9 tips and techniques for decluttering your home when you feel overwhelmed

Inhale, exhale. We've got this.

An organized clothing rack on pastel background
(Image credit: Future/@cupofsar)

Confession time: I've always been a perfectionist. Whether it was school, extracurriculars, college apps, or chores — I've always found myself stressed and exhausted by the pressure of keeping everything together. 

I was officially diagnosed with anxiety the summer before starting college (which ofc, is also when I was facing the ups and downs of living away from home for the first time), and quickly found myself with a disorganized dresser and desk in my dorm room.

You've probably heard the phrase “clean your space, clean your mind,” and if you're like me, you've probably also found the opposite to be true. If I'm honest, I still struggle with keeping my space clutter-free when I'm anxious, and I'm prone to freezing and avoiding any additional stress or housework when day-to-day life feels overwhelming enough on its own. 

Throughout my adult life, I've learned some life-changing ways to manage my mental health, and that's allowed me to work towards a cleaner and more organized home. So if your mind (and your space) need help getting clear too, scroll on. I've teamed up with a professional organizer to create nine tips and techniques to help declutter your home when you feel overwhelmed:

1. Give yourself a mental reset

If thinking about starting to declutter a disorganized space feels like serious stress, you're not alone, and what you're feeling is so valid. As professional organizer and brand ambassador of Modular Closets Christina Giaquinto reminds us, it's important to first and foremost be gentle and kind to yourself.

"If you are feeling overwhelmed, pause and hit the reset button," Giaquinto says. "Decluttering is both physical and emotional so there may be moments where you feel overwhelmed and this is completely natural and okay."

Get hydrated, journal about your decluttering goals, practice some mindful breathing, or unwind to meditative music before you get started with the decluttering process to help get yourself in the headspace for the task ahead.

Tip: If you've never tried breathing techniques before, a great first exercise is box breathing. Inhale, hold, exhale, and hold your breath for four seconds each. If you'd like more guided breathing practices, I 10/10 recommend the app Breathwrk, which gives you a variety of exercises to try depending on your goals.

2. Set yourself a soothing space

Once you're feeling refreshed and ready to start decluttering, take a few more self-care steps to create an environment that still feels comforting and soothing, despite it needing some TLC. 

If there's a scented candle that makes you feel cozy (vanilla scents are a great go-to), a cup of peppermint tea you can keep on hand in your cutest mug, a comfort movie or documentary you know by heart, or some throwback Disney Channel jams you can put on while you work to sing along to — you'll have tangible pieces of comfort to center yourself with when that overwhelmed feeling starts to sneak in.

3. Plan ahead

When you're in the midst of the process and find yourself surrounded by the piles of stuff you'll be throwing away or donating, it can feel like you haven't made any progress on actually decluttering the room or space you're working on. Seeing the clutter and your room looking worse rather than better can be super anxiety-inducing, but planning ahead can help to you to prevent feeling overwhelmed by what you've already gone sorted through. 

Set up for your decluttering session by having a bag each for garbage and recycling on hand, and a bag or box to put donations in. If you're able to, keep these bags and boxes outside of the room you're working in and as close to the front door as possible. It'll allow you to clearly see how far you've come, and having the clutter you're getting rid of out of sight right away already feels like a huge step in the right direction. Plus, having things by the door will give you the motivation to grab a bag of trash or recycling on your way out, or to put that box of donations in your car ASAP.

4. Start small and work your way up

You def don't have to finish decluttering and organizing an entire room over one weekend, let alone your whole home. Instead, focus on a drawer or section at a time. Most experts suggest totally emptying out the area you're working in, and that's a lot less scary when it's a shelf or desk drawer instead of an entire room.

For example, you probs have a neglected junk drawer or The Chair™️ begging to be cleared up, which makes for a solid area to start with. Once you've finished that, you can move on and declutter under the sink, reorganize your dresser and bookshelf, and work your way up to the bigger projects like a closet or your kitchen cabinets.

5. Declutter in shorter sessions

Decluttering is hard work, and going through your old belongings can leave you feeling seriously drained both physically and mentally. That's why the pros suggest tackling the task in shorter sessions  — experts recommend 15-20 minutes at a time, with 30 minutes being the max.

Set a timer, and once it goes off, take a step back. Whether or not the area you're working on is done, you've earned a break. Do some stretches, get some fresh air, or  lie down give yourself a few minutes of scrolling time. Then come back to the project feeling refreshed and evaluate what steps you need to take in your next time block.

6. Take frequent breaks

If it seems like you've hit a wall and are starting to feel the anxiety, that's a sign from your mind and body that a break is necessary.

"Pause and step away for a moment," Giaquinto says. "Sometimes all you need is a breather, a glass of water, and to step away from the clutter."

If you're super overwhelmed and need to finish up decluttering for the day, that's okay too. I find it seriously helpful to quickly pick up any items that still need going through, and place them in a bag to revisit once I'm in a better headspace. This means my home feels calming rather than cluttered and chaotic in the meantime, and I take the pressure off myself to finish the area before I'm feeling ready.

7. Use grounding to work towards quantifiable goals

If you struggle with anxiety in your day-to-day life like I do, you're probably already very familiar with grounding techniques, like observing the environment around you and counting items of a specific color, or that start with a certain letter to bring yourself back to the present and give your mind something to focus on besides the feelings of stress.

The concept of grounding is actually also perfectly translated to decluttering when you're overwhelmed. Set yourself a goal of going through three shelves, or recycling ten items. Take a breather before and after you do this, and then evaluate how you're feeling and if you'd like to repeat the process and continue with the area you're working on, or if you're in need of a longer break.

8. Set good habits with the 8 minute rule

Keep the clutter from building back up by incorporating mini cleaning and organizing sessions into your daily routine. Even if you're busy AF, chances are you have a few minutes to spare every day to save yourself a precious weekend in the future.

"Set a timer for 8 minutes, and put things away every day," Giaquinto says. "I like doing this before I go to bed. It puts my mind at ease, and completes my day, but you can do it at any time that is right for you! Whatever you can put away in 8 minutes is terrific."

"Eventually, this will become a habit, and when it becomes a part of your lifestyle, your space will never get out of control. The goal is not to put every single item away (of course, if that happens, even better) but to put whatever you can away within that time," she adds.

9. Treat yourself!

Of course, it's super important to be kind to yourself and take steps towards physical and mental self-care before and during the decluttering process. But completing a closet, room, and eventually your entire space are all accomplishments that are worth celebrating!

I'm a strong believer in the power of a little treat, and like to plan out rewards for each tier of goals I get through. During my spring cleaning sesh, I took a quick trip to my local bakery for an Oreo cupcake after finishing, got myself a sweet-smelling hydration mask after finishing my bedroom, and invested in a gorgeous rotating makeup organizer for my skincare products once I finished every room in my apartment.

Treat yourself in a way that motivates you, and scale up those treats as you work towards bigger organization goals. I'm talking a hot girl walk to Starbucks for your fave frapp after you finish clearing out that junk drawer, a new lippie after you declutter your makeup in the bathroom, and a cute decor item or luxurious candle to bring a new pop of color or splash of scent once you've totally organized your home.

Nishaa Sharma
Freelance social media editor

Hi! I’m the former social editor at Real Homes and a freelance social media expert bringing you the latest and greatest in home trends, interiors aesthetics, and celebrity finds. When I’m not scrolling or filming the best home decor for your small space, you can find me exploring the cutest villages and brunch spots, or snuggled up on the sofa with a new recipe, my husband, and our puppy, Ebble.