Something I have learned from working with chronically disorganized people is that they don’t tend to think in terms of categories. My people are fun to work with because they tend to be exceptionally nice and creative. It’s also funny to surprise them with patterns they hadn’t noticed until you point them out.
Others may ask, “Why are they doing that? How can they live that way?”
I know that the answer is, “It hasn’t occurred to them yet that it might be a problem.”
Why is there a pot on the kitchen floor?
Why doesn’t he have a shower curtain?
Why are there things behind the door so it can’t open all the way?
Organizing books and techniques tend to focus on the items in a home and where to put them. I prefer to focus on the living space itself, which is usually the absence of any and all items, and whether my person has room to do anything.
Can you sleep in the bed? ...The whole bed?
It’s surprising how common it is for my people to pile clutter of all types on their beds, and then sleep on only a narrow little sliver of mattress. Or the couch, or a chair.
Can you open all the doors? All the way?
Again, incredibly common for stuff to be piled behind doors. It may have fallen back there. Maybe nobody noticed. There may just be so much stuff that it’s the only space left. My people don’t tend to realize that they may be subconsciously blocking their doors for protection, a barricade that insulates them in their comfort zone.
Can you walk safely up and down the stairs?
I try not to be judgmental in my work, because people are entitled to arrange their personal space however they see fit. I do set the boundary early on that I ask people not to keep “anything with DNA” and to please fix obvious safety hazards. Storing stuff on the stairs is one of them. Putting fabric like dish towels on top of the stove is another.
Can you use the shower, sink, and toilet?
I have been in a lot of homes with nonfunctional plumbing. These are usually the “ones” on the Readiness Scale, the people who are absolutely not ready to do the work. They are fine with the way things are. I don’t work with them - they wouldn’t want me to - but they do make great case histories for my twos and threes.
Note: Any professional who does home visits, whether it’s a mover, a cable installer, an exterminator, a plumber, electrician, or whoever, has seen it all. Every single day. (I know because I always ask them for stories). Don’t be embarrassed to call and get something repaired. Your place probably won’t be the worst they’ve ever seen, and it might not even be the 500th worst. The only thing I’ll say is that an exterminator will charge more to service a place that is packed with stuff than they will for a more streamlined home.
Are you constantly annoyed by rodents, bugs, mold, or broken stuff?
See above. Please take action and take care of yourself. You deserve to be safe and comfortable.
Some of you may be reading along and thinking, Whoa, maybe I’m not as bad off as I thought. Probably true! Pop culture has developed an awareness of hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization - although it doesn’t distinguish between them - but it isn’t well-known how very common it all is. I would estimate that maybe 10% of people are so clean and tidy they could do a magazine shoot, while 80% are basically messy most of the time. The bottom 20% are totally like what you’d see on TV. Yes, I said 20%!
Almost all of them either think it’s their dirty little secret, or they don’t care at all and they’re essentially rebelling against what they think other people think.
The truth is that most people are too busy worrying about how they themselves are being judged to worry much about anyone else. They’re not thinking about you, they’re thinking about themselves.
For those who are more in the middle, there are more practical questions to spot issues that could be fixed by Getting Organized.
Are you often running out the door late, in a panic?
If you have kids, does someone start crying in the morning more than one day a week?
Do you have to go to the grocery store more than twice a week?
Can you remember the last time your car ran out of gas?
Can you remember the last time you had no piles of laundry, either clean or dirty?
Can you eat at the table if you want to?
Would it take you more than five minutes to find: your keys, driver’s license, phone charger, prescriptions, passport, umbrella, or a postage stamp?
Most of these issues reveal the lack of a system. That’s all. Often one simple change can get rid of a whole series of hassles. For instance, out of the above list, most of those items in my home are within ten feet of each other.
Organizing issues aren’t graded. There isn’t a report or an audit. (Unless you’re in an apartment or townhouse, in which case you might have 24 hours to prepare for a habitability check).
What it really comes down to is your tolerance for a background level of stress, anxiety, or confusion.
Where most of my people have issues, besides not being highly skilled at putting things in categories, is that they are reluctant to ask for help. They’re embarrassed, they don’t know where to start, they don’t even know whom to ask. They blame themselves for “being lazy” or “procrastinating” when the real issue is that they have no idea what to do. How is that someone’s fault?
One way to approach it is to collect stories. Simply ask other people what they do in a certain situation, like whether they have trouble getting themselves and their kids out the door on time. Maybe they’ll share similar stories and you can laugh about it together. Maybe they have some tricks that would work for you, too. Just don’t go it alone, and please, don’t keep tolerating baseline misery. You deserve better.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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