How To Start Cleaning A Messy House When You’re Overwhelmed

Here’s a step-by-step checklist for how to start cleaning a messy house that’s been neglected, and clear the way for a much easier daily cleaning routine.

I’ve let my house go a few times, so I’m well versed in “how to clean a trashed house.”  Sometimes it can happen by neglecting rooms little by little, until it all becomes way too much to handle, other times a major life event totally destroys your usual clean-up routine.  

But the good news is that there’s an easy way to “jump-start” your messy house, to get that ball rolling again, and I’m laying it out for you here.

In fact, once you start the process, you’ll be able to rinse and repeat for each room in your home, and it will be much easier to settle into a reasonable and easier cleaning routine. 

Today your house WILL be neat and tidy for the first time in a long time, and you’ll be on your way from “my house is a disgusting mess” to “I got this house under control.”  Let’s do it!

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    How to Start Cleaning Your Messy House, Even When It’s Too Overwhelming

    how to start cleaning a messy house pin

    Prepare Yourself to Start Cleaning:

    Acknowledge and Validate Your Feelings

    When my house gets out of control, I have actual nightmares of my landlord coming by unexpectedly and seeing the mess.  There’s shame, overwhelm, and eventually paralysis – meaning you just can’t pick yourself up to tackle the problem.  

    You just don’t know where to start cleaning your house, because the mess is EVERYWHERE.

    I’m validating these feelings for you right now – they are real, and you are going through physical manifestations of them (like heart or stomach dropping when you think about cleaning).  

    The good news is we have a plan, it will go smoothly, and you will have your beautiful house back.

    Make Yourself Physically Comfortable

    For me that means taking off my sweater.  Cleaning is physical work and once I start to get hot, I start to feel out of it, and want to stop.

    Other things you can do to be comfortable while cleaning can include:

    • Turning on some music
    • Wearing a pair of comfortable, supportive socks or slippers (so crumbs don’t stick to your feet)
    • Wearing stretchy or loose pants, so bending over/squatting down (if it’s necessary) is as comfortable as possible 

    Grab a Few Helpful Supplies

    We aren’t doing anything fancy today, all you need is:

    • a trash bag, 
    • an all-purpose surface cleaner like Windex multi-surface, Pledge multi-surface, Spic & Span, etc.,
    • something to pick up dust, like a microfiber cloth or a swiffer, and
    • a laundry basket or box for transporting things that need to be put away in a different room.

    How to Get Motivated to Clean When You’re Overwhelmed By The Mess

    If you’ve been with me for a while, you know I hate the word “motivated.”  Motivated is something that you either are or you aren’t, and it doesn’t sound like it’s really in your control.

    I much more prefer words like “dedicated,” or “priority.”   We know what matters to us, and we can choose to dedicate our time to those things and people (including dedicating time to ourselves!).

    Anyway, to help get over the hump of feeling overwhelmed by the mess, let’s ask, what is the source of your overwhelm?

    • Do you think cleaning will take forever? Set a timer for an hour, 30 minutes, or even ten minutes.  Once you see how much you got done, it will become clearer to you that there IS an end in sight : )
    • Is the overwhelm from you possibly putting too many tasks into your “cleaning” process? Don’t worry because my cleaning method is fast and easy, and will get the things done that make the house look and smell clean.  

    If you’re having trouble getting over an excuse keeping you from starting to clean, put it in the comments and we can help each other with ideas to get through them!

    person holding cleaning supplies

    How to Start Cleaning a Messy House, Step by Step

    Now, the idea here is not to make your house miraculous enough to lick your walls, it’s to give yourself a do-over.  The house is messy and too much right now, and it didn’t get that way overnight. It isn’t going to suddenly today look like you have a live-in maid.

    HOWEVER, with this method, first it will LOOK clean.  Then, after you do my speed clean routine, it will also SMELL clean.  And that is a beautiful thing, it takes the weight off the shoulders.

    Step 1: Pick ONE Thing Right Now, and Put It Away.

    Wherever you are, right now, grab the first thing you see that is out of place, and put it where it is supposed to be. If “where it is supposed to be” is in the garbage, toss it! 

