The Culprits Of Disorganization

Cause of Clutter…

Years ago, I had a friend (like me) who gathered information on interesting causes, projects and opportunities that eventually found its way into a paper stack somewhere in her home. In conversation, she often joked about “our piles.”

Those plural piles, however, extended beyond the “we” to me: I almost always had a pile of something on my kitchen counter, bedroom floor and kitchen table. Sometimes those piles were categorically organized (books, bills); sometimes not. Admittedly, organizing my space has been a lifelong struggle.

Disorganization creates clutter, whether in the form of paper piles or a hodge-podge of other items strewn about the house, stored in the garage, attic or closet. But understanding and addressing the root cause(s) of disorganization can make the difference between success and failure when attempting to implement decluttering solutions long-term. 

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization defines chronic disorganization as persistent, recurrent and corrosive to one’s quality of life. In other words, try as we might, we just cannot single-handedly “fix” it. 

The causes of chronic disorganization vary, as do the remedies, and include brain-based conditions, beliefs about oneself/possessions and situational circumstances.

Traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s Disease and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are only a few of the neurological/neurodevelopmental conditions that can make organization challenging.

In my own case, untreated Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder led to repeated battles that ended in defeat. Once identified and properly treated, my ability to plan, prioritize and organize improved. Self-acceptance, commitment to new disciplines and patience have been key.

Other neurological factors include physical and cognitive changes that accompany aging, learning style differences, information-processing deficits, and emotional and behavioral patterns.  

Emotional attachment, in particular, drives many of us to keep our spaces cluttered with more than we need or have room to store. Such attachment may arise from a neurological cause, or from the beliefs that we hold. 

When guilt, money and/or fear of future scarcity attach themselves to our relationship with our “stuff,” emotions can drive us blindly. 

“When you receive a present, your duty is to receive it and thank the giver – not keep it forever,” says interior designer Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan. In such cases, we might ask ourselves honestly whether we like an item, need it or meaningfully use it before deciding to keep it. 

Similarly, if we’re overly sentimental or ridden with guilt at the thought of parting with items inherited from loved ones, we may want to examine the roots of our attachment. Randy Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College, suggests we ask ourselves, “How many things do I really need to honor this person’s memory?” 

Maybe we believe some of those inherited items have value (think “Antiques Roadshow”), so we hang onto them until someday when we get around to verifying whether our assumption is correct. Or, perhaps we’re afraid of letting go of something we might need in the future. In either case, an honest self-appraisal and/or the aid of a professional can help us move beyond procrastination and/or fear.

Sometimes we confront or create situations that disable our organizational ability. According to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, these include physical challenges, life crises and transitions, communication problems, lack of skills, environmental and systemic factors and our personal choices.

Grief counselor Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., says disorganization, confusion and an inability to complete tasks is common following loss. “You may start a project but be unable to finish it,” he says, “or you may be forgetful and ineffective.” When accompanied by the fatigue and lack of initiative common during bereavement, clutter may result.

  If not taught in school or at home how to organize our space, we may feel overwhelmed with how and where to begin. If mobility is impaired, we may not have the strength to lift or move items to their proper place. If overscheduled, we create a time deficit, time needed for clearing and organizing our space.

Whether related to our brains, beliefs and/or situational factors, help and hope are available to those of us unable to single-handedly win the war with clutter.   •

Note: The resources are for informational purposes only. If a self-assessment raises concern, consult with a trained clinician for evaluation and accurate diagnosis. 

Institute for Challenging Disorganization: “Are You Affected by Chronic Disorganization?”


International OCD Foundation The Saving Inventory-Revised, Hoarding Rating Scale and Clutter Image Rating: Anonymous:

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