by Susan McCarthy
The word that most people use when talking about cleaning out a deceased parent’s home is “overwhelmed.” But focusing on one small thing can help you break through feeling stuck and besieged by the seeming endless list of tasks.
There was always that moment when I stepped into my parents’ house, ready to sort through things, that I hesitated. What should I do today? Continue pulling things down from the attic? But there was so much stuff crammed into the attic, it was discouraging to work for hours and feel like I’d barely carved a path through the boxes.
Or should I go through a few more of the boxes that my parents had stacked in the corner of the living room. Maybe empty that dresser. Or find out what was in my father’s closet. So many potential tasks. Which was the right one to do?
Choose a Quick Start Project
When you’re just starting to empty your parent’s house, it might not matter where you start or what you accomplish during the day because it all needs to be done at some point. However, this freedom to work on any task may be what’s overwhelming.
One way to break through feeling stuck is to choose projects that you can accomplish in an hour or two (or less, more about that ahead). Also, consider projects that will have you handling no or few objects that have an emotional pull.
For example, cleaning out the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry are less-involved projects that you can work through quickly. Unless the people working in the house plan to eat through all this food, your goal is to toss the food that has gone bad or expired and give away the food that’s still good, either to folks helping clear out the house or to the local food pantry.
Those spaces are just a few examples of quick start projects that can help clear away some of the overwhelm with a sense of accomplishment.
Choose a Little Space
It can definitely be intimidating to step into a room and realize that you need to remove everything from the space. But it’s not just removing the items, it’s also deciding what to do with all these things. Are there things here that you or other family members will keep? Will you sell some items or donate the lot? Even deciding what you should simply toss in the trash can be a challenge.
So instead of looking at that room as a single project, focus instead on little spaces throughout the room. For example, removing everything from the walls could be a small action to take. Next, focus on envisioning each piece of furniture as multiple little spaces.
Shift viewing that dresser as a single project to a series: each drawer, the top, underneath, maybe even behind the dresser. Instead of one task that can wear on you, you have eight or nine spaces to work on.
Yes, this is a shift in the way you’re viewing the space, the work involved stays the same. So why is this useful?
Because each time you finish one little space, you feel a sense of accomplishment. One down! And it’s this feeling of success, even a small success, that can motivate you to keep going. Instead of the thought, “I can’t believe I’m still working on this dresser,” your thoughts can be, “I’ve cleared the top of the dresser and three of the drawers. Making progress!”
This might sound silly, but it’s based in the same behaviors used in the forming of habits. The idea behind tiny habits is that if something is manageable it’s more likely to occur. And if it occurs, then you’ll feel successful and will be motivated to continue.
I know you aren’t trying to form habits while cleaning out your parent’s home but focusing on little spaces can help you better see what you are accomplishing.
There’s also the advantage of introducing more natural breaks into the process of emptying the house when you work on little spaces. Completing small tasks are a reminder to drink some water, eat a snack or meal, use the bathroom, go outside for a few minutes, or even clear away some of the boxes and bags that are piling around you.
You will move from one little space to the next. A little space can take approximately 15-to-30-minutes to clear.
Break through Your Procrastination
By taking on a quick start project or focusing on a little space, you break through the barrier of thoughts that are telling you that you need to make the best or right choice.
In the beginning, when everything needs to be done, it might not matter what you do. However, if you know that you have extra help this weekend, then emptying out the basement or attic may be the sensible choice over packing up the kitchen. If your local Friends of the Library is collecting books for their upcoming book sale, then boxing up the books in the house becomes the priority.
Consider if there are some natural deadlines that can help you determine your next action.
However, beware encouraging your procrastination by disguising it as planning. Yes, some planning is useful, but if you feel that you can’t do anything until you’ve got the details locked down, you’re planning may really be procrastination.
Quick start projects and clearing little spaces allow you to go into action right away, so detailed plans necessary.
What if you do the wrong thing? Which would be worse – to spend thirty or sixty minutes doing some minor task or not accomplishing anything at all because you’re trying to figure out the best thing to do?
So, break through your procrastination and overwhelm with a small action…followed by another small action. Each step will help you empty your parent’s house.
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Hi, I'm Susan
Emptying my parents' overpacked 800-square-foot house left me popping handfuls of peanut M&Ms and doing a WHOLE lot of comfort-crocheting. The experience of sorting through mom and dad's stuff also encouraged me to become a professional organizer...so now I can offer techniques that work much better than chocolate.