How to Tackle Projects that Seem Overwhelming

posted by Andrea | 01/31/2014
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overwhelming projects

Over the past several years, one of the MOST common complaints I hear from others when they find out what I do is, “it’s just so overwhelming… I don’t know where to start.”

Can you relate?

I know I can certainly relate to feeling totally overwhelmed — maybe not so much about an organizing project (because I’m sick and actually look forward to those!) but I have definitely had my share of “it’s so overwhelming… I just don’t know where to start” moments over the course of my life.

For example:

  • big school projects often paralyzed me for weeks at a time — looming over my head until it was crunch time and I had no other choice but to get started or get a failing grade
  • long-term business projects often make me wish I turned them down because I just hate having those deadlines hanging off in the distance
  • simple home projects like painting a room or painting a piece of furniture often make me want to hide! I’ll give myself every excuse in the book to put it off for one more day
  • I’ve been offered a couple book deals, but I’ve turned them both down (partially because the timing was REALLY bad) but also because I honestly have NO idea where to start when it comes to writing a book and I’m terrified that I would get started only to fail in the end — or get sucked into way more work than what I have time for.

So yes, I get it.

Overwhelming projects are, well, overwhelming — or at least they SEEM overwhelming for us at the moment. 

Although I don’t do a lot of in-home organizing anymore, I can confidently say that at least 90% of my clients contacted me because they were to the point where they felt totally overwhelmed with the clutter in their homes and lives and simply didn’t know where to start.

Maybe they had tried to get organized in the past but didn’t have a great system or didn’t practice any maintenance — or maybe they never even tried. Either way, they were often so convinced that they couldn’t tackle their organizing projects on their own and needed to hire professional help.

Of course, I was able to help them weed through their clutter MUCH faster than they could have ever done on their own; and time and time again, my clients would be in utter amazement with how much we could accomplish in just a few short hours.

Something they thought might take weeks and months to organize would be finished in 4 hours. A project they thought might take all afternoon might be finished in 45 minutes! And this is not because I’m some sort of miracle worker — it’s simply because the projects really weren’t THAT overwhelming once we just got started.

Some projects we might find overwhelming:

Cleaning the house — especially deep cleaning projects


Starting a home renovation

Organizing a closet, a basement, a pantry, a kitchen, a garage, or pretty much any other space

Taking control of your photos once and for all (this was a huge one for me several years ago!)

Paperwork — specifically coming up with a system to deal with it.

Gearing up for a garage sale

Selling items on Craigslist, Ebay, or Facebook

Planning an upcoming party or event

Freezer cooking and/or canning

Meal planning

Completing a college (or advanced) degree

Setting up a budget

Paying off debt or setting up an emergency fund

Potty training (ahem… I may or may not feel overwhelmed by this one right now!)

Starting up a business

Learning new technology or a new skill

etc. etc. etc.

All of these projects (and so many others) might SEEM overwhelming to us right now, but with a little bit of due-diligence and a can-do attitude, I think you might just be surprised how quickly you will cross those projects off your list.

While I unfortunately can’t sit down with each one of you and hold your hand through your overwhelming projects (wouldn’t that be nice!), I CAN give you 3 general and very simple tips that will hopefully help you to finally tackle those projects that seem so overwhelming.

1. Do One Thing.

The absolute hardest part of starting any project is just that… getting started.

We tell ourselves that since we don’t have time to do the entire project that it’s not worth doing anything at all — after all, how much progress can we really make in 15-20 minutes?

Well, I guarantee you’ll make more progress in 15-20 minutes than you will if you never get started!

Plus, by getting started and doing that ONE thing, you’ll instantly feel more productive — which might just lead you to doing one more thing, and one more thing, and one more thing — until your project is nearly finished.

2. Do It Now.

Another huge obstacle when it comes to overwhelming projects is procrastination — and yes, I know this one all too well from personal experience.

It’s SO much easier to say “I’ll do that later” than to just suck it up and say, “I’ll do it right now”.  However, I can speak from experience that often times, those projects we put off only take a fraction of the time to complete and then they’re finished. We don’t need to think about them for the rest of the day or the rest of the week. We don’t have to keep pushing them to the next day’s to-do list. And best of all, we have one less responsibility weighing us down.

3. Do It Again.

Just like we need to eat multiple times every day and shower multiple times each week, we also need to practice regular maintenance when it comes to keeping up with these seemingly overwhelming projects.

Just doing one thing right now is a great start, but the majority of the time, it will take more than a one-time effort to fully complete a project. And it will definitely take more than a one-time effort to continually maintain that completed project.

For example:

If your overwhelming project is cleaning out your bedroom closet, the first step would be to just do one thing (like purging 5-10 items of clothing you don’t need, want, wear, or love).

The next step would be do it RIGHT NOW — not tomorrow, not when you have time, and not when you get around to it.

Then the final step would be to do that one thing (purging 5-10 items of clothing) again, and again, and again, until your closet is fully cleaned and organized.

Another example: 

If your overwhelming project is freezer cooking, the first step would be to create a list of meals you want to make.

The next step would be to do that right now so you have that list to refer back to.

The third step would be to work at your freezer cooking efforts a little bit each day or each week. One day you make the list of meals you want to make, the next day you make a grocery list of all the foods you’ll need to purchase to make those foods. Then you’ll head to the store to buy the ingredients, and finally you’ll start the baking and cooking process.

Just making the list of freezer recipes isn’t enough (it’s a good start, but it won’t help you achieve your goal). You need to keep at it — doing a little at a time — until the project is finished.


