How to Start Decluttering When You’re Overwhelmed

As moms managing young children as well as our households, we are constantly surrounded by the responsibility generated by our stuff. We clean all the clothes and put them away. We grocery shop, and put the food away. We pick up clutter to vacuum the floor. We sort through the mound of shoes to find the matching one. We move stacks of mail to wipe the kitchen counters. We drown in the pile of our kids’ toys.

A small study out of UCLA actually showed that our levels of diurnal cortisol, a measure of stress, increase when we think and talk about the possessions in our homes.

“It’s difficult to find time to sort, organize and manage these possessions,” says Graesch. “Thus, our excess becomes a visible sign of unaccomplished work that constantly challenges our deeply engrained notions of tidy homes and elicits substantial stress.”

Clutter leads to overwhelm

This seems true in my own life. When I return from a family outing to a living room floor covered in toys and a sink full of dirty dishes, I feel immediately on edge. I read somewhere about a mom of three who made sure the toys were picked up and the kitchen was clean-ish before leaving the house. I tried her tip the next day and was amazed at how peaceful I felt at our return home. This led me to discover other mom bloggers (like Allie and Rachel) who were embracing minimalism in order to maximize the time they could spend with their children; the goal was to enjoy family life instead of constantly managing it.

One of the perks of being the coordinator of our local MOPS group (for Mothers of Preschoolers and younger), is that I get to choose our guest speakers. For the past two years, I’ve invited two different speakers who are professional organizers to come to our group. Although each woman was gifted in this area, I left both talks feeling a little disappointed. The list of tips and tricks on their handouts was advice I’d already heard before.

The steps to declutter any space

For any organizing newbies out there, the process goes something like this:

1. Pick a space (a kitchen cabinet, for example)

2. Label two boxes, one for TRASH and one for DONATIONS

3. Take every item out, handle each thing individually.

4. Consider: does it work? Do I use it? Do I love it? Does this add value to my life? Does someone else need it?

5. Clean the space.

6. Put items back one by one, unless marked trash or donations.

After the second year of the same advice, and feeling like nothing was especially helpful, it finally hit me: I actually just need to do it. There wasn’t going to be some magic bullet-point that cleared my space for me once I finished reading the sentence. I actually needed to follow the steps rather than Google more tips on how to de-clutter my space.

I followed the steps for three of my kitchen cabinets. It felt amazing! I followed the steps for my closet, and the next day I felt like I could conquer the world. There was one problem area that was really weighing on me, however. I kept avoiding it because it was such a big job and seemed so overwhelming.

The kids’ toys.

how to declutter toys when you're overwhelmed

How to declutter toys

One day not too long ago, the stars aligned just right so that I had five glorious, uninterrupted hours of kid-free time. There were a lot of things I could have done with this freedom, but I knew that investing in my own sanity was going to have the biggest payoff. I tackled the kids toys! And I followed the steps above with the following modifications:

A. I brought in two large bins from the garage to put some toys out on rotation.

B. I had a “trash” box, a “donate” box, AND a “wait and see” box that I am currently hiding in the garage. I put little toys in there that I didn’t think they would miss, but just in case I’ll be hanging on to them for a few months. If they don’t ask for these specific toys in the next three months, they’ll be donated!

C. I left open spaces on our toy shelves. My goal was to decrease the visual noise in the living room.

D. I donated what was in the donate box immediately. No driving around with it in the trunk of my car for a few weeks before I got around to it!

Here was the result:

area 2

And the best part? When the boys got back home, they actually played with their toys! (Happily and for quite some time!) And my sense of calm cannot be overstated: the toys were accessible and organized, each one had its’ own place.

If you feel like the clutter is taking over your house, I encourage you to purge and organize before the holidays sneak up on you! Do what it takes to free up some time to tackle a problem area, or commit to clearing out one small space at a time. Start with your purse, or that one junk drawer in the kitchen. Those small steps will build to a greater peace of mind.

I guarantee it!

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

4 thoughts on “How to Start Decluttering When You’re Overwhelmed

  1. I keep putting off clearing off the table and going through the kids’ toys. I need to just put it on my to-do list next week. Thanks!


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