the morning when I am feeding the cats. I am in the mindset of cat-tending at that time, so it makes more sense to scrape the pans at that time. Cindy Glovinsky, author of One Thing at a Time: 100 Simple Ways to Live Clutter-Free Every Day (2004) suggests that people who want to “piggyback” their tasks should use the formulaic sentence, “Whenever I______, I also ________” (p. 173). In my case, I started trying to make the bed when I get dressed. I am not always successful in my bed-making venture, but I keep trying because I like how the room looks when I do. For J. a “new routine needs to flow like water. If it isn’t the path of least resistance, it will not take”. Glovinksy also recommends “rolling back your sleep schedule”, both bedtime and wakeup, “by a half hour” (p. 20) in order to have time for organizing and tidying. Routines can also help those of us with ADD or ADHD, those on the autism spectrum, young children, or really anybody who lives and breathes. According to Northwestern Medicine, having an established routine can “offer a way to promote health and wellness through structure and organization” (2018). Even if, like W., you need to “start making the bed before [your] second foot hits the floor”, there are still ways to work on your home tidying and organizing while dealing with chronic pain and/or fatigue. If you need your coffee, tea, orange juice, or other beverage that causes you to get moving, don’t forget it!

Pick and Choose Your Tasks to Match Your Ability Level at That Moment

With chronic pain, everything is a struggle.”—L.

When a person has chronic pain and/or fatigue, there will be days when “personal grooming and hygiene are about all one can handle.”—F. If you are all out of energy or are in intense pain—or both—then it is time to just rest. A day of mid-level pain or energy might be a good day to try to cross off one or two of the easier tasks on your list. A day of low pain or higher energy might be a good day to tackle one of two of the more challenging tasks on your list—being careful to not over-do it. Another strategy you can try is to look at what needs to be done today and weigh the “importance, amount of energy, and time those take”—F. Depending on the type and level of pain, some things may just have to wait until tomorrow. And that is OKAY.

Check back next week for five more tips on what to do to organize yourself and your home while dealing with chronic pain and/or fatigue.


Glovinsky, C. (2004). One thing at a time: 100 Simple ways to live clutter-free every day. St Martin’s Press: New York, NY.

Institute for Brain Potential. (2017). Calming an overactive brain. Institute for Brain Potential: Los Banos, CA.

Northwestern Medicine. (2018). Health benefits of having a routine: Tips for a healthier lifestyle. Retrieved from

Selva, J. (2018). What is Mindfulness? Explained. 20 Definitions that clarify mindfulness. Retrieved from

Additional Reading

American College of Rheumatology. (2017) Rheumatoid arthritis. Retrieved from

Office of Women’s Health. (2018a). Chronic fatigue syndrome. Retrieved from topics/chronic-fatigue-syndrome

Office of Women’s Health. (2018b). Fibromyalgia. Retrieved from topics/fibromyalgia

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