Ask Unclutterer: Overwhelmed with clutter

Reader Jennifer submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

What is your advice for a seriously organizationally challenged family?

Our house looks like it should be on one of those messy house shows, the kids homework is all over, the daddy (coaches the boys baseball team) lost a check for $500 from a new baseball family, and the mommy (me) is just a hot mess.

I’ve ordered your book but I don’t know if our family can wait until November at this point.

My daughter’s birthday is in two days and I’ll have grandparents in my house doing that heavy sigh “at least they seem happy” thing … I guess I am looking for a band aid before the transfusion that is your book.

Thanks for being here, wish I found you earlier.

Jennifer, let me start by suggesting that you find a comfortable chair, take a deep breath, and close your eyes for a few minutes. You deserve some calm before the whirlwind birthday adventure begins, so go ahead and take it now.

Next, remember that even the most organized people in the world feel anxiety before their parents and in-laws come to visit. It’s natural. I know I regularly freak out before they come.

This visit, however, is a great opportunity for you. Let all of the grandparents see the mess. Don’t hide it, don’t try to find a band aid, just let it shine in its glorious disorder. Let them get a solid understanding of your “before” status, like the television cameras capture on the organizing shows you referenced. This way, after you get your home organized in the coming weeks, they will truly appreciate all of the hard work you did. They will know how far you have come, and they will be in awe of your “after.”

If letting it all hang out is too much and you still want to grab a cardboard box and toss some things into it before the majority of the party guests arrive, do it. Just don’t let this box become a permanent solution. But, if it puts your mind at ease in the short term, I don’t see the harm in it. Get your daughter to help, too. If she’s old enough to have a birthday party, she’s old enough to help with an emergency clutter pick up.

Also, try not to focus on the stuff and instead focus on your daughter and the people who come for her party. Clutter or no clutter, the people in your life are worth more than the stuff.

Finally, between now and when the book arrives, think about why you want to get the clutter out of your life. What do you want to permanently focus on instead of the clutter? Figure out what matters most to you, and this will help you significantly when it comes time to purge the clutter from your life.

Good luck and have fun! Happy birthday, too, to your daughter. Thank you, Jennifer, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

34 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Overwhelmed with clutter”

  1. posted by Another Deb on

    Take some pictures, Jennifer. I have found that you can see patterns as you do this. Ther are places you will be able to identify as problem zones, or under-utilized storage.

    When I moved in with my husband, his house had stuff on surfaces and floors everywhere, but empty cabinets!

    Pictures will also help when you begin feeling overwhelmed. You can remind yourself of your progress for motivation.

  2. posted by Gina on

    Are the grandparents going to be staying in the house? My advice would be to start with the room they are going to be staying in. Focus on getting it tidy before they arrive.

    The other thing would be that you don’t need a book to get started. Just start organizing things into piles — just try getting the right things into the right rooms. It would be better to just sort through and lump all the kids toys in the kids’ room, than to leave them wherever they are right now. Grab a box and throw all the stuff that needs to be organized in the office (bills, paper, etc) into it, then put it in the office.

    Think of it as pre-work before the book comes.

    The kids won’t care if stuff is a little cluttery. Maybe there’s a way to keep the majority of the party outside? Or even at a park where they won’t even see the house? Weather dependent, of course.

  3. posted by Carol on

    In my experience, get the bathroom fixtures clean, and the kitchen clean (or clean enough, surfaces have obviously been recently washed!) so that it looks cluttered but not dirty. there is a huge difference between clutter and filth. make it obvious that there is not filth, and you will feel better and so will the birthday celebrants. And allow yourself to enjoy the party! You are moving forward in a wonderful and deserve to pat yourself on the back.

  4. posted by Jonathan Frei on

    I’m glad my son is still young. I have a difficult enough time keeping myself organized. I’m not sure I’m prepared to be responsible for an organized family.

