How to Tackle Projects that Seem Overwhelming

posted by Andrea | 01/8/2016

overwhelming projects

Over the past several years, one of the MOST common complaints I hear, in regards to getting more organized, 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 weird 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 in high school and college — 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 (one of the reasons I’ll probably never write a book!)
  • 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

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 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. In fact, I even had several people pay me for a few extra hours of time because they figured they would need me to come for weeks and months…. when instead, we finished in one day!

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 many of us might find overwhelming:

Cleaning the house — especially deep cleaning projects

Laundry — especially if you get behind!

Starting any type of 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 several items on Craigslist, Ebay, or Facebook

Hosting an upcoming holiday 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 a toddler

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 effort and a can-do attitude, I think you might just be surprised how quickly you will cross those projects off your list.

I know from my own experiences that this is often the case!

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! 

Also, these are GREAT lessons for our kids to learn as well — and by watching us get started on a project that seems overwhelming for us, we are showing them that life is not always fun and easy, but it IS very rewarding to finish one of the overwhelming projects on our list.

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?

photo source


Filed under: LifeHomeMisc.Inspiration

Leave a comment


  1. Liane


    Over the years, I have stuck to one short list of essential to-dos before tackling any sort of big project. These can save time, embarrassment and that horrid feeling of where did the day go — I’m not dressed, it is noon, there is a neighbor at the door and I have nothing planned for dinner.
    So before diving into a closet head first or deciding to totally rearrange the kitchen I always:
    Get dressed in clothing both appropriate for the day’s task and opening the door!
    Do one load of laundry and put it away!

    Finish up all the daily everyday tasks like emptying the dishwasher, planning dinner, making the beds, sweeping and vacuuming the high traffic areas.

    Double check my calendar to make sure that after pulling out all the clothes from the closet I remember the vet appointment I made a year ago for annual shots.

    Ask myself if Queen Elizabeth were to ask for the restroom or a glass of water, I would not give her directions to the closest Starbucks. Then I can start on the project du jour.

    I had babies when I did this, and then teens, and then grand babies, and now I hire my granddaughter to help me. She works really hard on purging projects and has zero attachments to my old junk. A fresh eye is awesome. She got that from her mom, but not from me. And paying her keeps her on track. She’s starting college in the fall so this money goes toward her books so it’s a win win for all. Another bonus – she brought her family’s huge SUV over Christmas break so all the stuff we boxed up could go to the donation center for Goodwill in a single trip (my tiny car can only hold one medium box at a time in the back). So if you have a Christmas break, Easter break, Presidents Day break and an able bodied teen in the family, drop by an ATM, negotiate an hourly rate, and provide a teen friendly lunch.


  2. JJ


    The post where you wrote about plucking up thousands of maple tree babies, a little at a time, has stuck with me. I have 3 kids 3 and under and moved when I was 9 months pregnant.My babies had croup right before my newest baby was born. We are all sick now. On top of many sleepless nights and keeping up with my whirlwind blessings, it has been hard to find a place for everything. I am normally hyper organized, so this has overwhelmed me. But, the plucking of the maple leaves inspired me. Even if I do a little, it’s better than nothing at all. And I’m having so much fun with my kiddos, so even if everything isn’t perfect, I’m embracing the moments. And slowly but surely getting organized. Thank you for your posts!!!


    Andrea Reply:

    wow — you are dealing with a lot right now (and with a more positive attitude than most!)
    Congrats on the big move and the new baby… and sorry to hear about the sicknesses.

    Everything will eventually get unpacked… just keep plugging away. Good luck!


  3. Emily


    Great post Andrea! With each child we add I find myself having to revamp and reorganize our home to make it work for us. We have limited storage space so it’s a fun challenge 😉 I enjoy doing small projects over a period of time (in this stage of life it’s all I have time for) and they add up to make a big impact once they’re complete. I also try to keep things clean as I go so I can easily walk away from the project and not worry about a toddler getting into it and making a bigger mess. 🙂 Organizing all our photos is my BIG overwhelming project…ah, someday…


    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Emily… I was just tell Dave the exact same thing — about how we need to keep rearranging, purging, and changing systems when each new child come along and after each new holiday or birthday (when we accumulate more).

    Just doing a little at a time seems to keep things under control and manageable!

