Overwhelmed: When You Just Can’t Get Started

One of the most common organizing questions I get is “Where do I start”? The short answer is: it doesn’t really matter where you start; what’s important is that you just start. Once you get the ball rolling, the momentum will carry you, because getting started is truly the hardest part.



What gets in the way of getting started?

What may stop you before you even get started is going into ‘overwhelm’.  Contrary to popular belief, this is usually caused by how you feel about what you are not doing – rather than how much you have to do. Instead of having to deal with the often intense feelings of actions you are avoiding, your senses ‘shut off’, like a breaker switch. This stops you in your tracks and keeps you stuck.

Overwhelm can also be about too many choices. It can be caused by feelings of loss about what you don’t choose or fear of making the wrong choice.

So how do we overcome this obstacle?

Try tapping into the wisdom of your body. We are taught to ignore our feelings and emotions and just push on with the task at hand. But that doesn’t work because the brain thinks, but the body knows. Rather than trying to avoid your feelings, learn how to experience them.

What we resist, persists.

-Carl Jung

Take a moment and allow yourself to  feel the physical sensations in your body that come up when you are ready to take an action you are resisting. You will not only experience less overwhelm, you will also be practicing staying in the present moment – where there is no self-judgment based on past mistakes and no fear about the future.

The next time you feel yourself going into ‘overwhelm mode’, pay attention to your feelings. Focus on the present moment and remind yourself that you can only do what you are doing right now.

What do you notice when you feel overwhelmed? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below, so we can all learn from each other.




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This post has 13 comments

  • Sharon says:

    When I feel overwhelmed I notice I feel like a bad person. How can I be 40 and I still can’t keep my house tidy? Why can’t I be like everybody else and have everything immaculate (notice the “everybody” – I know for a fact that NOT everybody can be perfect…) and then I give up and sit down and have a coffee so I don’t have to think about it and feel bad anymore

    • Sharon, thanks for your honest – I appreciate that. Please know that you are not alone in feeling and acting that way. ‘Overwhelm’ is how we feel about what we are NOT doing (if we were doing it, we wouldn’t feel overwhelmed). This causes intense feelings, which we want to avoid at all costs. Based on what you’ve shared, it seems as thought the self-blame is sabotaging your success. It also appears that some perfectionism is seeping in; it doesn’t have to be immaculate – or perfect. These are obstacles that get in the way not just with organizing, but with weight loss, etc. Can anyone else relate? Any suggestions on what has helped you quiet the negative self-talk that makes you resist what you know you want and need to do?

  • Lorraine says:

    I’d like to reassure Sharon that other people have messy houses. I have been in very few houses where anything, never mind everything, was perfect. I don’t dare judge others for their messes, but I have to admit it does make me feel better to know I’m not alone in this struggle — and neither are you.

    Hellen, I have never heard living in the moment better described than, “the present moment – where there is no self-judgment based on past mistakes and no fear about the future.” Now that is going up on my wall for sure!

  • Karen says:

    This is exactly what happens to me, and that feeling of being overwhelmed really paralyses me. I get stuck. Somehow I usually manage to do the urgent matters (answer emails, etc.) but don’t seem to be able get to the next level of things (more complex tasks, organizing, long term planning, etc.) so I constantly feel behind and anxious about it. When I do feel determined and ready to start digging in, I often like to start with a good “to-do” list to help me prioritize – and that list overwhelms me again, so it’s like a vicious cycle. How do I get out of that cycle? Sometimes I avoid looking at my to-do list because I am so stressed about it. You are certainly right when you say what I am NOT doing is causing the most stress, and I really like the idea of listening in to your body to learn from your emotions. But I still don’t quite know where to start …

  • Gwen says:

    When I get overwhelmed I also feel paralyzed and can’t seem to move. Just want to sit down and do something mindless, like tv or Internet. My aunt Lynda gave me a great tool for times like that. She said, “put the timer on for 15 minutes. Decide to work on that project for that long. When the timers goes off you give yourself permission to stop.” But what happens so often is that once I get started, the momentum carries me, like Hellen said, and I really get into it. But that first 15 minutes just kick-starts things for me. If I still feel like quitting when the timer goes, I do. That is my promise to myself and allows me to start in the first place. Try it. It works.

