Once I had a friend have a pretty giant disaster in her house. She wanted an opening in a wall in her kitchen, to let some light into the dark and gloomy room where she spent so much of her time, to be able to see and talk into the living room while working, and she was determined to make it happen, thinking the only obstacle was hard work. She was willing, so she undertook the project on her own. Dove in. After removing the counter tops and removing cabinets and opening the wall herself with a sledgehammer, pulling back the drywall with her hands, she realized there were issues with removing studs because of the load from the roof, and electrical wires hung in the way of her plans. But by then she was too far in to stop. The contents of her very full kitchen were spread out in the living room. Cabinets and counter tops and tools and mess everywhere. She hadn’t even cleaned up the daily mess before starting, so there were dishes and clutter and laundry mixed in and no kitchen sink to wash them.
When I arrived I was overwhelmed. I looked around and all I could see was mess. Putting things back together required skills I did not have; I had no concept of how to help her with it. I remember the feeling that came over me of helplessness. There was no easy way out of this for her. She had begun it and would have to figure some way out of it.
I didn’t say much. Instead I just started moving around the living room among the mess of things strewn about. No order, no rhyme or reason at all, to any of it. Slowly I began to move things around as she was in the other room. I gathered up school books into a stack and took them to the kids’ bedrooms. I collected dirty dishes into a plastic container and took them into the bathroom. I assigned a corner of the room for the contents of the kitchen cabinets and stacked and arranged all the random things. I found a rag and cleared and wiped off the table, placing little items in a basket in the middle. I collected papers into stacks and returned things to other places in the house. By the time I left that evening, I looked around and could tell that I had made a tiny difference.
She called me the next morning and thanked me saying that when she woke up, instead of the wrecked living room, there was a tiny bit of order. She could see the table, find her keys, decide what to do. That week as she met with people who could help, and as she painted every possible surface and worked and worked and worried and worried, I puttered around in the background. I never helped at all with the real project going on, but instead I cleaned and tidied and organized and sorted. I started in one small area–a tabletop, a drawer, a closet–chosen for no particular reason, finished it up and then moved on to another one. I did that for the whole week. Furniture and windows and curtains and tables and pictures on the wall, all rearranged, cleaned, straightened, and made fresh and tidy. Open a drawer and all the contents were put away neatly. Open a closet and all things were visible. The floors were cleared and cleaned, baseboards wiped down and she even painted the walls.
When we finished at the end of that week, with the help of so many friends, she had her kitchen wall opened up, and every surface painted. Cabinets were rehung in a better arrangement. The appliances were put back, the kitchen sink returned to working order. The whole house had undergone a cleaning out. With a little staff of children to help, we had all the laundry done, every room and closet and shelf cleared and cleaned and arranged for life.
It seemed a miracle to me that we had conquered it. The mess, the disorder, had seemed overwhelmingly impossible. But each tiny task, even ones we had to redo a hundred times, took us closer to where we wanted to be.
I happen to be good at cleaning up messes, and not everyone is, but what I have learned is that the important thing is just to start. Without starting you are truly continuing in the opposite direction. When you start, even if the area is a footprint, even if the spot seems arbitrary or inconsequential, by starting you stop the momentum in the wrong direction, turn the hulking task around, and press and pull it into a new one. After a bit, the task seems to pick up its new momentum somehow.
Work, like coins in a jar, adds up. How to clean up a really big mess: Start. Do the task as well as you can. Keep going until it’s done. Repeat.