When life gets busy or stressful, and the house starts to spiral out of control, how do you get motivated to clean or declutter when you’re overwhelmed by the mess?
I don’t know about you, but sometimes when the stuff starts piling up again, I shut down and just let it accumulate. Yeah. That’s not healthy and I know it, so over the years, I’ve been compiling some hacks for how to get motivated to clean or declutter.
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NOTE: For the video version of this blog post, I’ve embedded below this recording of the live Ditch Overwhelm training I gave back in April in the Clutter Fighters Facebook group.
Where to begin when you’re overwhelmed by a messy house?
I like to start by doing something that doesn’t take too much mental effort.
- Start in the spot that is EASIEST. This might be your foyer, hall half bath, or perhaps a room you rarely use. Sometimes just good momentum can reduce your feelings of reluctance and get you excited to tackle the harder spots!
- Toss the trash first. (It’s a quick win with little decision making necessary!)
- Reduce visual clutter. Start by decluttering the things you can see. Sometimes we are easily overstimulated by visual stimuli and reducing the number of those stimuli helps tremendously (think too many pictures on the walls, too many items on shelves, piles on counters, etc.)
Or, you can start by clearing your mind or taking the time to work with your personality and preferences, instead of against them.
- Write down your to-do list before it feels like a jumble and you don’t know what to do. Get it out of your head. I like to use the Scrum method and a KanBan board (To Do / Doing / Done columns) in Trello for this! But you can even use a simple sticky note or notebook system. Even though Scrum was designed for information technology shops, I’ve found the methods are useful for simply keeping up with my blog, business, and even home life.
- Check to see if you are a Highly Sensitive Person. (Despite how it sounds, this doesn’t mean do you burst into tears at the slightest provocation!) Being a Highly Sensitive Person could be aggravating your sensations of too much stimulus from your environment. (Take the test here.)
- Take a personality test. Do you know your Meyers-Briggs (MBTI) personality profile? Or your Enneagram number? Or your DISC personality type? Learning a little bit more about your personality may uncover what really inspires and drives you. Use that to your advantage!
How do you declutter when you’re overwhelmed?
You keep it simple, break your tasks down into small pieces at a time, fix your biggest pain points first, and train yourself to think about what you really use in any given space you are sorting.
- Divide each room up into sections and then only tackle one at a time
- Focus on what is MOST important … fix the things that are irritating or bottlenecking progress. Don’t worry about the rest right now.
- Take it ALL out … then only put back what stays there. Everything else must go to where it belongs immediately (well, as immediately as you can during quarantine!) … even if that is the dump or a recycling center or a friend’s house.
The only exception is if you are waiting to have a yard sale or participate in a consignment sale or are selling things on eBay. But then those things need an out-of-sight place to be stored so they don’t creep back into the wrong space.
- If all else fails, employ the Laundry Basket Method. (I literally just coined that, haha!) Grab a laundry basket, go to the spot you want to focus your decluttering efforts on, and, without thinking too hard, simply remove anything that doesn’t belong there. (BONUS POINTS for any duplicates, worn-out items, or things you just don’t like or use that much.)
Dump it all in the basket, willy-nilly, leaving only the items that are used frequently and belong in that spot. Sort what is in the basket in a less overwhelming spot in your home.
The Laundry Basket Method isn’t a perfect fix (you still have to deal with the stuff in the basket!) but it can help you get past that initial resistance and icky feeling that is causing the overwhelm. Use judiciously. Used too often, this just results in an even more overwhelming pile of crap in another corner of the house. And you don’t have access to your laundry basket.
How do you avoid decluttering burnout when you feel exhausted and overwhelmed?
The best way I know how to get motivated and combat feeling burned out by decluttering (or any task) is to take a break or mix things up.
- Use a musical timer on YouTube (race the clock!) for 5-20 minutes (TOPS)
- Listen to upbeat music. Instead of a timer, just choose a playlist that makes you smile and dance while you work.
- Listen to a podcast. This is something I recently did, myself, during my attic decluttering project (which I’ll discuss in more detail later here on the blog.) One of my favorites is Young House Love Has a Podcast because John and Sherry are the best, but if you have kids involved with your project, Story Pirates is great fun, too!
- Practice deep breathing if you start to get the panicky sensation that tightens your throat and your heart palpitating in your chest. Take slow breaths in and out, counting to 4 as you do.
- Go outside and refresh in nature for 5-10 minutes to take a break. Even if that’s only your back patio.