  • Stephanie says:

    Wow, thank you for this non-condescending explanation! Sometimes I don’t even realize how unfocused & indecisive I can be. “You can only do what you’re doing right now” is currently on a big post-it-note on my computer. I’ve always been labeled a procrastinator; I do many lesser-priority things to avoid the higher-priority things & then time runs out & I feel that I’ve missed the opportunity to do what was needed. I overthink the potential consequences and ignore/stifle the needs of the situation. Your breaker switch analogy is an eye-opener! I’ve felt this way with everything from housework & decluttering to career paths to making social plans! Even now, I’m thirsty & cold, but trying to postpone those real, simple needs to get this note written. I heard recently that “Later” is best friends with “Clutter”; I guess that goes for mental clutter, too! I’m going to take your advice to heart & pay attention to my physical feelings & emotions, & ask myself “Is this what I want to be doing right now?” Hmm, even putting-off decisions IS a decision.

  • Arlene says:

    This is a huge problem for me. When I feel overwhelmed, I start to panic and I notice that I start deep breathing to try to overcome those feelings. I think I am afraid that I will be shamed by someone. My Dad was always big on shaming me for anything I did wrong, even if it was an accident. And, (are you ready for this?) my current landlord used to come into the apartment to repair something and would yell at me if the apartment was not spotless. So, it was like a carbon copy of my Dad!

  • Ruth says:

    Well Stephanie you certainly hit the nail on the head as far as I am concerned. “I do many lesser priority things to avoid the higher priority things …” Yep, that’s me! I like the idea of the 15 minute timer; I am going to try that! “How can I be 40” says Sharon. Well, I’m 74 and still struggling with clutter (paper clutter mostly), but I figure it’s never too late! “Overwhelmed” is certainly the term.

  • Bonita says:

    Karen describes my feelings exactly.
    Great observations as usual Hellen particularly about it being our feelings about what we are NOT doing. Thanks to you, I stopped to experience the feelings.
    I have started scheduling time, a recurring apointment to de-clutter. And even though it might only be a small garbage bag at a time, I celebrate that instead of beating up on myself (perfectionist mentality) or thinking of how many more to go.

    I am also not concerned about how the process ‘looks’ – I know that sounds wierd.
    Last week I took over the family room to lay out files to sort through so I didn’t have to tidy up every time i had to go out.

    All the time keeping the mental picture in place so I could keep going.

  • Charlene says:

    When I am thinking about dealing with clutter or beginning a task, being a visual person, I am already visualizing it done but it never gets done. The next day I face the clutter or task yet again and I feel all the negative feelings as described by your other readers. I just recently found this out. Not only am I visualizing it done but I’m visualizing it done perfectly.
    I think when you can name something that you need to change the change begins. This realization together with your recommendations will help me down this new path.

    Thanks so much Helen

  • Stephanie says:

    I just wanted to follow-up my previous comment to say that I’ve noticed a feeling of panic in not knowing where to begin. I’ve caught myself delaying a job for fear that it’s not the most important task, but then I have remembered, “It’s not WHERE you start that matters; it’s THAT you start.” And truly, that’s helped me mentally shake off the hesitation. Also, I’ve realized that when I set a timer for, say, 20 minutes (to make those piles of Garbage/Recycle, Donate, Put Elsewhere, and Keep) that I have to also allot at least 5 minutes to put away the Put Elsewhere pile, or else it just creeps back into the Keep pile to be dealt with again later.
    Another thing I’ve noticed is that when my husband cleans any room, he goes for instant visual impact, which often just means moving things from one room to another, whereas I want to find a proper place for everything (and sometimes that means the time-consuming job of MAKING a place). So I’ve tried out his irksome habit for a change & realized that I can just go for big general projects & it really does feel like I’ve done a lot more! However, I’ve been making decisions to get rid of stuff along the way vs. just moving them. (Yay for me!) Just getting some stuff DONE is encouraging enough to take on more detailed or time-consuming organizing. Though I have a mighty long way to go, I’m so glad I can revisit this site for continued motivation!!

  • l says:

    something so simple has helped me ….
    it was the bad lighting in my dark office several tube bulbs needed replaced and I hadn’t noticed so I avoided the space and I wasn’t sure why….bling !
    also, we spent $2000.oo putting and replacing lights in our basement and shop area.what a difference …and here I thought it was me !

  • nancy says:

    Really helped. I have NEVER felt really overwhelmed but I have lately. So many expectations… it’s too much. I love the feeling part of it… staying in the moment.

    Right this very minute I am working on a plan. Writing down a plan – to take myself by the hand… and allow for fun and focus.

    Focusing on the most important parts and then “touching on” the other things… like you said, the most important part is to start!