Where to Start Decluttering a Very Messy House

When your house is an overwhelming mess, it’s hard to know where to start decluttering. Here’s the secret to getting rid of clutter, even if your house is a mess and you don’t have a lot of extra time or energy!

When you look around your house and see piles and messes and a half inch of dust on every flat surface, does it ever make you want to go hide somewhere with a carton of chocolate ice cream and a large spoon? (Not that I know what that’s like…just asking for a friend. *cough, cough*)

towels and sheets in wire baskets where to start decluttering a very messy house

Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those houses that seems to clean itself? You know, the ones you see in magazines and on Instagram, with furniture that’s used for sitting on (instead of stacking on) and sparkling kitchen counters that aren’t covered by six months worth of grocery ads and mail and batteries (please tell me why random batteries always migrate to the kitchen counter!?).

But in the real world, just getting your house to a basic level of kinda-sorta-clean-enough-to-not-be-embarrassing can be downright overwhelming. It’s hard to know where to start decluttering when everywhere you look there’s one more reminder of the countless ways you’ve dropped the ball (and the laundry, and paperwork, and shopping bags full of junk you never got around to putting away).

And all that stuff that seems to be absolutely everywhere can make you feel rather…stuck.

back of a car loaded with books and boxes to get rid of

There’s an Easier Way to Declutter Your House

Now, I get that this might not be your first rodeo. I understand that you’ve likely tried a time or two (or ten???) to get your entire house cleaned up and organized, and it just didn’t work.

Maybe you pushed yourself to the brink of sheer exhaustion on a rainy Saturday afternoon, only to have your house go back to its same old rebellious ways just two days later.

Or you wasted your whole vacation trying to get your home whipped into shape once and for all, but you ended up with a bigger mess (and even more guilt and frustration) than when you started.

Or if you’re anything like me, you decided to do a major decluttering next week. Which turned into next month. Then evolved into over summer break. And finally settled into when I have the time to do it right. (Newsflash: That day may never arrive. Ask me how I know.)

But what if you didn’t have to give up your vacation, or complete an elaborate plan, or tear apart every inch of your house in order to deal with your clutter and have a clean and peaceful home?

And that if you have health problems, kids, pets, or a full-time job, you could still clean up your home…and keep it clean.

I know it sounds impossible, but hear me out. (What have you got to lose?)

Where to Start Decluttering When Your House is a Mess

  1. Work on one small area at a time
  2. Give yourself permission to stop after 15-20 minutes

By working on one small area at a time, you’ll be able to see your progress and know exactly where to pick back up the next time you want to work on the room.

For example, if you decide that today is THE day to make a dent in your messy living room, so you put away a couple books from the end table (which is still covered in newspapers) and pick up the shoes (where a bunch of jackets are still scattered across the floor), you won’t be able to see that you did anything at all to clean up.

You’ll still do that that guilt-inspired shoulder slump (plus audible sigh) every time you walk into the room.

However, if you spend the same amount of time cleaning off the entire top of the end table, you’ll be able to see exactly what you accomplished and know where to start back up the next time you work on the room. You might even find yourself breaking into a little half-smile every time you walk into the living room and see that clean space you created (*cue happy dance*).

By choosing just one small space, you’ll be able to maintain your progress more easily once you get it cleaned up. Whereas, if you pick up some random books and shoes, what will keep you from setting down more books or tossing your shoes into the same corner the next time?

And by allowing yourself to only work for a few minutes, you don’t have to wait for an abundance of energy or for an entire free day (or your whole vacation!) to make some progress.

When you give yourself permission to work for just a few minutes at a time, rather than waiting till you have extra time AND excess energy on the same day (’cause when has that ever happened?), you’re more likely to actually get the job done – and feel good about it – before you fizzle out.

a child's room with clothes in a drawer

Declutter Your House and Keep It Clean

Here are some more tips for putting this method into practice in your own home!

Pick someplace really, really small.

When I say to work on “one small area” of your home, I’m not talking about the kitchen, or your master bedroom, or the hall bathroom.

Nope.

I’m talking about one small stretch of counter in your kitchen, or the top of one piece of furniture in your bedroom, or one square foot of space on the bathroom vanity.

A whole room is just too big to work on at one time. You need to think small…and then go even smaller. Work on an area that you can deal with in just fifteen minutes or less.

Choose an area that will impact you every day.

I like nothing more than cleaning out our family’s coat closet. Because I’m weird.

But if I’m being honest, a clean coat closet doesn’t make much of a difference in the look or feel of most homes.

It would be much better to clean out a kitchen cabinet that’s opened daily, the bathroom where you get ready every morning, or the sofa where you watch TV each night. When you’re getting started on your mountains of clutter (or even “hills” of clutter), pick a space that matters so you can actually see and enjoy your progress every day.

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Consider picking an area that will get your family on board.

