Despite last night’s ice storm, spring is on the way. I promise I can feel it! Before we leap into spring and all its expectations of cleanliness and renewal, let’s talk about the basement. Specifically, how to start digging out of a bad situation.

Let’s face it: basements are too easy to fill with junk. Ours has filled with trash and miscellany three times in the seven years we’ve owned our house. I’ve dedicated a full weekend, and sometimes even longer, to cleaning it out each time.

Now that we have a kid, this isn’t practical (not that it ever was). The basement stays under control — though it’s teetered on the edge a few times — because we need to keep it clean for guest quarters, but there’s a huge closet we haven’t cleaned out in a while.

By which I mean, we haven’t cleaned it out since buying the house. All the stuff that traveled with us to our previous apartment and never got unpacked there went into this closet on move-in day.

In all my attempts to empty and organize it, I’ve never gotten past opening the door.

Recently, I realized this just cannot be allowed to continue. I’m reclaiming the closet. Now, with less time and energy than ever, I need to be smart about the how.

Do you have a spot like this in your home? I know it’s embarrassing, but don’t beat yourself up. Most of us have at least one. As inevitable as it may seem right now, you’re not stuck with it forever.

One bite at a time.

Here’s where that old cliche about eating the elephant comes in: you have to tackle these projects one bite at a time. It’s tempting for us ADHD’ers to take one of two paths:

  1. View a problem as one huge, overwhelming jumble of stuff. Our brains turn into a muddle and we run for the hills.
  2. View it as a challenge to be tackled once and for all over the course of a weekend, wherein we will play loud music, stay up all night, consume staggering quantities of caffeine, and…crash. Once exhausted, we leave behind a bigger mess than when we started thanks to distractions, side projects, and disorganization.

When I feel myself getting excited for a project in the same way a boxer might get excited for a big match, I know it’s time to put on the brakes. I’ve torn down walls, nearly recycled a bin full of my husband’s important papers, and probably done much worse in fits of can-do-it-itis. As soon as I get tired and realize I don’t have a plan, I give up. I once left a spare bedroom torn down to bare studs for a year and a half because I led with the crowbar instead of the brain. Ooops.

If you want to succeed, take small bites. Even if you only toss one thing from the junk drawer tomorrow, it’ll be one more than you cleaned out today.

I know. Slow progress is boring. ADHD’ers find it more painful than most. But for most of us, it’s the only way out of our mess.

Create contained mini-projects.

When I resurrected my dreams of cleaning out the basement, I bought two plastic bins: one for my husband and one for me. I filled them with everything we could digitize and eventually discard. This allowed me to keep moving with my primary project (cleaning out the basement) without letting a new side project (scanning old notes and papers) get in the way.

My bin now lives under my desk and I try to scan one item per day. Some days I forget, but some days I get on a roll and scan several things. There’s no instant gratification here, but it’s better than shoving the bin into my black hole closet for the elusive “one day” when I can scan the whole tub at once.

Don’t let between-bite setbacks derail you.

When I pulled a stack of negatives from the aforementioned bin, I discovered I’d misplaced the negative holder for my flatbed scanner. This was especially frustrating because it belongs in a hanging file drawer directly under the scanner. When I pulled the folder out, it was empty. I spent at least 10 minutes pacing through the house, slamming drawers, and berating myself for losing yet another important possession.

While I did this, no other documents in my bin got scanned.

When we tackle a big organizational challenge, we can guarantee at least one discovery that will make us feel like epic failures. Anticipate it and don’t let it halt your progress. Stopping progress to trash-talk yourself won’t lessen your feelings of failure and inadequacy. Move on and try to find something you can do instead of focusing on the roadblock.

What are your biggest organizing weaknesses? Have you conquered any clutter or unfinished projects recently? Please share in the comments below!