The Disorganized Client

  • July 01, 2015
  • Christine Janes

Understanding and working with chronically disorgaznized clients.

When a hoarding horror story makes the news, neighbourhoods are abuzz with chatter. “Did you see that house?” “How do people live like that?” “Their poor neighbours.” TV viewers see the images of masked workers in disposable coveralls, and the temporary tents erected to provide refuge from the persistent gazes of curious (nosey?) neighbours. Likewise, landlords and property managers are cracking down on tenants who have malodourous dwellings filled to an unsafe capacity. The mandate is clear: clean it up or face eviction.

But there are many people who live in less extreme circumstances. Their situations are not newsworthy – they often slip under the radar – but their challenges are very real. Chances are you’ve met a few of them. They are the chronically disorganized. 

You’ve likely had a client who is late for most appointments, repeatedly fails to produce required information, or whose indecision and procrastination threaten the timely resolution of your work with them. If you’re nodding in agreement, you know how frustrating it can be to deal with a disorganized person. They likely are experiencing some frustration too.

In reality, there are people who, despite their best efforts, just cannot manage a schedule, commitments, or their personal space. This is known as chronic disorganization (CD). There are two key things to note about CD: it is not a diagnosis, and it is not hoarding.

Chronic disorganization is often mistaken for hoarding disorder. The spaces occupied by the chronically disorganized are often cluttered; but extreme clutter is not the sole indicator of hoarding disorder. A key characteristic of hoarding disorder, which has been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association since 2013 as a mental health disorder, is the complete lack of insight an individual has into the severity of their circumstances. In most instances, when someone who truly hoards seeks help in cleaning up their space, there is an external motivator at play. This may be in the form of a real estate agent needing a house prepped for listing, a court order, the threat of eviction, or a lawyer awaiting the sale of a house, so that an estate can be settled.

Conversely, someone living in a state of chronic disorganization recognizes, at least to some degree, the impact it has on their life.  They are frustrated by the time wasted to find things, tired of arguing about cluttered living spaces and buckling under the weight of criticism they often receive when unable to fulfill personal or professional obligations. These folks have likewise been passed up for promotion, and maybe even experience social isolation because they have developed a reputation for being unreliable. They are further discouraged by their successive, failed attempts to get organized.  

Research out of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) in St. Louis, Missouri, identifies approximately 60 underlying causes of CD. These range from easily recognized, environmental factors such as awkward traffic flow and lack of storage space, to those stemming from neurological or mental health conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), fibromyalgia, traumatic brain injury (TBI), depression, or anxiety. The hallmarks of CD are that one(‘s):

  • Has been disorganized most of their adult life;
  • has tried, repeatedly, yet unsuccessfully, to get organized;
  • doesn’t respond to conventional organizing methods, and perhaps most importantly;
  • quality of life is compromised

Success in overcoming chronic disorganization focuses on an individual’s primary learning modalities, and less on conventional attitudes that one should know how to get organized, and that there is a right or wrong way to do so.  Especially in the presence of a neurological condition, how we process information and how in turn we organize our time and space, carries a degree of uniqueness.

Before any progress can be noted, habits have to be modified; that requires time, patience and even some trial and error. Be certain that a looming deadline or stern warning will not be enough to propel your client into action – they have surely disregarded dozens of similar threats before. There will be tears and stories of the many competing demands they face, not to mention the overwhelming pressure from family; but you’ll be no closer to the desired outcome.

Recognizing the symptoms of CD in your clients gives you an advantage, allowing you to have a more successful relationship. With the realization that someone you perceived as lazy, unreliable or inept may be struggling with invisible challenges, you can approach with more reasonable expectations and implement more effective strategies. Pay attention to their language. If your client says, “I’m pretty sure I know where that is. What’s the best way to get that to you?”, ask them to follow up in a timely manner, even if it’s to report that they were unsuccessful in locating the item in question; there’s likely no need for concern. But if dialogue with your client plays in a loop of “I don’t have time” and “I’m so overwhelmed”, you might want to alter your approach as follows:

  • Clearly outline your fees before work begins and identify any additional costs that arise during the course of your work.
  • Present your client with incremental billing summaries, so there will be no surprises when the final invoice is produced.
  • Set specific deadlines, stick to them, and outline the next steps you will take.
  • If your client is tasked with a particular responsibility, and shows some uncertainty with how to proceed, provide the necessary guidance to ensure your client can accomplish what is asked of them. This will be of particular importance when sourcing documentation. 
  • Consider assuming responsibility for those tasks your client may not be able to complete in a timely manner. Just remember to disclose the associated costs.

If you are dealing with someone who identifies clutter as their primary concern, you might want to get a better handle on what’s really happening at home. If you’re involved in a real estate transaction and have a relationship with your client’s agent, start by getting their impression of the living space. In the absence of an insider’s view, it may be beneficial to refer to the Clutter Image Rating Scale (CIRS) produced by the International OCD Foundation (IOCDF). (The easiest way to find the CIRS is to Google Clutter Image Rating Scale). This scale is a series of pictures showing rooms in various states of clutter. It is used as a means of having people equate a picture to the level of clutter that exists in their home or office. Since an individual’s idea of clutter is very subjective, referencing the CIRS can serve as an excellent jumping off point. Once you have a clear idea of that person’s circumstances, you can better determine if they need Molly Maid, an extreme cleanout, a harm reduction plan, or even therapy.

Providing or directing your client to the right kind of support can make all the difference in how your time with them is spent. If you think your client fits the profile of someone who is chronically disorganized, it’s worth visiting the ICD website,, to find a professional organizer in your area who has the qualifications to guide your client along the right path.

Christine JanesAbout the Author

Christine Janes is a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization®, (CPO-CD®), and founder of HomePuzzle, serving Toronto and the GTA.

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