Although I prefer the term “Lifelong Disorganization“, the established industry terms are “chronic disorganization” and “challenging disorganization” this is not intended to imply a medical condition, nor an “incurable” condition.
The intention of the terms are to distinguish an “ongoing pattern of disorganization” from the “short term situational disorganization” and clutter that is the normal result of grief, illness, having children, and other life events, transitions, and changes. That said, it is quite common for what started as “stituational disorganization” to evolve into “chronic” or “challenging disorganization.”
What is Situationally Disorganized?
When life throws you a curveball, most of us tend to accumulate clutter and become rather disorganized for a while. It’s happens to everyone. We become ill, a family member becomes ill, we are assigned a project at work that requires a lot of travel, or has a ridiculous deadline. Our lives change. We move, get married, have kids, or start a new job. During times of transition, a certain amount of chaos, clutter and disorganization is natural. This is what we call “Situationally Disorganized”: Disorganization that is a normal side effect of a life situation.
What makes “Chronic Disorganization” different?
Chronic Disorganization is different because when life transitions happen to you, instead of “recovering” and “restoring order” after a few months or so, the disorganization does not improve and may even continue to worsen over time. The clutter continues to accumulate. At a certain point, daily life becomes overwhelmingly stressful and chronic procrastination becomes a challenge as well. The clutter itself starts affecting your emotional state so strongly, you may find yourself so drained and depressed that you no longer have the heart or the energy to dig out alone.
Help will most likely be needed to recover. And, in many cases, it may be that you will need ongoing help to maintain a reasonable level of organization. If your quality of life is suffering, and you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed much of the time, and you don’t feel like you can fix it yourself, you are likely to be “stuck” in a pattern of being “chronically” disorganized. If you find that you tend to YO-YO between extremes of getting organized and then becoming overwhelmed with clutter, this “pattern” may also be considered “chronically disorganized.”
One of the key differences between situational and chronic disorganization is that not only are you functionally challenged, I have found that every CD person I’ve ever met or worked with, including myself, has been emotionally traumatized by the experience. Many of us become almost numb to the situation so don’t even realize the chronic pain we are in. There tend to be acute flareups of extremely intense emotions like frustration, anger, overwhelming grief and sadness for what your life could have been like, or disgust, followed by episodes of other addictive or compulsive behaviors like shopping, eating, creative projects, self-isolation, workaholicism, TV watching or other kinds of “escape.”
What is Chronic Disorganization?
Chronic disorganization is a term coined by Judith Kolberg when she noticed that some of her clients had great difficulty maintaining traditional organizing methods. Seeing a lack of resources for helping people overcome chronic disorganization, she wrote the book “Conquering Chronic Disorganization.”
In 2001, she founded the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD). With over 900 members, the NSGCD became the Institute for Challenging Disorganization and now includes psychologists, educators, coaches, and other professionals who work with people suffering from long term, severe clutter and disorganization.
The ICD defines chronic disorganization (now called challenging disorganization) as having all three of the following:
- A history of disorganization in which efforts to get organized
have not been maintained.
- An ongoing undermining of your current quality of life due
- An expectation that you will continue to be disorganized.
The term “chronically disorganized” is NOT a “diagnosis” or an “illness”. It is a term used to indicate that conventional organizing methods designed by other people for the individual will probably not be maintained. Healing and recovery will require custom designed organizing strategies and solutions tailored to the individual’s needs, learning style, and personality traits to become more organized. The individual may need:
- Education and skills training to cultivate talents, aptitudes and mindset habits such as design thinking, emotional agility, decision-making, systems design, habit and trigger design
- Agile needs assessment, agile SMART goal setting, and iterative solution and life cycle systems design approaches to organizing and time management needs
- Personal Agility Coaching to cultivate self-leadership and inner conflict resolution skills as an alternative to relying on self-control
- Coaching to design, redesign and cultivate habits and how to weaken the intensity of compulsive and impulsive behavior triggers that result in unwanted consequences
- Emotional agility training to increase self-acceptance, self-confidence, self-advocacy and the strengthen the ability to detach from ideas, paper, things, commitments, etc with less intense grief
- Hands-on coaching to establish a flexibly structured environment and develop iteration strategies for monitoring needs and making effective needs-centered adjustments regularly
- Develop an integrative, iterative, agile lifestyle approach that is deeply committed to making time for meaningful self-organizing on a daily basis and views self-organizing as a creative, need-responsive part of life that is as essential to good health as eating and exercise are.
Much like someone might need a personal trainer, nutritionist or wellness coach to establish a lifestyle approach to healthy eating and exercising, severely chronically disorganized people are likely to need agility coaching in addition to a professional organizer and or therapist as part of their healing and transformation team.
If you are chronically disorganized, the standards for “being successfully organized” are different from what mainstream people perceive as well-organized and each individual will need to design their own standards and processes. For example, professional organizers often advise that people open mail every day and process it immediately. For a chronically disorganized person, opening and processing mail once a week may be a more realistic, meaningful, and “good enough” standard.
