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How Do I Clean an Overwhelming Space?

Messy desk with random belongings everywhere

I used to think that if I were organized and "on top of it" enough, I wouldn't have to clean an overwhelming space. The truth is virtually no one can consistently clean, tidy, and organize unless they have a ton of help. Everyone experiences getting sick or injured, having disease flare-ups, working through crazy deadlines, or any number of other life disruptors. Because we all deal with it, it's important to have a plan for what to do. Without a plan, getting started can feel impossible, and/or you can spend way too long working without seeing results. The following plan will give you a blueprint to get started and finish cleaning your cluttered spaces.

  1. Distract your brain. Put on your favorite comfort show, a podcast, music, etc. Anything to reassure your brain that the tasks you’re about to do will have some measure of entertainment.

  2. Take breaks. Set a timer and stop working when it goes off. Even if you switch gears for 5 minutes by sitting down, getting a snack, etc., you’re still letting your brain know that cleaning isn’t a marathon and doesn’t need to be done perfectly.

  3. Work by category. You cannot possibly clean everything at once, but when your brain sees a large amount of work, that's what it tries to do. Working by category is far more efficient, and the categories below should help get you started.

Woman working to organize shelves

a. The first easiest step is to remove trash, dishes, and dirty laundry. Gather trash and toss it in the bin, move dishes to the kitchen, and put dirty laundry in the hamper. If you're someone who easily gets sidetracked, don't leave the room; make piles for trash, dishes, laundry, etc., and put them away when it's time to leave the area.

b. Next, deal with anything that has an obvious home. For example, if you are working in the bathroom, you may not know where you want to put the diffusor in the corner that may or may not work, but you do know that the toothpaste goes in the drawer, and the cleaning supplies belong in the cabinet. So put the toothpaste and cleaning supplies away, and ignore the diffuser until later in this process.

c. After that, handle anything that is in your way and impeding your movements. For instance, if there are boxes from Amazon, break them down and move them to the side. If there are large toys on the

floor, move them to the room's periphery.

d. Typically, a good bit of the clutter in the room you're working on doesn't even belong in that room. Put “unbelongings”- anything that doesn’t go in the room you’re working on- in a pile.

e. Once the larger or obvious items aren't in your way, the trash, dishes, and laundry are sorted, and the stuff that doesn't belong isn't scattered all about, you can organize the stuff that does live in the room. There are two great choices for finishing the room. You can keep working with categories like books, papers, games, electronics, etc. Or you can focus on tidying small areas of a room, like side tables, shelves, counters, etc.

My biggest struggle is with organizing. There are always items I don't know where to keep, and my brain struggles to find the "right home" for them. If this is something you can relate to, I'll tell you that focusing on functionality has helped me a lot. Rather than searching for an aesthetic or "ideal" home, I think about where I'll use an item the most and how I can reduce resistance to putting the item away.

For example, I initially kept my makeup in my bathroom, but I began to notice that I never put it away, and it always ended up in the kitchen. Why? I looked at my patterns and noted that I typically did my makeup in the kitchen or living room. The light is good in those rooms, and I can get ready while talking to the kids. Instead of hounding myself to gather my makeup and trek upstairs with it when I was done, I decided to try putting it away in the office, which is halfway between the kitchen and living room. Sure enough, I started putting my makeup away in its new "home" every single time I used it. (If you have found creative homes that aren't typical, I'd love you to comment below. It helps our community have new ideas.)

Organized shelves

Once you've put things away and created functional homes for stuff you use often, you might be left with items that don't have a home, and you're not sure whether to keep them. This is when "unknown" can become its own category. I like to store things like this in a clear bin in my closet. I add to it when I find other belongings that I can't decide to donate or keep. About twice a year, I'll go through the bin, and if I haven't reached for the items, they have to go. In reality, I typically always know I don't need those things, but forcing myself to decide on donating while I'm cleaning can be tough. And it's okay to put off the decision for a little bit.

If you've read this and you're facing multiple rooms that are super overwhelming, you could benefit from going through my Home Reset. It's a 30-day plan to catch up on cleaning, decluttering, and organizing. My guide has helpful tips and daily task checklists. I also have a free video series I'm doing in May that follows along with the guide.

I hope this has given you some good ideas about tackling your spaces!

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