The Chronic-ness of Chronic Disorganization
The Creation of "1 Habit for Chronic Disorganization"
By Co-Author Regina F. Lark, Ph.D
When I started my professional organizing company, I thought I was going to make garages look pretty. I was good at containerizing and labeling, and organizing offices and homes to look neat and tidy. I began to understand that my idea of pretty did not always match that of my clients. I also recognized this: Of the six members of my family, four of us are like me, and two of us need us.
Sometimes, when I returned to the homes of my most cluttered clients, I was surprised to discover that the clutter I cleared a week, month, or year before, had mysteriously returned. I say "mysteriously" because many of the people with whom I worked had "no idea" how "it came back." They weren't "sure who put it there," and had "tried to keep things neat," but "the mess always returned." I wasn't sure why people struggled so much, so I decided to learn all that I could.
Through coursework and graduate-level training, I learned the language of Chronic Disorganization (CD), a term coined by author and veteran organizer Judith Kolberg, who defined it as The persistence of severe disorganization over a long period, a daily undermining of one's quality of life by disorganization, and a long history of failed self-help efforts.
From all of my reading, studying, and working side-by-side with hundreds of clients struggling with CD, I've come to appreciate the debilitating impact of being disorganized and deeply challenged with time.
Chronically disorganized people report lifelong struggles with:
• Staying organized
• Getting to places on time (including not having any, being out of, etc.)
• Completing "to do" lists
• Never feeling caught up
• Knowing where or how to put everything away
• Not knowing what to keep
While the physical parts of being chronically disorganized are bad enough, there's an emotional toll, as well. Clients report feeling:
• Bewildered, bothered, and beleaguered
Chronically disorganized hard-working and well-educated professionals miss deadlines and opportunities for advancement, leading to:
• Low self-esteem
• Comparative paralysis
Even more challenging, and leading to greater frustration, overwhelm, and crappy feelings about, well, everything, are the CD folks with responsibilities! Yup! Parenting young kids, adulting aging parents, relationships, volunteer activities… all of it! Life is in session, and you can't find your car keys.
Chronically disorganized people have tried everything to get and stay organized.
Chronic Disorganization. The name says it all. CD is present through one's relationship with stuff, time, and space. It's about behaviors that challenge those who are afflicted, having a brain type that has never really allowed that person to feel in control of their environment. People with ADHD are typically chronically disorganized. Folks who experience a major life transition, long-term illness, or cognitive or developmental challenges may also experience a long period of CD at some point in their lives or perhaps for the rest of their lives. CD affects people across the broad swath of humanity and has no respect for race, ethnicity, class, or geography. People who hoard are also chronically disorganized, but their CD is a manifestation of mental illness, affecting 2-6% of the population.
Non-hoarding people with CD constitute a much larger group, which is hard to quantify because it happens in so many households. In my organizing work, I enter home after home looking at tables piled high with stuff, floors littered with bags of mail, or even bags of bags. Nearly every flat surface is covered with receipts, books, candy wrappers, towels, bowls, groceries, books and magazines, bikes, bassinets, old dishes, wedding gowns, baby clothes, suits that no longer fit, and laundry still needing to be put away. It feels endless, but it's understandable given what I know about how chronic disorganization manifests, and the myriad of ways it touches every part of life.
The folks who trust me enough to allow me into their home to help unravel their clutter are often frustrated, angry, and ashamed. Their clutter has reached a point where they are embarrassed to invite friends over, their children have more playdates at the other kids' houses, and they're frequently late for meetings because car keys and cell phones are difficult to locate.
I'm invited into people's homes, offices, bedrooms, and storage units that are generally filled and cluttered with the stuff of their lives. Each item in of itself is not clutter, but bring enough of it together without a plan for where it will live, and you've got the makings of a very uncomfortable situation of over-crowded living spaces. It's not unusual that I de-clutter clients of their organizing books because I am convinced that many of those books were written for people like me, not my clients, most of whom are grappling with issues associated with chronic disorganization.
On why it's hard to maintain de-cluttered spaces...
Much of clutter usually stems from a compromised "executive function," part of the brain that controls our time management, emotional management, sequencing, planning, processing – pretty much everything you need to stay neat and tidy.
Who has clutter? Many people do. Rich and poor, young and old, middle class, working class, upper class. So many people don't understand the relationship between what comes into the home and the fact that it's got to live somewhere.
Indeed, everything in your home is going to need a home. And if you don't get this basic principle of maintaining uncluttered space, then the chances are pretty good that you will be surrounded with clutter all the time. The one thing we can say about clutter then is that it manifests when we bring something into our homes without a plan for where it should eventually live. And sometimes it is as simple as that.
What I have learned along the way is most of the people who call for organizing help are more right-brained in their thinking than not. Musical, artistic, and creative, they bring beauty and light and fun into the world. But so many of these brilliant people feel an incredible lack of control in their personal lives. They put papers down that quickly get buried by other household items; they chronically cannot find their keys; and unless they've worked hard to create some structure in their home, they are overwhelmed and frustrated by the amount of "stuff" that seems to find a way into their space 24/7.
Brain-based conditions (ADHD, depression), neurological challenges (Parkinson's, MS), the visually impaired, and wheelchair users may also experience chronic disorganization for a variety of reasons associated with each state of being.
There is no rule about when a habit will embrace you (or you it). You just keep at it. And if one doesn't seem to gel, try another, and then another, until you feel right with yourself. Understand that you're not a slob, and you're not lazy (I don't believe in lazy). Your brain is just hard-wired a bit differently from people who seem neater than you.
1-Habit for Chronic Disorganization gives you the space to explore the chronic nature of this condition and how it lands in your life and then helps you unpack and dismantle its effects. I offer this hope: change is possible. Whatever a healthy mind can conceive and believe, it will achieve.