No Idea How To Even Start Cleaning When You’re Overwhelmed By Your Messy House? Feeling Totally Paralyzed?
[Updated September 2020] Okay, so your house is wrecked. You feel utterly defeated. You have no idea how to even start cleaning when you’re this overwhelmed 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? 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…)
How To Clean a Gross House
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, cluttered home. 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.
And, while you’re at it, don’t let that perfectionist inside you take over. She might even be the reason you’re in this mess to begin with. You know who I’m talking about.
She’s the one who says:
“Since I don’t have time and energy to put the chairs on the table and pull out the fridge to tackle the underlying scariness, I may as well not sweep at all right now. After all, it’s completely inefficient to sweep the middle of the floor if I’m going to just mess it all up again when I finally get around to excavating Dust Bunny Wonderland.” [*2]
Perfectionism, hyper-focusing, and the quest for maximum efficiency are major obstacles in this type of cleaning. Those may serve you well later when you’re ready to dig deep. But let them go temporarily to get your crippling, overwhelmingly messy house clean enough to be livable.
Where do you begin when you’re feeling suffocated and trapped by your mess? Since you can’t just turn your house upside down and start from scratch? There are lots of ways to approach this, but chances are you’re too overwhelmed to choose. So I’ll choose for you.
How To Clean A Messy House Step By Step
Before we begin, I recently made a Quick Reference Guide to Rescuing Your Messy House to summarize the steps below. You can download it here for free.
- 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 Level of Cleanliness
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/Pinterest 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?”
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 at the moment.
“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.” [*3]
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.
#3 Start Cleaning
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 – unstuck 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 cleaning action.
Stay On Track While Tackling the Mess
Once you’re in motion and tackling the chaos, set a timer.
In this case, the timer isn’t a signal to stop – it’s 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 hyper-focused. This isn’t the time to:
- Deep clean your dishwasher,
- Reorganize the pantry, or,
- God forbid, even peek into your teenage son’s room. [*4]
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 and conquer the chaos,
- 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.
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.
#4 Follow a Cleaning Plan
Set the timer, put on your hazmat gear, and follow me:
Remove the Trash
- Begin with the trash. Grab a trash bag and go through the chosen rooms ONLY, 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, [*5] so don’t get muddled up with two different containers. This is a one decision game. Is this trash? True or False. Then move on.
- 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.
Remove the Clutter
- 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.
Don’t Get Distracted with Deep Cleaning / Decluttering / Organizing
- If you come across a truly monumental mess – looming mountains of clothing or a big project – it’s fine to work around that. 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.
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 – for God’s sake, woman, don’t leave the area without a timer – you will never, ever return!), you can try to containerize any “projects” you find. If not, just smush it into as small an area as possible [*6] without disturbing your previous progress, and work around it.
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 hyper-focusing 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. Until you’re ready to clean those rooms, 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.”
NOTE: In the kitchen, “home” for dirty dishes refers to the dishwasher or in/next to the sink until all of your straightening is done. 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.
- 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. [*7]
- 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.
However, if you still have time and energy, keep going.
#5 (Optional) Blessing – The Actual Cleaning Part
Time for a bit of light cleaning. Look for a more detailed post in the future on how to do a Flylady House Blessing (this is her term for light surface cleaning).
She’s the queen of cleaning a dirty house while avoiding crippling perfectionism and overwhelm.
I follow her basic housekeeping method by setting a timer for 15 minutes each to do a few light cleaning tasks.
You may have different cleaning chores you care about. The main point is to:
- Hit only the surfaces,
- Do only the things that make a difference right now, and
- Not get mired up in your distracting desire to rearrange all the Tupperware or clean all that nastiness out of the window tracks. Or even to vacuum under the couch (right now).
When your house is destroyed, cluttered, and filthy, it’s important to just get it livable again. This will boost your mood and confidence
The “blessing” is when I:
I’m talking quickie dusting session. I don’t even move stuff out of the way.
