relaxed woman holding coffee cup

How to stop organizing overwhelm

In theory, decluttering and organizing are simple. You select what you still need and let the rest go. Find homes for everything you’ve kept and move on with your life.

The reality, as we know, is somewhat different. Because although in the end it’s all just stuff, when you think about decluttering, all that stuff seems extremely important and it becomes vital that you handle it perfectly.

What if you donated Aunt Millicent’s painstakingly cross-stitched cushions and then her daughter came to visit and noticed they weren’t out on display? What if someone saw your house and found something to criticize? What if you didn’t organize everything perfectly?

The home is a crucible for perfectionism and it can go either way. You might label everything from the cat to the cornflakes and insist that all items be in place at all times. You might think of perfect as your baseline and aim higher.

Or you might feel so stressed out at the thought of maintaining that level of order that you wait, putting it off until you’re feeling more in the mood. You’d rather not start than start and fail.

However you react, aiming for perfection is exhausting and a colossal waste of time. Whoever trained you that way was wrong and although we forgive them for it, it can be hard to move on.

Clutter takes up so much emotional energy

My son likes snakes and I don’t.  He would happily fill his room with cages full of carefully selected specimens and  meet all their serpentine needs. I’d happily never see one again. Our compromise is that he has a couple of small pet snakes in his room and I tell myself  if I can’t see them, they’re not really in my house.

Although I know they can’t escape now – that was years ago and must never happen again – there’s a program running in the back of my mind on a continuous loop that says snakes are in  here! – watch out, there’s snakes! – there are snakes in that room! Although I don’t consciously hear those words, my body knows. And the day those snakes finally slither away, I’m going to feel a massive sense of relief and realize just how much of my energy has been taken up thinking about those snakes without me even knowing it.

It’s the same with clutter. You might be at the point where you don’t see the clutter that much anymore. It’s become so normal, you forget that not everyone lives like this. Yet just as not everyone has two pet snakes in their house, not everyone deals with piles everywhere they can’t sort out.  I automatically avoid looking at my son’s closed door as I pass by in case it’s open and I catch a glimpse of scaliness. You may have become so accustomed to deliberately not looking at your home as a whole that if someone took a photograph of your dining room and showed it to you, you’d do a double take.

Be kind to yourself

Telling myself I ought not to be afraid of snakes doesn’t work. The more I argue with that idea, the more my brain comes up with all sorts of solid reasons why I’m right and really should be frightened of them. And telling yourself you’re a miserable failure because your place is a mess is an equally ineffective away to make a change. The reality is, I’m scared of snakes. You have too much clutter. And the only way either of us is getting out of our predicament is slowly and gently, encouraging ourselves with each step forward, coming back to try again over and over.

I can’t do anything about those snakes until my son moves out but you can do something about your clutter right now. And if he never moved out and I had to face my fear of snakes, I wouldn’t doing it by reaching into a cage and picking one up. That would be too much too soon, I’d have to gradually work my way up to it, gaining confidence as I gradually exposed myself to snakes in a slow and steady manner that worked just right for me.

Take it slowly

It’s like that with decluttering. Trying to “just” clean out the spare room will ramp up your anxiety and make you slam the door shut. Setting your timer for 20 minutes and picking one thing to start with, taking the whole 20 minutes to decide what to do with it if you need to, will allow you to come back tomorrow and do the same thing.

Odds are, no matter how much clutter you’re dealing with, if you declutter for 20 minutes a day, you’ll deal with it sooner than my house will be snake free. If you plan to fill the empty space with your collection of interesting snakes, that’s up to you. Just  please keep it to yourself.

Here’s what helps

Figure out why you want to get organized and aim for good enough. Is it so you can find things? So you can stop wasting time and money buying things you already have? So it’ll be easy to welcome friends and family in after the pandemic passes?

Armed with your motive, consider what might be the least you could do to achieve that goal.

Although in an ideal world, you’d like to have the whole house sparkling and organized and welcome friends into your showpiece home, you don’t need to reorganize the linen cupboard and clear out the basement to be able to have friends over.

Break it down

Before you disappear into an exhausted whirl of sorting, stop for a moment and picture what happens when you have someone over for coffee.

  1. They arrive and walk through your house to the living room.
  2. They sit down while you make them some coffee.
  3. You visit and at some point someone most likely asks to use the bathroom.
  4. They leave.

See it in your mind as you watch your friend ring the doorbell, walk down the passageway to the living room and sit down on the couch. Notice how they instinctively look for a place to set their bag down. Watch as you get them situated and then disappear into the kitchen to prepare the coffee before coming back with steaming mugs of deliciousness. Continue to picture the scene as you chat together and catch up, setting down your empty cups to continue the conversation. As the visit draws to a close, see how your friend disappears to use the bathroom and then returns to say goodbye and head on out.

If you were setting up the props for that scene in your movie, what would you need?

  • A clear path from the front door to a place to sit,
  • A place to sit down,
  • Space to make the coffee and clean cups to serve it in,
  • A place to put down the empty coffee cups,
  • Easy access to a clean bathroom.

Now take it step by step. What needs to be done so this movie will run smoothly?

