Therapist Shares 5-Step Method For Cleaning When You're Overwhelmed By The Mess

Give yourself grace and take cleaning one small step at a time.

woman making the bed slaapwijsheid-nl / Unsplash 

As winter makes way for warmer weather, many of us are emerging from hibernation mode into full-on spring fever. We’re shedding our sweaters and opening the windows so we can bask in the sun and breathe fresh air.

Spring cleaning is a common practice this time of year, a way of clearing out the literal and metaphorical cobwebs. Yet cleaning can be a daunting task. It’s easy to stand in the middle of a messy room and feel frozen with indecision. 


KC Davis is a therapist and the author of “How To Keep House While Drowning.” Much of her work revolves around the idea that being messy is morally neutral, emphasizing that you’re not a bad person just because you struggle to keep your house clean. 

Davis maintains that there are five distinct categories of clutter, which can be handled step-by-step to make your space feel liveable again.



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Davis shared her 5-step method for cleaning when you’re overwhelmed by the mess:

1. Pick up trash

It’s easy to let the little things slide, especially for people who work from home or people who struggle to maintain their mental health. Clutter can build in a way where you almost don’t notice it until it becomes all you can see, making it hard for your mind to stay focused. 

Research has shown a link between mental health and a messy home. Having depression can cause major fatigue, along with a lack of motivation. It’s hard to concentrate when our physical space is out of sorts. Clutter can make us feel anxious, stressed, and depressed, yet holding those feelings can make it hard to keep our homes clean.

The first step in Davis’s “five things tidying method” is grabbing a garbage bag, picking a room, and collecting whatever trash has piled up there. 

Go room to room and toss the crumpled paper, empty wrappers, and apple cores into your bag, but don’t take your trash out right away.


A key part of this step is to minimize distractions and focus solely on picking up, nothing more. Once you’ve got a full trash bag, tie it up and leave it by the door. You can take it out when you’re finished cleaning. 

2. Put dirty dishes in the sink

The second part of tidying up involves collecting your used dishes and putting them in one place: the sink. You don’t have to wash them right away. Just get them from your living room to the kitchen sink. 

Davis’s preferred method for dish collection is to take a laundry basket without holes and pile her plates, bowls, and mugs into it. Once she’s cleared each room, she brings her laundry basket full of dishes into the kitchen and deposits them in the sink.

She explained that she uses the laundry basket approach because it’s the easiest way for her to tackle this part of the cleaning process.


Therapist Shares 5-Step Method For Cleaning When You're Overwhelmed By The Mess Photo: Tina Dawson / Unsplash 

“I think you should find the way to put the smallest amount of energy to get the most functional result,” she said. 

When you are ready to wash dishes, Davis has another tried-and-true technique: “The dirty dish rack method.”

“I got this dish rack,” Davis said. “And what I started doing was whenever I had a dirty dish, I would stick it on the dish rack, dirty… At the end of the night when I would go to my sink, not only could I use my sink all day, but I'm looking at this very organized dish rack, where it's like plate, plate, plate, plate.”


Seeing her dirty dishes lined up made it less mentally challenging to wash them.

“It was just smoother. It was easier. I felt less resistance, less procrastination, less avoidance. And that became, like, a life-changer for me when it came to dishes,” she said.

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3. Collect your laundry

Davis revealed an essential element of her tidying method: “I am all about simplifying things for my brain.”

As someone with ADHD, Davis sometimes struggles with executive functioning, explaining that with “too many decisions, too many steps… My brain goes into gridlock really easily.”


So, she tries to make cleaning as easy as possible. When it comes to laundry, she said, “If it's on the floor, it's going into the hamper, and it's getting washed. If it's not hung up, it's going into the washer. It's getting washed again. And that really simplifies things for me.”

While some people might feel better going through the clothes that have piled up throughout the week and designating them as clean or not, Davis takes an everything-gets-washed approach because that’s what works best for her.



4. Put things with a place back in their place

Next, take a box, a bag, or a laundry basket and gather up all of the odds-and-ends scattered around your house. 


Focus on collecting things with a designated place and put them back in that place. Davis suggests grouping items together as “cousins or close friends” as a way to organize them. For example, scissors might go in a drawer with paper, pens, and other crafting supplies. 

Everything that has a home goes back to its home, and then, it’s time to tackle the last part of your loose ends.

5. Pick up things without a place

Before diving into the last step, Davis suggests taking a moment to check in with yourself. Ask yourself, "How are we feeling? What else is on the agenda today? How motivated are we? What's our body feeling like? What's our concentration level?"


Then, collect all of your bits and bobs that aren’t stored in a particular place, either in a box, bag, or basket.

You can then decide if that’s your stopping point or if you want to extend your energy to find those things a home. Davis uses clear closet organizers because they make it easy to find what you’re looking for.

Therapist Shares 5-Step Method For Cleaning When You're Overwhelmed By The Mess Photo: Dane Deaner / Unsplash 


By breaking down an overwhelming task into smaller pieces, Davis creates a gentle approach to household maintenance based on a model of kindness towards oneself. 

“Just remember that there's no way to fail at this,” she says.  “Everyone — Everyone — No matter who they are, no matter what they've done, no matter what they are struggling with, deserves to live in a functional space.”

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Alexandra Blogier is a writer on YourTango's news and entertainment team. She covers social issues, pop culture, and all things to do with the entertainment industry.