Taming the Mess

This guide is helping in Taming the Mess. Mess overwhelms when there seems to be far too much to do to get to clean and organised. Mess often happens when you are trying to keep more things than you have places to put things, which can happen when you down size your living space, have collected too many things or struggle to throw things out. Struggling to throw things out can lead to hoarding and squaller.

If you are struggling to just clean up a small mess, then this is not the guide you are looking for – what you are experiencing is likely Executive Dysfunction Task Avoidance. We’ll cover that elsewhere later.

This guide is to help you make some progress on the kind of mess that is pervasive and overwhelming due to how hard it is to create a system, primarily due to too many items in a finite space.

I would like to take a moment to be technical about the difference between collecting, hoarding and squallor. Reality TV shows have been using the term incorrectly compared to the medical industry.


If there are a few things that you like to keep above and beyond the average person, and these are generally stored in an order with select items on display, then this is a collection. So long as you do not collect more than you have reasonable space to store them, where that reasonable space is defined by your income means (if you go in to debt to have them, it is no longer reasonable), then have fun – this may not be what other’s enjoy, but there is no medical or mental health issue here.

If your collection has exceed your ability to maintain, store, display and enjoy, then the collecting has become problematic. It can start to resemble an addiction, where you feel compelled to purchase items even though you can’t afford the financial cost, possible family cost, or the space to store them. When you find yourself sacrificing those other things to continue to collect those items, then it has hit addiction style levels.

Calling this an addiction is somewhat contested. Technically it isn’t a chemical addiction, but it has become a behavioural addiction – still a contested concept in medical health, but easily identifiable with people who struggle with it.

If this is something you are struggling with, seek help from a therapist who is versed in behavioural addictions.


If you aren’t collecting a limited set of specific things, and the collection has spilled over to most things or things that most others deem to be worthless, then you likely have crossed over from specific Colleting to Hoarding.

Unlike collecting, there seems to be little sentiment, special interest or resale purpose to the things that are kept. People who are aware of their growing mess will often justify what they are doing as keeping things so as not to spend money when they’ll need them later, or that things have sentimental value to them – except it is everything, or that they are going to make use of those items in a project they never get to, or that they’ll fix those items but never do.

Some people are not really aware that they keep bringing things home or fail to throw things out. There is no attempt to justify getting more things, there is just aquire.

Hoarding is often a biological brain condition. It can be a sign of neural damage (eg dementia or intelectual disabililty), it can be undiagnosed/ untreated ADHD, it may be a form of schizophrenia or it may be chronic fatigue syndrome / fibromyalgia. Some of these can be treated with medication.

Hoarding can also be a response to specific trauma around loss and powerlessness, generally poverty, captivity or war. This can be treated with both some calming medications and targetted therapy. Once managed, often the medication and therapy can stop and the condition won’t return.


Squallor is what Reality TV tends to call hoarding. Squallor is where the hoarding has taken over so much that the person has tried to find impossible / unlikely places to store things. There is often an infestation of bugs, rodents and or fungi. There is often spoiled food. In these situations the person has a specific or general lack of insight and competency. It is almost always on the back of neural damage such as a degenerative neuron disease, brain damage and or intelectual disability. While these conditions were listed in Hoarding above, not all people who struggle with these conditions have crossed the threshold from Hoarding to Squallor.

A good indicator that this is squallor beyond the infestation and spoiled food is to compare the sleeping space and the person’s hygiene. In squallor the bed, shower and bath are being used to store things.

Generally there is no reasoning with someone who has squallor problems. They need formal care and a firm hand. Take photographs of the person’s house, infestations, bed and bathroom and take these to their doctor for a formal assessment. Sometimes you may need to get the psychiatric team or the aged assessment team from the local hospital. Having the local council condem the property is often a solid way to push through a relevant asssessment and diagnosis.

From Mess to Clean

Too Much Stuff

If we are not dealing with an insight problem, yet the problem is pervasive, then we can feel very overwhelmed in how to manage this. There just seems to be too much to do and no good place to start. The most common reason why a pervasive mess has occurred is too much stuff to put things away, so everything becomes too piled up and you get lost in what to get rid of.

Sometimes the reason for too much stuff is that you are having to temporarily down size and it is reasonable that you will return to a bigger place soon. In that case, boxes are your friend, and the items that you wish to keep can be put into boxes and stored in both a compact and vertical fashion – after the other things have been reduced.

Mental Health

Sometimes the problem is overhwelming and the decisions feel too hard because there is some underlying health problems. Pain and fatigue are going to need to be managed in chunks with suitable medication and support people. Mental health may need an better assessment. In my experience, that is most commonly undiagnosed or unmedicated ADHD – look at our ADHD section [Link] to learn about that condition – this is the Executive Dysfunction Task Overwhelm issue. Three other conditions of note are Anxiety disorders, PTSD for some specifically difficult items, and schizophrenia. It is wise to seek therapist help for these if they have not been suitably diagnosed and treated.