- Take before and after photos. Nothing is a better feeling than SEEING your progress. Take as many as you like! Scroll through your photos regularly and remind yourself how much you have already accomplished.
- Create a “place of respite” where you can seek shelter from the bigger mess decluttering can create, while you tackle the bigger projects. (I got this tip from Chrissy of Organise My House.)
- Call a friend who lets you vent. Let it out!
How can I motivate myself to declutter?
Here are some simple, practical tips on how to get motivated to declutter or clean.
- Start small. Maybe a single drawer or shelf. Enjoy a QUICK WIN!
- Reward yourself for the small victories. Gold star chart, anyone? Or reading a book you’ve been putting off? Treat yourself to a gift certificate for a massage (to be redeemed when stay at home restrictions are eased, of course.)
- Join a decluttering challenge or community where judgments are left at the door.
Can a messy house cause anxiety or depression?
Yes! Absolutely it can. Even how we describe our home environment can trigger feelings of anxiety and depression. But it doesn’t have to keep you down.
The clutter is often simply a sign that something is off and some research and soul-searching can help you identify the why behind how you are feeling.
- Take note of triggers. Journal how you feel about the clutter and overwhelm, keep digging and breaking down the pieces that stress you out the most. Journaling is great for releasing negative feelings in a safe space!
(Open a Google Doc account and save it to the cloud if you don’t want it lying around anywhere for someone to see!)
- Learn about the correlation between clutter and mental health. It raises our cortisol and causes feelings of anxiety.
- Find ways to lower your cortisol* … get enough sleep, exercise gently, eat a well-balanced healthy diet, avoid caffeine in the late afternoon or evening, take time to relax and renew, take fish oil supplements, or start a new hobby (one that doesn’t bring MORE clutter into the home, that is!)
- Seek help if you cannot move past the overwhelm no matter what you try*. Something people rarely talk about (probably because it is uncomfortable and less “sexy” than TED-talk type inspirational messages), is there is a correlation between clutter and anxiety, depression, and trauma you’ve experienced in your lifetime.
You might even experience a reduced ability to concentrate when in a cluttered environment!
So yes, a messy house, depression, and anxiety can all go hand-in-hand. (But I feel like it’s important to clarify that having a messy house doesn’t necessarily mean you are depressed! You might simply just have a busy lifestyle.)
Trauma can be something you might not even consider, like moving a lot as a child (I think that probably affected me more than I know) or more obvious triggers like a sudden loss or accident or natural disaster. Even–dare I say–worldwide trauma such as ambiguous grief and living in the age of a pandemic.
The bottom line is there is no shame in asking (and receiving) additional assistance along the way, whether from your doctor or a therapist or simply a friend who knows your past.
*I am not qualified to give medical advice. This is for entertainment and education purposes ONLY. Please contact your primary care provider yourself for additional help and advice.
Why do you feel overwhelmed by the mess?
Yes, of course, it’s because you have to walk around piles of clothes on the floor to get to your master bathroom, and where is that dang potato masher and oh no another bill is overdue and when you look around the living room every horizontal surface is piled sky-high with STUFF.
Yes, it’s part of being chronically disorganized or exhausted or, heck, JUST BEING A MOM OF LITTLES.
But what I REALLY mean is why is this clutter here to overwhelm you? What’s underneath all the stuff? (And I don’t mean the rest of the extra stuff … and then your floor!) Stuff can represent a lot of loss and pain in your life and if you are still recovering from an incident in your past, however distant, you may feel like you can’t handle any more loss.
Any time somebody breaks your trust? That’s a loss. And forgiveness of that loss is not reconciliation. It’s letting go. I say in all gentleness: let go.
How to get motivated to declutter and clean?
Start with these tried-and-true methods you can use to get motivated to start cleaning when you are exhausted and overwhelmed and the house is a complete mess or to continue decluttering your home.
I have used many of these methods myself over the years, and I’m sure with a little creativity, you can discover even more.
Which of these is your favorite method to overcome overwhelm or motivate yourself to keep going during a particularly boring task? Let me know in the comments!
And remember the most important thing: be gentle with yourself. Don’t compare your messy middle to someone else’s neat and tidy end result. Decluttering, organizing, and simplifying your life is a gradual, ongoing process in which you make continuous improvement, not a one-and-done fix. Just. Keep. Going.
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- This step-by-step decluttering book helps you ditch clutter in 90 days
- How to Change Your Mindset and Declutter Your Home at Last (Part 2)
- How to Change Your Mindset and Declutter Your Home at Last (Part 1)
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- How to Declutter for Christmas (and Save Time and Money)