No Idea How To Even Start Cleaning When You’re Paralyzed By Your Messy House? Feeling Totally Overwhelmed?
Okay, so your house is wrecked – to the point where you’re feeling utterly defeated and overwhelmed. You have no idea how to even start cleaning when you’re this paralyzed by your messy house.
Things have gotten com-plete-ly away from you.
Kind of like if Roseanne’s and Frankie Heck’s houses got together and had a baby.
And then the baby swallowed a garbage truck and barfed it back up all over the living room.
Sound extreme? Unimaginable? I envy you. And…
…you may be in the wrong place. Thanks so much for coming – we enjoyed your company and would love to have you back for a visit, but you really must give us a heads up because we need time to prepare.
It takes time to burn down our houses and rebuild before you arrive. [*1] (Click the * for side notes…)
Now, For the Rest of Us
Where were we? Oh yeah, your house is destroyed, and you’re feeling thoroughly, completely paralyzed and overwhelmed by your messy, messy home. [*2] A nap is looking better and better – or maybe you could just go shopping and out to lunch. And maybe dinner. Possibly a hotel?
No. Don’t do that.
Don’t hide. Don’t escape.
Pssst – click here to skip right to the “how” in “How to Start Cleaning When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed and Paralyzed By Your Messy House.” It’s okay. You don’t have to validate me today. Next time, though, okay?
I Have Two Settings – Perfection and Neglect
And while you’re at it, don’t fantasy clean.
Am I the only one who fantasy cleans? Here I am, overwhelmed by my disaster of a house. But instead of working up the energy to pick up the trash, dishes, and dirty laundry littering the living room, I fantasize about cleaning.
Not fantasy-picking-up, not even fantasy-surface-cleaning – no, fantasy-deep-cleaning.
I sit on my couch, feeling overwhelmed with no idea how to start cleaning and almost physically paralyzed by the mess. A mess like this: [*3]
- The entire contents of the toy box,
- Layers of trash,
- Remnants of a craft project or two gone horribly wrong,
- Junior’s spelling homework [*4] and half-opened mail,
- All resting on a solid base of Oreo leavin’s, apple juice puddles, and leaking soda cans.
- Add a dash of cat puke here and there, a mixed pile of clean and dirty laundry, and top if all off with a liberal sprinkling (okay, deluge) of pet hair.
Bam! There goes my brain – off on a mental excursion where I’m unloading bookshelves searching for hidden dust.
Or in my warped mind game, I’m standing on the kitchen counter, degreasing the cabinet soffits, or removing every single object from the bathroom to give it the scrubbing to end all scrubbings.
It’s possible I may even need to gut the bathroom right down to the studs. Perhaps I should visit Home Depot while I’m hiding out from my house?
My perfectionist mind doesn’t want to work from the outside in. No, the worse the disaster, the more my mind tries to start on the inside and work its way out.
No wonder the show Clean Sweep was so popular in its day. The idea of emptying it all out and starting over can be super appealing when you feeling like you’re drowning in overwhelming filth and clutter. [*5]
In times like these, imagining an entirely fresh start is normal. [*6]
And, after all, isn’t it more efficient to clean from the inside out? Why sweep the middle of the kitchen floor when, if you ever do get around to sweeping under everything, you’re going to have to re-sweep the middle, right?
The problem with fantasy-deep-cleaning and yearning for efficiency and perfection is that, because you know you don’t have the time or energy or even space to do the total makeover, you do nothing.
That’s right – nothing.
So much for the perfect home…
Just This Once, Instant Gratification Is the Better Choice
Meanwhile, if you could just get over it, you could devote much less time and energy to getting the surface cleaned up.
Quicker results, less work.
And the best part is that when you do finally address the surface clutter and dirt, usually the urge to clean from the bottom up subsides.
Efficiency, perfection, and hyperfocusing are major obstacles in this type of cleaning. Those may serve you well later when you’re ready to dig deep. But for now, let them go to get your crippling, overwhelmingly messy house clean enough to be live-able.
So how do you know where to begin when you’re feeling suffocated by your mess? Since you can’t just turn your house upside down and start from scratch?
#1 Zero In
- First, decide which 3-5 rooms in your house are most important to you.
For me this would be the kitchen, living room, hall bathroom and, if I’m up to it, the laundry room/garage entrance and master bedroom.