Causes of Chronic Disorganization
Chronic disorganization is NOT a disease. It is a behavioral pattern found in all kinds of people, at every income level. Chronically disorganized people usually have some kind of neurodiverse personality traits. They are often highly functional, exceptionally creative, non-linear thinkers and /or exceptionally technical, intelligent, empathic, emotionally intense, or sensitive. They are often sociable, likable, compassionate, humorous, inventive, accomplished, energetic, enthusiastic and fun to be around when they are in supportive contexts and do not feel threatened or anxious. Other traits that seem to be related include: being ambidextrous, unusually open-minded, having many interests.
When stressed and feeling unsupported, they may exhibit impatient, controlling, perfectionistic behaviors as well as anxiety, angry outbursts, depression, grief and other expressions of deep disappointment, existential agony, and/or insecurity. Chronically disorganized people may be painfully shy or very extroverted.
Other potential contributing causes or correlated factors to consider include:
“Bricolage or Bricoleurs.” This group within the chronically disorganized community can be thought of as “inventive” types: People who experience an intense kind of joy when they invent or create something unique, whether it is a recipe, or a novel use for an ordinary item – a behavioral pattern called “bricolage” by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Bricoleurs tend to collect things because they can see uses for the objects that most people would not notice. This challenges the notion that the drive to collect or hoard is primarily caused by OCD or a fear of scarcity or poverty. In many instances of hoarding, there is an intense pleasure factor driving an addictive relationship with objects.
Addiction to Insight. The term “addicted to insight” was coined in 2010 by Chris Fields, an extraordinary multidisciplinary scientist, researcher and synthesizer. His work inspired me to create an experimental blog devoted to exploring how my life has been affected by being “addicted to insight.”
This group within the chronically disorganized population have an uncommonly profound and deep love of learning and researching: An extraordinarily strong drive to answer the questions of life and find meaning in everything. When having an “aha” experience of deep understanding or insight, or when making a new connection or seeing a new pattern, insight addicts experience a rush of endorphins and a sense of euphoric well-being, energy and ecstasy that is similar to the kind of ecstasy that people describe from experiencing a “flow state,” runner’s high, religious ecstasy, or even a shopping addict’s high. This cognitive intensity can be source of social alienation and emotional trauma and even bullying. This trait is also often associated with a tendency to challenge the status quo, challenge authority, and to seem argumentative and oppositional to people. They often have a low tolerance level for mistakes and things that “don’t seem right.”
Neurotypical people have many pejorative labels for people like this ranging from nerd to info-maniac to egg head, know-it-all, absent-minded professor, and book worms. Medical labels such as hypomanic and asperger’s are often given to people who exhibit a strong preference for learning, researching, and wanting to discover the truth.
Situational Life Events and Circumstances. Chronic disorganization is sometimes triggered by situational disorganization that has not been recovered for over a period of years. Situations that may trigger ongoing chronic disorganization include:
- Traumatic emotional loss: divorce, death of a loved one – especially, parent, spouse, or child
- Life changes that make organizing significantly more complex: getting married, having children, home-schooling, getting promoted, moving to a larger or smaller home, starting a business
- A lifestyle with constantly changing needs such as moving frequently or having many children involved in lots of activities
- Having been raised in an environment where life skills were not taught because everything was done for you, or you grew up with parents who were chronically disorganized, or you grew up in an abusive environment
- Ongoing major chronic illness in your family
- High intelligence / giftedness
- High creativity / creative personality type
- Right-brain dominant information processing style
- A wide range of interests
- Difficulty understanding own needs objectively
- Strong emotional attachments to things
- The energy of another person helps them feel “focused and interested”
- Tendency to lose track of time
- Ability to focus and engage so intensely that they may forget to eat and / or attend to daily life maintenance like shopping, cleaning & organizing
- Difficulty focusing on things they don’t find fascinating
- Tend to get easily stressed and frustrated especially if things don’t come easily or they can’t do something “perfectly”
- “Global” thinking styles – tend to see everything at once
- Difficulty categorizing and making decisions because they can think of so many possibilities
- “Intuitive” and /or “Perceiving” preferences in their MBTI (Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator) personality type
Are You Chronically Disorganized?
Whatever the causes may be, the signs are similar. You may be chronically disorganized if:
- Disorganization, clutter and poor time management are regularly disrupting your marriage, relationships, work and/or health
- You have great difficulty letting go of things even when you no longer need them
- Clutter is preventing you from using areas of home as you would like to
- You have tried to organize many times but nothing seems to stick
- You have purchased organizing books and organizing containers but not been able to apply them to your situation
- You feel there is something wrong with you because you can’t maintain organizing systems
Chronic disorganization does not have to be a life sentence for chronic pain. Even though the tendency to become disorganized will always be present, many chronically disorganized people can heal from the emotionally traumatic elements of this pattern, design their lives to fit their needs and optimize personal performance, productivity and overall functioning using self-leadership strategies rather than self-control.
They can learn how to use their unique traits and tendencies to design uniquely inventive approaches to self-organizing. They can redefine organizing as a self-cultivating and nurturing process that is deeply meaningful, and can be very inspirational and improvisational. The Agile Life Design approach to custom designing improvisational organizing systems can been used as part of a holistic treatment strategy to heal the impact of chronic disorganization and dramatically improve the overall quality of life.
