When life becomes disorganized, whether because of divorce, a new job, a move or a death in the family, most of us hunker down and ride it through, knowing normalcy will return at some point.

But when disorder is your normal and the minutiae of life feels like an endless, agonizing series of decisions only you can make, you may be suffering from chronic disorganization, or CD.

More Than Misplacing Keys

How serious is chronic disorganization? Serious enough to warrant its own organization, the St. Louis, MO-based Institute for Challenging Disorganization, and its own professional certification (CD) for professional organizers trained in the specialty.

The institute’s president, Linda Samuels, said her organization was formed in the early 1990s as professional organizers and mental health specialists began to recognize common organizational behaviors among their clients.

“It isn’t just that you’re misplacing your keys. One of the hallmarks of CD is that is has a daily negative impact on the quality of your life,” she said. “If every part of your day you find yourself stressed or frustrated and the issues all tie back to organization, then that’s at a different level.”

lost keys
Chronic disorganization involves more than losing your keys.

Sign of the Times?

According to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, you might be chronically disorganized if:

  • You’ve been disorganized for many years.
  • Disorganization interferes with your quality of life and your relationships.
  • All of your self-help attempts have failed.

Your odds are even greater if you:

  • Consider yourself a shopaholic or packrat.
  • Felt emotionally or materially deprived as a child.
  • Suffer from “fear of filing.”
  • Tend to lose track of time.

Sometimes CD can include, or result from, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Samuels suspects CD also might be a sign of the times.

“Here in the United States, we have more stuff than ever. Houses are way bigger than they used to be, and kids are overscheduled. It’s not just that we’re busier. We’ve been encouraged to consume beyond consume,” she said. “It’s not a surprise that the organizing industry has also grown.”

Speaking From Experience

Shawndra Holmberg
Shawndra Holmberg suffers from chronic disorganization.

What does it feel like to be chronically disorganized? Pennsylvania-based professional organizer and CD specialist Shawndra Holmberg speaks from first-hand experience.

“I am chronically disorganized. I can organize and categorize and store and let go of things, but it’s the day-to-day maintenance that is so boring to me,” Holmberg said.

Like many with CD, Holmberg occasionally must be able to fleetingly taste organization. Twelve years ago, she left a career as a preparedness planner in Hawaii, purchased five organizing books and became a professional organizer. Her CD-related Achilles’ heel is paper.

“First one piece of paper would sit on the counter, then another, then a third and a fourth, and once again I was completely oblivious to this pile,” she recalled. “Paper is such a common problem because, for someone with CD, a piece of paper is a decision. A ream of paper is 500 decisions. A banker’s box containing six reams of paper is 3,000 decisions to make. So pretty soon, it’s like, ‘Well, I’ll think about this later,’ and so the clutter builds up because of delayed decisions.”

Chronic Disorganization Isn’t Hoarding

hoarder home
Hoarding and chronic disorganization are different conditions.

If that sounds suspiciously similar to hoarding disorder, the motivation behind the clutter often is quite different, according to Holmberg.

“For those with hoarding disorder, the act of letting go of items can cause extreme stress. They often attempt to ease that discomfort by accumulating multiples of things,” she said. “The chronically disorganized, however, tend to accumulate not to retain items, but because they’re too scattered or unable to face making a decision about them.”

While CD clutter rarely reaches hoarding levels, it can present a fire hazard, as happened recently in two fatal house fires in the Kansas City, MO, metro area.

To read the results of a SpareFoot survey on hoarding, visit blog.sparefoot.com/7925-sparefoot-survey-about-hoarding.

Coping With Chronic Disorganization

How do professional organizers help people who are chronically disorganized?

Cynthia Lindsey, a professional organizer in Nashville, TN, who runs Organizing Ease, said her first step usually involves listening.

“I have a new client who has 15 different self-help systems, but because he’s chronically disorganized, he can’t find the right one because he’s trying to make it perfect,” she said. “They’re often extremely bright, filled with fabulous ideas, but they’re out of control, and have been for years.”

Cynthia Lindsey
Cynthia Lindsey helps chronically disorganized people.

Once Lindsey understands the situation, she and her client will agree to one organizing approach.

“That’s when the real work begins,” she said. “They don’t always give the system and the routine a chance because they’re on to the next new thing that they think will work better. They’re perfectionists; they have no patience.”

6 Helpful Steps

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization recommends these six steps to overcome chronic disorganization:

  1. Start now.
  2. Put your goals in writing and prioritize them.
  3. Translate them into a plan and a schedule.
  4. Break tasks into small pieces.
  5. Keep in mind that what is delayed often is forgotten.
  6. Strive for good enough, not perfection.

“It’s all about what is good enough, because what may be organized enough for you may be a different level for me,” Holmberg said. “If you can find the things you want in the amount of time that does not cause frustration, then it’s good enough.”

Jay MacDonald