How to Start Decluttering When You’re Overwhelmed by Everything

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Clutter is one of the biggest obstacles to a happy and organized life. When you’re surrounded by clutter, it’s hard to find anything, it’s difficult to relax in your own home, and it’s stressful to think about how much work needs to be done in order to get rid of all the stuff. So what do you do when you’re overwhelmed by the clutter and don’t know where to start? Follow these simple tips!

What is Clutter?

Clutter is all the stuff in your house that doesn’t have a place. It’s all the stuff in your house that doesn’t improve your quality of life. It can be anything from books and magazines to clothes and toys. The Oxford Dictionary defines clutter as:a collection of things lying about in an untidy massAn untidy mass. That’s pretty harsh, but it’s also correct. When your house is full of clutter, it looks like a mess. It feels overwhelming and stressful to be surrounded by all that stuff.

How to Declutter When You're Overwhelmed Heading

Too Much Stuff

As a society we have more stuff than ever before, especially in the U.S. Our houses are bigger, our closets are bigger, yet every closet, the spare bedroom and the garage is full of stuff.

When clutter starts building up, our instinct is often to add more storage space. In fact, an entire industry focuses on helping us deal with our clutter: stores that sell organizing solutions, organizing and decluttering consultants, and even storage units that allow us to keep even more stuff we don’t have room for. 

And you know what happens over time, right? Now we’ve got boxes that we never look at stacked in our basement. We’ve got clothes we never wear hanging in our closet on special hangers that take less space. We have entire rooms filled with things that “we might need someday.”

If you’re an empty nester, you probably have tons of things you accumulated while raising your kids. You might have old sports equipment in your garage or drawers full of your grown child’s original art.

Those things can be hard to discard. But holding on to excess items affects your mental health.

How Clutter Affects Your Mental Health

Clutter affects every aspect of our lives at home, including our mental health.

Clutter Makes it Hard to Focus

Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time. But when we’re surrounded by clutter, our brain is distracted from the task at hand every time we look around us.   You may not think that you’re noticing it, but you are.

You’re keeping mental tabs on everything around you and that’s causing stress and draining your energy.

Clutter Keeps Us Stuck in the Past

Clutter is a coping mechanism that keeps us stuck in the past. We keep things we no longer need because of the memories attached to them. Or, we hold on to items because it causes us too much pain to let them go.

We hold on to notebooks and paperwork from that failed business opportunity or the treadmill we bought to get into shape. Letting go and getting rid of either feels like we’ve truly given up on the idea. 

Letting go of things and getting rid of physical items that we’ve grown attached to can very painful. But sometimes facing that pain is part of the overall healing process.

Clutter Causes Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Clutter creates a feeling of chaos and confusion, which can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. And these feelings can lead to overwhelm.It’s hard to live in an environment that is constantly telling you that you’re doing something wrong. You know you need to do something about the clutter around you, but you’re exhausted by just thinking about it.

Let’s change that.

How clutter affects mental health

Decluttering Can Truly Change Your Life

In her book, Steering by Starlight, Martha Beck recommends decluttering as an exercise that can bring profound change in your life. As she says,

“Every time you make a choice about which objects you bring into your space, where you put them, or whether to remove them, you’re following psychological directives that also shape every other aspect of your life. If you feel overwhelmed by tasks and people, your home will be overcrowded with objects. If you care more about your children than about yourself, you’ll take better care of their space than you do of your own. If you have a lot of secrets, the physical manifestations of those secrets will be stowed–usually in a grubby, hidden, or suffocating–somewhere in your house.”

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Whenever I find that I’m dissatisfied with my life or I need to figure out my next steps, I always start decluttering. Getting rid of the objects that no longer suit me always makes me feel light and freer and I can more easily see what I want to do next.

Martha Beck quote about clutter

Why do I feel overwhelmed by clutter?