There’s no guarantee that your family will light sparklers and throw a party just because you decide to clean something. (So don’t hold your breath.)

But they’re much more likely to notice your efforts, and maybe try to help out a little, if you work on a small project that will make life a bit easier for everyone.

Straightening the snack shelf in the pantry, your husband’s sock drawer in your bedroom, or the game cabinet in the living room, just might help your loved ones see that you’re serious about getting the house in order…and that there might be something good in it for them.

(A little warning though: Don’t get upset if your family doesn’t automatically offer to help or even seem to care. Keep making progress and find joy in creating a peaceful home you ALL can enjoy – including you!)

Work on your one small space until it’s completely clean.

Beware of getting sidetracked by other cleaning jobs that “need” done while you’re in the middle of tackling your small, designated task.

Picture this, for example: You’re cleaning off the table and go to put away the scissors in the kitchen drawer, but you realize that the drawer REALLY needs to be cleaned out first. If wham-bam-no-thank-you-ma’am you stop cleaning off the table in the middle of the job (just because the junk drawer needs cleaned first), you’ll end the day with the same old messy table and the sinking feeling that you’re never going to get it cleaned up.

Resist, I tell you. Resist.

Keep reminding yourself to work on just one thing at a time. Remember that randomly picking up doesn’t show the progress you’ve made or give you much motivation to keep going. Instead, work on your one small area until it’s absolutely, positively clean. (Don’t worry, the junk drawer will be waiting for you another day.)

Focus on what you DO accomplish instead of feeling guilty about what you DON’T get done.

Your house didn’t get messy in a day, and it won’t be cleaned up in a day, either. That’s just how the world works.

Now, I know that on TV they’re able to magically clean up a disastrous house in the span of twenty-three minutes (plus commercials). But the potential for to you clean up your entire house over the course of a day – or even a long weekend – is about as likely as me finding a perfect wall of shiplap hiding under my builder-grade drywall. Not gonna happen.

Let’s just face it that “reality TV” isn’t really reality. Am I right?

Instead of lamenting that you can’t get more cleaned up in a day, it’s important to celebrate every little success. Enjoy it. Show it off. Be proud of it, and use it as motivation to keep on chipping away.

Commit to keeping your small, newly-cleaned space clean.

One of the beauties of cleaning up one little area at a time is that you can easily see if clutter is starting to pile back up in that small space.

So, if you clean up the end table, you’ll see that lovely clean spot every time you walk into the room, and you’ll quickly notice if something has been left there that needs put away. Once you have some noticeably clean spaces (no matter how small they may be), it will be much easier to keep those tidy areas clean.

It’s so much easier to keep up with the progress you’ve made when you can actually see it!

I believe that you (yes, YOU!) really can have a comfortable and clutter-free home, without having to work all day to keep it clean. By working for just a few minutes a day and cleaning up one small area at a time, you can make it happen!

Get My Top 50+ Super-Simple Cleaning & Decluttering Tips

Subscribe to SMALL DOSE DECLUTTERING and get simple tips every week to turn your house into the uncluttered home you didn’t know was possible…and it’s 100% FREEEEE!

Your email is safe with us. We wouldn’t dream of sharing it with anyone else!

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4 Comments

  1. Anneliese says:

    i Literally sat down with a nutty bar feeling over whelmed when I keyed in this subject feet up in a recliner. Same home for 28 years and have worked full time soon to retire…but every room has some sort of mess or clutter and the motivation only lasts for awhile. Then I feel like I move things from room to room…I wish I had a non judgmental person to help. Sometime times I think 1 big dumpster in the drive way…it’d be so nice to feel good about a clutter free home. Every room. So I’ll try one small area at a time. Like finding my kitchen table top. Bad but not dirty. Simply clutter. So thank you for you words. It’s good to know I’m not alone in this. I thought something went wrong in my growing up years that I never learned how to…

    1. Aww…I’m so glad you’re here, and I hope you find lots of encouragement for uncovering that clutter-free home you’re dreaming of. Just take it one small step at a time. You’ve got this!

  2. I wish I could move out and back in again. When we moved in 20 years ago, we had too many helpers. They just put stuff anywhere and everywhere. So there are tools in the master bath, cookware in the basement. Nothing has an actual home so it’s everywhere. Everything! I’m going to map out where I would love to keep things and begin with your method. Thank you for sharing with the world.

  3. This is so helpful, thank you!
    I have always been clean, tidy, but we moved about 15 years ago to a new house. There have been serious illnesses among the 3 of us, my late mother’s dementia, plus my wonderfully loyal & caring partner is a hoarder, Now the house is a dreadful cluttered dirty space I’m ashamed of & can’t bring anyone into, even family. I’m really hoping to get it back but I didn’t know where to start- your article has given me hope.
    Many thanks
    Pat

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