  5. posted by Leslie on

    I agree with Carol–clean the bathrooms, kitchen, and dust any surfaces people will be setting drinks on, then enjoy the party. We give a Christmas brunch every year, and one year we had ripped out the vinyl flooring in our dining room and kitchen. The new tile wasn’t available on time, so we put up a little sign with pictures of the tile colors saying “Coming soon to a floor near you.” Most people were confused about the sign because they hadn’t noticed that the floor was bare cement! People were there to eat and see us and our mutual friends.

  6. posted by Bastian on

    Hi Erin,

    I’m reading this blog just a few weeks and constantly I’m learning new things about clutter, the real cost of stuff and all that.

    In this blogentry, what catched my eye was the half-sentence you postet:

    “think about why you want to get the clutter out of your life.”

    I want to get the clutter out of my life but I haven’t thought about why at all!

    I’d like to point this one out because I think it’s an essential thought. It opens doors. Mostly, you will instantly know why you want to let go of all that, but if you make it clear to yourself, it’s easier to focus on the task of uncluttering.

    Thanks Erin,
    your german reader Bastian

  7. posted by chacha1 on

    I don’t know if this is the professional-organizer-recommended method, but I like to start with a list/map approach. Basically, what are my rooms, how do I want to use them, what do I need in each room in order to use it as I wish? Then proceed to transfer items into the room in which they will be used.

    If they don’t have an apparent use, transfer them to a box in the garage marked “Goodwill.” πŸ™‚

    My parents used the one in, one out method for a very long time, which not only helped prevent overaccumulation of us kids’ clothes, toys, books, etc., but also helped us learn to value giving to those who have less than we do.

    If there is an important side activity (like coaching) happening, especially one where money is involved, one of your rooms should be subdivided to provide a dedicated space for that activity. Then list what you need to make that space work, “shop” throughout your house to furnish the space, and only then go out to buy anything that is still missing to achieve maximum efficiency.

    And fwiw, I think efficiency is just as worthy a goal as organization. Uncluttering helps achieve both, but consider: it may be more “organized” and uncluttered to keep all your bathroom supplies in one closet, but if you have three bathrooms that all need to be stocked, it’s more efficient to keep a supply in each bathroom rather than running back and forth to a central closet. Get your kids involved in stocking their own supplies … kids like to feel like they’re in charge of things.

    And finally … I don’t see anything wrong with making a house reorganization into a family project. If you have extra hands on deck and you know they would like to help, put them to work!

  8. posted by Lily on

    I have much the same problem though I would never let anyone into my home. I live here and my adult son lives here on and off throughout the year. I work full time in a retirement community and am doing clinicals part time at a hospital plus attending school. I’m also trying to start getting paid for my writing. I wish I could afford to pay a housekeeper because I would fire myself–I’m terrible!
    I despise with a passion those “hoarder” shows. The are so mean and exploitative. They literally make me sick–not because of the people who have the mess but because of how their problems are put on display. They may be great people in other ways but they are treated like scum. Its heartbreaking. I would sooner watch the “Real” House-Hoe’s of Wherever than one of these shows, and that’s saying a lot.

  9. posted by Brooke on

    I would hesitate to suggest that you quickly clean up clutter by stashing it in a box. My in-laws have done this for years every time out of town family visits, I have thrown away coupons, newspapers and envelopes with dates on them that are older than I am. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, the problem is they don’t do any sorting because they just want it out of the way for now and they’ll deal with it later, then they find out that they really don’t need or miss the stuff and it stays in the box in storage. There has to be a better solution than hide it before anyone sees it.

  10. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    Absolutely solid advice from everyone. I’d just add two tips.

    1. Put on some high-energy music that makes you feel good while you’re cleaning, something you can sing or dance along to (um, not that I ever do that). Turn it up. It will help you get through in a much better mood. Turn off your phone, if you can, and don’t be tempted by the TV — it can distract you from your mission, even when it’s just background.

    2. Don’t get too bogged down in detail at this point. It’s okay to neaten chaos into piles or boxes of random stuff this one time, BUT ONLY if you make date with yourself and a commitment to deal with it the day after the party is over so that no important things get lost. You don’t want to make a habit of it, but if it helps relieve your stress for that day, it’s totally worth it.

