Being organized: A learned behavior

Reasons people give for being disorganized usually align with being too busy or a life changing event (new baby, death of a loved one) or general laziness. These are reasonable explanations and are obstacles that can be overcome.

Every once in a while, however, someone will try to explain to me that they are disorganized because of their genetic makeup. They use phrases such as, “I come from messy people” or “I couldn’t be organized if I wanted to.” Yes, some families are pack rats over the course of multiple generations, but those are learned behaviors. There is not a gene as far as any scientist has found that predetermines a person’s affinity for organization.*

Can growing up in a household of highly disorganized people affect your perceptions and habits? You bet. But does it sentence you to a lifetime of clutter? No!

As with any life skill — time management, cooking, walking — those necessary to maintain an organized life can be learned. You may need to practice these skills, the same way you practice a musical instrument, but you can eventually work to a level of mastery.

I haven’t always been organized. If you’ve read my biography on the About page, you’ve noticed that I used to be the type of person who held onto every object I deemed sentimental. I eventually realized that holding onto so much stuff came with a lot of stress, worry, and financial expense, and that I wanted a different way of life. So, I learned organization skills, practiced them, and implemented them throughout my life. You can learn them, too.

If you’ve convinced yourself that you are destined to a life of disorganization, try changing that attitude! Put in the time, effort, and practice necessary to become the more organized person you desire. No need to go overboard, just find the best level of organization for you that allows you to live the remarkable life you desire.

*I want to note that there is something actually called a Disorganization Gene, but it has nothing to do with clutter. It’s about birth defects and cellular mutations involving the actual genetic code of an animal becoming disorganized. || Image courtesy of wikipedia.

39 Comments for “Being organized: A learned behavior”

  1. posted by Ryan on

    I came from a messy family and although I still am fighting some of the bad habits I learned as a kid, I look at them as the cause and solution. If I didn’t grow up with it, I wouldn’t be so against it now.

  2. posted by allen on

    My mother is a neat-nik, and i think my general clutter-ocity has been a back-lash against that. However, as i get older, i’m realizing this, and that is letting me change. I had to realzie that I can be clean/organized w/o going to her extreme. I can be someone who askes their guests to keep their shoes off, but NOT get mad/upset when someone puts their jacked on the banister, for example!

  3. posted by Angela on

    I totally agree that being organized and clutter-free is a learned skill. I used the excuse for too long that I was just not born with a talent for being clean. It probably does come easier for some people, but anyone can do it if they want to.

  4. posted by denise on

    I grew up with a mother who had beach towels covering the good chairs and plastic runners tracking paths over the carpet. Fun but possibly messy things like making brownies were a no-no.

    I over-reacted to this. One of my sons keeps a spartan apartment, which is his reaction to me. The other son is a carbon copy of me which throws off this pattern.

  5. posted by Anna on

    A few months ago, I decided that I simply did not have it in my personality to be neat, uncluttered person. No matter how hard I seemed to try, my home was always a cluttered mess. Then, last month I discovered GTD (and your site!). My home has been spotless ever since. I think I just finally needed a system (I love systems!) that forced me to make decisions about my clutter (both mental and physical), rather than dropping things on the floor. Let’s see if I can keep it up; the decrease in my stress levels have been worth it.

  6. posted by Michelle on

    Actually, disorganization is a symptom of ADD, which is genetic in origin.

  7. posted by Carl Cravens on

    It can be learned, but there can be genetic factors involved. Adult ADHD often leads to clutter problems, and developing skills to overcome clutter isn’t just a matter of learning to cope with clutter, it’s a matter of learning to cope with ADHD. Learning these skills can be much more difficult for those afflicted with ADHD than those without.

  8. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Michelle — Disorganization can be a symptom of ADD and ADHD, but doesn’t present in every case. To say that someone with ADHD is genetically sentenced to a life of disorganization isn’t accurate.

    In fact, many people with ADHD are highly organized — they have to be. They learn organization skills and practice them so that they can best cope with their situation. Their ADHD might mean that they have to practice more than others to obtain mastery, but it doesn’t mean they won’t ever be able to become organized.

    People with ADHD often find that having less stuff and being organized with their things helps relieve other symptoms of their disorder. It can be easier to focus on their work if there are fewer distractions, for example.

  9. posted by Patty on

    What I need is a way to remember to put things away once they are done being used. I never did this as a kid, now I’m trying to do this as an adult. I also have to realize that I can’t do multiple things at the same time. Everything that is done this way is half-assed.