Most decluttering tips tell you to take each item in the spot you’re decluttering and put it in one of these categories:

  • Trash
  • Donate
  • Keep

But following this decluttering strategy can quickly become overwhelming because you’re forced to make a decision about every single item. It can often be hard to make a decision about the items you’re evaluating because thoughts like these keep coming up:

  • What if I get rid of this and need it again?
  • If I keep this, where should I store it?
  • I don’t need this, but someone else I know could probably use this.
  • This cost so much money!
  • I got this from my mother and it reminds me of her.
  • I could sell this. I’m sure someone would want it.
  • This would be worth keeping if I just fixed it.
  • I really like this, but somehow I never seem to use it.

Following this method is also time consuming because we’re evaluating every single item we pick up. Suddenly, you’ve spent the last hour doing something you thought would take 20 minutes at most and you’re not even done.

What happens then? You run out of time to finish the job and now you’ve lost the motivation to come back to it later.

How to Start Decluttering When You're Overwhelmed by Everything 1

Plus, when we have to make too many decisions, we often fall victim to decision fatigue. That’s where making each decision drains your energy and makes it that much harder to make a decision about the next item.

You feel overwhelmed and you give up.

But remember that decluttering can bring profound change in your life. And it’s not as daunting as it seems. I have a few decluttering strategies that streamline the process so it’s much quicker and minimizes decision fatigue.

Let’s get started!

How to Start Decluttering When You’re Overwhelmed

The purpose of decluttering is actually quite simple: we declutter because we want to get rid of the things we don’t need in order to simplify our lives and reduce stress. Easy, right?

But it’s not so easy if you’re completely overwhelmed and don’t even know where to even start decluttering. These tips will help you get started, but just remember this: You don’t have to do the entire house all at once. Just start small, and take it one step at a time. You’ll be surprised how much progress you can make when you take it one step at a time.

How to Start Decluttering When You're Overwhelmed by Everything 2

1. Gather Your Decluttering Supplies

  • Notebook and pen to jot down to-do items or notes about decisions you need to make.
  • Post-it Notes and Sharpie for labeling items.
  • Boxes to help sort items.
  • Trash bags for the items you throw away or donate.

We don’t want to use our decluttering project as an excuse to bring in more clutter, but it’s helpful to have a few items on hand before you start. I like to set aside a table or counter to act as a decluttering command center so that everything I need can be found in one place.

2. Think About Why You Are Decluttering

Decluttering isn’t just randomly getting rid of things. If you do that, you’ll find yourself back in the same place you were before. Instead, let’s start our decluttering project by imagining how your space will look when it’s decluttered.

This is another technique I learned from my beloved Martha Beck: if you’re feeling unmotivated and depressed, start with the end. Imagine what your clutter free home will look like and how that will make you feel.

Think about these questions:

  • How do you want to feel in that space?
  • What activities will take place there?
  • What is the purpose of this room or area?
  • How does the clutter affect how it functions for you now and how would eliminating some of that clutter improve your life?

If you have some time, try journaling about these questions or even collecting pictures of clutter-free rooms that appeal to you.

3. Make a Decluttering Plan

Before you even begin decluttering, make a plan for your project. Using your notebook, list each room that needs decluttering in order of how you want to tackle them.

How to Decide Which Room to Declutter First

There are a few methods you can use to choose the order of rooms to declutter first. You could choose to:

  • pick the worst room in the house so you get that job over with first.
  • pick the room your family spends the most time in since that will make the most difference in your lives when you finish the job.
  • start with easiest room first (a great idea if you’re really overwhelmed.)

I personally start with the easiest room and then work my way up to the more difficult tasks, like decluttering sentimental items.

If you feel completely overwhelmed, you don’t even have to start with an entire room. You can start with a few small spaces or even start with the junk drawer in your kitchen. Again, what we’re shooting for is progress, not perfection.

4. Create a Schedule

Decide how much time you want to spend each day on decluttering and then create a rough schedule for the project. For example, one hour per week or every other day for 20 minutes.

You can always revise your schedule if necessary, but we tend to prioritize things we’ve committed to or that have some kind of deadline.

A schedule will help you keep moving forward even when you’re feeling unmotivated to continue.

5. Decide on Your Decluttering Rules

Remember when I said that you shouldn’t have to pick up every single item and decide what to do with each one? We’re going to streamline that process by deciding on a few decluttering rules.

