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How To Start Decluttering When You’re Overwhelmed

By August 15, 2021October 4th, 20236 Comments

There are two questions potential clients often ask me during our initial free phone consultation. The first question is really more of a statement, and it goes something like this: I’m so overwhelmed by all my clutter I don’t know how to get started. The question is: how to start decluttering when you’re overwhelmed?

The second question is: where do I start decluttering?

Both are great questions. The second question is the easiest to answer, you start decluttering in the area that bothers you the most. That differs for each and every person.

Let’s address the first question, which is a little harder. Since I am a certified professional organizer, I have a few tricks up my sleeve which help motivate my clients to begin the decluttering process.

How to start decluttering when you’re overwhelmed

No matter the size of your clutter problem, it can feel overwhelming. Always begin with the end in mind. What is your vision for the space? When you’re finished decluttering, how do you want to space to look. The space can be as small as a drawer or as large as your whole house.

If you are so overwhelmed by the mere thought of dealing with the clutter that you simply can’t move off the couch spend some time on Pinterest. Get some ideas and create a vision for the space that is bothering you.

Know your motivation.

What is your reason for organizing? Is it because living with so much clutter is stressful? Do you want to find the things you know you have to avoid repurchasing them and save money? Maybe you want to save time because you won’t waste time hunting for something. Does the clutter bother your partner more than you and it’s putting a strain on your relationship? There are many reasons to want to declutter. When you understand your reason, it’s much easier to start decluttering even if it is overwhelming.

Give yourself an incentive

Give yourself a reward for each time you complete part of a decluttering project. Decide your goal and then decide what your reward will be when you achieve that goal. Do yourself a favor and have the reward be clutter-free. Make it an experience. Schedule lunch with a friend, take yourself out for a mani/pedi, or go to the new exhibit at the museum.

Maybe you give yourself small rewards for each part of the project and then a bigger reward when the entire project is completed.

Having a reward to work for is always a good idea.

Set your timer

Decide how long you want to work on the clutter today. It’s much easier to work on a task you don’t want to do if you know you won’t be doing it very long.

Start with a short amount of time, something like 10 or 15 minutes. You can hang in there and mindfully sort through a pile for those few minutes. Decide where you are going to work, set your timer, and begin.

When the alarm sounds, stop working. Assess what you’ve done. If you want to work a little longer, great! If not, no worries. It will still be here for you tomorrow.

You will make progress even if you only work for 10 minutes at a time. It’s amazing what you can accomplish in 10 short minutes.

Look for treasures

Still wondering how to start decluttering if you’re overwhelmed? Go on a treasure hunt! You never know what you will find as you declutter your home. In my experience, people find things they have been looking for and are happy to recover them.

It’s very important to look through everything. Even if your pile of papers is small, take the time to rifle through them.  One of my clients found a refund check for $2,000 amongst her pile of papers. That was terrific treasure to find.

Treasured photos

Another client found a picture of herself with a favorite relative buried in a stack of magazines. Have a box in which to put the photos you come across as you’re decluttering. If you know the people in the picture, take a minute and write their names on the back of the photo. If you don’t know anyone in the picture, decide if you need to keep it.

It can be hard to toss pictures. You think someone may want it. If you know who will want the picture, mail it to them. If you don’t want it and you don’t know anyone who wants it, then it’s time to remove it from your home. Here is a guide for photo organizing.

Make decisions

Another tip is to make decisions as you go. Have some boxes to sort into. Label the boxes Keep, Recycle, Trash, Pending (or Marinating or Thinking About).

When your decluttering session is finished, empty the trash and recycling boxes first. Then look through the Keep Box and decide where to keep those items. It may be that these items don’t have a place to belong yet. You may need to create files for papers, to reduce what is in a drawer, or to empty a cupboard to put these things away. Those tasks can wait until you are working in that area.

Label the things you are keeping. This will help you know what they are when you come across them again. Put them near to where they will belong.

Always stay in the area you are working. If you get up to put something away in another area because you know where it goes you will start working in that area. Wait until the end of your work session to put things away.

In summary

It is very difficult to know how to start decluttering when you’re overwhelmed. Sometimes the best thing to do is take a deep breath and just start. When you do be sure to use these 5 tips.

  1. Know your motivation
  2. Give yourself an incentive
  3. Work for short, finite sessions
  4. Look for treasures
  5. Make decisions

Diane N. Quintana is a Certified Professional Organizer® ,a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization®, Master Trainer and owner of DNQ Solutions, LLC and co-owner of Release●Repurpose●Reorganize, LLC based in Atlanta, Georgia. Sign up for Diane’s monthly newsletter and get a brief tip each Monday to start your week.


  • Lucy Kelly says:

    If my organizing clients can’t pick a single “worst pain point”, I often suggest we start by the left-hand side of the door of the room we’re in and then work our way around the room. As we clear a space, even if it’s just a square inch, that space becomes sacred ground and no clutter can go there again. This strategy appeals to many of my left-brain clients as it predicts we’ll get to everything in an orderly fashion. And so we do.

  • Sheri Steed says:

    Wonderful tips. Overwhelm is such a common struggle. I often here, “I don’t know where to start.” The truth is it doesn’t matter where you start, only that you do. Once you get going, things start to fall into place and your motivation builds as you see progress. Starting with the area that bothers you the most is always a good idea, and making decisions all along the way is crucial. I like your idea of going on a treasure hunt. It puts a positive spin on things. People are so often turned off by the idea of having to get rid of things. Searching instead, for a lost or forgotten treasure makes the process fun and inviting.

  • Decluttering is huge right now. Perhaps because we spent so much time indoors?
    Clients over the years have asked the same questions, especially, I’m so overwhelmed, where to begin? Another question that I’m frequently asked is,how long will it take? The one thing I know for sure, it always takes longer.

    I like working on small projects and in small doses of time. I’ve been using that kitchen timer for 40 years.

    I loved what you said about finding treasures. I too have found money for clients. My favorite story is having worked with a woman to clear out the clutter and get ready for a move. As we were going through her shelves and drawers, I found a brown paper bag. Inside the bag was precious jewelry that she couldn’t find or had missed placed for years. That was the best treasure hunt!!

  • Overwhelm is the number one reason why people reach out to me for help. Your two questions about how and where to start decluttering feeling overwhelmed are excellent. I hear them a lot too. Both questions have many possibilities, and the key is helping the client discover their path forward. So even with the where to start, there are options. It might be, as you said, beginning in the place the “bothers them the most.” It’s also possible they want to start organizing in the place that will be the easiest or the least emotional. It just depends.

    For the how-to declutter, you gave a wonderful list of ideas. I had an interesting situation arise recently. A client specifically didn’t want any rewards or accolades tied to their organizing progress. In fact, those things demotivated and agitated them. Their reaction was related to experiences growing up with being rewarded for every tiny thing. This left a negative relationship with rewards that ran out of control as an adult. It was my first encounter with something like that.

  • Seana Turner says:

    I think that “know your motivation” point is so important. Knowing where we are going helps us make those tough decisions. If my goal is to make space for a guest room, I can then ask myself what is more important: keeping this item or freeing up the guest room. It really pushes me to clarify my priorities!

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