Five Causes of Disorganization and How to Counteract Them

There are many reasons for disorganization. Sometimes understanding the reason can help increase your ability to get and stay organized.

Chronic disorganization (CD), as defined by the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD), describes a person with a past history of disorganization which has not improved with self-help efforts, that negatively impacts the person’s quality of life and that is not expected to change in the future. In order for a person to be classified as CD, the person must meet all of those criteria.

People affected by CD may be impacted by one of more of the following factors.

Ineffective beliefs about stuff. One of the most common beliefs about stuff is a strong sense of obligation to retain and take care of objects. This may cover specific items such as family heirlooms or collections. It may broaden to any object that has a value as perceived by someone. Additionally, some people associate their stuff with their identity.

Here’s how it might show up:boxes

  • “I don’t have a place for this hand-carved chest, but it’s been in the family for generations, so there’s no way I can give it away.”
  • “I don’t use the sweater that Aunt Sue gave me for Christmas, but she’ll be upset if I don’t wear it next time she comes.”
  • “I may have retired from teaching, but if I give away all of my teaching stuff, then it will be like I never taught at all.”

There are two main ways to counteract ineffective beliefs about stuff. First, find a way to honor the memory rather than keeping the item. With the hand-carved chest, you can take a picture and put it in a frame along with a story about who made it and how it was used in different homes. You might tell Aunt Sue that while you appreciate the sweater, it’s not really your style but you decided that someone at the homeless shelter would really appreciate its’ warmth. The teacher could designate one small decorative table as a place to locate pictures and other memorabilia.

A second strategy to curb ineffective beliefs about possessions is to Minimize Inside Clutter. You can out specific ways of doing this on our Flexible Structure Method website.

Perfectionism. While ineffective beliefs about stuff often lead to lots of extra items, perfectionism can have a slightly different impact. Perfectionist tendencies may lead a person to not start an organizing task until they feel they have the time and supplies available to complete it perfectly.

Along the same lines, a perfectionist may take an inordinate amount of time on one part of an organizing project, which either jeopardizes finishing the entire project or completion of unrelated tasks due to using too much time organizing.

Counteracting perfectionism is a matter of changing your brain chatter (those internal voices). One way is to give yourself permission by saying something like, “Done is better than perfect.” You may have to repeat this under your breath multiple times. Or you might have a friend or family member say it to you.

You can also lessen perfectionist tendencies by learning how to Minimize Inside Clutter.

Discount the importance of learning modalities. Everyone learns differently. By extension, people need organizing and productivity systems that are well-suited to their learning style. While many people think there are three basic learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic, in her book Processing Modalities Guide, organizing expert Denslow Brown posits that there are nine distinct processing modalities. They are visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, taste/smell, verbal, emotional, cognitive and intuitive.

While I won’t spend time going through each processing modality, I will highlight a few ideas of how knowing your own learning style will increase your ability to get and stay organizedstuff. Let’s use the example of creating a better evening routine.

  • The kinesthetic style involves moving your body and figuring out where it is in space. So if a kinesthetic person is creating a new evening routine, instead of writing it down, the person may need to practice it. For instance, put out breakfast items, place items to take to work by the door, etc. The person may want to run through the routine several times, even if it isn’t evening yet. Or the person could create a mindmap first to use spatial skills in an effort to encode the new routine.
  • The tactile person will need to use their hands in some form or fashion to create the new habit. For instance, maybe they put a felt doorknob cover on their bathroom door as a reminder to choose their clothes for the next day.
  • The person who responds well to taste or smell may find that having a lavender scent in the bathroom helps them calm down and take a moment to prepare for the next day.
  • The verbal processor may do well with self-talk (“If I take time tonight to prepare for tomorrow, I will not be as rushed in the morning”) or with a checklist.

Lack of skills. Organizing 101 isn’t often taught in high school or college. Even if it is, you are usually taught “the one way to organize.” Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, people have different learning modalities. So what works for one person may not work for another.

There are several ways to learn organizing or productivity skills. You can independently learn through reading books and by taking classes, then experiment with trial-and-error until you find systems that work for you. Alternatively, you can hire an organizing or productivity professional who has the training and experience to meet your organizing challenges and needs.

Mental health related brain-based conditions. Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), hoarding and other mental health issues can create situations in which organization is difficult to establish and maintain.

The most helpful strategy is to get a correct diagnosis from a person trained in the right specialty and then get appropriate support. This support might include but is not limited to medication, therapy, coaching, organizing, education and more.

As you can see, there are many causes of disorganization. Understanding the reason(s) and developing a plan to work with your strengths while lessening the impact of your challenges is the best overall approach to establish and maintain organization.

For more information about the causes of disorganization, please refer to this free Fact Sheet from the ICD called Disorganization.

If you would like some help identifying your causes of disorganization and learning to overcome them, contact Minding Your Matters today.



Janice is available to speak throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, including Atlanta, Boston, Calgary, Chicago, Denver, London, New York City, Montreal, Ontario, Paris, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland (OR), Salt Lake City, San Francisco, St. Louis, Seattle, Vancouver, Washington, D.C., and the Triangle area of North Carolina (including Apex, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, Fayetteville, Morrisville, and Raleigh).

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