“A place for everything and everything in its place.”
It’s a tidy phrase and an aspiring maxim. There are those who live by it, and then there are the rest of us. Whether you’re plagued by a chaotic work desk, an overflowing guest room or an entire house in disarray, your stuff isn’t just taking up space – it may be impacting your health and crowding out your happiness.
“People who are chronically disorganized suffer emotionally, physically, socially and in their career,” says Dr. Lindsay Patterson, a clinical psychologist at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital in Tulsa. “Maintaining a minimum level of organization and structure allows people to be more productive and efficient in the use of their ‘work’ time.”
According to Patterson, clutter competes for attention and, while it serves as a distraction, steals energy, slows progress and affects creativity. She notes that successful people are generally organized. They plan, prioritize and streamline work to accomplish desired goals, which leads to greater productivity and potential career advancement.
She explains that disorganization has been linked to mounting stress, and everyday challenges, such as searching for lost keys, evokes a stress response.
“The limbic system fires up as if there were a tiger outside the door. Blood pressure rises, heart and respiration increase, stress hormones are released and your immune system slows down,” says Patterson. “If you wake up late, can’t find your keys, don’t have your clothes and breakfast on hand, it sets off a chain reaction of nervous tension.”
It’s this kind of scenario that can set the tone for your entire day.
“Your stress level peaks, and you become scattered, tense and irritable,” she says. “When your world is confused, your mind feels muddled. You are less decisive and productive, which may contribute to a slide toward depression.”
Patterson shares examples of common disorganization that can lead to undue stress.
“In a household, misplacing bills, especially when that leads to paying late fees, and replacing lost items have negative consequences on the individual and the family,” she says. “If disorganization means missed doctor appointments and medication, that affects one’s health.”
Often disorganization will cause a person to miss opportunities for healthy activities, such as exercising, enjoying a hobby or relaxing with friends.
“On a physical level, organized people are generally healthier – better blood flow and less inflammation,” adds Patterson. “Less fats, sugars and stress hormones (cortisol) are released into the blood stream, better physical processing keeps the body functioning, which helps beat back chronic conditions, physical and mental illnesses.”
When Clutter Escalates
So why do people choose to live in chaos? Anne Spero, a certified professional organizer and owner of Organized Living, a professional organizing service in Tulsa, has some insight. She has been featured on The Learning Channel’s documentary show, Hoarding: Buried Alive, and is also a chronic disorganization and hoarding specialist. She says there are various reasons why people become disorganized. She categorizes the causes into four areas: medical, situational, choice and non-instinctive.
“Most of my clients are chronically disorganized, which means they have struggled with organization their entire lives,” she says. “They have had numerous failed self-help attempts, and it impedes the quality of their daily lives.”
She often finds that these individuals have been diagnosed with conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression or other medical issues.
Situational disorganization is triggered by a traumatic or overwhelming life event, such as a death, divorce, birth or a move. People become overwhelmed by a situation and have trouble putting everything back in order. Other individuals have the ability to organize but choose not to because they procrastinate, are too busy, dislike it or would prefer to hire out the service. And then there are those who Spero says, “just do not have the natural knack for order.”
She says these last two types can usually maintain the organization systems once they are put into place. However, those afflicted with hoarding need additional professional help.
Patterson explains that while ADD, depression, chronic pain and grief can lead to a buildup of clutter, at its extreme, compulsive hoarding develops.
“Brain scans show that hoarders do have differences in the area of the brain involved in decision-making and planning,” she says. “In addition to difficulty making decisions, they do seem to experience actual pain in getting rid of something. I have heard it compared to the pain of a paper cut.”
She also highlights that “true clutter is not the same as having all the supplies or components for a project around you. True clutter is likely to be dirty – collecting dust, breeding germs, providing hiding places for bugs, mice and worse.”
Fortunately, the majority of people do not fall into this category, and the silver lining is that organization can be learned.
“If people are aware that their lack of organization is a problem, they should ask for help,” says Patterson.
She proposes reaching out to friends and family, gaining guidance from books and online resources, or accessing professional help through time management courses, professional organizers, therapists and executive coaches.
“The basic teaching is how to group, sort, set priorities and discard items. We commonly teach people to use a three-box strategy: keep, donate or sell and trash,” says Patterson.
In her work with clients, Spero believes it’s important for people to know that it’s okay to admit where they struggle.
“Telling them it’s normal to be embarrassed and ashamed but asking for and admitting the need help is the first major step,” says Spero. “People are more likely these days to come out with their disorganization issues, than ever before. That kinship with others opens the doors to allow purging, organizing, cleansing and healing to occur.”
Spero offers the following advice to help people get started.
An organized spaced should be…
• Pleasing to the eye;
• Have useful items within reach;
• Have unrelated items placed elsewhere; and
• Be easy to maintain.
Spero also teaches her clients an easy acronym that was originally coined by professional organizer, Julie Morgenstern – SPACE: Sort, Purge, Assign a home, Containerize, Equalize (maintain). She adds that it’s essential to continually reassess progress in an effort to not become too overwhelmed and to also give yourself credit for every achievement, big or small. – RF