Skill Loss

Struggles in organisation can be due to not having learned any good strategy to sort goods, but can also be due to skill loss. Skill loss can be a result of brain damage, mental breakdown, adverse reaction to medication, ECT/TMS, burn out, and certain kinds of trauma. Skill loss is likely if you used to be able to do this and now you can’t.

The How – The 4 Piles Method

Our living spaces are generally built up of rooms. We are going to pick a room to start with, then divide that room up, then look at a strategy for how to evaluate the items.

Firstly pick a room. Any room will do, but if you want a guide for which room to start with, I suggest that you pick the room that you use the most, or the room closest to the door near the rubbish bin.

The Gentle Method

If the room is small, divide it up into 4 sections. Sometimes this is based on corners, or this is based on things like the bed/ the desk etc. If it is larger, add a bit between the corners and add a centre and now you have 9 sections.

Pick one. If not sure, the least cluttered bit by the door that is closest to a rubbish bin.

Look at the items in this section. We are going to make 4 piles by taking items out of the room from this section. These are the piles we are creating:

Pile 1 – To Be Thrown Out

  • This is for the items where you look at it and think “I don’t really want this, an opportunity/charity distributor wouldn’t even want it” – this goes in the trash.

Pile 2 – Strongly Sentimental and Unique

  • These are items with specific historic emotional value to you
  • You can only have 1 of any kind in this pile. When you have 2 highly sentimental items in the same category, pick one.
  • If it is artwork from a family member, will you display it?
    • If yes, keep here.
    • If no, take a digital photo of it for remembrance and throw it out.
    • If you are keeping it is on behalf of them, give it to them if they are adults, or you can keep it if they are children.
      • If the adults don’t want them, throw it out.

Pile 3 – Gifts

  • When you look at this item, you think to yourself “I know who I will give this to”
    • if you can’t feasibly give it to them within 2 weeks, is it really for them?
    • if they don’t want it, gift it to the opportunity shop
    • this pile includes the opportunity donation, but it has to be something that the opportunity charity store is likely to want, and you have to get it to them within 2 weeks (or a reasonable time limit)

Pile 4: Mine All Mine

  • If it isn’t rubbish, not sentimental or something we are rehoming, then perhaps we are keeping it.
    • is the item still in use (at least 3 months of reasonable use in the last 12 months)? If yes, belongs in this pile.
      • If no, are you going to actually use it in the next 2 months? If yes, belongs in this pile.
      • if no, is it worth more than 4 loaves of bread? If yes, belongs in this pile.
    • otherwise move it to one of the other piles.
  • if it is still in this pile, you’ll need to start thinking about where is “away”. Sort like items with like items.

Once half the room is reduced, create “away” places for what remains. This might mean better storage, vertical boxes (if temporary) or some other cleaver now achievable method. There are plenty of smart methods to store things that are searchable, but be careful not to spend much money on them, or aquire extra goods that don’t actually fit or fix the storage problem.

The Brutal Method
Move everything out of your room until it is empty.

Put back the most important things (necessary furniture).

For what is left in the big pile of “used to be in this room”, sort the items based on the above 4 Piles Rules described above, starting from “clearly rubbish”, and moving towards down to “Mine All Mine”.

Help is Good

It is good to have a body double and second opinion. This person should be a positive influence in your life who will respect your opinion of “throw out” or “keep”, but is willing to challenge you on “keep”, such that their challenge fits the 4 Piles rules. Challenge does’t mean override, it means ask and respect your choice. If you aren’t throwing out or gifting enough items though, perhaps you should listen to them a bit more.

We can become emotionally fatigues making these choices. Try not to take on too much in one go. In the gentle version, do a section, then check on your emotional capacity before starting a new section. If you think you have what it takes, go the Brutal Method for fast results.

Schedule when you are going to take the items to the Opportunity/ Charity donation location, and when you are going to see the people you are gifting items to, or when people are going to come and get the items you are offering them.

While online “come and get a thing” are great ideas, if the complexity of doing this is yet another barrier, then don’t do this. Let it go – Opportunity or Charity shops are fantastic for this, or just throw it out if they don’t want it. Them not wanting items is a good indicator that the item actually has no real value to anyone and has become rubbish.

If this doesn’t work, look at what I said about other reasons (beyond no skill or lost skill) why this is hard for people, the mental health side of things.

Sort that out first by talking to your GP and get a Therapist, or if you have one, talk to your Therapist. Medication may be needed or a new diagnosis if they haven’t factored in the things that you are specifically struggling on.

Lastly, this is a generic guide that you’ve found online. Being generic, it likelly won’t fit all of what you are looking for, or may be completely wrong for you.

You can contact us and talk about it, or talk to your GP, therapist or support worker.

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