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. wow i thought i was the only one who couldnt move when the house looks awful lol im right there right now : /

    • Krystalyn, oh I am SO sorry to hear that! Don’t worry – you got this!

  2. Amazing article I’m smoothed by total mess and clutter I work full time and the only time I feel in control of my life is when I am at work where I hold down a responsible job. I have every good intention of cleaning the skip I call home, I make lists and rotas but it just never happens. I clean my grandsons flat to within an inch of its life so why can’t I do it for myself I deserve a clean tidy peaceful place that I am proud of and my home is none of these. I will definitely try the one thing at a time method but the amount of stuff at one thing at a time is going to take me a long time but at least it is a start

    • Kate – little by little is definitely a start, and it’s the most we can do sometimes. Good luck <3

    • Thank you Carla. My home used to be reasonably clean and tidy when my kids were young but as they grew up and accumulated more stuff and I had started working full time . The only time I had to work on the house was the weekend when I was absolutely exhausted after working all week and often I just couldn’t do it all. The mess grew gradually and I’ve beaten myself up over it for over twenty years now. Recently I was forced to resign from job and I decided that now’s the time to get started on the years of accumulated junk, clothes, papers. etc before I get another job. My grown kids will help me a bit too I hope and as they see the improvements may be motivated to help further. There’s no doubt that throwing away the stuff that’s broken is a great start and clearing old paperwork, donating stuff to charity are great places to start. Rome wasn’t built in a day so it’s a gradual process.

  3. I like how you mention that when cleaning a messy house, you should address the clutter and disorganization in your home for good. I have been so busy lately, that I’ve let my house get so dirty. I will definitely keep your tips in mind when trying to get my house back in order.

    • Brooklyn – good I am glad it helped! Good luck clearing the clutter!

  4. I understand this mess problem. I don’t have a kid. But I do have fibromyalgia, and assorted pain problems, sickness. I haven’t been able to keep up with anything for years. But I just have to realize I can do what I can for now and let the next part until I feel better. I can’t be that hard on myself. It makes it worse. Right now, I am attacking one room at a time. Plus I have a new puppy which means there is more mess everywhere. But she helps me cope by being comforting and making me laugh. My energy doesn’t last longer than 4 hours at a time. but I do seem to get a little done. I let the laundry go for weeks. But I do try to wash dishes everyday and that makes me feel wonderful . Well, have fun doing your housework. It makes it easier.

    • Kk, I am so sorry – I can’t imagine how hard that would be! I think you have the right idea though – lower your self-set expectations and just do a little at a time (and know that that is ok). Good luck <3

    • I related so much to this article. I suffer from mental illness and had a breakdown a couple of years ago and i let my house go little by little and started getting worse last year and unbearable. My own parents dnt even visit me like they haven’t been in my home for years. I have 2 little ones and I don’t work I’m a stay at home mom but its so hard to clean with 2 kids and i get so overwhelmed. I’ve attempted many times to clean but its so hard to keep it clean now i got bugs and my dresser is so clutter with trash. I was always slob when i was a teenager but i cleaned my room every once in a while. I’ve been dealing with being depressed but I’m slowly getting to be myself again and I don’t want my kids to grow up in flith and i would love to have company over. This article truly understood me and gave me hope.

  5. I have 2 bedrooms upstairs that turned in to the catch all. I want to clean out. Each time I try to do it myself it feels like its worse. I can’t work very long before I start breathing heavily. I have had a few people help me but it gets expensive. I have started to bag clothes. I just need to call someone to pick it up. I just find it easier to do it with someone else helping me.

