How to Clean Your House When You Feel Paralyzed by “The Mess”

There are some people who won’t even understand the title of this post. They don’t know what it’s like to wonder where to start when cleaning a messy house.

They’ve never been paralyzed by a mess. Overwhelmed doesn’t even really cover it.

They’ll think – “what does that even mean?!” (These people always have clean houses, and they can organize their junk drawer with their eyes closed. Or at least they could if they had a junk drawer. But they don’t. They don’t know what it’s like to be ashamed of your messy house.) They’ve never experienced a truly messy house. 

And there’s some people who will roll their eyes at the drama of it, and they’ll think “Just clean it up. Take the action, do the things.” These people are also likely to leave nasty comments about how this post is sort of stupid. (I won’t publish them.)

But then there’s other people – maybe you’re one of these people – who know what it’s like to stand in the middle of a messy room and feel absolutely paralyzed by the mess. (Me!! I AM ONE OF THESE PEOPLE!) These people will get what this post is about.

We are the people who wonder desperately “where to start cleaning my house?!”

You might even have a secret fear that your house looks like hoarders (you know, that TV show where food is molding under the couch and the neighbors are complaining?)

And I want to share some good solid advice with these people (you), on how to move forward with cleaning when you feel paralyzed by a mess.

Because I’ve been there, but – thank goodness – I’m not there anymore.

Step one in cleaning a terribly messy house sounds overly simple, but please don’t overlook it just because it’s simple:

You pick up one thing. 

(Tune out the rest of the mess for now. You’re just dealing with one thing.)

Pick up one thing – the nearest thing to you – and ask yourself, “Where does this thing go?” 

Does it have a home in your home? Does it need to LEAVE your home (donation/garbage)?

Then put that thing where it goes. (If it needs to be donated, make a box for donating and call that it’s home for now.)

And pick up another thing. Find it’s home or give it a home or get it out of your home.

And repeat.

And repeat.

And repeat.

I swear this works. It’s tedious yes. But it’s not overwhelming. It’s one thing at a time… and one thing at a time, you can clean up the mess.

Now, let’s talk about this in detail, but I know the above seems over-simplified.

You’ll need some structure and routine to keep you on track!

IF your mess is as bad as I image it is, picking up one thing at a time and putting it away is actually going to take days (and that is ok), but a PLAN will help you keep moving forward.

Start by printing a simple home cleaning planner – with daily + weekly task lists, spring + fall cleaning checklists, and room by room cleaning checklists to make sure it all gets DONE.

If you regularly lose a weekend to a cleaning ‘blitz’ – that doesn’t actually accomplish anything because you just bounce from room to room – a planner with checklist will help.pages from cleaning planner



Related: A Simple Solution to Clutter & Disorganization

When you want to clean up “the mess” in your house but don’t know where to start:

With your printed cleaning schedule in hand, you can start to tackle the mess.

You know what I’m talking about when I say “the mess”.

It’s not like you had a clean house 6 hours ago, but a kid’s birthday party has turned your home into a danger zone. Little piles of melty ice-cream everywhere and paper cups behind the couch.

No, that kind of mess isn’t THAT hard to clean up. (If you have THAT kind of mess, you really just need this stuff.)  Although this advice will apply to how to clean a trashed house as well – any mess, little-people-parties included.

I’m talking about THE MESS. The big bad mess. When you have let the clutter and junk take over. There’s piles of laundry in the living room, you can’t see the kitchen counters, can’t remember the last time you cleaned out the fridge. You may or may not find a bag of potatoes – or what used to be potatoes – sitting at the back of the pantry.

If you take a moment to look around your home you might even feel shame and despair. But you also look around and feel that sinking feeling that says you won’t EVER be able to clean it up, because you just do NOT know where to start.

It’s hopeless.

THAT kind of mess.

This is the sort of paralyzing mess that for some reason, wants me to live in it. (I don’t. I work very hard to not allow my home to be messy. I am not a naturally tidy person, which is baffling because I LOVE it when my home is tidy, and I grew up in a tidy home. I don’t know where I developed the messy habits.)

I have learned that it is far easier to KEEP my home clean than to have to try cleaning a messy house once it gets to the paralyzing mess stage.

But,  if you are still there, paralyzed in your mess… well, I get it and I have the path to the light at the end of the tunnel for you.

Related: How to Conquer Clutter When it’s Emotionally Difficult
Related: Tackling Clothing Clutter: Confessions of a Clothes Hoarder

First, two things to consider (to start cleaning a messy house):

If you are so overwhelmed that you don’t believe it’s possible to clean your house, you might need to ask for help and that’s ok, but then be willing to let the helper help. It’s really frustrating to have someone ask you to help them and then not be allowed to do anything. If you feel like you need to be in control, that’s something you’ll have to address.

