by Vicki Norris, author Restoring Order
The Disorder Disease
Why am I so disorganized?
Isn't that the million-dollar question? If we knew what caused our disorganization, wouldn't we just deal with it and move on? I wish it were that easy! I've learned in my career as a professional organizer that people become disorganized in many ways and for many reasons.
How Did I Get Here?
Figuring out how you became disorganized is like checking your medical history. Your medical records will show when you broke your arm, had an asthma attack, or suffered an allergic reaction. Your records will signify how often you visit the doctor. Frequent visits over a certain period of time may have indicated tremendous stress that affected your health. If you have a new development in your physical condition, your medical records are likely to offer some background and insight into what may be causing your ailments.
To learn about your disorganization, you can check your history. I've observed several means by which people arrive in their state of chaos. Sometimes a precipitating event, like a death in the family or a divorce, can cause disorder. Other times, bad habits are to blame. Each of us had an example to follow in our homes growing up, and we have all been affected in some way by that example. Some of us have accepted cultural norms and have collected our way into chaos. A small percentage of folks have struggled with dis-organization their whole lives.
To better understand the unique varieties of disorganization, I have observed and interviewed hundreds of people on the topic of how they became disorganized. I've discovered five basic means by which people have become disorganized. Our life becomes disorderly due to our situation, habits, family history, social behavior and chronic issues.
Sometimes our circumstances just get the best of us. At work and at home we encounter situations that invite disorder. Things might be going along fine, and then all of a sudden we are inundated by some event or project. When something happens that we did not anticipate or did not prepare for, we can find ourselves the victim of our circumstances. Many people have told me that by nature they are very organized, but they are distressed by the unexpected disorder that has arrived. These folks are what I call situationally disorganized.
If you have been given a big project with a tight deadline at work, you may have to drop lots of requests until you meet the deadline. Your e-mails and phone messages may stack up in the interim. When you've met your deadline, you would like to feel relief, but instead you have to face a mountain of work that you were forced to let slide.
When you have to pick up the pieces you let fall during crunch time, you are dealing with situational disorganization.
Some of the clients I've worked with have needed help redirecting their behavior. Some are stashers. Some are stackers. Others are pilers, spreaders, suffers, and hiders. You name it, I've seen it. There are a million bad organizing habits, and we've all indulged in some of them from time to time.
Instead of unloading the dishwasher, we leave our dishes in the sink, hoping someone else will unload. Rather than facing the paper pileup, we shut our office door so we can't see the mess. We knowingly overbook our schedule because we can't say no. We resist using a calendar, and important events and appointments fall through the cracks. We all have our own unique collection of bad habits that lead to disorganization. We are the habitually disorganized.
Being habitually disorganized does not mean that we are forever cursed and stuck with chaos in our lives. Rather, it means that we have created our own state of disorganization with our collection of bad habits. Are you a task dodger? Whether you're dealing with a backlog of laundry, yard work, or paperwork, you must learn how to break the habit of procrastination in order to live an ordered life.
My friend Nancy grew up in a clean but disorganized home. Her mom is an inspiration to her, a career woman who worked tirelessly at her job. She worked long hours, so the last thing she wanted to do when she got home was to organize.
As a result, the house had lots of junk drawers and mystery cabinets, and Nancy grew up surrounded by disorganization. Nancy did not learn organizing skills at home and adapted her life and work style around the disorder. Disorganization within the home can alter the way we use our space. We behave in unproductive ways when we are faced with disorganization.
The other day, I drove past a storage unit near where I live. The sign said: "If you can't find your lawnmower, bring your garage clutter here!" I couldn't believe the message that the sign was sending! It was encouraging readers to ignore their mess by simply relocating it. Instead of dealing with and eliminating the mess, the sign recommended a stashing solution. I almost pulled in and gave the owners a piece of my mind. However, my business name and phone number are on the back of my car, so I decided that might not be a good idea!
The sentiments of that storage unit sign reminded me of the attitude behind the bumper sticker we've probably all seen: "He who dies with the most toys wins." Our culture encourages accumulation. We get more and more stuff, yet we are more and more unhappy and stressed. We are the socially disorganized.
