Why Am I So Messy?! The Truth Behind Clutter and What You Can Do to Clean Up Your Act

Twelve years ago, Deb Williams was a completely different person. Living it up in a corporate job in Fargo, she was surrounded by piles of paperwork, mounds of mess, and a desk she could barely see. It made doing her job difficult.
“My job required answering the phone and helping people locate information. Time after time, I’d have to say, ‘Let me find that and call you back,’” says Williams. “I was really unhappy in that environment.”
A chance encounter with a professional organizer at a work conference (“I tried to get out of it but my boss gently suggested I needed to go,” chuckles Williams) changed her life.
“It wasn’t a lightbulb moment. It was a chandelier moment.”
The professional organizer spoke to Williams in a language she could understand. It wasn’t merely a 12-step program for a clutter-free office, like you’ll find today in many Internet searches. This guy dug deep and diagnosed what was really holding people back from taking charge of their environments. The root of messes, he explained, was disorganization due to lack of routine. If you can help people become organized in a way that fits their lifestyle, they will be more likely to maintain it.
“Each of us is different in how we organize,” Williams explains. “It’s simply a matter of what your tolerance level is.”
Williams realized her tolerance level at the office, and at her home, had been breached a long time ago. She immediately de-cluttered her workspace and followed suit in her house. Little by little, Williams transformed her living spaces and then her life.
Six years ago, Williams became a professional organizer and founded Ducks in a Row Organizing in Fargo. The student had become the teacher.

Where Does All This Stuff Come From?
Clutter evolves from delayed decisions, says Melissa Schmalenberger, another well-known professional organizer in Fargo who operates under the name MS. Simplicity. The reason you have clutter is because you don’t know where to put stuff. It doesn’t matter if your house is small or large, or if there are two people or 10 people living in it. Clutter is an equal opportunity offender, and if you don’t put it in its place, you’ll end up feeling displaced—even in your own home.
The worst clutter culprits are the ubiquitous junk drawers and piles of papers you’ll find in nearly every household. They’re probably both in your kitchen, too. “The kitchen is the place where we prepare meals, process mail, have kids do the homework, pay the bills, and most importantly, have the family meal,” says Schmalenberger. “Before we know it, the counters are full of unread mail, school papers to sort and file, returns and exchanges of our shopping purchases, and dirty dishes.”
Despite your best efforts to stop the madness, it probably keeps happening again and again and again. How? And why? You’re probably wicked busy and it’s hard to devote time to another task when all you want to do is relax. And more than likely, you fall under one of these common clutter personalities.
The Weekend Warrior–You let the junk mail, bills, school crafts, laundered clothes, coupons, toy bins, minor DIY projects, and anything else associated with home tasks build up all week so you can tackle them all at once. The problem is, the list has usually grown so long that you never make it all the way through and the clutter rolls over into the next week, just like last month’s unused mobile minutes. Only in this case, that’s not such a good thing.
The List Maker–You love a good list. It makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something just by writing it down. And that’s often where your progress stops.
The Guilty Sentimentalist–Your junior high soccer uniform. Your grandmother’s hand-embroidered sheets. Your Total Gym. There are things that remind you of loved ones, and then there are things that remind you of just how much you paid for them. Either way, you’d feel guilty if you got rid of any of them so you keep them…all of them.

Terms generally associated with orderliness gone awry include situational disorganization, chronic disorganization, and hoarding. What do they mean?
“Situational disorganization occurs as a result of a specific event such as moving, changing jobs, having a child, a family member leaving or joining the household, or medical challenges,” says Deb Fetting, LPCC, a therapist at The Village Family Service Center in Fargo. This disorganization is tied to a temporary situation or one that can be adjusted to over time. Regaining organization is a matter of getting caught up again or receiving temporary assistance to get things back in order.
For some people, disorganization is simply a way of life—commonly used items are frequently lost, bills go unpaid, time management is challenged, possessions are scattered. However, chronic disorganization can be a symptom of a medical condition, says Fetting. “If the individual’s previous habits of organization change; the disorganization comes on suddenly; the individual’s behavior changes gradually; or if the person is overwhelmed with managing time, things, and tasks, there could be an underlying medical condition.”
Compulsive hoarding goes beyond collecting and general clutter. “With hoarding, the significant amount of possessions the individual has acquired gets in the way of everyday activities, says Fetting, “and clutter often consists of useless, possibly hazardous items which prevent use of bathrooms, sinks, fridge, countertops, and beds.” Hoarding can progress to the point of interfering with social, occupational, and personal functioning. Fetting notes that hoarding is now recognized as a mental health disorder.
If you are concerned about changes in organizational ability or suspect hoarding may be an issue, consult a doctor or mental health professional.

There Are No Quick Fixes
The truth is that cleaning up your act takes time and effort. “Like any bad habit, it takes work to change it,” says Williams.
Here are five ways to get started:
1. Set A Timer. Hey, if it works for enforcing “quiet time” for kiddos, it can certainly assist you with organizing. Punch in however much time you think you need and get to work, but make sure to turn off all your devices and eliminate any other distractions. You need single-minded concentration to stay on task.
2. Make A Plan With Specific Goals. Don’t go all weekend-warrior and try to organize your home in one fell swoop. You’ll end up being so exhausted the next week you won’t be able to maintain your progress! Try addressing one problem area or one problem room at a time, and then inform your family about what’s changed and ask them to pitch in, too. “It took how many years to create the problem? Don’t think you can solve it overnight,” advises Williams.
3. Don’t Bring It In The House. If you’re overwhelmed by the stuff in your home, ask yourself how it got there in the first place. “Stemming the tide of what should, and shouldn’t, come in our homes is a big step,” says Williams. Take your time with your mail. Before bringing it inside, chuck the junk. When you grocery shop, stick to your list. Make informed, not emotional, decisions about your kids’ projects, artwork, and other school stuff. Seriously, you don’t have to keep everything.
4. Put It In The Calendar. Don’t be afraid to put organizing time into the family calendar. This does not have to be a task for which only you are responsible. Depending on their age and ability, your children can assist with organizing and may even feel empowered when they see the results of their efforts. At the very least, they’ll see your dedication to the task, and that’s a life lesson worth teaching!
5. Just Do It. Whether this means calling in the professionals like MS. Simplicity or Ducks in a Row Organizing, or sending your family away for the weekend so you can have the house to yourself, the key here is to commit. “Usually the hardest step is the first one,” says Schmalenberger. “Just like making yourself go to the gym or eat healthy, you just need to start.”
So this year, instead of the usual spring cleaning, why not try spring de-cluttering? You’ll be glad you did.
Formerly from Fargo-Moorhead, freelance writer Patricia Carlson writes about baby boomers, parenting, and healthy lifestyles for magazines across the country. Check out her work at www.patriciacarlsonfreelance.com.

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