Working With Clients – The Chronically Disorganized

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:

  1. Have you been disorganized most of your adult life?
  2. Does your disorganization affect you every day of your life?
  3. 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?


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