The odd time when my home DOES return to this state of overwhelming mess (like- um – if I have a baby and forget how to do “life”) I ask for help when I need it.

Also, consider addressing the clutter and disorganization in your home – FOR GOOD. Sometimes just cleaning up isn’t enough.  

Addressing the clutter in my home took me a LONG way towards never feeling paralyzed by the mess anymore. But I didn’t know where to start, and I actually needed someone to TEACH me how to do it.

If your house is constantly buried in clutter and mess, check out The Organized Home Course by Hilary from Pulling Curls. It is created just for people like us, who need to be given  bite-sized tips & lessons on organization so we know where stuff is, save time & feel more peace at home. (Because we do ACTUALLY deserve to feel at peace in our homes!)

This is the perfect course for organizing a messy home if:

  • You always need hours of notice before having guests because you’re embarrassed about the state of your home.
  • You’re always worried you misplaced an important document or won’t be able to find things when you need them.
  • You’ve ever wondered why can’t YOU enjoy peaceful time on the couch or enjoying your family instead of always stressing out about the state of your home?

If you need someone to TEACH you how to address clutter and get organized, Hilary is your girl, and you can get 10% off the course here with the code MOP10. 

But even if you choose not to ask for help or deal with the clutter, you can clean up the mess.


You pick up one thing.  The nearest thing to you – and ask yourself, “Where does this thing go?” 

Does it have a home in your home? Does it need to LEAVE your home (donation/garbage)?

Then put that thing where it goes. (If it needs to be donated, make a box for donating and call that it’s home for now.)

And pick up another thing. Find it’s home or give it a home or get it out of your home.

And repeat.

And repeat.

And repeat.

I swear this works. It’s tedious yes. But it’s not overwhelming. It’s one thing at a time… and one thing at a time, you can clean up the mess.

Work through one room per day (or half a room per day) according to the cleaning schedule you made.

Once your house is tidy, these 6 daily habits for a clean home will help you KEEP it that way.

Related: Secrets for Keeping the House Clean With Small Kids

Related: 7 Tangible & Life-Changing Benefits of Decluttering

If you try to do this but get distracted or stuck or struggle with how to motivate yourself to clean a messy house:

Here’s where asking for help can be awesome – because there is an automatic built in job for the helper. (Plus having someone else involved can be really good cleaning motivation!)

Have someone (a patient someone) hand you one thing at a time and ask “where does this go?”

And repeat.

Having someone else there to keep you on track might be the only way to keep yourself going the first time you do this.

But you CAN do this 🙂

Once things are put properly in their homes (or out of your home) tackle the “dirt” – which you will inevitably find under “the mess” – with the most natural, safe, and cost effective household cleaners you can find. (For me that’s been Norwex  – this one tub of cleaner has lasted me for THREE YEARS and I have no qualms about getting it on my skin. They even have a system for washing windows and mirrors with ONLY water!)

More From Mommy on Purpose:

Where do you start when you’re drowning in CLUTTER?
Clean kitchen habits you can adopt today



ashamed of your messy house

cleaning up an overwhelming mess


438 thoughts on “How to Clean Your House When You Feel Paralyzed by “The Mess””

  1. I haven’t had anyone in my flat for over a year due to the mess, I suffer with depression, money problems and low self esteem, I don’t know what to do and sometimes I feel it would be better not to be here at all so I wouldn’t be in this situation anymore, I love my family but I’m too embarrassed to discuss this with them so I just keep them at a distance .

    • Rowena I could have written this. Add chronic autoimmune illness and divorce. I too am climbing out of a deep hole. Praying for us both ❤️

    • Rowena, I encourage you to talk to someone about how you are feeling. It might be easier to talk to someone you don’t know.

      Crisis Services

      National Suicide Prevention Helpline
      0800 689 5652

      Beyond Blue
      provides support regarding anxiety, depression, & suicide
      1300 22 4636

      Befrienders hotline 
      03-79568144 or 03-79568145

    • I hope you know that no mess is worth ending your life. Please seek medication and therapy for your depression. It can be so overwhelming but if you can just manage 5-20 minute bursts of cleaning it will help. Consider if you can afford to hire someone to help who does house cleaning or helps those with heavily cluttered or dirty homes. Perhaps (if it won’t flair up anxiety too much) consider inviting a loved one over in a month or two and schedule that date to motivate you. Honestly my husband and I are bad cleaners when we know no one is stopping by.