  10. posted by Dee on

    As an adult with ADD I can attest to Erins assertion that someone such as myself doesn’t need to live a disorganized life. I find that I need to find different approaches to developing coping skills to overcoming disorganization that aren’t necessarily what works for the general population . . the key to that is understanding ADD as a “disorder” first and then managing ways to work around obstacles presented by having ADD. Thats why I love this site – it presents several options and avenues for motivating organizational change. As a parent with ADD, I am continually challenged to teach my kids organizational skills that I don’t have naturally. Its a tool I feel is so important to pass onto your kids so that they are not destined to letting their lives control them!

  11. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Patty — Stay tuned for the second week of April. We have a post scheduled on an argument against multi-tasking!

  12. posted by Michele on

    I love the hopefulness in this post. Nobody is doomed to live a disorganized lifestyle based on their genes and everyone has the ability to improve.

  13. posted by Michelle on

    I didn’t say that organization or disorganization can’t be learned – both can. I just wanted to clarify that some people are more genetically prone to disorganization than others. Your article makes it sound like people use genetics as an unfounded excuse for what are actually learned behaviors. In fact their excuse may be valid. Disorganization is not always learned – it is natural for some. I do agree that to say they are hopeless and can’t learn is a cop-out.

  14. posted by Karen on

    I think there is a genetic component to organizing. Which doesn’t mean you can’t be organized anyway, but some people are more “natural” at it than others, just like some people have athletic or musical ability.

    I’m one of those people with the “organizing gene”. I can be messy from time to time, but I find organizing really satisfying and pleasurable, which is something many people find a little odd. (When I was a kid, I used to pull all the books off my shelf because I thought it was so much fun to alphabetize them again. Weird, I know.) I sometimes find it hard to understand people who don’t find organized spaces as calming as I do (being in a cluttered space actually makes me nervous), and it helps to remember that other people might not find organization as “natural” as I do.

  15. posted by Ann on

    My quest for physical order and inner peace requires very hard, deliberate work every day. I completely agree with Dee; some of us need to find and practice what works for us, and that may not be what works for most.

    I’m always eager to learn from others (I have this blog bookmarked, after all!) but I do find that some professional organizers literally cannot understand the internal struggles of those of us for whom this does not come naturally.

  16. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    Michelle — I still don’t fully agree with you. Is disorganization a symptom of ADHD? Commonly. But symptoms of disorders and genetic disorders aren’t the same.

    Here’s an example: I have a genetic disorder. One of the symptoms of my disorder is that I get hurt easily. Getting hurt easily (the symptom) is not in my genetic code. However, the data to produce a specific protein in my collagen is missing in my genetic code (this is the genetic disorder). Am I at a disadvantage when it comes to playing physical sports? Very much so. But, I can still play them. I just have to approach sports in a different way than other people — wear safety pads, special shoes, not as aggressively as others. People with ADHD have a genetic cause to their disorder, but disorganization is only a symptom. They may have to approach organization in a different way or more vigilantly than other people, but they can still become organized. Disorganization is not a genetic disorder.

    Sorry to argue semantics on this, but I think it’s an important distinction to make. Symptoms of disorders and genetic disorders are two very different things. People with ADHD should not believe that they are genetically sentenced to a life of disorder.

  17. posted by Daniel on

    Erin – I agree with you that the distinction you are making is a good and important one. It’s more than mere semantic bickering.

    I’d enjoy reading your thoughts on the flip side of this–just as genetics do not predetermine a person to organization, it’s clearly my experience that neither does “nurture” of any sort. Does that mean we can’t be “taught” to become and stay organized–that it can only happen when an individual makes a clear and personal choice?

  18. posted by sarah the kiwigirl on

    I fall under the “clutterer because of an event” title….my mum died recently and I just can’t get my self together and bring myself to put her things away that I have inherited from her they are all in one room of my house and they are beautiful things that I should have out but the thought of having them go in different directions is beyond me at the moment….luckily my husband who is a complete neat freak is being very patient with me – I guess its a time thing….

  19. posted by Keeper Of Stuff on

    This is my first ever post on a blog, but desperate times call for desperate measures! Thanks for understanding…

    When “Anna” refers to “GTD,” is she referring to “Getting Things Done” by David Allen?

    I checked out the above book online, but I am not sure that it’s what she was referring to.

    I do not think I could declutter my house, garage, and 10’X20′ storage unit in 12 months, let alone one.