    • Mary – these are all valid ideas. Congrats on getting it taken care of – I know how hard it is. <3

  6. I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate what you have done here! I don’t know if you know this but you are giving a voice to those of us ashamed and/or afraid to speak out and showing us we really aren’t alone. I have battled depression for so long and it is debilitating! “Cheer up”, “It’ll be ok” or “It’s not that bad” make me sick. If I could just “cheer up” or could simple think/say “It’s not that bad” I wouldn’t be depressed!! Your mind literally will not allow you to see the good in anything. Sorry a little off subject but that’s part of the reason my personal mess has gotten so bad. I cannot stand for anyone to just show up and I never ever invite others over. Other sites have no clue! They say things like “wipe down your baseboards” Seriously?!?! I can’t even see mine, they disappeared around the same time as any pride I had! Any way I jist wanted to say thank you so much to you amd those that have left a comment. Thank you all for giving us a voice and some hope. Great method, I am definitely trying this. God bless you and those that understand!

    • Amanda – I’m SO glad you found it helpful…yes I think there’s more of us out there than anyone realizes. Hang in there girl. <3

  7. I needed to read this. I am a hoarder, trying to break free of my hoarding habits. I don’t bring new stuff in anymore, but have been unable to figure out how to clean it all up and have a normal living space. After reading this, I reached out to a friend who is willing to help, and we are going to take this next week to declutter and reorganize everything. I have a goal to throw out a good 90% of what is there because I simply do not use it, and it’s in bad condition. I hope to have my life back in order soon. Thank you so much for this post.

  8. I’m going to start right away and do just what I can do. I’m over 80 and run out of energy quickly but I can’t blame anyone but myself. The only thing I have to do is keep my room tidy. We have a cleaning lady every 2 weeks and it looks fair when she leaves. I don’t Expect her to put things away. I live with family and the rest of the house looks great. I don’T have to cook and I don’t do my laundry. I do have to put it away.. I guess I have too many toys…. sewing, crocheting, reading and crosswords and too much STUFF. Too many crafts and far too lazy. Every day I say this is the day. How can I be such a slob?
    Today I will start on thing at a time!!! THANK YOU for helping me

    • Gram – you’ve definitely got this!!! Best of luck <3

  9. Part of my problem is that when I moved into my place, I never got a firm place to put stuff. Answering the question, “Where does this go?” is difficult right now because I have to figure out how to make the space for it. That’s an executive functioning task that is really difficult with my ADHD. I did have a friend help me once about a year ago; but I don’t feel right asking people to help me where I need it most (in my room) because it’s so tiny, and there’s barely enough room for one person in there let alone two. It’s so hard not to be hard on myself about this stuff, but I do know that being hard on myself paradoxically makes it even harder to tackle, so I try not too. Pretty discouraged right now and need to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

    • Meredith – I’m so sorry you’re struggling right now – it can be incredibly difficult to NOT be hard on yourself. Remember that you aren’t alone and your mess does NOT define you as a person. Perhaps it’s worth asking for help again..we ALL need support sometimes and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Hugs <3

  10. How to do this if your partner is a terrible mess market and doesn’t listen to you when your speaking to them? Please help me with this one!!!

    • Chrissy – perhaps it’s worth talking to a counselor? Relationships are HARD – sometimes mine doesn’t listen very well either lol.

  11. Thank you SO MUCH for writing this! It’s good to know that I’m not alone! The worst part about it is I DON’T have kids yet! Yikes. Thanks again! 💖

  12. I did grow up in a messy house and i swore i wasn’t gonna end up like my mother raising my daughter to be in a hoarder nest with dirty everything. And here i am doing exactly what i said i wasn’t going to do. This has inspired me to fix it. Little by little. Thank you so much to have someone understand how i feel literally made me feel 1000% better

      • What about if you don’t have any one to help? I have two children and currently live with my parents. My father has never done any chores my whole life and my mom is always gone working. Though I am young I don’t have much energy and my joints always crack and hurt. What advise could you give someone that’s completely alone in cleaning not just their own mess but everyone else’s? Especially when that person has health issues? I can’t bend over to keep picking up things