Wipe Down Surfaces
This is just a scouting mission for fingerprints and jelly spots with a wet microfiber in hand
Clean Bathroom Fixtures
Toilets and sinks only. You’re on a timer so what happens behind the shower curtain stays behind the shower curtain
Shine Things Up
This is more fingerprint scouting, this time on Windex-able surfaces like the spit-spattered bathroom mirrors and in-your-face glass, such as the storm door. Save the windows for another day.
Clean the Floors
Sweep the middles, vacuum the rugs, spot mop the worst areas. If your bathrooms are small, you can hit the floors in there when you do the toilet and just use a rag. Much easier than dragging a mop upstairs.
Messy House Vanquished
Voila! A house you can walk through, shiny surfaces, nothing crunching underneath, and no bathroom grossness. Consider yourself done!
#6 Extra Credit House Cleaning Awesomeness
(OMG How Many Times Is She Going to Say I’m Done and Then Add More???)
If you’re energized by your newly livable, mess and clutter-free rooms, feel free to forge ahead.
Now you can:
- Expand into the other areas of your house.
- 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 – a mess like this:
- The entire contents of the toy box,
- Layers of trash,
- Remnants of a craft project or two gone horribly wrong, and
- Junior’s spelling homework [*8] and half-opened mail,
- All resting on a solid base of Oreo leavin’s, apple juice puddles, and leaking soda cans plus
- 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…
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. [*9]
And you just know that this is the time someone will stop by.
You just know it.
The Clean House Conclusion
So next time you’re faced with an overwhelmingly wrecked home, you have a plan. You’ll know how to conquer the chaos and start cleaning when you’re paralyzed by your messy house. Just:
- Focus on the parts you can see first.
- Use timers to keep from hyper-focusing.
- 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 hyper-focus 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. I submit to you my previous party-cleaning method when starting with a disaster area of a home:
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. [*10]
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. [*11]
Bad News If You’re Overwhelmed by Your Messy House
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 goldfish 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.
Sorry, Maybe a Little Bit 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.
Other Ways To Attack That Mess In Your Home
But wait, there’s more! (No, not more bad news – more to read.)
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!
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I’m desperately trying to avoid those pop-ups that beg you to join my mailing list. That’s partially because I don’t even do anything with my mailing list. But mostly because those things make me want to throw my phone across the room.
However, I’d eventually like to send newsletters with tips that don’t merit a whole blog post.
If you want to be on my list, take a moment and fill out my subscribe box.
Then, one day, after you’ve forgotten all about me and this post, possibly years from now, you may get an email with the most amazing tip you’ve ever read.
It’s not super likely because I’m terrified of emailing people, but you never know. If I can keep my house clean (and I can – most of the time) nowadays, then there’s no limit to what I may be able to make myself do in the future.
So please sign up!
And if you don’t like not getting anything free to sign up, let me know in the comments below and I’ll draw you a picture of my cat and send it to you. He’s the sweetest thing ever and mostly adorable but also a smidge ugly and he has a snotty eye – if I give him enough treats, I think he’d hold still long enough for me to sketch him out for you.
Do You Mind Sharing This On Pinterest To Your Cleaning Board?
And 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.
I used to see this on other blogs and think “why on earth would I pin something I already read.” But now I know it gives the blogger some love and helps people find her so they can get help and so she doesn’t see zero page views and get discouraged and cry and stuff. So please pin this.
You’re the best!
How To Start Cleaning When You’re Paralyzed and Overwhelmed By Your Messy House
Asides (Click the * next to each number 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] We all know I’m using dust bunnies as a euphemism here for all the crumbs, milk jug caps, cat toys, Legos, and cheese wrappers hidden back there but we’re going to pretend we are like the Super Cleany Moms who only have to worry about cute, benign dust balls under their fridge – as if!
[*3] Maybe skip the mirror part.
[*4] If his room is one of your 3-5, let me know. I will add you to my prayer list.
[*5] That’s what she said?
[*6] She said that too.
[*8] That’s where that went!
[*9] 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?[*13]
[*10] 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.
[*12] Don’t eat her onion dip though. Blech.
[*13] I have a very bad feeling I will be one of those moms to my youngest
when if he moves out.