    • Rowena, your family loves you more than anything you have going on. If they heard you say that you would rather not be here to deal with it, they would jump in to help! Please keep your head up, and follow this blogs advice of just picking one thing up at a time. As far as money goes. I found a great pin about backwards budgeting that I’m going to start and I think it will really help me, you figure out how much you need to pay your bills each month and you move that amount over to you bill paying account at the beginning of each month, when the money is gone in that account your done spending for the month, I have to get to the point where I’m even a month ahead to be able to do this, but just laying out the plan made me feel better. I hope this reply helps you and I wish we could talk, I’m not a professional, so I don’t have a site or anything, I am a certified Life Coach if the writer of this blog has a way to pass my email on to, it’s ok to do so if you would like, at the very least call your stae or cities suicide prevention line and talk with someone.

    • I can relate to this completely. Depression and mess have consumed me…

    • You are not alone! It can be so hard to let go and so hard to get started, but just one bite at a time! Keep a vision of how you WANT your home to look and ask yourself, “does this thing add to that vision?” Have a box ready for sentimental items you can’t part with yet. Set it aside to go through later so it won’t impede progress (don’t get distracted reading old papers or browsing old photos- set them aside and keep moving!) I’m so sorry you feel you have no one to talk to about this. Trust me, this is something you can tackle and it would NOT be better without you. You can do this!!

    • Im there now but have been this way for17 years. It started when i lost my job and sold my house. I regained employment but have never had a clean house again. I have one room clean. I need a plummer because my bathroom wont drain but im too embarassed to let them in. It seems ridiculous but i have one room clean so im moving to the next one, if you have someone who can help, put your pride aside it will be worth it. Good luck!

    • Start with something small. And I mean extremely small. 2 old receipts and a business card from someone you will never call next to you? Toss it in the trash. And you are done for the day.

      Tomorrow? Toss some more junk or perhaps put three garments of clothes in the drawer.

      The point is you start really small and eventually do larger cleaning tasks as you gradually build your confidence.

      Rome wasn’t built in a day after all.

    • I am bi-polar and medicine resistant so I know how you feel. I got covid pneumonia last January and am still suffering from long haul with brain fog and losing my hair at a rapid pace. I’m exhausted every damn day! My house is so cluttered it’s disgusting! I have three dogs that shed so much. When the sun hits just right you can see hair 5 minutes after I try and sweep. I don’t like people coming in my house either!! I have good intentions to clean but I never feel well enough to see it through.

  2. Its good to know im not alone. My house is so bad right now that I’m laying puppy pads on top of soiled puppy pads and I’m dealing with a lot of stress and I’m trying to stop drinking alcohol. My ceiling collapsed in my living room leaving insulation everywhere. After I actually wash some clothes. So today I tried something new

    • I came to this site out of desperation. My house is a disaster. But I knew I had come to the right place when I saw your name. My name is Dona, too. And I’ve only seen the name spelled like mine maybe only 2 or 3 times in my life!

  3. Thank you so very much. It feels good knowing I can stop thinking about the overall mess and just go, starting with one item.

  4. I am 82 living inSydney. After a lifetime of reading advice yours is the only one that works. I printed out ‘pick up, put away and repeat.’ I manged 4 children in a barely concealed state of chaos and worked part time. I believed if I was a good mother it wold make up for my housekeeping sins. It did but how much better to have been a good mother in a tidy house.! We are now in a small villa, tidier than I have ever been thanks to you, no embarrassment when I was sick and the ambulance people had to come in. Yes you can teach an old dog new tricks if it as simple as pick up nearest thenk, put away repeat.

  5. I do “one thing” and on my way to put it away I pick up another thing, and eventually I have 12 things in my hands or hoodie pocket. Lol. But it does help the paralyzed feeling.

    I tell my 7 year old, sit in one spot on the floor. Where you arms reach, look in that space and not anywhere beyond. Take a thing within your reach and think about where it’s home is, or where you can create a home for it. I myself tend to just walk around everywhere, like a chaotic connect the dots of “one thing”.

  6. When I was a child, my mom would tell me I had to clean my room before I could go outside to play. At times, I was totally overwhelmed…sat in my room one whole Saturday when I was 9.
    I never wanted my girls to feel that way. So I made a game out of picking up. I’d tell them to put away all the blue things, then tell me when they were done. They run back to me and I’d tell them to pick up all the yellow things, etc. It kept t he focused part instead of the overwhelming whole . My oldest, now 30, has told her friends with children this trick. I’m sure she’ll use it with her son too when he’s old enough.

    • My mother did that when I was around 7…put all of the YELLOW books on the shelf…she would come back wondering what was taking me so long. And find me sitting on the floor reading a yellow and red book because I didn’t know what to do with it.

  7. Thank you so much. I know this might seem like simple advice, or common sense or whatever, but for some of us it’s not. I’ve got adhd and depression, and my room can get out of hand very quickly. This mindset is and will be so helpful to me.