    Good luck with the photos 🙂


  4. ann in E. oregon


    Hi Andrea, I followed a little rabbit trail of links from this posts to several of your other posts, which brings up this question….you shared in one of your posts that you wear the same t-shirt in several different colors. Could you share what brand to t-shirt you like? Thank you! 🙂 I really enjoy your blog….the photos, your beautiful home, the recipes, organizational tips, etc., etc. Thank you!


    Andrea Reply:

    hi Ann — I actually don’t have one specific brand of shirts that I always buy… but they are usually short sleeve, v-neck, from Kohl’s or Target. I currently have 4 of the same Merona brand from Target. They are pretty thick and sturdy.

    I also just got 4 new long-sleeve shirts from Kohl’s (only $4.99 each!) that are the APT.9 brand (and also v-neck)


    ann in E. oregon Reply:

    Thank you, Andrea. That is helpful. I don’t have a Kohl’s or Target within 100 miles, but I can sure check online. 🙂


  5. Bonnie'sMama


    Two things that I find helpful–

    A mentor taught me that right-brained people often get paralyzed with starting. All they need is to have someone tell them the first step. When I need to start something, I try to take a minute to think through what the obvious first step is. I use this with my five-year-old son when I tell him to tidy up a room–start by picking up the books or the shoes.

    Nony at A Slob Comes Clean says if you’re starting a project, start with the easy thing, the obvious thing. Then Something is better, even if it’s not much and even if there’s lots left, and especially if you get distracted easily.

    So now we right-brained people have no excuse–we have a first step, which is to start with the easy, obvious thing. Then we probably can go on from there.


  6. Paulette


    It’s like that adage. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Thanks for the reminder, Andrea. I need to start painting and I’ve been dreading it, though I don’t mind painting at all.


    Andrea Reply:

    yes yes! Thanks for that reminder!

    Also, I don’t mind painting either — but I always need to force myself to get started on every single painting project 🙂


  7. 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! 🙂


  8. 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. 🙂


    Liane Reply:

    Hi Linda!
    Yes! I’ve helped countless people get going on that idea of a morning routine where the same set of behaviors are performed in a memorized orderly fashion.

    Myself, I have three mental checklists. Mental because written lists get lost. Or used as a coaster and become illegible.

    Mine are:
    1. Bed Bath and Beyond
    (Daily bed making, putting away clothes, jewelry, starting laundry; wiping bath mirrors, sink, counter, toilet; picking up stray apparently ambulatory objects, and cleaning up the dog toys and back yard deposits)

    2. Daily Grind
    (Tackling the appliance spills and splatters, wiping spots off window over sink, spills and explosion residue in microwave etc)

    3. Keeping Up With The Joneses
    (Actually a rather tongue in cheek way of describing my daily online visit with Messrs. Wells, Fargo, Chase, Uncle Sam, Bell i.e. banking, credit card charges, social security direct deposit, checking phone and mobile bills etc. all of which became a daily habit after discovering someone had hacked our PayPal account and absconded with over $2000. So a daily visit to all those gentlemen keeps me abreast of any suspicious activity. Doing it daily takes about 10 min. Doing it monthly can result in very unpleasant surprises.)

    My husband was in the Air Force. He is a total disorganized mess when it comes to his stuff but he is totally disciplined in his routines. I once read some Flylady stuff where she says you need to make a pre bedtime routine that includes brush your teeth. Hello???? If you need a reminder for something that you should be doing by rote for at least 25 years, you need help. Seriously. My husband has the approach of doing it in the same order at the same time everyday. And it’s not on paper. He taught me that and it works. Memorize it, and like times tables, will serve you well. No more lists for daily tasks. Save them for the more intricate multiple step projects. That said I did make reminder cards posted on the fridge for kiddos. Pictures of beds, shoes etc cut from magazines for the pre-reader, and block printing for the emerging reader.

    Pick one thing to do every day at the same time and do it religiously. The use it as an anchor habit to link to another action. That way they are connected in your brain, sort of like when you eat you ale at associate salt with pepper and fork and spoon. Time management is really thought management! You can do it without those lists!


  9. 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 🙂


  10. 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.


  11. 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!


  12. 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 🙂


  13. 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!


  14. 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.


  15. 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.


  16. 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!