- Concentrate on these rooms.
- Do not detour from this 3-5 room plan until you’ve subdued the feeling of overwhelm and recaptured control.
#2 Choose a Reasonable Outcome
Now go look in the mirror and have a quick chat with yourself. It should go something like this:
“Self, we need to talk. You and I both know we aren’t gonna get this house mother-in-law-level clean today. Yeah, I know, it bugs the crap out of me, too – but remember what happens when we try to go from the cranky, overwhelmed, defensive woman on Hoarders to the gloating, self-satisfied chick in House Beautiful in one day? So maybe instead of doing what we’ve always done and tearing out even more junk or micro-focusing and scrubbing the entrance floor tiles with a toothbrush, we should maybe take a different approach?
I mean, we did Google for help, after all, which probably means our regular way doesn’t work.
So, Self (by the way is that a new wrinkle on your forehead? Right there – see it?–sorry – focus) – Self, what level of clean is going to make us not want to crawl into a hole if someone stops by?
No, seriously – be reasonable.
Okay, so we agree:
- No grossness,
- Carpet stains okay for now (but let’s mop up some of that Koolaid puddle),
- No garbage, dirty dishes or laundry,
- Neaten up the piles,
- Get the towels off the bathroom floor,
- De-bus-station the sink and toilet, and
- Hopefully do something about the smears and crumbs everywhere.
Yeah, I guess I can live with that for now.
For real, though, Self, you really should think about a night serum or something. That looks like the freakin’ grand canyon right above your left eyebrow.” [*7]
So think about it, and pick a level of clean that you can live with for now – a level that removes the paralysis and urge to avoid your house altogether.
It’s possible that a solid straightening will do the trick. Once you’re not suffocating in clutter, maybe you know you’ll be able to get things under control?
Or perhaps you feel like this same cleaning session should include a good wiping down and vacuuming.
That’s fine – just avoid the urge to go deeper right now.
#4 I Said, “Start.”
Once you have a plan, just start. Use any motivation possible but just…start.
When my own well-padded rear end is deeply in love with the chair, I use the 100 second trick.
I do 100 seconds of something, anything to get started and un-paralyzed. Usually it’s loading or unloading the dishwasher, since that seems like the biggest bottleneck in my house. I force myself up and count to 100.
The thought of 100 seconds of cleaning in your current situation probably has you rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically. But it’s enough to get you up and moving.
And you’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in 100 seconds in a totally wrecked house – since you don’t have to go far to find the next thing to do!
So pick a task and commit to 100 seconds of action.
Stay On Track
Once you’re in motion and tackling the chaos, set a timer.
In this case, the timer is simply a goal reminder. Each time it goes off, you’ll remember that you’re digging out – one little bottle cap, used tissue, and holey sock at a time.
The timer also mitigates time-blindness – by constantly going off every 5 or 10 minutes, you won’t fog out and totally lose track of time.
You do not want to accidentally get sidetracked or hyperfocused. This isn’t the time to:
- Deep clean your dishwasher,
- Reorganize the pantry, or,
- God forbid, even peek into your teenage son’s room. [*8]
If the timer rings and you wake up under the sink, scrubbing at a rust stain, stop and get back to your plan.
The timer keeps you in the room or on task. If you get distracted and leave or get off-task, the timer’s your audio cue that you’re in the wrong place. Reset it, go back, and try again.
Okay, now – so if…
- Motivating yourself to get moving,
- Choosing which rooms to tackle, and
- Setting timers to keep yourself on task
…are enough to break the paralyzing spell of overwhelm your mess has cast upon you, you’re on your way.
#5 Follow a Plan
But if you still aren’t sure what to do and in what order, or if you have limited time (or just want to get it done already!), be intentional. Set the timer, put on your hazmat gear, and follow me:
- Begin with the trash. Grab a trash bag and go through the chosen rooms, gathering anything that’s definitely trash. Not donations, stuff that goes to other people, or other items that need to leave the house – just flat out trash.
- If you recycle, do that separately in another pass through. This is a simple scoop-and-stuff mission, [*9] so don’t get muddled up with two different containers.
- It’s okay if you still have trash to pick up when the timer goes off. Reset the timer and keep going. In this case, the timer is just to keep you focused on what you’re supposed to be doing and in your chosen rooms. Do not go into the other rooms.
