How to Organize a Huge Mess in 5 Steps

In a perfect world, our mess would be contained to only small piles of mail by the door or a cluttered array of plastic containers in the kitchen. In the real world, we sometimes have to deal with a big old mess! For some people, this could be as confined as a guest room closet and for other’s it could be an entire garage or their entire house. A big mess is something you have to approach strategically. Otherwise, you will get overwhelmed and quit only a partial way into the mess. This creates frustration and really a bigger mess. Following the steps below, the mess that creates stress and frustration should be alleviated with some good planning and letting go.

1) Schedule Your Clean Out

When you are dealing with a mess this big, it’s best to do it all at once. While I advocate cleaning and organization to be done incrementally, when you have a mess this big, you just have to commit to it. Take a look at your mess and think how long will it take to sort, organize, and clean. Then double that time. You are going to need it and possibly a bit more. For example, if you have a closet and think 2 hours, go to 4 hours. A bedroom that should take an afternoon, schedule a whole day. A garage that is packed and needs a day probably needs two. Once you pick your time limit, put it on your calendar, planner, phone, etc. AND DON’T SCHEDULE ANYTHING ELSE DURING THAT TIME. This is difficult to do because we often think of this mess as something that we can clean up in our free time but nobody has free time anymore. We find ways to avoid what we don’t want to do and organizing a mess is definitely one of them.

2) Set a Staging Space

When I was younger I was addicted to this show that went into slightly messy houses, hauled everything out and organized it into three piles – keep, sell, and trash. When cleaning out your space try to have three (or four) bins or areas (blankets work well) that show what you’re going to do with items in your space. For example, if you’re cleaning out a closet I would take a laundry basket, a blanket (or bare space like a bed), and an opaque trash bag in a room that is adjacent to the closet you’re cleaning out. Obviously, if you have a big bedroom then that space should be sufficient. The laundry basket acts as the trash or fix bin (for clothes), the blanket acts as the keep area, and the opaque trash bag acts as the give-away or sell bag. I like to use an opaque trash bag as then I won’t have second thoughts and rummage through the bag later on in the day, pulling out stuff I think I want to keep. Likely if you put it in that bag the first time, you aren’t that attached.

3) Pull Everything Out of the Space and Clean It

I mean everything. Don’t keep that one thing that you always keep in there, just pull it out. Now obviously if this is an entire room or a garage, that might not be as easy but try to do as much as you can. If you are going to do an organize and purge, you might as well be putting your precious items back in a clean space. For a larger space, you may want to split it up into sections and clean as you go. As you are pulling everything out, start separating it on the staging space (step 2). Even if this isn’t exact, you will find some stuff you just know is trash and other stuff that you know you need to get rid of. (Like who is making enough pie to keep a twisting apple corer, peeler, slicer gadget? Who? Because I’ll send you my address, I love pie!) Once everything is pulled out, go through and give this a good cleaning. If it’s a big space or a particularly dirty space (i.e. a garage or shed or entire bedroom) you may want to splurge on cleaners who can come in and get the space cleaned in a much shorter time than you can. After cleaning or while the pros are hard at work, move on to step 4.

4) Have a Come to Jesus Moment With Your “Stuff”

Stuff is just that, stuff.  Will you find some things you can’t separate with but have no purpose whatsoever? Yes. As I was helping my mother clean out one of her closets this past weekend we came upon the “guest book” for one of her milestone birthdays which was basically a stuffed pair of Depend-like diapers (get it? they were saying she was old…). People had signed the diapers and while most were unremarkable, there was one from an older couple that was touching and funny. I let her keep it because we all get attached to a few things that we just can’t let go of.

But for everything else, you need to do some deep, insightful thinking. Here is my steadfast rule. Have you used this thing, this piece of stuff, in the past year? First off, if you can’t even answer when the last time you used this piece was, its gotsta go. Second, if it’s November and these are Christmas decorations (or any other once-per-year thing) then you can have some leeway.  Otherwise, you really need to think about it. I was once helping a friend clean out her garage and she wanted to keep ev-er-y-thing! I had to explain to her over and over again that if she gave it away or sold it, she could use her garage for the intended purpose of parking her car. There were things she got as wedding presents over 18 years earlier that she just couldn’t part with because one of her kids might need it or she used it to make this recipe three years ago or (by the end of the day) because it was “hers” and she didn’t want to part with it.

I get it, stuff has a powerful emotional hold on us because it is a tangible representation of an event or moment in our life that has no form, except in our minds. But keeping a deep fryer you used at your son’s graduation five years earlier it is not an efficient use of your space and years from now you will still remember the event and feel good in your usable space. Sit down, take a deep breath, and have a moment of clarity that for every thing or piece of stuff you give away or sell, it will go to somebody else who probably actually has a need and a use for something that you no longer do.

5) Organize the Keeps and Send Everything Else Into the Sunset

The best part of looking at your keep pile is that you should see a bunch of items you still use and need on a fairly regular basis. It also frees you from the clutter that was being created by things that weren’t so important or as important as you thought they were. The other “keeps” advantage is that you can now organize away. This may not happen that day or even until the next weekend but this is the time you can buy that shoe organizer for the top of your closet, the bike hooks for your garage, or a cool Pendaflex for all of your important documents (Pendaflexs can be cool!). Be sure to schedule a time, just like you scheduled this clean out, to get those projects done. If needed, hire a handyman for things that need extra support. Most importantly, do not leave this and think the clean out was good enough. When we use things to assist with organization, it then feels like everything we have has a place to belong. When you don’t organize, it just becomes part of the pile. So spend some time at your local Ikea, Container Store, or even Target to get ideas and pick up some items to put all of your beloved stuff back in its new place. I urge you not to buy organization bins or tools until you have cleaned and purged because otherwise, you may purchase things you don’t need. Pinterest has great ideas on how to organize just about anything.

Flea Markets are great options too!

For all of the stuff you’re giving away or selling, immediately put it into your car and, if possible, drive it to the consignment shop, thrift store, or Goodwill immediately. The longer it sits around waiting for you to do something with it, the more likely you’ll go rifling through looking for something. Some people choose to sell on EBay or Facebook and while I tip my hat to them, I always find that’s way more trouble than it’s worth. Your area likely has a good consignment or thrift store that will either buy your items on the spot or open up an account for you. If you don’t want to go to this trouble, then simply drop off at a Goodwill or Salvation Army. Most of all, get your unwanted stuff (though it may have taken you some time to realize it truly was unwanted) out of your space.

With a bit of planning and a big reality check, your big ole mess can go from that room you never show anyone to the room you will gladly open up for whoever needs it.


What are the spaces you have the most trouble keeping clean and organized?  Comment below!

Also, follow me on Pinterest for some amazing organization tips!