    BAM I bet that took less than 5 seconds.  It’s going to be that way the whole time!

    Step 2: Tidying Up

    Now that that’s over with, it’s time to tidy up the house.

    Start with the rooms on one floor, and move to the next floor when you are done.  

    On the first floor, pick one space for all the stuff to go to.  Just pick one chair, or floor pile, in the middle of the house.  

    Go through each room on the floor you are on.  For each room:

    • Put the things that don’t belong in that room, into that one pile you picked in the middle of the house.  
    • If you can’t decide whether something belongs in a room, pretend you are having a party tomorrow and 50 people are coming over.  Is that thing supposed to be in your dining room/livingroom/open bathroom shelf/kitchen counter? Do you want people seeing it there? If not, put it in the pile.
    • For the things that belong on a different floor of the house, you can get fancy and use a hamper or storage box to put those in for easier transport up/down the stairs, but if that extra step is going to stop you from starting, just put everything in the damn pile.
    • While you are going around that room, if there is anything that still belongs in the room but is out of place, put it away now.
    • Put any garbage into your trash bag, including dumping out any trash bins into there.

    Remember, we aren’t doing a big “declutter” today.  However, if there is something glaring that you feel like you clearly do not want or need anymore, then definitely either throw it away or put it into your donation box or bag.

    Repeat Step 2 for each livable floor in the house (so not the attic or unfinished storage/basement).

    Step 3: Put Everything Away

    If you have other people in your house, tell them to start putting the stuff in that pile away, while you are doing Step 4.

    If not, that’s totally okay, it’s time to get those things into their proper places.  Bring whatever is in the pile to its proper room, and put it away.

    Step 4: The Speed-Clean

    Now that you have tidied already, all of the junk is out of the way. The room is ready to be cleaned without having to move things around.

    It is up to you which rooms you want to start with, but I have a few suggestions:

    • Pick the floor that you are on, and start with the rooms on that floor (if you have multiple floors in your home).
    • Start with the three rooms in your home that are used the most.
    • Stand at your front entrance and pick all of the rooms you can see into from the front door.

    My favorite method is picking one floor, because it’s easier to navigate without going up and down stairs.  Plus, once you are done you are surrounded by the clean, and that feels really good!

    If you have more time, or if you have more household members helping you, you can do more rooms at once!  But if it’s just you, or your kids get distracted easily, I suggest starting with the three most important rooms to you, or you can use one of my suggestions above. 

    person vacuuming floor

    My “Speed-Clean” Method for Messy Rooms 

    There are three steps to my speed-clean process: Dust, wipe and vacuum/mop.

    Now, if you are comfortable doing this, most of the “dusting” and “wiping” can actually be done at the same time.  Simply spray either the dusty area, or the cloth, and wipe the dust right off.  If you do it this way, there is no need to dust first, and then spray & wipe surfaces second.  

    Then, you really only need to quickly dust the very high (window frames, lights, ceiling fans) and very low (baseboards) areas. 

    Anyway, here is the plan for each room:

    • DUST & WIPE: Starting at the door of the room, move to your left around the perimeter of the room, working on one section at a time (spread your arms out to the side, and work on that space until it is done.  Dust the very high (window frames, lights, ceiling fans) and very low (baseboards) areas. Then, spray and wipe the door handles, light fixtures, remote controls and all dusty surfaces around the room.
    • VACUUM/MOP: Vacuum the room, and mop if it is a hard floor.  If you can get under the furniture, great! If not, NO BIG DEAL you can do it next week.

    How to Clean Without Bending Over

    I actually get this question a lot! I use the “heavy duty” 3-foot extended wand of the swiffer duster to dust the very high areas, as well as the baseboards and floor corners.  

    The swiffer duster cloths themselves are sold at Costco, and whenever they go on sale I grab a bunch of boxes. They fit on the extender just fine.

    As for a mop, I bought this one from Amazon last year and it’s great! It comes with three mop pads that fit perfectly and are machine washable.

