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 love your post and admit I am the same, God help me. At 59 years of age and in a bad place health wise I find it difficult to keep my home clean and tidy. Over the years I have stopped inviting people in because I am ashamed of the way I live,but now I shall attempt to make things right so wish me luck. Oh, and a huge thank you for pointing me in the right direction.
    English rose.

  2. God bless you!!!! Seriously – you had me almost in tears after the first paragraph! – FINALLY someone gets it and understands my house/life!!!! Thank you so very very much for writing this article. Know that even thought it was written over a year ago – it’s still very very valid!!! Thank you again – from all of us who STILL aren’t sure where our junk drawer is – (we probably have 6 or more throughout the entire house) 😉

  3. Thank you for writing this article. I too grew up in a tidy house only to be a messy adult. I have bipolar disorder and ADHD, which doesn’t help matters. I go from having a horribly messy, unclean, embarrassing house when I am depressed to having an insanely clean, tidy and Pinterest worthy house when I am manic. I always thought that it was just a side effect of my illness and I was the only one that got crippled by the messy state of my home. It’s nice to know that I am not the only person that gets overwhelmed by the mess!

    For saying it in print. I need to be taught how not to be messy. I was feeling so alone! Thank you!

  5. Hi, I realise this is an old post but found it looking for encouragement and I got it. Thanks!
    Sometimes remembering you are not alone is a huge part of the battle.
    Just to add, for those of you who struggled this way as kids, maybe worth looking into adult ADHD and seeing how you compare now. Scatty, distractible adult women, who CAN concentrate and achieve highly on topics that interest them, but especially fall apart trying to keep house after having children – are often missed cases in childhood.
    I have a long wait for treatment here, but knowing helps too.
    Today I’m just totally paralysed with where to start, yet again, when already exhausted from the basics and nothing left to go again for bigger changes.
    But thanks for the “pep talk”.

  6. I’m feeling kind of stuck after reading this… on one hand: yes, I have tried the “pick up one thing” method, and it mostly works. On the other hand, I’ve been stuck multiple times having picked up that one thing and answered the question, “Where does this thing live?” with a very clear, “It doesn’t have a home.” Either something else has taken its home or it never had a home… regardless, I’m struggling to get past the paralysis that sets in when it seems like nothing has a good home. I run into this when I ask for help too, because the person helping can’t answer the question for me, and bless her heart, she doesn’t believe me when I say it doesn’t have a home. I’m leaning towards a hard and fast purge of my home, but even that is border-line paralysis-inducing. Any advice, greatly appreciated. I’m really glad I’m not the only person in the world who can walk through my messy house and have no idea what I should be doing, so thank you for your article no matter what.

    • Nikki,

      I wish I had better insight for you – but this is all I have! A hard fast purge sounds like it may be the right thing at this point. You can replace MOST things if you really end up needing it later. 🙂

  7. I’m literally in tears right now after reading this. I can completely relate to this paralyzing feeling in my messy house. Thank you for writing this. It gave me the motivation to start with one item and focus on smaller tasks to take away the overwhelming stress.

    • Tiffany,
      Oh I am so glad you found it helpful. One thing at a time – we CAN do this!!

  8. So it’s not just me that gets “paralyzed.”

    I’ve thought that it was my mental illness that made me not to clean up inside my house when it’s beyond dirty. I suddenly don’t feel so odd and alone with my feelings any more.

    • Johan,
      I am so sorry to hear you are struggling. I think we ALL feel that way sometimes – you are NOT odd for it!!!

  9. Great advice.It could even help someone like me who can’t tell honestly whether the mess is a cause or a symptom of my clinical depression diagnosis.

    • BJ – I am glad you found my post helpful. I wish you the best – depression is hard!!!

  10. You defiantly made a positive impact by writing this as I have not been able to find anything or anyone that feel the pain of the mess. I have an addiction and have let my apartment just rot away but am ready to move on and rehab myself. I still feel like where do i put that one item cause i cant keep making a new home for each item. I want to just throw everything into boxes and put them in a storage unit till i buy a house. That way there is few items that can make mess and clutter. Guess I just gotta keep pushing.

