In this post, we’ll look at solutions for what to do when you feel overwhelmed because you don’t know where to start. Mostly, I am talking about huge decluttering projects where you have a lot of things to go through or organize.
I have certainly felt this way when faced with a huge pile of boxes full of who-knows-what. Where do you even start?
Break it down
Since we can’t do everything at once, it’s important to break things down into manageable chunks. If you’re facing an entire basement crammed with stuff, you might start by breaking it down into zones.
In my basement, I have the following “zones,” workbench, food storage shelves, laundry, homeschool shelves, emergency supplies, gift wrap, clothing storage, Christmas storage, donations, and long-term storage shelves. When my son and I worked on our basement last summer, we would work on one zone at a time.
If you are working in a room filled with furniture like a bedroom or living room, you might break your zones down into the various pieces of furniture plus closet and floor.
If you’re working in a room with a lot of built-in storage like a kitchen or bathroom, you might break your zones down into each individual cabinet or drawer section plus major appliances.
Write it down
It’s crucial that you make a written plan of attack. Write your zones down. When I did a 90-day challenge (see the Declutter Diaries), I went so far as to break it down into each shelf on the bookcase, each drawer in the dresser, each separate box/container, and so forth.
I needed to have small enough chunks to work on so that I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed. I knew that I could take the books off of one shelf, sort through them, cull out any we could donate, and get the remainder back on the shelf in a short amount of time.
The same with a single drawer: I knew I could do one self-contained thing without creating too big of a mess or getting overwhelmed. Crossing things off a list helped me focus on my progress. And I like to have lots of things to cross off!
Another helpful tip is to do something easy first. Do NOT tackle the biggest, hardest thing on the list first! You need an easy win to help you get past the overwhelm. Crossing something off the list quickly will help you gain momentum and feel successful.
So, once you have all your zones and things broken down into small chunks, scan through the list and figure out which thing you think will be the easiest. Start mapping out the order you want to work on things.
Room to work
If you’re taking on a really packed room or storage area, you will need to think strategically. This means you will need to create some space to work in, what I call a staging area.
When I was working through the attic, which had a lot of boxes and bookshelves in it, the first thing I worked on was clearing a space on the floor. I needed space to actually unload a box to see what was in it. Then I needed space to be able to sort things out into piles: recycle, donate, relocate.
Sometimes you need to make a staging area in a different room to do the actual work. You might not want to work in the basement or attic because of lighting or temperature. So, you can have a staging area in another room of the house where you bring one box at a time to work through.
Once you have a written plan and a staging area, do the first actual step. Open the drawer and start going through one item at a time. Get the box out and start digging through it.
Remember, pick a relatively easy thing to do first! Good candidates include things that you know are mostly trash or things that you already know you want to get rid of. Since you won’t need too much decision-making power to get through these things, you can have an easy win!
Focus on one thing at a time: this is not the time to multi-task! Work on that one specific item until you are finished. I know it’s tempting to stop and leaf through pictures or papers. It’s also tempting to interrupt yourself—try hard not to.
Of course, if you have children around, you will probably be interrupted a bazillion times, but keep at it. Don’t start opening other boxes and drawers. Just stick with one thing at a time.
When you are finished, empty the recycle bin, go put things away that already have a home, and take the donation bag to your car.
Remember that doing a major decluttering or organizing project will take time. Be reasonable: you can’t change everything instantly. Be patient with yourself.
The main goal is to make progress as often as possible. Even a turtle eventually gets to the finish line—so don’t give up! Next up is what to do when you don’t know how to do something.