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Organizationally Challenged?

Signs, Symptoms, and Tips for Managing It

No matter how on top of things you are, even the best-laid plans can go off the rails. And when they do, things can get a little chaotic. Almost everyone has felt disorganized sometimes. While tough times like dealing with an illness, a loss, or living through a renovation are often to blame, even happy occasions like a vacation, a baby, or a new pet can cause temporary disarray. This is called situational disorganization – times when life happens, and regular routines and systems get out of whack. In most cases, once the situation has passed, it is fairly easy to get things back in order and, once they are, they will stay that way until the next big event.

Yet for some, disorganization is more than a short-term inconvenience. It is a lifelong struggle. Many people dealing with challenging disorganization can’t recall a time in their lives when they felt organized. Others were functioning well until an illness, injury, or trauma led to a lasting change in ability. No matter when in life it begins, challenging disorganization (also known as chronic disorganization) can be recognized by some key indicators:

Duration: The disorganization has lasted beyond a temporary period or situation.

Quality of life: The symptoms of challenging disorganization (constantly losing things, overdue bills, showing up late or unprepared, keeping people away so they won’t see the mess) can crush self-esteem, amplify stress, and damage relationships and careers.

Self-help hasn’t helped: Despite all the books on organizing, the newest apps and day planners, and the perfect containers, nothing seems to work.

Likely to continue without intervention: Challenging disorganization is not a matter of laziness or lack of will power. Most people experiencing challenging disorganization have lost hope and need support to create systems that will work for them.

To understand what causes this kind of disorganization, it is helpful to understand a little bit about the brain, and in particular, the pre-frontal cortex, located in the area behind the eyes. This is the executive office, carrying out the functions that help direct behavior toward a desired end – important things like impulse control, emotional regulation, working memory, and the ability to mentally shift gears, take initiative, plan ahead, categorize, organize, and keep track of time.

Impaired executive function, which manifests both as observable symptoms and as different patterns of brain activity in the pre-frontal cortex, is associated with a number of conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), executive functioning disorder (EFD), hoarding disorder, learning and processing disorders, mood disorders, autism, neurological conditions, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and strokes.

When executive functioning is affected, people experience varying levels of difficulty with things that are essential to getting and staying organized, such as initiating projects, staying on task until they are completed, following through with multiple steps, problem-solving, and time management. To compensate, organizing solutions need to be customized to work with the way an individual’s brain works.

The following strategies can help people struggling with challenging disorganization to initiate organizing efforts and see them through:

• Break boring tasks into short spurts. Rather than trying to get the whole room clean, start with one area – the top of the dresser or one shelf in the pantry.

• Choose a reward to look forward to after the task is done.

• Make the activity more fun by playing favorite music, make it a competition, or ask someone whose company you enjoy to help you. The more something feels like play, the more likely it will get done.

• Use external cues. Alarms and timers provide auditory and visual reminders to start and stop; open-topped, clear containers with labels make it easy to remember what goes where; color- coding helps identify categories.

• Choose the path of least resistance. Place organizing solutions where the chaos occurs: hooks where jackets are dropped; hampers where clothes are piled; a basket in each room to collect things that don’t belong (one for each person can also be helpful).

• Keep filing systems simple and avoid over-specificity. For example, rather than a separate file for each type of manual, have one box where they all go, or don’t keep them at all. Remember, most are available online. Label files with action words like Pay or Do.

• Engage someone who is calm and not distracting to sit quietly while you work on a task you would otherwise avoid, such as paying bills or sorting clothes.

Most important for anyone struggling with challenging disorganization is support. Many successful people depend on family, friends, and professionals to help with the tasks they themselves struggle to execute. Whether it is a retiree whose friend helps with papers, a creative entrepreneur who depends on an assistant to stay on top of email, or an overworked parent who would be driven to distraction without a cleaning service a few times a month, everyone needs help sometimes. In some cases, the right professional or team of professionals working together can be critical to success.


Amanda Scudder, MSW, CPO, is a consultant with Abundance Organizing who specializes in helping people get out from under their stuff. She has received specialist certificates in challenging disorganization and ADD from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. She lives with her husband, two children, and two dogs in Richmond’s Museum District.
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