    I have always liked being organized. Years ago, I made my own drawer dividers by cutting tissue boxes in half and sliding them to the right size, then taping them. My house had Dymo-labeled shelves and bins in the ’70s, but these days, things have “got to pot” in a big way.

    After many years of marriage and only one major move, I had too much debris of my own, then both my parents, confirmed packrats, died in the ’90s.

    I have a big problem with either the financial value or the sentimental value of my “stuff.” Financially, I feel I need to make money when I get rid of it, yet the sheer volume is overwhelming. I know that the cost of the storage unit cancels out any profits to be made.

    My husband HATES all that stuff, but he won’t help me do the heavy lifting, moving, selling, etc. to get rid of it – UNLESS we just throw it straight into a dumpster. I won’t agree to that. Therein lies the rub… After literally years of this impasse, when the subject comes up, there is enough palpable tension between us that we don’t “go there.”

    A few years ago, I parted with many pickup loads of “stuff,” after hubby convinced me that donating it would save us lots of money on our taxes. Then, next time the issue arose, he “shot himself in the foot” by telling me that donating more wouldn’t save more. BIG MISTAKE. I then reverted to the idea that we had to make money when we got rid of the stuff.

    I was told that the online selling sites had become difficult to use without becoming a victim of fraud.

    We made $1,400 from our first garage sale in the ’80s, but we live in a small community now, where I have heard garage sales are not very profitable. Due to health issues, any extra income would be well-used.

    I have been subscribing to two various organizing sites and reading quite a few blogs such as Unclutter, in order to try to motivate myself to crawl out of the quaqmire in which I have been living.

    Most of the time, I feel like I have a dark “cloud of clutter” hanging over me, impacting every single thing about my life in a negative way. I want so badly to free myself from this bondage, but I am STUCK. I can not afford to hire a professional organizer, by the way.

    A therapist friend once told me, “Getting rid of stuff is the single most difficult thing a person with anxiety can do. Each thing involves a conscious decision, and those decisions are excruciatingly difficult.” That is me in a nutshell.

    Is there any hope for me?

  20. posted by Keeper Of Stuff on

    I’m sorry. I misspelled “Unclutterer” in my post above. I need to get my progressive lenses adjusted!

  21. posted by Dream Mom DBA www.dreamorganizers.com on

    Good post Erin. I agree with you.

    Changing a behavior is tough, whether it’s trying to be more organized or anything else. Of course, when a person hits rock bottom, they often are more motivated to change. I also believe in systems and routines. Both can be powerful.

    As for family history, my mother has always been extremely disorganized. Growing up, I was the organized and neat one and my sister was always the messy and disorganized one.

    Today, I am a Professional Organizer. My sister has radically changed her behavior over the years and is a minimalist. She is extremely organized as well and you’d be hard pressed to get her to let you save a thing! I am hoping one of these days she will come and work with me. As for my mother, she hasn’t changed her ways. Of course, she’s 82 so I don’t see that happening. LOL!

  22. posted by Bobbi on

    Hello all – but specifically Keeper of Stuff. Oprah had a show on today about hoarding and tomorrow is part 2. (Don’t usually watch her but I work from home and had to for a client.) While the show’s guests were extreme, I made notes for myself and I’m the organized one in my family. I emptied and sold my parents’ house last year and they were Depression Era babies and hoarders as well. So I know a lot about stuff. It’s been painful but I knew I couldn’t take in all their stuff like they did when my grandmother died. I’ve cried a lot of tears reliving my own childhood in their stuff. I’m constantly asking myself how much of the past you’re obliged to keep and how much you need to keep a sense of yourself. But I won’t leave my kids what my parents left me and I was planning on purging my own house before I had to do theirs anyway. It’s taken many hours but simplifying has been rewarding and focusing. I empathize with you, Keeper of Stuff. ~Bobbi

  23. posted by Guinnevere on

    I love this post! Don’t ever allow yourself to believe that you can’t be tidy and organzied. I know the task seems overwhelming, but here’s what I did after nearly 30 years of being messy. I am by no means all the way there, but I’m working on it and it’s not been as hard as I thought.

    First, I put an embargo on items coming into my home. Ok, well, not really, but I REALLY have to justify it to buy it now. And have a place for it!

    Next, I picked one room and spent a day cleaning it, top to bottom, I put EVERY SINGLE THING away. And then I promised myself I would clean it every single night before I went to bed. Once I’d done that for a month, I did the same thing with a new room.

    This is coming from someone who used to have rooms literally covered in clutter, rooms that you couldn’t see the floor for all the debris and clothing piles. Walking into the sparkling clean kitchen every morning, with my lunch already in little containers in the fridge, is the BEST feeling in the world.