- If you find yourself in a room that’s not on your list when the timer chimes, or you’re off-task, leave that room, reset the timer, and get going on your plan again.
It’s okay. It happens.
- Once the rooms are trash-free, get a laundry basket or box or tub or tote bag and scan each room for stuff that’s out of place. If it belongs elsewhere, into the basket it goes.
- On to the next room. Does anything in the basket live in that room? Put it there (not away, just into the room), scan that room for stuff that doesn’t belong, add it to your basket, and move on.
- Do this over and over, round-and-round until you have a basket (or baskets plural) left with stuff that doesn’t go in any of these 5 rooms.
- At this point, you may leave the rooms designated by your plan but, and this is important, set a timer first. Once again, you do not want to get sidetracked. You’re not cleaning any other rooms, you are simply moving stuff out of the chosen rooms to the general area where it belongs.
- Take the basket to the rest of the house and put whatever goes in there into the other rooms, but don’t stop. Do not do anything else to those rooms.
3. I Repeat, Stay On Track
- If you come across a truly monumental mess – looming mountains of clothing or a big project – it’s fine to work around that for now. Especially if you don’t want to disturb the order you already have in the project or get totally derailed from your scoop-and-stuff mission. It might make more sense to attack it when your surroundings are calmer.
For example, if you have 3 weeks’ worth of laundry to put away (and no real idea of where to put it all) or a dresser that you previously emptied into the middle of the room, just try to keep the jumble in one area for now.
Remember – trying to deal with all levels of clutter and dirt at the same time is what got you feeling paralyzed and overwhelmed to begin with, right?
- If you have boxes or tubs easily available and going to get them won’t distract you (use the timer), you can try to containerize any “projects” you find. If not, just smush it into as small an area as possible [*10] without disturbing your previous progress, and work around it.
4. Put It All Away (Or Not)
- Now that you have everything in the area in which it belongs (minus the epic messes), start putting those things away.
Inefficiently is fine. If you are crippling yourself with trying to only make ONE trip to this area or that, just stop. You can go more than once.
Sometimes trying to be oh-so-cleverly-efficient is what got us into this overwhelmed state, so let up on that.
- Continue to use a timer to avoid hyperfocusing and distractions.
But what about the stuff you can’t put away? There’s no designated place, or there’s so much already in that place that it overflows its intended space?
- If it belongs in the room but doesn’t actually have a specific place to live yet, find a box or a laundry basket and pile it in there. Once your surroundings are under better control, and you’re not dealing with overwhelming filth and utterly paralyzing chaos, find places for it. For now, just a “homeless junk” basket in each room will suffice.
- If something does have a home but that home is stuffed full, put it nearby – as close to its home as possible. Resist the temptation to stash the stuff elsewhere “for now.”
- And do not stop to engage in a big clothing purge or dresser reorganization. Those are for later, and you can invite your friend, Hyperfocus, along for the party. [*11]
- NOTE: In the kitchen, “home” for dirty dishes refers to the dishwasher or in/next to the sink for now. You’re not cleaning yet. If your dishwasher is already at capacity, start it and just pile the other dirty dishes near the sink in an organized way. Don’t start washing them at the moment.
- Once everything else is picked up, then tackle the dishes – either by unloading and reloading the dishwasher, or delving into a hand-washing session
Now that the main area of your house is picked up, hopefully you’re not as debilitated and the mess is less overwhelming.
If picking up is enough for you, you can stop here.
#6 (Optional) BlessinG – The Actual Cleaning Part
However, if you still have time and energy, keep going. Time for a bit of light cleaning.
Flylady calls this “blessing your house” and she’s adamant about the “light” part. Her famous (among the organizationally-challenged) quote is “Housework done imperfectly still blesses your family.” Because our sometimes crippling need for perfection does no good if it means nothing gets done.
Something always trumps nothing.
Not naming names [*12] but some of us, especially the ADHDers among us (we’re not alone though), get so overwhelmed by cleaning a room the “right” way, we don’t do it at all. Back to the perfectionist thing.
This is where a house “blessing” comes in.
- To do this, set a timer for 10 minutes and do one cleaning chore at a time. Switch when the timer goes off and leave the rest for another time. Yes, permission to half-ass it for now. Or even for later.
- If you are only working on 3-5 rooms, you can probably even do it in 5.