    • Shawn
      It’s definitely a HARD thing to do – but I do think it’s worth it! Just take one day at a time.

    • This helped me so much… I’m not a mom, but a very driven woman who owns a farm and struggles to keep up the house. Dishes everywhere, clothes everywhere. I live on my own so it’s no concern when it’s just the day to day, but I have pride in my place, I’m just glad to hear it isn’t just me. I swept the entry way and did a load of laundry today and took out some garbage… that’s one step for me!

    • Other helpful tips I’ve found out is to play energetic music while you clean. That helps a whole lot! Also you needed to emphasize the throwing stuff out that has no designated home/place in your house…or whatever hasn’t been used in a year or two. (Clothes- 6 months!) If it hasn’t been used for so long – it’s never going to be used, so throw it or donate it! The less stuff you have, the less mess you’ll have.

  11. I could just hug your neck. It feels so good to not feel so alone and overwhelmed. I was raised in a VERY clean home! Mom was a fabulous organizer and cleaner and I was always proud to have anyone come home with me. Fast forward a few decades and here I am, absolutely paralyzed and miserable because I can’t find peace in my own home. Clutter is SO LOUD, if that makes any sense. It’s like constant static that I can’t get away from. Sometimes I throw away perfectly good stuff by the bag full just to not have to deal with it. Lonely. I don’t even decorate for holidays because it’s just more stuff that nobody would see because I would die before I’d have someone come over (without HOURS of notice, LOL). Sorry for the ramble – TL;DR: Great article. Thanks!

    • I agree COMPLETELY! Clutter is very loud and it makes it difficult to perform everyday tasks. I totally understand where you are coming from – and LOL at decorating!

  12. Oh my gosh. This article is LIFE CHANGING. I have been overwhelmed with the mess in my home for years now. It gets clean then slowly the mess creeps up. I’m at a point now that I don’t even want to be at my own home. This is a brilliant article and it gives me hope. Thank you so much

    • Kirsten,
      Oh I am so glad it helped!!! I think most of us have been there – good luck!

  13. Thank you! Just the fact that when I asked Siri “what room do I start cleaning in when my house is a wreck” and It found your article is awesome! I don’t feel like a lazy, crazy person now. Other people actually have these issues to?! Comforting to know that it can be done. Thank you for your contribution to us “messy people”. 😉

    • Amy,
      LOL that’s funny! You are definitely not a crazy lazy person..we ALL have been there! Good luck with everything!

    • A-MEN!! Too funny about asking Siri … I never thought to ask my Google Mini how to tackle this! LOL!

      • LOL yes – unfortunately it’s not very helpful!

  14. I just happened upon this post and was in tears by the third paragraph. Someone who actually gets it. Someone who isn’t judgmental or disgusted by the thought that someone can even have a messy home and not be bananas. Thank you! A thousand times, thank you!

    • Jessica, oh no problem – honestly I think there are SO many people out there like that…it’s too bad we cannot be more supportive of them. You are in good company. 🙂 I wish you the best!

  15. How about this method? Start with the kitchen sink. When all the dishes are done scrub the sink and spill some sink water on the floor and then start mopping. Once the kitchen looks good it is much easier to tackle another room. The kitchen sink is the most important fixture in the house. It’s needed for other cleaning matters and for eating. Start there.

  16. I am an apartmentanager/maintenance person. I still feel like a crazy lazy person. I need help. (Tears) great article but I still am unable to work out of my embarrassing apartment. I .ran who does this, what kind of person am I that I let this happen. I am a spitting image of your description from above. My parents were clean how did I get like this. I was in the army, I am a border and I need help but do to know how to get it.