Ok, so I told you these were really simple tips — and I know it’s so much easier to tell you “this is all you have to do” than for you to actually do it. But I promise that I’m sharing these tips from lots of personal real-life experience… and they really DO work! 


It sounds simple — but that’s because it really IS simple.

Most of the overwhelming projects I’ve tackled (or helped others tackle) are almost laughable once we’re finished. We think “why on earth did I put that off for so long when it only took me 3 hours one morning or 1 week of working at it a little each night?”

I have a hunch you’ll feel the same way after tackling YOUR overwhelming project… so I’d encourage you to give these 3 simple steps a try.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

What are your best tips for tackling those overwhelming projects?

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  1. Jacquie


    I find it helpful to break down the project into steps. That way, if I find myself with extra time when my son naps, I know where to start. If I don’t have steps (or any kind of daily list) I find myself wasting my little bit of free time.


    Kim Reply:

    That is what has worked for me, too. Great advice!


  2. Janet


    I set a timer. If I don’t, 20 minutes working on the basement turns into three hours and something else won’t get finished. I also try to do it at the same time everyday.


  3. Leanne


    Being a “perfectionist” it’s hard to start anything. You want everything to be “perfect” but know the outcome will never be what you see in your mind’s eye and so you become paralyzed and get nothing accomplished.
    For years I wanted to make my own Christmas cards. I bought, and bought and collected the necessary supplies to do just that, but it never happened because I didn’t have the perfect crafting space.
    This past Christmas I took steps to make cards without worrying about the crafting space I thought I needed. I found a card layout I liked, a stamp I liked, learned how to color with alcohol based markers, use an embossing machine and I made Christmas cards at the dining table! I did it!
    And now that I made some pretty awesome but not perfect cards, I have begun the process of creating an awesome but not perfect crafting space.
    Sometimes you need to wade into the clutter and just do want you want to be motivated and inspired to clean up, haul off, and create a peaceful and fun area.


  4. Tamara


    Last year I decided to write a book. I started it. Hated writing in word. Researched and purchased a different software. Then I made myself write every day for a minimum of 100 words or 20 minutes. Took me two months to finish the rough draft. Now if I can convince myself to edit it a little each day I might end up as that writer I’ve dreamed of becoming!


    Andrea Reply:

    “Writing a book” is definitely on my list of “seems too overwhelming to get started”!! I’d love to do it SOMEDAY — but probably not right now :) Sounds like you have a pretty good system down — I’ll have to remember this for whenever I finally get around to writing my book!


  5. Kristen


    I think the “Do One Thing” advice is really good. If I want to do something like clean/organize my closet, I always feel like I need to wait until I have an entire afternoon free, because I think “why start if I can’t finish?” But finding a few minutes here and there is much easier, and as you pointed out it can really add up. Thanks for the encouragement :)


  6. LJ


    If there is a “project” on your “to do list” that never gets done and just drives you crazy because it stays on the list week after week another option is to just take it off the list for now. If you resist doing something for some reason and it clearly isn’t urgent – otherwise it would already be done – consider coming back to it a later time. Don’t force it. When the energy is there and the time is right it will go easier. There are other things that I never did do and wonder why I even felt like I needed to do them in the first place. Just my 2 cents, a little bit of a “slacker” mentality coming through here.


    Andrea Reply:

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this advice — and yes, I totally agree!! Sometimes, it’s just better to “drop the task” for a while (maybe forever) since it obviously isn’t that important right now. I’ve done this many times in the past (I even blogged about it here) and I always feel a huge sense of relief once that task is off my to-do list for good!


  7. Susan


    Thanks for breaking down the overwhelming! My overwhelming tasks are to gain control of photographs, and learn to sell on ebay. Did you write about the photograph project or are there any resources on this?


    Andrea Reply:

    Yes Susan, I have an entire section of my blog devoted to photos — because lots of people are overwhelmed by them! You can read all those posts here.


  8. Katherine


    I’m totally overwhelmed by our photographs. I want to do photobooks, but the pictures are in four different places…which overwhelms me from the start.

    My last blog post was about the potential of outsourcing the job of getting all the pictures in one place for me. Would be totally worth the money invested to be rid of the “ugh” feeling I have about this project.


    Andrea Reply:

    Well, I can totally relate to being overwhelmed with pictures — I was super overwhelmed with them for a long time too!

    You can read all about how I organize our photos here and here — but one thing I did from the very beginning was to drastically pare down how many pictures I kept. I got rid of a lot of pictures from my childhood (before things were digital) and that helped things FEEL less overwhelming.

    I’ve never looked into the cost of outsources the pictures, but if it’s in your budget, I do think it would be nice just to get that huge project off your to-do list once and for all :)


  9. Linda


    I used to have a fairly long list of household tasks that could be completed in 15 minutes of less. When I either didn’t have the time or energy to devote hours to cleaning and de-cluttering I worked off of that list. Somehow it managed to disappear (probably under a mound of clutter). I was reading your blog, and was reminded that those 15-20 minute jump starts really are the answer to eliminating the feeling of being overwhelmed. Thank you for the reminder! It is sound advice. :)


  10. Cindy


    I bought a digital timer at the dollar store, which I use to keep track of the time running on laundry, so I don’t get distracted, and delay re-booting the laundry as soon as it’s done. :) I waste FAR less time now, and I work on other projects in the meantime. I actually make a sort of game of it: I set the timer, and then dive into a task: sort through the pile of mail. shred the stuff that needs it, or file papers, etc. during the time on my timer. Usually, I can be pretty productive in a short amount of time that way. Key hint: keep your timer where you can hear it, whatever you’re doing! :)