Start with Changing the way you See Yourself
If you think you might be chronically disorganized, a great first step would be to find a way to muster as much self-compassion as you can. To help you shift perspective, try this exercise.
- Review your personal history to discover your personal patterns of disorganization and how it has evolved.
- Write or sketch a timeline of your life in 5 year increments. Create 3 columns for each 5 year period.
- Column One: List your significant, emotionally intense or stressful POSITIVE experiences. Include achievements, happy events, relationships, activities that fully engaged you and where you felt most alive or accepted as you are.
- Column Two: List painful, embarrassing or traumatic events, losses, etc.such as losing a job, being fired, divorce, deaths, serious illnesses, being bullied, developing an addiction, being diagnosed with a mental health condition, etc.
- Column Three: List significant events related to disorganization, clutter, etc. such as losing valuable items such as keys, purse, phones being punished for being late, being fired for disorganization, negative comments on school reports or performance reviews, relationships that broke up over disorganization, etc.
- Look for patterns and potential connections you may not have noticed before. For example, making the honor roll at school, or getting a promotion at work and within the year becoming depressed or starting to drink etc. This may have been a positive event, but the pressure to continue to achieve at a high level may be associated with an increase in hoarding behavior, lateness, addictive or distracting behaviors like TV or gaming, difficulty organizing,and more. This does not mean one thing caused the other, but they are connected and do make up part of your personal complex history with disorganization. Learn as much as you can about your own personal patterns without jumping to conclusions about what caused what.
- Make a list of all the ways you ARE organized. What are you usually on time for? What are you always able to find or do easily because you are reasonably organized. For example, some people are organized with their keys or purse or music or in the kitchen because they love to cook. Some are organized at work but not at home.
Even the most chronically disorganized people usually have a history of being organized in some area of their lives or with being able of helping other people organize. What are your bright spots of organization?
Simply changing the way you see your own behavior and describing it to yourself differently will make it easier to design new, more effective approaches to the challenge.
Connect with Your Tribe
Find a way to connect with others who do not judge you and can help you see your behavior more compassionately. Consider connecting with a group that addresses chronic disorganization and has members who have experienced it themselves.
If the thought of having someone enter your home stresses you out, then joining an online support group can be a life transforming experience.
Professionals include life coaches, organizing coaches, social workers, therapists, counselors, professional organizers, or psychologists who specialize in chronic disorganization. If you are anxious about having someone in your home, many professionals provide support over the phone or video-conferencing and can help you become emotionally ready for in-home support.
Recovery requires accurately identifying addressing the underlying emotional needs, self-leadership, decision-making skills and cognitive habits that contribute to the behavioral manifestations of chronic disorganization. Sometimes a team that includes a therapist, life coach, hands-on organizer and/or cleaning crew may be indicated.
If you wish to consider working with professionals, the most important consideration is that you feel completely accepted and respected by them. If someone makes you feel judged, stupid, or hopeless, of they make comments or use body language that feels condescending or disrespectful, do not work with them or end the relationship.
Select your professional organizer carefully. Recovery from chronic disorganization is usually a long term relationship that requires a lot of trust, respect and mutual commitment. Not all people who call themselves professional organizers have the education and coaching skills needed to help people with a history of challenging disorganization recover.
Be prepared that, like dating, it may take several tries to find the right support for your unique situation. I recommend looking for a professional who specializes in Chronic Disorganization, ADHD, Autism or other neurodiversities.
One place to start is with the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. ICD is the only organization I know of that is devoted primarily to providing education and training specifically on helping people with Chronic Disorganization.
- Top 3 Reasons Designing for Your Brain BEATS Self-Control as a Peak Performance Strategy
- How we Learn to Procrastinate
- Misdiagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Asperger’s, Depression, and Other Disorders
- Are you an adult with ADHD or ADDish traits? Ever wonder if you might be “gifted”? How about Neurodiverse? (NEAT & SIMPLE LIVING)
- I sometimes wonder if I have ADD… (NEAT & SIMPLE LIVING)
Home Study Classes Programs and Books
- ADDClasses offers and extensive library of 1 hour audio programs. Two of my ADD classes (Neat & Simple Organizing Strategies, and Quantum Productivity) are available there.
- Agile Living Reading List
- Compulsive Hoarding Service Provider Referral Directory on my blog
- Help for Hoarders, Clutterers & Compulsive Shoppers on my blog
© 2009 – 2014 Ariane Benefit, M.S.Ed.
Ariane Benefit, M.S.Ed, Agile Living Life Design Coach, ADHD Coach, Author and Speaker. She is the founder of AgiliZen which help people heal lifelong performance impairment, and recover from anxiety, depression, addiction, chronic disorganization, clutter, overwhelm, and time management issues by cultivating the agile mindset. Ariane is dedicated to teaching people how to design sustainable satisfying success into their lives by cultivating the skills and habits of emotional agility, designing for your brain, decision-making skills, and creative, agile organizing.
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