    • Jerry, I’m so sorry you’re struggling right now. I think the most important thing to remember is it WILL get better. You know it’s a problem – and eventually you’ll be at the point where you will do something about it. Give yourself a little grace and a little time. <3

  17. Oh man, do I have this bad. The biggest problem for me is that I DO put those things away, one by one… but they keep coming back too fast! Whether it is the baby pulling the books and DVDs (and everything else) onto the floor, or more mail (physical and digital) coming in, or my 7 year old who seems to find it impossible to pick up after herself. I still get woken a minimum of 3 times per night and my back hurts from the constant lifting and carrying of a 10kg+ baby. I don’t have family nearby, nor can afford a cleaner. My husband helps when he can but he works long, hard hours. Honestly, doing this day after day is frankly maddening. I know it will get easier, but some people seem to manage this- why can’t I? The only solution I can think of is to put literally everything out of reach of the baby, and live a minimalist life… if I could find the time to put in shelving and do a proper de-clutter… *SIGH.

    • Helen, I totally get it – it’s impossible to keep a clean house with kids!

    • watch videos on youtube produced by the minimal mom. Shes a mom of 4 that has “gotten it together.”

    • Hey Helen I don’t know if this will help but here’s what I did when I found cleaning after my kids and hubs was actually contributing to my health negatively. (I had to do something because I want to be here for my children’s future! that is way more important to me than anything else) it was dramatic but I did it.

      1. clear away EVERYTHING into boxes and bins from every room. Label each box (random electronics/cords tech stuff…random old winter clothes kids…random bathroom stuff..random kitchen drawer, house tools) only leave a few toys, a few dishes and utensils and necessities from every room out. Period. No one needs 100 plates and forks etc and your family will just use them up and never clean the first one. Hello FULL sink every 20 minutes. No one needs 100 books and DVDS. No counter needs a blender toaster rotisserie oven fruit bowl, 12 boxes of cereal and random mail junk all over. I found that if I could see the floor corners of the room and see the surfaces of my tables and counters etc I felt like I won the mess battle.

      you can do this woman 💘at first everyone will start asking you where their doll is or where the hammer is or where is that one Random cord went but, eventually you will realize a bunch of the stuff that’s in those boxes are actually not so important. Give it a week living with these 12 boxes in the house and keep the stuff that gets taken out of them. Get rid of the rest. Get it out the house.

      PS For cute store that’s out of the way from the baby: Buy fashionable suitcases and ottomans until you have time install shelves. 😊sending big hugs one tired mother to another

  18. Thank you for the article …. i’ve been reading the comments and I don’t feel so alone. I haven’t started on my task . But I grew up in a spotless home , and kept a clean home until my mother died . That’s when everything went down hill . And I couldn’t let go of her things, now I look around and think oh my god what was I thinking ??? I am paralyzed in this mess and lost.I think if I did the one item thing .. I would be doing this till eternity. It’s time to ask for help. But people don’t have patients that want to help and want to throw valueable things/antiques away?!. I actually can’t believe I live in this house, emotionally attached to items that I never even use . It’s pathetic. And it makes me literally sick .

    • You AREN’T alone. And it’s okay – I think many of us really struggle with getting rid of things that are “emotionally charged” for us. That just means you are human. I am so glad to hear that you will ask for help, it sounds like that would be a really good thing for you right now. I wish you the best <3

    • It might take awhile but you can do this.I am taking a break every fifteen and I swithch it up.Helps me.Life is shame and stress free when you downsize.Dishes and all the laundry done and put up can be lifechanging.You will feel pride and breathe freely once you tackle the laundry motivation will push you to get organized.I am in a pit myself but after reading this I’m reminded how much better life is when your space is tidy.Good luck and remember there is hope.

    • oh goodness. Your mother would be so sad to see you feeling like this, whatever those items are I know it is not worth your health and sanity. Your memory of your mother is what is powerful, her blender or her couch might not be worth the trade. Please keep the things that truly can be passed down in the family and everything else must go with respect and thankfulness for the uses it gave. It is time to move forward and do what you know you have to do now, honor yourself. YOU are your mother’s most cherished possession. You are not pathetic, you just want to change the circumstances and guess what, you totally can.

      Sending hugs to you deeply.


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