    • fr , my mental health is the reason my room is so bad and it can make it so hard sometimes

  8. As I have never seen a tombstone that says, “…she had a clean house,” I don’t let clutter get to me. I’ve had a chronic illness for over 30 years now, and I’ve learned to spend time with those I love while I still can. The housework can wait. It always does.

  9. Thank you so much for posting this.When I was still at home with my parents. Our house was always clean. I got married. And right after our son was born.I just couldn’t keep up.Also I was working a full time job.If only my husband had helped me a little bit. I think I could’ve kept up with the house.So now I still try to get my house as clean as possible. So now I don’t feel so alone.Thank you.

  10. Just found your article on Pinterest. Thank you so much for this. As a person with chronic health issues my husband took over many of the household chores but now that we’re older he has also experienced physical limitations and it’s hard. We only have one child in the area and his life is busy and very full. We feel guilty when we do have to ask for help with things. We’re on a fixed income so employing outside help is a no go. Just knowing others have these issues helps and I have a basement begging for the one thing at a time lesson. Thank you!

  11. I have become so overwhelmed and have absolutely no idea where or how to start I’ve recently went through menopause and been severely depressed and I’m doing good to even go to work I have let it get so out of control I truly don’t think it can be fixed at this point when I pull up in front of my house I hate getting out of the car and when I am at home I just don’t want to get out of bed,where and how do I start

    • I feel that way too… you aren’t alone. I sat in my driveway for 30 min after work the other day. I lost my 14 year old daughter less than a year ago. We had to put my 14 year old black lab mix to sleep 2 weeks ago. The clutter was out of control and I was finally making progress over a few years and in a much better place mentally but after those things happened I’m failing again.

    • I’ve been there. Unfortunately, I let it get so out of control my life got turned upside down the day before thanksgiving last year. My family came in and did 90% of the cleaning for me while I wasn’t in the house. I was too embarrassed to ask for help but when they found out how bad it really was they came stepped in and helped no questions asked. I’m telling you this because it’s never too bad that it can’t be cleaned. Trust me!

    • Hi Jessica. I can relate to you so much. I started the menopause when I was 35 and strangely enough, that’s when I lost all interest in maintaining my home. I have EUPD and PTSD so completely understand where you’re coming from. What some people just don’t get is that it’s not always a choice, I have absolutely no motivation yet have a deep desire to have a tidy home again. It’s just so difficult to climb out of that tunnel once you’re in there xxx

  12. I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed by the mess in my house lately, that I haven’t even known where to start. This was so encouraging and helpful. Thank you!

  13. We have recently started our new house cleaning company and came across your article. Everyone has definitely felt the feeling of being overwhelmed with a messy house. Our goal is to help people fell encouraged again with a fresh space and to help take away some of the stress cleaning brings. Really appreciate you taking the time to write this, thank you!

  14. Thank you for this. We are getting ready to move so there are things that we’ve been going through and I’m just so. OVER it. Normally, I can get my self to quadrant clean. Start just a quarter of the room and move to the next, but I can’t even seem to start there. It’s just exhausting to even look at.

  15. Where can I find affordable help? I Have a shame to ask friends. I have asked my sister but she will not help. That’s all I have.

  16. Thank you for all your encouragement and suggestions. However, along with the “ginormous mess” I totally lack motivation. I just CAN’T begin. Please help! Thank you so much. F B.

  17. Thank you so much it is just how I feel ….. My husband died my mom died and my daughter moved out it left me alone for first time in my life.

    I hate it I need a reason to care and I don’t
    I am depressed and that makes it even worse plus I have a shopping problem when upset I go thrifting and bring more things home .

    I will give your tips a try

    Thanks nice to know I’m no alone

  18. Are all the other comments on this fake? Because over half the article is just talking about THE MESS (we know why we’re here, 6 pages of explanation is unessesary) and other articles that aren’t this one. The next half is just trying to sell you an organizing service. This whole thing is just an add. Designed to keep you reading so you scroll past more adds. Disgusting.

  19. I have tried to follow: pick it up, find it a home or get rid of it, but I need to figure out how to find it a home. I have a room filled with craft items that I can barely walk into. I don’t want to get rid of most of it because “someday I might want to use it.” (haha). But I have no idea how to find homes for everything. The usual cabinets and boxes and drawers just aren’t enough. I need to find a way to discard most of this stuff.

  20. My husband is the opposite of me. He’s like the energizer bunny. Me on the other hand – just working a FT job leaves me exhausted when I get home. The overwhelming feeling is real and it’s mentally taxing. I have ADD, so it’s even more challenging. Thanks for this post!


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