Decluttering rules help you make your decisions faster and more easily. When you pick up an item, evaluate it according to a list of decluttering rules. Once you’ve figured out which rule applies to this item, then you take the action defined in your rule.

For example, if you have a rule that you don’t keep items that aren’t useful, when you pick up something and realize it’s not useful to you, you can toss it in the trash bag or donate box.

Some Decluttering Rules You Can Use

Here are some rules I use to help me make decisions when I’m decluttering. You can use them all or just pick the ones you like. You can add rules of your own as well.

These rules are designed to help you focus on why you’re decluttering: you’re getting rid of things to simplify your life and reduce stress. You don’t have to follow each rule to the letter, but when you do, the project goes so much quicker!

Once you’ve come up with your list of rules, write them in your notebook so you have handy as you go through the decluttering process.


RULE #1: IF I haven’t used an item in the past year AND I don’t know if I will use it in the next year, DISCARD

The past is the best predictor of the future. If you haven’t used an item in the last year, you probably won’t use it in the next year. Because COVID has made our lives so topsy-turvy, I added that if haven’t used an item in the last year, but I’ll probably need it in the upcoming year, then I will keep it.

RULE #2: IF I can easily replace the for under $20 and in less than 20 minutes, DISCARD

This may seem wasteful at first, but think of the physical and mental energy that you have to expend to keep the item. You have to find a place to store and hope you remember where you stored it if you need it again. You’re better off getting rid of it and then repurchasing it if you need it. (And spoiler alert: you won’t ever need it again.)

RULE #3: IF I’m only keeping this because it was a gift, DISCARD

When someone gives you a gift, they’re saying “I like you and I thought you would like this.” If your friend gives you a funny pair of socks, the true gift was the moment when you opened the package and shared a laugh. If you find you actually never wear the socks, it’s time to discard them. You still have your memory of the gift

RULE #4: IF I’m only keeping this because I feel guilty, DISCARD

This includes things like:
– that dress you bought with the tags still on it
– that treadmill you never use that cost so much money
– those books you have that you’ve never read
All of these are things that cause us to feel guilt. However, we all make mistakes. We’ve all bought things we didn’t like or use once we got them home.
Your house should make you feel happy and supported. Items that make you feel guilty when you look at them bring negative energy into your house. You don’t need that.

RULE #5: IF an item isn’t useful, DISCARD

I have a bad habit of keeping things I never use just because I really like it. For example, when I was using the KonMari method to go through my clothes, I came across a sweater that I really loved. But for some reason, I just never wore it.
At first I kept it because I did think it was pretty and so I felt like it sparked joy. However, I eventually gave it away when I realized that if I never used it, it isn’t useful to me and so I’m better off getting rid of it.

RULE #6: IF an item needs a repair to be used AND the repair can’t be completed in under an hour and in less than 30 days, DISCARD

I use this rule because I have a bad habit of keeping things I never use just because I really like it. For example, when I was using the KonMari method to go through my clothes, I came across a sweater that I really loved. But for some reason, I just never wore it.
At first I kept it because I did think it was pretty and so I felt like it sparked joy. However, I eventually gave it away when I realized that if I never used it, it isn’t useful to me and so I’m better off getting rid of it.

What to Do with Unwanted Items

Once you’ve decided which items you will be keeping and which items you’re discarding, now you need to decide just how you are going to be discarding the items.

You can discard an item by:

  • Trashing It
  • Donating It
  • Selling It

You can use the rules to decide when to trash an item, donate an item or sell an item.


RULE #1: IF it’s broken or in bad shape, TRASH.

When my mom moved out of her house, she donated a set of broken Christmas lights to Goodwill because “they might have a use for it.” Thrift stores don’t have a use for your truly awful stuff.

RULE #2: IF you can’t figure out where to donate it, TRASH.

Remember, our goal here is to get things out of our house and out of our lives. There’s no need to drive around with your castoffs trying to find a place to donate for them.

