Chronic Disorganization: The Basics

There’s more than one type of disorganization- regular disorganization, chronic disorganization, and hoarding. Regular disorganization, which everyone experiences from time to time, is characterized by disorganization which is temporary and is not expected to persist into the future. It’s a sort of “fix it and forget it” disorganization. The degree and longevity of the disorganization are what separate regular disorganization from chronic disorganization.

Hoarding is different from chronic disorganization in that it is a compulsive behavior which includes acquiring and saving of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value, living spaces that are so cluttered that they are unusable, and significant distress or impairment caused by the clutter.

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) states that “Chronic Disorganization (CD) is characterized by disorganization that has persisted for a long period of time, has a negative impact on daily quality of life, has not responded to repeated self-help attempts, and is expected to continue into the future.”

Let’s look at these characteristics:

Persisting for a long period means that it has been present at some level for years, often since adolescence or childhood.
A negative quality of life implies daily effects on social, personal and work activities such as paying bills, showing up on time, personal care and turning in assignments.
Repeated self-help attempts such as ‘how to’ books and programs have met with little or no success.
Expectation of future disorganization is based on past experience with the failed attempts and the long period of under these conditions.

There are three underlying components that affect chronic disorganization. One is Beliefs about Self and Possessions. These are based on the relationship between one’s identity and one’s possessions. A second is Brain Based Conditions. These are conditions that occur due to neurological or neurochemical factors, such as AD/HD, OCD, Parkinson’s. The individual may not even know if they are effected by one. The third component is Situational Factors. This is the condition or “state of affairs” in which the individual finds him or herself.

Within these components, many factors are associated with chronic disorganization. Factors such as learning differences, information-processing deficits, perfectionism, mental health issues, aging issues, physical challenges, life crises and systemic problems are just a few.

There are some traits among chronically disorganized individuals that will vary from person to person, but these are quite common:

accumulations of objects and/or papers beyond apparent necessity or pleasure
cluttered spaces
having difficulty letting go of things
many uncompleted projects
difficulty completing common household tasks
missed deadlines
weak time management skills
no (or multiple) calendar in use
frequently misplaced documents or files
no (or multiple) filing systems in use
tend to be easily distracted
often have difficulty making decisions
stressful household and/or work environment
and many others.

Traditional organizing methods seldom meet with success because they do not address the underlying factors that lead to the disorganization in the first place. So, how does a professional organizer work with a CD client? The professional organizer partners with the client in a collaborative relationship where they provide and maintain objectivity to help the client reduce overwhelm and gain a fresh perspective. They transfer skills and strategies that support the client’s organizing goals. They focus on the client’s strengths and successes and understanding of underlying factors to help them maintain motivation and get “unstuck”. They may facilitate cognitive and technical skills training and recommend outside resources when appropriate. They may also work in collaboration with the client’s other physical and mental health providers and councilors.

If you believe you have been challenged by chronic disorganization, you can find help through the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (

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