    I hope you have a lovely party.

  11. posted by Dawn F. on

    Personally, I would aim for the highly-used areas of the home where people gather often – like the kitchen and living room/den (wherever the most people hang out together often).

    In most cases, I would shoot for fast results by decluttering and then thoroughly cleaning the smallest room/space first because I like to see fast results (because they keeps me motivated).

    But, in your case, I would focus on the kitchen and the living room space first and foremost. I would absolutely include all of the people that live in the house to help since they more than likely contributed to the situation. Everybody should pitch in by tossing trash and by taking items to their appropriate homes (such as books back to the bookcase or dirty clothes to the laundry room or shoes to their closets, etc.)

    This isn’t a long-term fix by any means, but by focusing on the popular hang-out areas and by enlisting all of the family members to help out I think you gain enough ground to feel confident and more comfortable about the guests arriving for your daughter’s party.

    TGIF!! πŸ™‚

  12. posted by Sky on

    Don’t worry about what parents, in-laws or anyone else thinks of your home. It is none of their business.

    Have a nice birthday party for your daughter and afterwards, start decluttering. Take your time and do it right. It’s a process and can’t totally be accomplished in a day or two.

    The next time your family comes over they will be pleasantly surprised!!
    Good luck!

  13. posted by Mary on

    I’d like to suggest flylady too. She has a section on “Crisis Cleaning” that may help.

    Good luck.

  14. posted by Loren on

    For the longer term I love the ‘take photos’ suggestion. I do this in my apartment because I am a dork and like to see the way things progress. I found a photo that I took of the extra bedroom 6 months ago, and while the room still doesn’t look perfect it looks GREAT compared to that.

    For the shorter term I agree just make sure the house isn’t ‘gross’. Make sure dirty dishes aren’t lying around clean off the sink and the stove, and make sure guests won’t get cat/dog hair all over their coats if everyone piles them on your bed.

    Also you should definitely check out Her website does look a little strange but her podcasts are fun and inspiring.

  15. posted by Jennifer on

    From one Jennifer to another: Really don’t try and do a quick declutter. Right now, as cluttered as things are, you probably have at least a vague idea of where things are. If you move things around you won’t remember where you’ve put them and more things could get lost.

    Truthfully, if your inlaws make such comments, there may not be anything you can do to make them satisfied and so you shouldn’t try. Enjoy your daughter’s birthday and make no excuses. If they make comments, either ignore them or respond with a firm “very happy” and change the subject.

  16. posted by Rue on

    I pretty much agree with Erin. If you try to get everything cleaned up and organized before the party, you’re going to make yourself crazy and burn yourself out before you ever truly get started.

    I’d make a quick run through the rooms that will be used for the party. Pick up clutter that’s on the floor, seating surfaces, or eating surfaces, and the bathroom. Box it up and put it in a bedroom no one will see, in the garage, etc. (And note that this is only a TEMPORARY storage space!) Then dust and run the vacuum through the same spaces. That’ll make everything look decent for your party guests.

    After the party is over and you’re done trying to impress, then it’s time to actually get started on the “real” organizing! Start with all the boxes you stashed stuff in pre-party, and sort it all into keep, toss, and donate piles. Toss all the trash immediately, donate the donations ASAP. Then go through your keep piles and move everything into their proper rooms (if you’ve got toys and toiletries in your keep pile, put the toys in the kids’ room and the toiletries in the bathroom, etc). You’ll see how quickly just doing that will make a world of difference! Once you’ve attacked those boxes then you can start going through the rest of the house and running the same routine.

    After you’ve sorted all your things, then you can worry about finding ways to store them! Of course, if you’ve purged enough stuff, you may find that the storage you currently have is enough! πŸ™‚

  17. posted by Godiva on

    I support the as well. It was already mentioned in the comments. It helped me VERY MUCH and my home is just much nicer now! πŸ™‚

  18. posted by Anita on

    I agree that trying to declutter in a hurry would be a mistake.