    Also, I think it’s worth nothing clutter mentally affects some people a lot more than it does others. My husband, for instance, isn’t affected by clutter at all.

  24. posted by Dee on

    @keeper of stuff – I was going to post on the same line as Bobbi’s post above, Oprahs show has a few good key points and it sounds like you may need some of the solutions presented. Theres a self assessment quiz for hoarding available on her website that could possibly give you some insight on your own personal collecting habits: http://www2.oprah.com/foodhome.....ocode=HP25

    Peter Walsh made a good point during today’s show which was: “if everythings important than nothing is important” – in other words, you are not honoring your possessions by keeping them all. I know thats its overwhelming to even know where to begin but I think self-assessment and self-knowlege are the keys to beginning a journey to freeing yourself from your possessions. I think when our things begin to own us and define who we are, assessment of the cause is paramount. One book that was mentioned was Dr. David Tollen’s “Buried In Treasures: Help for Compulsive Aquiring, Saving, and Hoarding.”
    and an excerpt is provided on the Oprah website. Perhaps that would be a good resource for you. Best of luck and well wishes.

  25. posted by Dee on

    @keeper of stuff – one more link for you that I forgot!
    http://www.oprah.com/foodhome/.....lugs.jhtml

    You can go on Oprah’s website and ask Peter Walsh a question. . .who knows, maybe even be on the show – the same page also has a link to share your story if your interested. If your problem is truly overwhelming and you are desperate for help this might just be a door to some guidance .. lifes strange, one never knows which path will present itself next. Keep the faith!

  26. posted by Roberta on

    I know I am genetically messy and disorganized. Nature, not nurture. My mom is naturally organized… not that she is clutter-free, but it’s the way she approaches things. We’ve been baffled by each other all our lives.

    But lemme tell you… she does not experience the joy, do the little happy dance, each time she gets one thing uncluttered, the way that I do. My bills are paid on time? I get ant traps down before the ants overtake? It’s a cause for celebration.

    See I recognized a long time ago that it’s a genetic difference. And that it takes a different kind of effort for me to get one thing accomplished than for my mom.

    It’s why I enjoy the tips here, but take them with a grain of salt. Small bites with that salt. It’s like a naturally thin person telling a fat person how to get thin. A naturally thin person has no idea how to get a fat person thin.

  27. posted by Jana on

    I have to totally agree with Roberta on this one. It is true that anyone can learn to be organized, but some people don’t have to learn it – they are born with it. Just like in Roberta’s case, my mom is also naturally organized – she cannot even comprehend how things could get really messy and disorganized. For example, my first instinct is to save every little thing “just in case”, whereas my mom’s and my organized friends’ first instinct is to throw everything away. I have put a lot of effort within the last few years into learning to be more organized, whereas my mom, as well as my organized friends, think that learning to be organized is the strangest concept – to them, it is just a natural thing you do and not something anyone needs to learn to do. So, although I agree that everyone can learn to be organized, some people do it without putting any thought into it, while for others being organized is a matter of a lot of effort and concentration.

  28. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    To address the discussion about people being “naturally gifted” at organizing …

    Being organized does seem to come more easily to some people, but that does not mean that they have an organization gene. In this case, being organized would be a symptom of some other genetic trait (for example, the genetic marker that indicates how chemicals will be released in the brain and bring pleasure when something is perceived by the optical nerve).

    Here’s an example: Someone’s genetic makeup may prescribe them to be tall (information describing the HGH to be released by glands for bone and body extension is in DNA). This person who is 6’8″ may have a “natural gift” for being taller than other basketball players. However, he does not have a basketball gene. In fact, the person who is 6’8″ may dislike team sports. He can learn to play basketball, and since he has a height advantage may end up being pretty good at it, but at the end of the day he still does not have a basketball gene.

    Yes, some people may have an easier time being organized than others. But there is not an organization gene.

  29. posted by Daniel on

    @Keeper of Stuff – Yes, in referring to “GTD” above, Anna is referencing “Getting Things Done,” which is really a full-fledged productivity movement, at the center of which is the book of the same title by David Allen.

    GTD is primarily–though by no means exclusively–about knowledge work, or keeping track of what all you have to do or would like to do in such a way that you become less stressed and get more done. It won’t teach you how to organize your garage, but it can certainly help you unclutter your mind of all those nagging things that you constantly feel you’ve got to get done.

  30. posted by Michele on

    Erin, I appreciate your specific language and the clarity of your examples.

