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July 16, 2014

How to cure being disorganized

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on March 3, 2020.

A growing number of psychologists and professional organizers are recommending patients limit the physical clutter in their lives and explore the reasons behind why they hold onto certain, seemingly unnecessary items, Melinda Beck writes in the Wall Street Journal.

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In some patients, "chronic disorganization" can be a symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and even dementia—all disorders that deal with difficulty focusing, planning, and making decisions. The extreme form, hoarding, is a psychiatric disorder defined as "persistent difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their value," according to the DSM-V. Only 2% to 5% of people fit the criteria, the manual says.

Psychologists say most clutter-related issues can be traced to what experts call "cognitive errors," or flawed thinking that drives thoughts such as "I might need these someday" and "these might be valuable."

The most difficult items to part with are those that hold sentimental meaning, according to Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center.

"We all have these dysfunctional thoughts. It's perfectly normal," Rego says, adding, the trick is to not confuse the objects that trigger memories with actual people associated with the memories.

Sometimes people cling to objects because they associate them with happier times or images of themselves in happier times, says psychologist Jennifer Baumgartner, author of You Are What You Wear.

"Say you're holding on to your team uniforms from college. Ask yourself, what about that experience did you like? What can you do in your life now to recapture that?" she says.

It may help people to get rid of things to first go over the "worst-case scenario" plan.

"What if you do need that tutu you've given away for a Halloween costume? What would you do? You can find almost anything on eBay," Baumgartner says.

Linda Samuels, president of the research group Institute for Challenging Disorganization, recommends figuring "out what's important…and creating an environment that supports that" (Beck, Wall Street Journal, 7/8).

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