    If an emergency band aid is absolutely necessary, then I second Gina’s approach – make sure any overnight guests have a nice room to sleep in, and start by going through each room with a few labeled boxes, one for each room in your house. Then store each box in the right room, and do a little bit of straightening/dusting. Your house may still look full and cluttered, but the most egregious mess should be gone.

    Good luck with your long-term uncluttering project!! Any chance for before and after photos?

  19. posted by Just Breathe on

    I don’t know just how chaotic your house currently is, but I know what I’m talking about here. If you have less than 2 days til B-Day arrives, you do NOT have time to really declutter and organize. You would not have time to do that if you worked 24/2, and then you would be catatonically exhausted and not enjoy visiting with your relatives and friends.

    1. If you have a room that you can designate as the “temporary landfill,” do so. This room needs to have a lock on it.

    2. Gather up some family to help, and gather up some tubs, laundry baskets, or cardboard boxes. Begin in the rooms most likely to be viewed by company. Pile clutter into the boxes as you come to it. Do NOT take time to sort, or your cause is lost.

    3. As you fill the boxes, label them as to which room they represent. If you are piling in bills or other important paperwork, you had better be sure to put those someplace where you can easily access them and be reminded of any payments due.

    4. Haul them to the “landfill,” and place them there, in a way that utilizes the space wisely, but does not ruin the contents. Remember, it doesn’t matter how this room looks, as it will not be seen. Make sure of that by not needing to go in and out of it while the company is there, because they will follow you in, as sure as the sun rises and sets.

    5. After you have de-junked your rooms, then quickly clean them. Most important: bathrooms, kitchen, and guest room.

    6. Make sure you lock the room before company arrives, and that your kiddos understand why you are doing it. They should, because they should have been assisting you.

    7. Once the company has departed, and you’ve had a couple nights of restorative sleep, begin working hard on the “landfill.” Do not allow yourself to bask in the glow of a “pseudo-uncluttered” home.

    This is where the tips about organizing and uncluttering come into play. If you are unsure how to start, read some of the archives to help you til your book comes. Other than that, don’t spend all your time reading – get started. Sometimes, we use the excuse that we need more information in order to put off actually doing the work that we are avoiding like the plague.

    There. That should help. On a personal note, once, when my parents visited with only a day’s notice, I worked all night getting ready for their visit. I was too tired and frustrated to really visit with them. It was one of the last trips my mother made before her unexpected death. I will always regret that.

    Good luck and God bless you and your family.

  20. posted by WilliamB on

    I’m going to address only the long-term organization. I’m no good at crisis decluttering and would probably steer you wrong.

    First, what does your family as a whole think of organizing? Are you willing to get the house organized and keep it that way, if they’re not onboard? Are you and your family prepared to change, so the house doesn’t get disorganized again? If not, you’ll be facing the same problem in the future.

    Second, get an idea of what should go where. For example, should toys be in common spaces or in kids’ rooms? Do you and your husband have/need an office-style space in the house? Landing strips are really useful: a place for things to be dumped when they come in the house; from there they’re dealt with and put away.

    Third, is there a mismatch between objects and space for them? For example, does everyone in the family have enough closet/dresser space for their clothes? If not, then y’all have either not enough dressers or too many clothes. To stay organized, things need places – or they can’t go into their places, right? – which will never happen if there’s a mismatch.

    Now that you have a family team and an idea of what you want when you’re done, it’s time to get started. There are many different ways to get organized. The question is, which one will work best for you?

    I like the method Gina and Rue recommended: sort stuff into “keep in this room,” “move to another room,” and “get rid of.” Move the stuff to the other room, get of the stuff to get rid of, and move on to the next room.

    Whatever you choose, keep moving. Get that great music on, or a book on tape, or a friend to keep you company. Don’t get stuck thinking about “the one perfect” way to get organized. I’m really inefficient when I organize – moving one or two things at a time rather than waiting find everything that needs to be moved – but I get it done fast because I keep working at it.

    This is a series of articles in the Washington Post, about one couple getting their attic organized. Lots of good tips and hints.

    Have a great party now, and have a great organization later. And definitely take pictures!

  21. posted by San on

    Here’s a suggestion that goes fast and the whole family can participate.

    Get a bunch of boxes/laundry baskets. Assign each person a room. Go in your assigned room and take out anything that doesnt belong and put in basket don’t put anything away at this point. If you have enough boxes, you can label an empty one with the room name. Now everyone takes their stuff out of sort basket and puts in the correct room basket. Now each person takes the room basket and puts all the stuff away in that assigned room. Just worry about the rooms they will see, you can always put away stuff later but at least its in a box. Then you can do a quick powerclean on the areas they will see and you should have a pretty orderly house in a couple of hours.

    And remember, they are there to visit you, and not hopefully conduct a house inspection.

    Good luck


  22. posted by Gina on

    I’m not even advocating sorting things into “keep” or “toss” piles — I just want to get stuff into its logical home.

    It worked for me when I decluttered. And it’s always my first step to cleaning — it makes more sense to lump all your shoes in your closet floor rather than have pairs in every room of the house. The fancy organization system (and the purge) can wait. In fact the purge will be aided if you’ve already centralized.

  23. posted by Another Deb on

    In terms of the comments of those who don’t like your home. I heard a great quote that helps me when I guilt myself into behaviors for the approval of others:
    “Those who matter don’t mind, those who mind don’t matter”

  24. posted by Christy Z. on

    No offense to Erin, but you don’t need the book to get started. In fact by the time the book comes, you may have gotten over-whelmed and quit an d then the book would be one more piece of clutter ;o)

    I second the bit about getting high traffic/guest areas cleaned enough to get through the party.

    Then I suggest getting bins in the basement to start the process – give away, keep, sell, trash, recycle etc. Then do *1* shelf. Don’t just move the stuff off the shelf – determine that one place’s purpose and then clean and sort it. All weekend long, you’ll look at that one shelf and think “Soon, my whole house is going to look like that”. It will be great otivation to keep going when the guests have all left. Just like losing a pound keeps motivation high on a diet, so does tackling one small surface or shelf.

    I decluttered 2 years ago and it is not a ‘one time and your done’ thing, it’s an ongoing process. When you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, you’ll find the courage to do this. And find a good thrift store in the area – 2 years later, i still drop a box off every couple of weeks. I’m always on the lookout for things I missed, things I re-considered etc. Purging and de-cluttering is ongoing.

    Hav a fun party and take heart – this can be the beginning of a whole new life for your family if you’re committed to the process.

  25. posted by Deb on

    my advice is to simply grab some garbage bags and go room by room just looking for what is rubbish – I am pretty much organized but my house gets cluttered all the time from a husband and 2 kids – between kids’ artworks, school stuff, newspapers and other random bits – and if i just stop and spend 20 minutes going room to room finding the junk that can go, the house is already 50-70% improved from that alone. this will make your house look less like a landfill for their visit and then when they leave and you tackle the ORGANIZATION of the house you will have already gotten a head start on the dumping aspect.

    you cannot organize a house full of random rubbish! and if you do it fast you can catch yourself agreeing to throw out all the stuff you hang on to for no reason.

    good luck!

  26. posted by Beverly D on

    Deb, you got to it before I could! That’s my alltime first step, get rid of the trash. Then get rid of the clothes left all over (you know, the shoes, socks, jackets, somebody’s shirts, who’s jean’s are those? that end up in every room). Next take all random glasses and plates back to the kitchen! They don’t need to be left in the rooms where people were snacking/having meals. By this time your house will be in pretty good shape, just give the bathrooms and kitchen a wipe down and you are good to go.

  27. posted by Tania on

    I fully understand the wanting to have your home look nice for visitors. Here’s what I’d suggest… although it may get gasps of horror from some.

    1. Pack up everything that’s laying around into boxes and hide them somewhere during the visit. (obviously make sure the essentials are still out) The trick to this is have your home looking the way you want it too at the end of the decluttering project. Nicely decorated, nicely scented, clean and clutter free. Instant gratification. Now keep it that way.

    2. Get the family to sign a pact. If the boxes haven’t been cleanout in six months then they will be tossed out without opening them. Everyone signs and dates it. After the in-laws have gone it goes up on the fridge. Be prepared to follow through.

    3. The next step is about creating a habit more than anything. After dinner each night gather a random laundry basket of stuff out of various boxes. That it comes from various boxes is important. Also wander through the house and pick up anything that is out of place / not put away and put it into the basket.

    After dinner each night spend 10mins going through the stuff, discussing as a family what happens with it and assigning who has to deal with it. An example:

    Football club stuff that has to be filed – Dad
    Bank account statements that need to be filed – Mum
    Toys, homework etc – by the kids who own them
    Papers that need shredding – one of the kids
    DVD’s / CD’s etc that need burning to itunes – one of the older kids
    Clothes – into the laundry basket.
    Charity store items – get one of the kids to take it into dad / mum’s car to be dropped in on the way to work/school.

    Everyone then goes and does their assigned jobs and comes back for desert or a favourite tv show etc. Dad doesn’t want to do the filing that night – nobody gets desert / tv.

    The trick is to teach your kids / yourself to deal with it quickly then and there. And if there isn’t a home for it it goes.

    Hope this helps.

  28. posted by Jennifer on

    Thank you all so much!!! I feel like I can actually make some sort of progress today.

    And its raining like crazy so that successfully traps us in the house!

    Grandparent ETA is 5 hours away…and then 9 little girls will descend upon us for a sleep over in 10 hours….and my vacuum just broke!

    I CAN DO IT!

    Thanks again for your positive repsonses and support.

    Happy Birthday to my baby, 10 years ago today she waited until after the Eagles game to be born, much to the glee of Daddy.

    Hope you all have an unclutterer day!


  29. posted by Natalie from Western Australia on

    Like Bastian, I was caught with the comment of why you want the clutter gone. I have wanted mine gone for ages, since I’m responsible for the entire family so I guess the reason I want mine house uncluttered is so I dont feel guilty doing MY things, rather than running around after everyone else. AND so that I can find the things I buy and not have to spend all day cleaning (and not doing the things I want to do) just because someone is coming over. Its been an ongoing process over the last few years but we ARE getting there.

  30. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    Some truly great ideas here. For the longer term organizing process, one thing I do with clients is use a scale of 1-10, with 1 being clutter, clutter everywhere and 10 being all your paper clips are lined up facing the same direction.

    First, they say where they are right now. Then, they say where they’d like to be. Seeing the difference between how things are and how they’d like them to be is helpful, it gives you a sense of how big of a change is in the offing. And it also provides for differences in style and needs.

    Keep up the good and balanced work, Jennifer. Good luck!


  31. posted by trillie on

    Yes, the Flylady Crisis Cleaning is THE BEST.

    Good luck! Don’t feel too overwhelmed, and think of the “before” and “after” πŸ™‚

  32. posted by Onepot on

    I’m a big fan of tackling small, manageable spaces. Set aside 15-30 minutes to work on a single area: a junk drawer, a desk, a shelf or two of a closet… It’s easy to see progress and it doesn’t seem as daunting as cleaning/decluttering the entire house.

  33. posted by adora on

    Focus on making a PATH. Clean along the path that the guests will see – foyer, living room and bathroom. If you guys are eating in, the dinning area as well. Don’t worry about other places for now.

  34. posted by Kazza on

    A trick to avoid a ‘quick cleanup’ box being shoved in a corner and forgotten is to put something you will really, really need in the very near future into the box. And not just under the lid but under some of the contents. eg. your favourite shoes, the DVD player, remote controls, etc.

    Just be sure to keep the box safe from enthusiastic helpers who might throw it away. πŸ™‚

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