Clear a pathway

Although you’d like to have visitors saunter down clear corridors to your immaculate living room, pausing only to admire the carefully chosen artwork on the walls, the good enough goal is for them to be able to move from the front door to the living room without tripping on anything. Either put things away or box them up. Label the box, “from the hallway”.

Find a place they can sit

Think about how many friends you’ll want to have over. Maybe start small with just one friend. That means two sitting spaces need to be cleared off. If you’re able to sort the piles on the chairs and the couch, great. If not, collect them up and put them in a box which you’ve labeled “from the couch” or “from the comfy chair in the living room”. That way you won’t get anxious thinking about losing everything. Keep that box in the living room, tucked away.

Along with a place to sit, you’ll also want to have room for their feet on the floor and for them to put a bag down. So, either put away what’s on the floor or box it up again, this time labeling it, “from the floor in front of the couch.” If you rely on the visual memory of where things are in your house, it’s essential that you label your boxes like this otherwise you’re going to get disoriented.

Run a vacuum cleaner or push a broom across the area you’ve cleared and call it good.

On one side of the chair you’ve cleared, put something sturdy that could have a coffee cup on it without incident.  A little end table? A stack of coffee table books, squared off so they won’t topple? One of the boxes you created? Make sure it’s full to the brim and the lid fits so the weight of a full coffee cup won’t be a problem.

Making coffee

Check your coffeemaker works. Do you have filters if needed? Have you washed it out so it’s ready to use?

Is there enough coffee in the house? How about sweetener or cream?

Find enough cups or mugs and wash them.

Clear a space on the counter so you’ll have room to work when visiting day arrives.

Clear the way to the bathroom

Boxing up if necessary, with your label reading, “from the bathroom corridor”, clear a path from the living room to the bathroom so your guests can get to the bathroom without tripping.

Bathroom prep

In an ideal world, your guests would never ask to use the bathroom and you could skip this step. But combine coffee and conversation and odds are, this room will see some action.

Ignore the vision of serene oases of scented soaps and striking orchids and aim to have a functional bathroom.

You will need:

  • toilet paper,
  • soap,
  • hand towel or paper towels,
  • a garbage can.

Before your guests arrive, check the toilet is reasonably clean. You’re not running a hotel but you don’t want any surprises. Give it a quick wipe down if necessary.

Make sure there’s a roll of toilet paper in the holder and put an extra roll close by.

Check the sink is empty and give it a wipe down. Put soap nearby and towels or paper towels for drying hands.

Make sure there’s a garbage can for the used paper towels and you’ve emptied it recently.

Do an experiment

To try this out, let’s play a game. Your goal is to earn as many points as possible.

Call someone you like and invite them over for coffee.

You get 1,000 points if they walk in, throw up their hands in horror and run shrieking down the driveway, never to be heard from again.

You get 800 points if they look visibly uncomfortable throughout their visit.

You get two points if they stay far longer than you expected and ask if the two of you can make this a regular date.

Reality check

How many points did you get? I’d put good money you got a measly two points. Your friends enjoy your company and want to see you.  They’re not interested in doing uninvited house inspections. They don’t need to see the kitchen itself, they don’t need to wander around upstairs, they have no interest in being given “the tour”. They’d like to be able to sit down while they talk to you, they’ll enjoy a cup of coffee and they’ll appreciate being able to use the facilities before the long drive home, but first and foremost, they want to see you.

How perfect is that.

by Lucy Kelly


  1. What a delightful way to frame all of this. I definitely want to work on this movie set! (But anyone I’m visiting better know to lay in a supply of diet Coke instead of coffee.) And in real life as in a movie, if the personalities are bubbly enough, nobody will pay that much attention to the set or the props! Great advice, all around!

    1. Yes, when you think about your clutter all the time and worry about it, it’s easy to forget that other people aren’t as concerned and preoccupied with it. Sort of reminds me of when we got Baxter, our elder dog – suddenly the world was full of dogs who looked like Baxter!

  2. What a clever post. What I like most of all is how you create a completely different way to look at overwhelm and how we do things. I also find that breaking any task down into small manageable parts makes it so much easier to tackle and get done.

  3. Yes! This is spot on. Visualizing is one of the most important parts of the process for making your home work. Thank you for all your practical suggestions!

  4. I love the idea of creating a movie set and the question- what do you need for this to work? I also love the way you identified the fact that whoever gave you the idea to aim for perfect is simply wrong. I ask my clients to work toward better. Look at the way something is now and let’s make it better.

    1. I love that phrase, Diane “work towards better”. I hear the word “perfect” thrown around all the time, and it kind of makes me cringe. When my kids were growing up, we called it the P word. A word not to be used!

  5. What a fun post! I love the idea of imagining a movie set:) I completely agree that friends don’t care if your space is perfect. In fact, I think it can actually feel more inviting if your home feels lived in and “real.” A perfectly decorated space with not a piece out of place can actually be a bit intimidating. It comes down to being able to use your home the way you want to. As you say, I want to be able to invite a friend over for coffee (well, someday, when this whole COVID thing is over!), without having to worry about whether or not there will be a place for my friend to sit down.