      • Just wanted to give you a shout out I have two little boys under 3 and my hubby has been working out of town recently which none of us are used to. On top of the kids we have 3 dogs and 2 cats so the mess i had after a few days without hubby was crippling! I don’t do well with big projects and I sometimes get overwhelmed but this mess was serious! Literally this post save me today I did exactly what you said and started just picking things up and putting them back where they went and before I knew it an hour later my house was back to an orderly fashion somebody’s at the door and I’m so relieved! Thank you you’re a lifesaver

    • Hey. I’ve been “paralyzed” about cleaning for about three years. My dogs need a walk or a run and off I go. I need a session at rec center so off I go. There are so many things I would rather do and now it is my lifestyle. Escaping my mess. Only to have to eat, sleep and seek shelter here. The last time my older brother was here, he said,”This is insane.” I agree.

    • Me too one thing at time is a brilliant idea you don’t get overwhelmed deffo the way I’m going to tackle oone question I’m short on storage space any ideas anyone Yvonne

  13. I’ll give this a shot. I’m so overwhelmed I can’t think clear. My mess came over me kinda slow. I had always been neat and orderly but this was lost about 10 to 12 years ago. Today I’m an angry, frustrated, emotional, humiliated, exhausted, and down right wreck. I’ve tried everything under the sun to get this mess back under control but nothing has worked.

    I am a mother of 3 sons. My oldest has been on his own for almost 14 years now. Although he is not under foot currently, he as well has forgotten the organization rules of our home. I love, love to see him and his family but I so dredge the wake they leave behind. It chaos on top of already chaos. Having a daughter-in-law on board I had imagined her to be at my side and supportive to my all male home. What a dreamer I must of been. Not at all did I get relief or support but instead I gained an even larger cluster of mess with her on board. I dearly love this girl so don’t get me wrong.

    Now for my others messers. My youngest is my thorn. You can even imagine the defeat I feel each and every time I accomplish anything. See this child thinks he knows better then the adults. He beyond stubborn, he’s demanding, he’s above punishment, he argumentative on all subjects, positive or not and he’s now a smart mouth rude and insulting 6 foot destroyer of all cleaness in my home. I feel defeated and exhausted and alone. My spouse is a wonderful provider but a lousy boundary enforcer. He as well sets many of the examples in our upside down home.

    I’m just overwhelmed, feel unappreciated, not respected, and like I have nothing to show at all for all those years of my hard work!

    But I’m going to give this one item at a time a try!

    • Hey Punneogirl!
      Bless your overwhelmed and frustrated heart!
      You may want to start by just clearing, organizing and cleaning YOUR bedroom and bathroom, (if you have your own).
      Hopefully it will be easier to get just your husband on board to maintain those 2, rather than trying to lasso the whole family into cooperating!
      At least then you will have a refuge!
      Once your own area is under control, hit the kitchen…break the fingers of anyone who makes a mess once you’re done! 😂🤣😅
      You Must make believers out of them!
      Just remember, it took a long time for things to get this way, it will take a while to reverse it!
      Remember to take breaks and give yourself credit for all you do!!!

    • Giiiiiiiirl!! I so so feel you!! It’s like groundhogs day the movie. Everyday you wake up and it’s the same ish. Nothing changes even with the best of intentions. A vicious cycle, even. If you figure it out, let me know. #thisfrickingsucks

    • I identify with you completely, I truly understand how you feel. I am getting extreme refurbishment work done in my house and the tradesmen have to enter rooms I never thought they would and I am beyond embarrassment. Instead of rushing about trying to grab things I find myself quietly sitting in my room, beyond tears. I have been humiliated beyond humiliation, and I hereby vow to have a clean, neat and tidy home before Halloween. I will take it one bit of a clutter at a time. Take care, be kind, and remember, you are not alone.

    • Oh bless your heart!! I totally understand! My biggest problem is me! I never finish anything I start… ever!!! I think it might be kinda cool to have an online cleaning buddy. Ya know get in FaceTime and clean together. Let me know if you want to try this with me.

