First, What is Chronic Disorganization?
Chronic disorganization is having a history of disorganization in which self-help efforts to change have failed, an undermining of the quality of life due to disorganization, and the expectation of future disorganization.
How do you identify a chronically disorganized client from a situationally disorganized client? You can ask your client these three questions, and if they answer yes, they are chronically disorganized:
- Have you been disorganized most of your adult life?
- Does your disorganization affect you every day of your life?
- Have you tried to get organized before?
What are the Characteristics of Chronically Disorganized Clients?
Chronically disorganized clients have
- accumulations of large quantities of possessions or paper beyond apparent usefulness or pleasure.
- a high degree of difficulty or discomfort, letting go of things.
- a wide range of interests, unfinished projects, and incomplete tasks.
- a need to rely on visual cues like paper piles or stacks of things as reminders to take action.
- a tendency to be easily distracted or to lose concentration.
- the tendency to lose track of time.
What are Techniques for Working with Clients who are Chronically Disorganized?
- Chronically disorganized clients agonize over letting go of paper and things. To speed up the process, do a “rapid-fire.” Place items on a table and have the client quickly (within a minute or two—and use a timer for visual aid) select what they want to keep. Move those items into a keep area and box or bag the remaining items for disposal.
- Avoid kinetic sympathy by not allowing your client to touch their things during the sorting process. According to Judith Kolberg from her book, Conquering Chronic Disorganization, “Touching a thing can set off an emotional response for chronically disorganized people. Perhaps the touching of a thing changes a simple act of ‘throwing out’ into an emotional act of ‘letting go.’”
- Another of Judith’s methods is the “does this need me method.” With each item, have your client ask, “Does this need me?” Remember, the question is not do I need this, but does this need me? Just let the client’s heart respond with a yes or no. If it does not need the client, place it in an area of disposal. This technique reminds me a bit of the Japanese organizer, Marie Kondo’s, method of “Does this spark joy?”
What I Know Now That I Wish I Had Known Working with My First Chronically Disorganized Clients
- Chronically disorganized clients are social organizers and require a great deal of patience. They need someone with them more for the social aspect than the organizing work. My first chronically disorganized client and I would start our sessions by walking with her dog to Starbucks to catch up. This time often took an hour of our three hours together.
- Chronically disorganized clients don’t respond well to traditional organizing practices. You need to be creative with them. Make it a game; instead of picking out what to toss, pick out what to keep (treasure hunt) or the rapid-fire technique.
- I would have changed my expectations earlier. I found it very frustrating for a long time and had to manage my expectations about what we could do together. One chronically disorganized client and I worked together for three years, and I probably spent the first two years feeling like I was failing. But she was happy with the work we did. I had to learn that I was helping her to get through her day, even if her bedroom was still cluttered.
- I learned to redefine a successful client session based on what the client needed at that moment.
What organizing techniques do you use to help your chronically disorganized clients?