  31. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Michele — I wish I would have been more clearer in my original post!! Sorry for the confusion.

  32. posted by Michelle on

    True, there may not be one specific gene for organization or disorganization – just like there is no basketball gene. I wouldn’t expect there to be. That doesn’t mean that genetics play no role in a person’s affinity or disaffinity for organization. It doesn’t matter whether a trait is tied to one gene or twenty, it’s still considered genetic. Most personality traits are polygenic.

    My main issue is that “there is no organization gene” DOES NOT equate to “organization is not genetic”, but that is what your article implies, and it is misleading. In fact you seem to vaguely insult people who might offer this as one reason for their disorganization, and then you back it up with a meaningless assertion about there not being a single organization gene.

    I just wish you would admit that this is misleading.

    And AGAIN, I never said you can’t learn to be organized (in fact no one has said that here). Unclutterer would be kind of pointless otherwise.

  33. posted by Keeper Of Stuff on

    Thank you all so very much for caring enough to offer assistance! I really had doubted whether or not anyone would read that long first post of mine. You did, and I am deeply touched!

    For Bobbi and Dee, who referred to Oprah’s shows on hoarding, I reviewed all the information on her website last evening, and I have the show set to record today. Although (thank goodness) I don’t have the level of problem presented on the show, I do possess some of those “seeds in my own garden.”

    On Dr. David Tolin’s Compulsive Hoarding checklist, I definitely recognized myself in some of the causes and criteria of compulsive hoarding. I guess it’s a great wonder I’m not worse off than I am, and that’s a relief!

    Daniel, thanks to you for answering my question about “Getting Things Done.”

    As relates to the genetic or environmental element of the topic:

    My two sons have said that when they inherit from us, there will be a tall bonfire. What better motivation to get rid of things, huh? Our older son once remarked that, by growing up in our home, he had gotten “clutter shots,” closely related to “allergy shots.”

    His name was in the global news recently, but if you take a long nap in his home, you may find yourself reclining in a garbage truck. He and his wife are absolutely ruthless in getting rid of things. They keep the outgoing donation and discard bins out of sight when I visit! I have seen more than one gift from us residing there, and my fingers itch to rescue “perfectly good stuff.”

    In one way, I think that the tendency to keep things and the ability to think creatively are somewhat connected. When some people see a balloon holder stick, for example, they simply see a balloon holder stick to put in the trash. Others see a plant stake, kindling for the fire, a dowel, several chopsticks, etc.

    One of the most bizarre things in my reading on compulsive hoarding was reading how one pitiful soul had saved and lined up used toliet tissue rolls on her counter. Wow! At that very minute, I had a small bag filled with used paper towel rolls, because I discovered this winter, that when filled with the twigs I pick up from the yard, they make excellent fireplace starters. See what I mean about creativity? Of course, that is not an excuse for hoarding, as both my son and I have invented things. But it is a different approach to the issue…

  34. posted by Keeper Of Stuff on

    Oh, yes, I did want to address the “gifting” issue, but I was afraid to add more, after my already long post, for fear of being drummed off the site!

    After seeing more than one gift from us in the outgoing bins at our son’s house, and knowing that if he wants something, he can very well afford to buy it, I arrived at a “eureka moment” this past holiday season.

    The son likes to grill, and is a great cook. We have a world-class meat market in our community. See where I’m headed? We casually made sure their freezer was still in the garage, and then we personally selected a specific dollar amount of top cuts of meats, stored them in our freezer in a box, and wrapped it up just before heading to their home for the gift exchange. We kept it frozen in the car until the exact moment, and then surprised the heck out of him!

    I think he has been happier with that gift than any other we have given him after he reached adulthood. A fringe benefit is that when we visit, he grills for us, and we get to enjoy it, too! So, not only was the gift something he liked, but it was something he actually uses. What better type of gift than food, a paid utility bill, gas card, etc. for someone who has a clutter problem? So much nicer than one more knick-knack to dust…

  35. posted by Michelle on

    Love the gift idea, Keeper! My boyfriend loves to grill as well… I’m definitely stealing your idea :)

  36. posted by dtj on

    First of all, I believe that there is a misunderstanding of genes by most people. For the most part, GENES DO NOT CAUSE DISEASE. Specific gene configurations increase the tendency towards particular diseases, but do not cause them. Sometimes those tendencies are quite conclusive, think Huntingtons, etc.

    I think there may be one or more clutter genes in the same way that there are addictive personality genes and similar. