When uncluttering seems overwhelming

While browsing the Unclutterer Forums this afternoon I saw a post left by reader Marta Bergen:

I find de-cluttering overwhelming – depressing, exhausting, paralyzing. So I tried a different method – I will give myself ONE week to do ONE thing. A few weeks ago it was cleaning and decluttering the bathroom. I would spend ten minutes clearing out a drawer full of unused makeup, and the next day half an hour scrubbing the shower, but it worked!! It was the only thing on my to-do list aside from the bare-bones basics, like cook dinner & feed the dogs.

I can relate to Marta here. Uncluttering can be “depressing, exhausting and paralyzing,” especially if you’ve got a lot of other things to do, maintenance seems endless or you simply don’t know where to begin. I’ve been there myself and I suspect may other readers have, too.

Marta’s solution is a good one: focus on one activity and do not let not doing the other activities elicit any guilt. It is a fine example of breaking a project down into smaller steps. You can’t “unclutter the house” on Sunday, but you probably can clean out a drawer or clear off a shelf. Reward the victories and build momentum for more.

But there is no simple solution to feeling overwhelmed when it comes to cleaning and tidying. It’s an issue we’ve addressed over the years. In 2012, Erin listed eight steps to help you regain control of your life, including:

  1. Start saying “no.” At least for the short term, you need to say “no” to as many new responsibilities as possible.
  2. Get it out of your head. The next thing you need to do is get everything out of your mind and onto a sheet of paper.
  3. Prioritize your list. Sort your list into four groups:
    1. Must get done for risk of losing job/life/significant income
    2. Would be nice to get done and I would enjoy doing the task
    3. Would be nice to get done but I don’t really want to do it
    4. Doesn’t need to get done right now/ever and I don’t really want to do it.

Occasionally it’s easy to pinpoint the source of the overwhelming feelings. You might inherit clutter, or be dealing with children’s toys, which seem to be in all places at all times. The one that gets to me — and apparently troubles Marta as well — is an overwhelming to do list.

I love making lists. It’s typically a calming exercise that helps me feel on top of what needs to be done. That is, until the list grows to a frightening size. That’s when it’s time to employ some strategy.

As Erin wrote previously:

  1. Maintain perspective
  2. Don’t lose sight of the details
  3. Embrace some of the stress.
  4. Take breaks.
  5. Manage expectations.
  6. Don’t extend the stress.
  7. Celebrate.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when it comes to uncluttering. With a little preparation and planning, you can get back on track.

4 Comments for “When uncluttering seems overwhelming”

  1. posted by Madison Chocolatiers on

    When it comes to organizing anything, you need to focus on one task at a time and complete it 100% before moving on to the next one.

  2. posted by Kenneth in Virginia on

    I can understand how decluttering can see overwhelming, especially if you hold down a job and have a family. But it shouldn’t be depressing. I realize, of course, that one can inherit clutter. We certainly did. Thoreau said that when someone passes on, you take things out of their attic and put them in someone else’s attic. So, when a person dies, they literally kick the dust.

    Much of our clutter, well-organized, boxed, labeled and so on, is inherited clutter. Some from relatives who finally moved into a retirement home, others from relatives who moved to Europe and decided they could live without the things the government wouldn’t pay to move or store. So now we’re dealing with it. We have fewer people to give it to than we got it from, if you follow me.

  3. posted by Lisa on

    My husband and I have recently been clearing out the basement in my MIL’s home (she passed away in 2009) that he and his siblings have been ignoring. It was heartbreaking to see all the items that were ruined because of being stored improperly so many years in a damp basement. We had to throw away so many things that could have been useful to someone if they had been donated or passed down instead of being put in a damp, ratty basement. Made me more resolved to declutter my own stuff instead of saving it for someday.

  4. posted by SkiptheBS on

    Good way to handle the overwhelm is to allocate ten minutes. Anyone can handle ten minutes and it can be a break from whatever you are doing. Often, the immediate response is to fill one trash can and get it to curb or dumpster: a real and visible accomplishment which often will break the psychic curse of the task(s).

    Remember that “an object at rest will remain at rest” etc is a real scientific and behavioral law. Get up, clean out one drawer or pack one box, and continuing often will be easier than sitting back down.

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