young boy on the beach surrounded by seagulls

Coping With Anxiety When You Contemplate Decluttering

Hands down the most popular, most read, most shared Joyful Surroundings blog post. If you missed it, here’s where I break down how to get started.

Many of us would like to get organized and know the first step is reducing clutter. Been there, Kondoed that, read the books, magazines and blogs a thousand times. But somehow despite all the insight, the clutter remains.

There are good reasons to head for a trusted therapist’s office to untangle the threads that got you to this point (check out my interview with local therapist Sonja Hellman here) but all too often, investigating the phenomenon replaces actually getting rid of the clutter.

So how do you get started when anxiety has you in its grip? The single most helpful piece of advice I have is for you to really take this on board:

Organizing is a process not an event.

Write it on sticky notes and post them all over the house. Yes, on all the piles of clutter too.

Why would that matter? Because if it’s an event, it’s got to be done all at once, and our imaginations can fill in the rest – endless hours, hot and uncomfortable, shame at all the trash outside, repeated tiring trips to the thrift store to donate enduring judgmental eyes (although actually, they’re thrilled to get all this stuff for free they can make money from to help people). The sheer size of the task is daunting, whether it’s that room full of old magazines you call your office or the kitchen table covered with dog toys or the whole damn house.

But if it’s a process, that’s a whole different kettle of fish/ball of wax/insert your own corny down-home motto. We don’t send our kids off to their very first piano lesson and then get mad they aren’t playing Beethoven sonatas by the end of the week. That would be silly and unfair. Why do the same to ourselves? And so don’t look at that mess all over the house, spreading from the hallway, along the stairs up into every room and down to the basement too and expect to snap your fingers and have it all taken care of right then and there. It’s going to take a while. And the fact that you’d like it done yesterday doesn’t cancel out the fact that it’s most likely been this way for years already. You can take your time.

Just shifting the view from event (get it done now whatever the cost) to process (beginning, middle, end), can help your brain calm down a little bit. It’s like my son, sitting for an hour on the beach with a handful of breadcrumbs and calmly, patiently waiting for the seagulls to come closer, closer, a little closer, until they were brave enough to finally hop on his hand and take a crumb or two. No sense scaring ourselves about this decluttering thing. We’re just going to get started a little at a time, establish a habit. Coax ourselves into getting started.

But How Do I Get Started?

Joyful Surroundings Mom here:

  1. Eat first if you haven’t recently. Ideally something with protein, but anything’s better than nothing.
  2. Fill a glass or a bottle with some water and take it with you where you’ll be working
  3. Go use the bathroom. Even if you think you don’t need to.

Alright then, let’s get started.

Set your timer for 20 minutes.

Take three breaths just for you. Nice and slowly, just breathing.

In and out.

In and out.

In and out.

Now pick an area that’s bothering you and start sorting. Think in very broad categories. If you’re sorting random piles, you’ll make piles like “home office,” “kitchen,” “bedroom.” If you’re sorting your office, you’ll have categories like “office supplies,” “papers to deal with,” “books.” Don’t try to get anymore specific because that’s like walking across quicksand. We’ll drill down later but for now, the broader the category, the better.

Did the timer ring already?  Great, you’re done for today. Don’t worry about how it looks – after all, you already didn’t like how messy it was. Now it’s messy on the way to not messy. Big difference.

To finish up, take a drink of water and smile as big as you can. Doesn’t matter if you’re faking it, just beam with radiant sunshine. You’re doing it!

Now look at tomorrow’s schedule – what do you have going on? If it’s a super busy day, that’s okay, but if you can find a spare 20 minutes, write it down on the calendar. “2 pm, decluttering.” Set an alarm on your phone for five minutes before 2 pm, to give yourself time to get ready for your decluttering appointment.

Continue to sort each day for 20 minutes. Always stop when the timer rings. And outside those 20 minutes, if you come across a spatula on the bookshelf, and it’s easy, you could take it over to the kitchen pile. No big deal, just if you’re passing.

Why Does This Lessen Anxiety?

  1. Creating a ritual (eat, get water, use the bathroom, set the timer, breathe, sort, drink water, smile) helps you get started a little bit easier each time. It eases you into the process.
  2. It’s slow enough to calm your brain down. Nice broad categories help because otherwise we’re going to get bogged down into 56 different categories for types of baking pans and all the piles will topple over and get mixed up again.

Did Your Son Ever Get a Bird to Eat Out of His Hand?

Yes he did. My determined little metaphor crouched on the stony beach with sand in his shorts and sunscreen sweating off his forehead into his eyes until the birds found him boring enough to take the food from his hand.


  1. Excellent advice here! I would even say organizing is more than a process, but a lifestyle. Once you’ve got things to a certain point, you can keep it that way in just 20 minutes a day, except when a crisis hits. And it will be much easier to restore order even when that happens.

  2. Thank you, I try to make it an event each summer and ‘fail’. I’m a counselor and smart and I could just not figure out why I kept failing at it. this makes so much sense. I always set such huge goals and then am paralyzed with fear and don’t reach them .. or don’t even start. I like your approach and will put it to use. Thank you for your compassion to those of us who haven’t figured out this part yet.


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