How to Clean Up When You're Feeling Overwhelmed.

I have wanted to write a post about this for a while. Normally I like to blog when I feel like I have extra time, and am already staying on top of the other things I need to attend to. Today, after thinking about it, I decided that this might actually be the best time to write this post about helping someone out of an overwhelming mess. For various reasons our houses can get messy to the point where it's hard to see the way forward. I'm not at that point now, but I feel reminded of those times as I look around...

Lily is at the stage where she often wants to be held. I am often waiting for her to nap so that I can do house chores, and then when she falls asleep, it is hard to switch gears and suddenly spring into action. 

Hence, the action plan, that I am writing out for myself here, and sharing with all of you. Keep in mind that our house in 950 ft2, with 3 kids, 2 adults, a cat, and often spare neighbours thrown in for good measure! I was originally going to do this post as "tips for cleaning in a small house", because small houses can easily become overwhelmed with clutter. It is fast to clean, but if not maintained it can take mere hours to get to the stage that another person's house might be in if they were sick for a weekend, or out every night of the week. When I take extra time to make art, the housework gets behind and I frequently need to implement this "emergency plan". The way pilots have checklists to follow if things get a little out of hand, (losing an engine, perhaps) I can refer to this and stay calm.

First off: Practice a bit of self-care.

Could a couple of these things make a big difference in how energized you feel?

Take a deep breath. Drink a glass of water. Eat a healthy snack if you are hungry. Yes, that can be difficult without clean dishes. Take a shower. Phone someone, tell them you are cleaning up and need a pep talk (because absolutely everyone knows this feeling, even if you have never seen their house messy), invite someone over later in the day, or turn on some fun music. 

Ready to begin? Read through this, glancing around the room and categorizing the things you see, as we move through it. It may look like one big mess, but pretty much everything will fit into these categories. I usually work through this in the main living space, because it's my priority. You want to make a big difference as fast as possible, and you can use that momentum for the other areas.

  • Begin by picking up everything on the floor. You want to be able to move freely around the space. If there is nowhere else to set items, consider a laundry basket or even a garbage bag, to clear the space.
  • Gather clothes into a pile. You can sort between clean and dirty once they're off the floor. Never smell test underwear. It's not worth it. It all goes in the laundry. Same with loose socks.
  • Gather food/ tissues/ garbage on a plate, to slide it into the garbage. If guilt over throwing garbage away is keeping you from throwing it away and moving on, just do it, say sorry to the environment, and make a mental note not to buy that styrofoam cup/ wasteful product again. Yes it's sad that your kids only eat half an apple. Throw it away. On a better day you'll cut off the bitten parts and turn those half eaten apples into a cobbler. 
  • Gather bathroom things. Is that toothbrush an old one? Do you have one from the dentist, still sitting in it's package? Save yourself a step and chuck that sucker straight in the trash! You're feeling ruthless.
  • Gather dishes. All dishes. You can grab a fresh water glass for your bedside later.
  • Gather toys/ things that aren't yours. You can reveal to the owner where their stuff is after you've collected ransom money. For now you pick it up, toss it in a bag or separate piles, and gleefully say to yourself, "Not my stuff, Not my problem!" Even if the owner is a baby. Play along.
  • Gather papers you find and stack them.
  • Remaining items get grouped together. See the inbox/outbox way of sorting them below.
  • If you come across something that disgusts you, spray some cleaner or vinegar on it and come back to it in a bit. If you see a bug, putting water on it can slow it down, giving you the upper-hand! Yessss! You're so brave! Dispatch it whichever way you deem necessary...

If you can't fit dishes on your counters anymore, put down what you are holding, even if it means setting it on the floor, and stack the dishes, scraping all food into the garbage. Stack plates, group cups, stack pots, gather cutlery together into a big pot. Get a fresh cloth and wipe the counter. DON'T smell the old one first! Just toss it in the laundry area, or AT the laundry area if it's too far. SPLAT! You'll get to that. You're focused. Dishes! Those dishes won't know what came over them. Soap. That's right...  Even a small bit of cleared counter will give you a bit of space to sort things, and set things down as you go. Remove dishes from the table, put them on the kitchen counter, wipe the table, and then use that space to start grouping like items like stacking papers.

Our house, an average morning's mess.

Our house, an average morning's mess.

Our house, after 5 minutes of tidying, using my action plan.

Our house, after 5 minutes of tidying, using my action plan.

In our house, I like to clear floor, kitchen table, coffee table, things laying on couch, and then begin doing the dishes. Sometimes the floor gets swept first if it really needs it, because then I can look at the nice floor while standing and doing dishes. Same with tidying couch pillows/ folding throw blankets. It can be a fast way to improve the view! 

The inbox/ outbox technique:

We have a huge, long island, and I treat it like an in/out box. The sink is in the island. The dirty dish side is the inbox. The dry dish side is the outbox. When I was a maid, I was taught to clean top to bottom, left to right. So our dishes move left to right. Find a central area of your home that can allow you to sort and deal with items without stopping to make a decision for each item. Items needing sorting, to be thrown away, cleaned, or otherwise requiring an in-between step go to the inbox area. Items that simply need to be put somewhere go to the outbox area. (Recycling, bedroom items, dry dishes, toys, etc.)

If you follow the above steps, you'll also feel more comfortable reaching out to someone for help! They won't see the dirty underwear or garbage, and they'll see distinct tasks remaining, allowing them to choose something to do. If the mess exists because you are sick, or just had a baby, people may even be offering!

Sometimes you'll look around and just know that there's one thing you need to do first. Are those flowers/ that plant dead? Is it depressing you? Throw them away and you'll feel better! Break out of your usual routine to deal with a task that's bugging you. Break your own rules sometimes, and you may see the way out of your slump! 

I make paintings to improve one's mental health and I like to use the Internet to share beautiful things with that goal in mind; the post below is an example. But as you're sitting looking at this screen, I also want to help improve the environment outside of the device you're looking at. I hope that I can help make that view better, too.

Moving through large, noisy spaces can be stressful for some people. The huge malls and gigantic grocery stores that are considered normal here in North America, can be overwhelming, with exits that are so far away, and no quiet place as a reprieve in between. Here, a pocket painting, to act as an “exit”.


Well, I have been looking at my messy house as I write this, and now it is time for me to...

Oh look Danny's almost home! He'll be right in time for the fun!