RULE #3: IF the price you can get for the item – the COST of selling the items IS MORE THAN your hourly rate, SELL, IF NOT, THEN DONATE

We tend to overvalue the items we own and so we can often convince ourselves that someone will be happy to pay money for our castoffs. If you want to see an item, make sure the amount of money you can get for the item is more than the cost of getting it ready to sell (fixing the item if necessary, listing the item, taking pictures, talking to potential buyers, delivering the item, etc.)

How much do you normally make per hour? If the realistic price you can sell the item for minus the cost of getting the item ready to sell is more than your hourly rate, then it’s worth selling your item.

6. Get Rid of the Big Stuff First

Once you’ve come up with your rules, you ready to start decluttering! Go around your house with a set of post-in notes and a pen and identify all the big items you want to discard, like old exercise equipment, non-working refrigerators, and outdated TV cabinets.

Put a post-it note on each item to identify what you plan to do with it. For example, when we were getting ready to move out of our condo, I went around and stuck a post-it note on the big items I needed help with to discard. Then I reached out to a junk removal service to have them come and help me remove the big items I couldn’t handle.

7. Set a Timer to Keep On Track

Once you’ve identified what to do with the big stuff, you’re ready to start decluttering room by room. Work on only one room at a time.

Whenever you have a decluttering session, start by setting a timer for half the time you scheduled for decluttering. For example, if you’re planning to work on decluttering for the next hour, set a timer for 30 minutes.

For the first half of your session, find the items you want to discard and gather them into a pile. Use your remaining time to go through the items you’ve gathered. Take a look at everything you’ve collected and, using your rules, put your items into one of 3 piles (or into a box if that’s easier):

  • Trash It
  • Donate It
  • Sell It

8. Deal with Items to Discard after Each Decluttering Session to Minimize the Chaos

A big decluttering project can create a lot of mess and chaos as you’re going through the items. Your house can potentially feel even messier and out of control than usual while you’re decluttering.

Keep the mess under control by immediately getting rid of the items you want to discard before you move on to your next decluttering session.

After Every Decluttering Session:

  • Throw away the items you’ve decided to trash.
  • Take your donate items to the donation center (or at least get it ready to go to the center once you’ve gathered enough items.
  • Start the process for selling your items.

9. Get Started with the Easy Decisions

Each time you start decluttering a room, start the process by dealing with all the stuff you know you want to get rid of.

Grab a laundry basket and walk around the room, looking for anything you immediately know you want to discard. As you come across each item that you want to discard, put it in the laundry basket.

Once you’ve filled your laundry basket, sort your items into the trash, donate, sale piles.

10. Do a Small Section at a Time

When you are working on decluttering a room, break it into small sections and declutter each section one at a time. For example, if you are working in your bathroom, you might start with your medicine cabinet, then the drawers, linen closet, etc.

Work from the smallest section up to the biggest section.

11. Declutter First, Then Organize

When you’re decluttering a section, work on decluttering first before you start to organize the items you want to keep. You need to get everything out before you start focusing on how to organize the remaining items.

Trying to organize as you’re decluttering gets you off track and contributes to overwhelm. Don’t think about where you’re going to put the things you keep until you’ve finished getting rid of everything you want to discard.

If any of the items you’ve chosen to keep need something done for them–a picture you need to hang, a rip you need to repair, etc.–put them aside for now and make a note about what needs to be done and when you will do it.

12. Reward Yourself for a Good Job

Once you’ve finished up your scheduled time, take a break and do something you enjoy for a few minutes.  Then, take a look at how much you’ve accomplished and congratulate yourself for doing a good job.

13. Keep Working Through the House a Little Bit at a Time

When you’ve completed one room, move on to another and start over again. Keep working through each room a little bit at a time until you’ve decluttered your entire home.

14. Keep Up the Habit

Now that you’ve decluttered your home, it’s important to keep up the habit so you clutter doesn’t get out of control again. Take a little time once a month or so to look around and see if there are any items you don’t need.

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If you have any tips to share about how to declutter when you’re overwhelmed, or any questions about the process I’ve described, let me know in the comments!

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