cluttered paperwork spilling out of a cupboard onto the counter

What does chronically disorganized mean?

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization defines chronic disorganization as disorganization that persists over the long haul, often making your quality of life worse, and is a constant in your life no matter what you try to do to fix it yourself.

Olivia Organized looks around her kitchen one sunny morning and notices that things aren’t as shipshape as she’d like them to be. The kids have been homeschooling at the kitchen table and leaving their papers out. The snack cupboard is littered with wrappers and the floor is crunchy.

Olivia O. instinctively knows what to do. She sweeps the floor first, puts a trash can near the snack cupboard for future wrappers and calls the kids down from their rooms. They all work together to set up a good place for school papers near the table. An hour later, the kitchen’s in good shape and the kids are clear about what to do with their school papers.

Christa Chronically Disorganized looks around her kitchen one sunny morning and sighs. It’s always such a mess. The kids’ papers are all over the table, pushing aside the complicated paper holders and file stackers she meant for them to use to organize their papers. Half of them are stuffed with yellowing newspaper clippings. She sits down and pulls out an interesting looking article. Two hours later, she looks up to see the kids’ papers are now cascading onto the gritty floor. Snack bowls cover the table since the sink’s already full of dishes.

No matter what system she tries, Christa hasn’t found one that works for her yet. She can’t remember the last time the kitchen table was clear. She feels angry and upset at herself, overwhelmed at the thought of living like this for the rest of her life. How does Olivia Organized know what to do? How does she keep things organized?

Christa is a textbook example of someone who suffers from chronic disorganization. Luckily, there are professional organizers who love working with the chronically disorganized. The ICD is a great place to find one near you. You can also download detailed facts sheets on chronic disorganization from the ICD here.

Remember, as the ICD fact sheet “Are you affected by chronic disorganization?” says, ICD-trained organizers have solutions. There are many types and levels of disorganization relating to paper, time, and clutter management. Anyone can be taught to increase their level of organization. It is never hopeless. A professional organizer can help you succeed where self-help falls short, while saving you countless hours of effort trying to discover the most effective solutions for yourself.

Chronic disorganization isn’t hoarding

The word “hoarder” is thrown around a lot, never in a kind way. It’s become a shortcut for a house that’s stuffed to the gills, too crowded in the speaker’s opinion. But as with most things, there’s a spectrum.

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s Clutter Hoarding Scale notes the key differences between a collection and a hoard.

The owner of a collection enjoys organizing their items and showing them to others. It’s often crowded but there’s a clear strategy for making sure all items are cleaned, ordered and displayed.

The person who lives in a hoard often knows where most things are, but doesn’t put a priority on showing them to others or arranging things for easy viewing.

summary by Joyful Surroundings LLC

I had a client who was a devoted Star Wars fan and owned boxes and boxes of Star Wars figurines, many posters, and multiple DVDs. They wanted to keep it all, but had no interest in collecting it all together, displaying any of it or spending time looking at it with anyone else. They didn’t have a collection because it wasn’t curated.

By way of contrast, I have a husband who has a lot of cactuses. He carefully tends them, trying to help them thrive in Colorado’s unforgivingly cold winter climate. He methodically and laboriously takes them down into our basement as soon as the temperatures drop and then brings them back up once it’s safe to keep them outside once more.

He knows the scientific names of all of them, can tell you where he got each one from, and beams like a doting Dad whenever they flower. His Instagram account is 90% cactus flowers, 10% pictures of our dogs. In short, he takes great care of them, has them effectively displayed and most definitely enjoys showing his collection to anyone who’s interested.

Star Wars memorabilia boxed up in random places, untended, ungrouped and undisplayed? Hoarding behavior.

Cactuses nurtured, displayed and shared? Collecting behavior.

If I were to open a cupboard and find a few cactuses amongst the linens, or notice that cactuses were scattered throughout the house without being taken care of, then his collecting would have morphed into hoarding behavior.

Fortunately, cactuses have sharp, spiky bits. You won’t brush past one in a random place without the puncture wounds to prove it. If all our things were spiky, it’s possible that there’d be a whole lot less clutter to contend with!

cactus outside
Cactuses outside in the summer

by Lucy Kelly


  1. I’m not sure what I loved more- the different experiences people have with disorganization or the response you gave to Seana’s comment about learning about your clients’ strengths first. I do something similar. I’m always on the look for their strengths. I use those as a place to build from and sometimes part of the building has to do with self-esteem. Your clients are lucky to have you.

  2. There are a lot of sites that define chronic disorganization, but you’ve done an awesome job of showing what it can look like in someone’s life.

  3. I think it is so helpful to understand that it is unrealistic to assume that everyone just “knows what to do.” We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Some of us find organizing easy, but struggle with other things. My clients are all wonderfully gifted and talented, and I learn from them every time I am with them. I love the diversity of gifts we all have:)

    1. Yes, that’s so true, Seana. When I first work with someone, I open our session by asking them to tell me three things they’re really good at – things they just have a knack for. It’s a gentle way of reminding them that we all have our strengths and our weaknesses and expecting everyone to be good at everything is unrealistic. I love hearing what their secret superpowers are!


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