  14. Real Simple -The Organized Home is another great resource. I get depressed if the house is cluttered. I literally can not think! So I do my absolute best to sort things, find a place for everything and put everything in it’s place and to also DOWNSIZE on a REGULAR BASIS!! I will gift things in a heartbeat!!!

    Thank you for writing this article for those of us who get paralyzed by mess!

    • No problem – I LOVE The Organized Home, it was a great help!

    • Thank you for FINALLY validating me! I am NOT lazy but get pegged as such because of that dumb paralyzed mentality. I just shut down. I’m 42 am a single mother of 2 working 2 jobs and a grandson on the way. I’m not lazy lol. My worst critics have been my mother and sister who fall into both categories of I dont understand AND youre being dramatic, difficult & annoying. I have tried this method before and it works. It really does. Before you know it not only have you cleaned up but youve reorganized your closet, went through those boxes of stuff you needed to do a year ago, finished up those urgent but pesky mind numbing forms (online & written) and have laundry halfway done! You may have a few boxes leftover that will need to be dealt with – but theyre already organized with a specific task or designation. It may not all get done today but revel in what you have accomplished. You will feel so much better. In fact, im in that messy spot now that’s built up over time so I gotta go get started!

  15. Thank you so much for being willing to put this challenge out there. I have 4 children and my husband works to support me staying home with the youngest during school. He spoiled the kids when I worked and they don’t pick up without directions. I thought it was just us. I have been overwhelmed these past two weeks and your article has changed that for me instantly.

    • Im crying. I’ve spent the past 3 years panic cleaning the week before an inspection wishing someone understood how i just cannot move when i try to clean often. Between aniexty and growing up not being allowed to clean (crazy) i just dont kniw how. And ibe been so ashamed that I’m so not normal
      But this article makes me feel a touch more human. Feel more like I can do this
      Thank you

  16. OMG!!! Carly, I believe that you have just saved me. I just finished 2 1/2 years of college at almost 40 years old and our home is a mess and very cluttered. Our stories sound so much alike. I will definitely try your advice and I cannot wait to read your decluttering and bathroom organization articles. Thank you so much for posting this. God bless you and yours!!!

    • Omg.. I have felt so depressed and angry and mad and I don’t even know what because of the condition of my house I won’t let anybody come in here but after reading this article it kind of dawned on me that you’re right just one thing at a time and I am going to try this thank you for the inspiration and motivation to do this I’ve felt like I’m the only one in the world who feels like this

  17. I am constantly overwhelmed by the mess of stuff in my house. Too many clothes, too many toys, too much paper. With 5 kids, it seems like i only ever get the basics done ( the basics being, food, and laundry) . Once in a while I will be hable to get actual cleaning done. With a 2 year old little tornado i can be cleaning one room while he is taking apart another. He also does not always take a nap.

  18. So as I’m reading the beginning of your post and see the part about not being able to see the kitchen counters and probably having a bag of old potatoes i realized all of that was true for me. I had to reread it to see for sure if it was describing what I’m going through and it was, word for word. The house usually never gets this bad but were in the process of moving out of the home that my grandmother (who i cared for the past 10 years and who raised me and passed away recently) that my grandmother said my kids and I were to live in her home. She told my family that but when she passed they said I had to move. I cant afford an attorney so I’m moving. Trusting people is a bad idea even family when it comes to an estate. I’ve been avoiding touching anything of hers or anything that might smell like her along with everything else in the house. I wish I could afford the cleaning program. But thanks for writing this, it makes me feel like I’m not the only one with a house this messy.

    • Amanda, I’m so sorry that your grandmother’s wishes for you to stay in her home are not being honored. Did she ever write a will? Even if it was on a piece of paper, if it was witnessed, it could hold up in court. If she died without a will, then her estate has to go through probate and the court will decide what to do with her estate. Don’t move out! Wait to find out the probate court’s decision.

  19. Thank you so much, this article has given me hope. I’m not alone!


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