Social norms also encourage us to overprogram our lives. Children are as overcommitted as adults these days. Gone are the summers at the pool and holidays at home. My clients have shared with me how overly scheduled their lives are as well. Many families earn double incomes but never seem to have time or money to invest in their quality of life. We become disorganized when we give in to the attitude in society that says, "I have to have it all." This attitude can lead us down a slippery slope of overcommitment.
One of the reasons we collect too many belongings and activities is that we have a hard time saying no. If you have been a victim of social pressures, your choices may have resulted in an overloaded schedule and disorderly living. You can now make a conscious choice to reject the social pressures that surround you and extract yourself from an out-of-control schedule. If you can say no and stop accumulating, you will begin to restore order.
Chronic disorganization is another way people arrive in chaos. This phrase is not a subjective term. In fact, a group of people study an actual condition called "chronic disorganization." If you've ever wondered why none of your efforts to organize yourself have succeeded, you might fall into this category.
The chronically disorganized likely have a home or work space (or both) that is piled high with clutter. Often, they feel helpless to overcome their disorganization. Indeed, chronically disorganized people require more specialized service than those who came by their disorganization by way of situation, habits, family history, or social influence. Chronically disorganized people are not likely to be able to pull themselves out of their circumstances alone.
The important thing to know is that even if you suffer from chronic disorganization, you do not have to be stuck in disorder forever. I encourage people who think they may suffer from chronic disorganization to visit the website of the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization at www.nsgcd.org. On this website, you can find a referral directory that will help you enlist the help of an expert or investigate other resources.
Prescription for Change
Many people are quick to medicate their ailments. We pop a pill to treat our symptoms rather than trying to discover and eliminate the root causes of our disease. We take the same approach to organizing. We reach for quick tips, hoping for an immediate remedy for our symptoms. I am prescribing that you address your problems instead of medicating them. I would rather dispense a solid, viable approach to organizing that lasts than an enticing but temporary fix. You don't need a treatment plan for solving your organizing problems; you need a restoration process! Treatment implies administering or managing your disorganization. Restoration, however, includes an investigative process that can actually eradicate your disorganization. Treatment agrees to live with the status quo, simply medicating the problem. Restoration transforms you!
Intervention is the first step of any recovery program. We all face a moment of truth when we ask for help. Either the pain of our organizing problems is so great that we can't ignore it anymore, or we are inspired to change.
The first step in an intervention is an evaluation process. In a hospital, the newly admitted proceed to triage, where their needs are prioritized. The same thing happens in an organizing intervention. An expert organizer who has received an inquiry from a disorganized person will want to know the scope of the problem and will begin assessing where the client's pain is focused. A good secretary would also assess what problems face his or her boss, which are the most important, and how best to resolve them. Of course, you can evaluate your own problems, decide which are the most acute, and begin to tackle them.
Rehabilitation is not the same thing as treatment. To reclaim your life from the disorder you're experiencing, you need a process of transformation, not a technique. In order to restore health to your environment or your schedule, you will be acting on your own behalf to change your thinking and your behavior. No 12-step program is available to help you get organized and rehabilitate yourself. By understanding organizing truths and principles, you can then begin to apply an informed strategy to your disorganization disease.
Once you've done the hard work of rehabilitation, you will feel so relieved. The liberation that flows in a life of order is priceless. But in any recovery process, we are prone to relapse. Even if we dig out of our chaos and set up good systems, we will likely backslide if we don't have a solid commitment to maintenance.
One benefit of engaging in an organizing process rather than simply applying a collection of tips is that you will identify counterproductive behavior. This self-awareness will help prevent relapse. You will become equipped to identify your own habits that cause disorder in the first place. Avoiding relapse begins with taking a viable, lasting approach rather than a quick and dirty shortcut that will only lead to disappointment. Maintenance is a series of choices that protect your investment in organizing.
Adapted from Restoring Order by Vicki Norris, © 2005 by Vicki Norris;
Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR; Used by Permission.