Tackling An Overwhelming Mess

How many times have you stood in the middle of a room, or opened a cabinet door, and let out a sigh of frustration because you can’t immediately access the item you’re looking for? The words that run on replay through your head are “I have too much crap”, “why do I even have this”, “I’m sick of my home always looking this way”. You recognize that you need to get rid of some of your stuff, but you honestly have no idea where to start or else are so overwhelmed by the prospect of having to go through everything that you’re paralyzed with indecision.

Trust me, even as a professional organizer, I have been there. I’ve been there in my own house and I’ve been there in a client’s house. It is so easy to become overwhelmed. What has helped me in the past has been to simply pick a zone, limit yourself only to that zone, and start there. It’s like putting a puzzle together. Once I’ve dumped all the pieces out on the table, I don’t begin searching for the middle piece. No, I search for the pieces that stand out the most, the edges. These are the foundational pieces that I then use to put the rest of the puzzle together. When I enter a home, I find those edge pieces. I focus only on the task that is most obvious and as a result, would have the greatest impact.

I can often find these edge pieces through my initial conversation with my clients. The biggest concern is often the one that is first brought up and observed. I worked with a client last year who was recently disabled. She had piles of stuff throughout her entire home, but her hallways were her main concern. It wasn’t as big of a problem when she could walk on her own, but now that she was dependent on a walker, she was unable to navigate the space. As a result, that was my edge piece. I was able to focus on that one area and that one major goal as my tent stake for the project.

Similar to identifying a specific goal from above, don’t go into your own project with the expectation that you’ll be able to knock out the whole house in one day. That is another good way to quickly overwhelm yourself. One author that has really inspired me is Jen Sincero. She labeled a technique that I’ve been employing for a while, it’s the process of allocating a strict amount of time for an activity that is a steppingstone for the overall goal. She calls it “chunking it down”, I call it time management.

The idea of chucking it down is explained as this: Identify action steps that need to be taken to achieve your goal, then assign a limited amount of time for a specific action step to prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed.

As an example, let’s say the family room is the area of the house that has been causing you the most stress. You have kids ranging from toddler to pre-teen and as a result have a variety of toys, games clothing, dishes, and blankets scattered about. Your goal would be to have a clean and orderly family room. When looking at the space, you perceive that it would take you all day to pick everything up, organize it all, and then clean. The thought of spending your whole day doing that, rather than spending your time on yourself or with your family is aggravating, stressful, and a little sad. So, let’s chunk this down as Jen would say.

You would write out your goal as:

Have clean, organized, and inviting family room day in and day out.

Breaking the Goal Down:

  • Gathering all the items that do not have their home in the family room. (For example: clothes, shoes, dishes, etc.) Place all those items into a bin/basket/pile to later be taken to their homes once the room has been completed. DO NOT LEAVE THE ROOM! We return these items to their homes elsewhere in the house only after the room is complete because I know that I for one get distracted if I leave an area and often find myself shifting focus and starting an unrelated project.
    (Assuming some toys have a home in the living room) Pick up toys. Sort toys to pull out any that are broken and/or are no longer needed, useful, or played with. Return the remaining toys to their homes in the family room.
  • If you don’t already have a bin, container, or spot on the shelves designated for the items, make one, or else find another home for the item.
    Sometimes it is helpful to rotate the toys, select a few key items, and the rest can be put with the other items to be rehomed elsewhere.
  • Pick up games. Sort games so that all their pieces are together. Pull out any games that are broken and/or are no longer needed, useful, or played with. Return the games to their home in the family room.
  • If you don’t already have a bin, container, or spot on the shelves designated for the items, make one, or else find another home for the item.
  • Gather all the blankets and pillows. Sort through the blankets and pillows to pull out any that are no longer needed or else need repaired or discarded due to overuse. Return remaining blankets and pillows to their home.
  • If you don’t already have a bin, container, or spot on the shelves designated for the items, make one, or else find another home for the item.
  • You get the picture. Break everything down into a category and then make action steps needed for each of those. You can do this in your head or write it down to hold yourself more accountable. I suggest writing it down.

Tackling your action steps:

Now, this is the secret to success. Assign yourself a Time Limit for each item! Based on the above list, I would say 15 minutes for each is sufficient. Set a timer, this not only helps to hold yourself accountable, but it also tells you when you can take a break. Don’t let yourself get distracted during this time. If your phone rings, vibrates, or makes any kind of noise, ignore it. You can get back to it when your timer is up. If another person enters the room, tell them you and the room are off-limits for the next X number of minutes and that you can help them at that time. STAY FOCUSED! If 15 minutes uninterrupted is difficult to find, break the tasks and your time allocation down even further, Whatever it takes. The goal here is to set a reasonable expectation for yourself. You don’t want it to be so difficult that you’ll never get it done, but you also don’t want to give yourself so much time that you won’t feel motivated to accomplish anything.

Once you’ve hit your time limit, set a new time limit to address anything that came up while you were working. Let’s say 5 minutes to return that call/text/message. But 0 minutes for social media scrolling. (I like to turn my phone on do not disturb so that I’m not even tempted to look at my phone while working).

You’ll be surprised to find that by chunking things down, you’ll be more motivated in the short bursts you’re allowing and be more successful. This will compound on itself to further energize your motivation and you’ll feel less overwhelmed for the next timed segment.

Reinforcing your goal for long term success:

It’s important to establish rules moving forward if you want to maintain all the hard work you put in to organizing and cleaning the space. Have a family meeting and discuss the expectations and consequences of not meeting the expectation. Discuss if there should be joint accountability in maintaining the space (everyone wins, or no one wins), or if each person is responsible for their portion; if there should be positive or negative reinforcement; and set a time when the area will be inspected daily to reinforce the new habit and expectations. Set an alarm as a reminder to check the space. The positive or negative re-enforcement should be given at that time.

In our house, a new habit we are building and the old one we’re trying to break, is my daughter’s closet. She has the terrible habit of throwing her clothes onto the closet floor, rather than hanging them up. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a daily alarm set for an hour before her typical bedtime. Once the alarm goes off, we are to inspect her closet. If there are clothes on the floor, she has to pick them up and then go to bed early. If all the clothes are put away, she gets to stay up till her bedtime. This is particularly motivating to my daughter because she loves getting to stay up with us.

You know best what motivates you and your family. And you know best what area of your house/car/workspace is causing the most stress. Just remember, chunk down the project and the time that you’re allowing yourself to work towards the goal so that you do not become overwhelmed and do nothing at all.

If you’re still unsure where to start, I can help. Contact me for a virtual consultation where we discuss your needs and goals and chunk it down together.  If you’re interested in learning more about Jen Sincero and her books, check out her website at https://jensincero.com/