- Don’t believe me? Try it. Just make sure you’re following these guidelines:
In this final step, you are not…
- Pulling out furniture to vacuum behind it.
- Scrubbing baseboards, even if they are NASTY.
- Moving everything out of the bathroom for a thorough scouring.
Right now, you are just doing a spot-clean.
The areas you can concentrate on in those 3-5 rooms are:
Worst visible spots only. Set a 5-minute limit or even just skip this step for now. I also lint roll during this step because cats – so if you have fuzzy animals, maybe don’t skip that.
- First with a damp microfiber, followed with a dry one. Lots of clutter? Just hit the visible areas for now. I, personally, concentrate on my white banister, dressers, end tables, and coffee table.
- If you have small children (or dogs), hit the baby gates and any large plastic toys or baby paraphernalia – fingerprinted and grimy areas only.
Next, if a bathroom is on your list (of course it is!), swish out the toilet bowl, and then use Clorox wipes or hot, soapy water to clean only the toilet (and potty chair), sink, and floor. Don’t worry about the wastebasket, tub, shower, or mirrors right now. Don’t get too intense. Just make the area not (or at least less) gross.
Then un-smear anything that should be shiny but is currently covered in toddler fingerprints or pet nose prints. Not windows. Not shower doors. Just eye-level , noticeably yucky surfaces – bathroom mirrors, entrance doors, fridge, etc.
You may think this step is overkill, but you would be shocked by how much of a difference looking around and seeing things look polished can make in your overall mood. To me, even though it’s probably the step I skip the most because I forget how gratifying it is, this step is much more important than dusting. [*13]
Sweep hard floors (the parts you can see), and quickly vacuum throw rugs and the middle of your rugs or carpet. This step might take an extra 5-10 minutes (it’s okay to add in some extra time, just stop when the timer goes off), depending on how many different types of floors you have.
I purchased a cordless vacuum last year that makes this step so much easier. Happiest day of my life (no, I’m not forgetting my wedding, the birth of my kids, or when McDonald’s started offering pancakes all day long – guys, I don’t have to PLUG IN THE VACUUM anymore).
Spot mop with a Wetjet or use a microfiber cloth or whatever you have. Just hit the bad areas.
Voila! A house you can walk through, shiny surfaces, nothing crunching underneath, and no bathroom grossness. Consider yourself done!
Extra Credit (OMG How Many Times Is She Going to Say I’m Done and Then Add More???)
If you’re newly energized by your liveable house, feel free to forge ahead. Now you can:
- Expand into the other rooms
- Go back and work on the pockets of disaster (laundry-folding, overstuffed dressers, DIY project from hell).
- Clean a little deeper.
- Or reward yourself with that lunch. Or the nap.
I’m So Taking the Nap
When you’re up against a paralyzing mess that overwhelms you, resist the escape urges. And the perfectionism daydreams.
I promise you can get it together, but not if you hide out. It won’t fix itself, and the longer you wait, the worse it will get. [*14]
And you just know that this is the time someone will stop by.
You just know it.
So next time you’re faced with an overwhelmingly wrecked home, you have a plan. You’ll know how to start cleaning when you’re paralyzed by your messy house. Just:
- Focus on the parts you can see first.
- Use timers to keep from hyperfocusing.
- Stay in the rooms that matter.
- Assembly-line your tasks:
- Move everything to its rightful room,
- Put away everything you can,
- Lightly clean the surface yuck, one step at a time.
- Release perfectionism and its flip side, procrastination/neglect.
Even though it’s tempting to burrow into a deeper mess in the middle of a surface mess, it rarely pays off. Most people don’t have a chunk of time all at once, with no distractions and no smaller people wreaking havoc – enough time where they can successfully hyperfocus AND manage to get both the new “project” mess and the original mess cleaned up.
Usually when I do that, I end up regretting it. Like the way I used to clean for parties.
Instead of doing a solid, acceptable surface cleaning, I would clean from the inside out for events – meaning the house always looked much worse before it began to look better. I did not know how to prioritize – it was all equally important. Even though I knew at some level it would be way worse for guests to arrive to a living room littered in crumbs, sippee cups, dirty socks and even less pleasant stuff, my brain couldn’t release the compulsion to also Q-tip shower tracks. [*15]
Probably because of my desperate desire to give the fake impression of an always perfect house.