    Tips for When The Family is Helping You Clean

    family cleaning together

    So it’s not always easy to let someone help without standing over their shoulder or pointing out things they are doing “wrong.”  My biggest piece of advice is……..Let them do it.  Will it be perfect? No, and it won’t be exactly the way you would do it.  But honesty, it’s clean enough.  You can do it your way next week.  

    With that said, you CAN have a plan for each person.  Here are some suggestions to divide up the work, and conquer the mess:

    • Give each person the same job for every room.  Mom dusts, the kids wipe, dad vacuums, mom probably mops (if I’m being honest lol).  You can all follow each other around the room (and the house), and each room will be done in seven minutes or less.
    • Give each person a room.  This will really only work if you have more than one of each cleaning tool.
    • Hybrid: Give each person a room, except that one person handles the floor in every room, since there’s probably only one vacuum.

    Once It’s Done – Keeping a Cleaning Routine

    Make it a Habit. 

    My cleaning schedule is literally to clean one room a day.  I cycle through the rooms in a reasonable enough time for the house to stay under control. 

    If there are not enough rooms in your home to fill the week, then you can add onto your schedule a task from a bigger house project you want to work on (like decluttering a closet or desk, or reorganizing a room).

    Use a Cleaning Checklist

    If weekly, quarterly and annual cleaning is more your style but you just need help keeping track, a cleaning checklist is very efficient and helps in two ways:

    • Keeps track of what was cleaned and what wasn’t, and
    • Gives you that satisfying feeling of “checking off the list”

    You can checkout my Cleaning Checklist in my Etsy shop, this is what it looks like:

    cleaning checklist from Etsy

    Related: Have Easier Evenings With This Working Mom Cleaning Schedule!

    Make Sure Everyone is Pulling Their Own Weight

    You are not the only one with arms! I blast through one room with my two school-aged kids in seriously seven minutes, using the speed clean method above.  I let them choose between two rooms, and I let them pick which task they each want (dust, wipe, vacuum or mop).

    On weekends, my husband loves picking up the furniture in front of my kids, he looks like a superhero ; )

    Expand Your Cleaning Time Out of The “Week” Timeframe.

    Unless someone has a dust mite allergy, there are rooms that do NOT have to be cleaned every single week, like:

    • Guest rooms
    • Pantry
    • Rarely used dining room or living room, etc.

    I can usually get away with bi-weekly cleaning of those types of areas in my home, and nobody notices.

    Consider a Big Declutter

    If you are constantly having to put things away that don’t belong, it may be that you simply have too much stuff.  A big declutter project this year may be just what you need.

    I credit Marie Kondo’s book for helping me let go of things I was holding onto for reasons other than necessity (like if it was a gift).

    I also recently had to go through the belongings of a family member who died, and almost everything was either total trash, or was donated.  So I looked into something called “Sweedish death cleaning,” and now I really think about why I keep the things I do, and if I really want to burden family members with trying to figure out what to do with it.

    Stop Putting So Many Little Tasks Into The Big “Clean This Room” Task.  

    When you set yourself up to start cleaning a room, it’s easy to also try to fit in things like going through drawers, or trying to clean under something that you just cleaned under last week.  Really the only necessary tasks are to dust, wipe and clean the floor.

    Don’t bunch “declutter” with “clean,” they are two different things that solve two different problems.

    Here Are Some Other Cleaning Posts You May Find Useful:

    That’s How to Start Cleaning a Messy House

    I do sometimes find myself neglecting my cleaning routine, and it can snowball into a huge messy home disaster.  When I take a breath, and use the steps in this post, I get the mess out of the way fast.  I hope you found this helpful too!



    Mina White
    Mina White
    Articles: 89


    1. Thank you for this! I totally feel like I can tackle at least most of my neglected house in the morning. Even with two toddlers running around!

    2. Thank you for this!!! I have five kids and cleaning this house is so overwhelming all the time!!! I never know where to start and then I get so overwhelmed that it doesn’t get finished. There’s nothing better than a step-by-step guide and you nailed it thanks again this article alone has helped my life tremendously

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