The psychology under that is something we can explore another time. [*16]
I Have Bad News For You
Until they make easily affordable, mainstream houses that you can pick up, shake out, and bring in a power washer to clean up all that calcified syrup, jelly, baby spit-up and cat vomit, you don’t get a fresh start just because your house is a mess.
You also don’t get to just move across town.
And please stop Googling minimalist websites in lieu of cleaning what’s all around you. You’re not a minimalist. Yet anyway.
You aren’t allowed to have a new house until you learn to take care of the one you’ve got. Just kidding – in reality you can have as many new houses as you can afford but I thought it would be funny to channel Mom.
“No, you may not get a puppy until you learn how to take care of the pets you already have. I’m getting sick of flushing guppies every other month. Our toilet is not nearly large enough for a labradoodle.”
Now For the Good News
You will get this under control.
When you’re ready to start, scroll back up or click here, grab your timer, grab your trash bag, grab your laundry basket, and go! I know you can do it.
More Bad News
By the way, you also don’t get to run away by going to lunch or dinner or a hotel. No fun for you until your house is clean.
Because, face it, eventually you’d have to come back home, anyway. [*17]
Asides (Click * to scroll back up to the post…)
[*1] And plus make sure you pee before you show up because there’s no way in hell you’re using our bathroom.
[*2] And you have strange visions of sitcom houses copulating and reproducing.
[*3] The name and some details of this mess have been changed to protect its identity.
[*4] That’s where that went!
[*5] Peter Walsh is the best – I wish he lived next door – I’d pester the bejeezus out of him. Peter Walsh, we need you!
[*6] Normal might be a stretch – let’s go with “an entirely fresh start is not uncommon.”
[*7] Maybe skip the mirror part.
[*8] If his room is on your 3-5 room list, let me know. I will add you to my prayer list.
[*9] That’s what she said?
[*10] She said that too.
[*12] It’s me – it’s totally me.
[*13] SERIOUS NOTE: Don’t clean your TV screens with Windex. If they are particularly bad, use a Norwex cloth or a damp microfiber. And, of course, if you are using water near electronics, unplug them. I do not, but you should. Because I don’t want to pay you a million dollars if you get electrocuted.
[*14] Unless you are blessed to have one of those moms I’ve heard of who can’t stand for her kid to live in a mess and will show up and clean – in that case, get a good book and some chocolate and retire to your bedchamber until Mama shows up. Mom, if you’re reading this, you wouldn’t hurt my self-esteem one bit if you ever wanted to show up and do a deep clean somewhere in my house. Mom?[*19]
[*15] For example, when I was 7 months pregnant and cleaning for my oldest son’s birthday party. I made the mess worse by cleaning from the inside out. It might have been fine and dandy if I hadn’t fallen down two measly steps. When I had to spend the afternoon in the maternity ward with a heartbeat monitor just in case, I was thankful for my stash-and-dash-certified husband. He’s the best at helping me hide my shame. He got the mess tidied up (from the outside in – he does not share my issues). And the party went off without extreme mortification.
[*16] No. No, we won’t.
[*17] Worst news yet?
[*18] Don’t eat her onion dip though. Blech.
[*19] I have a very bad feeling I will be one of those moms to my youngest
when if he moves out.
But Wait, There’s More!
As a veteran of digging out of paralyzing, overwhelming messes, I sometimes have to switch it up to get myself motivated. If you’re feeling too unfocused to follow a method like the one above, try the method in How To Focus While Cleaning – 5 Ways To Avoid Distractions! It allows you to roam around and clean as you go with a plan-that-doesn’t-feel-like-a-plan.
If you need to get the house picked up in a hurry, try doing it the way I outlined in How To Clean Your House Fast For Unexpected Company!
If you just need general motivation to get started, the games listed in How to Get Motivated to Clean Your House When You’re Just Not Feeling It may help.
Still Feeling Paralyzed and Overwhelmed When You Think of Cleaning Your Messy House? Need More Help?
There may be more going on than just regular overwhelm. If you are struggling with depression and even these methods are just way too much for your right now, read How To Motivate Yourself To Clean When You’re Depressed. I hope it helps!
If this post helped you, I’d love and appreciate it if you saved it to your Pinterest boards for later and so others can see it!
And if you’d like to read more about cleaning overwhelm and motivation, leave a comment below…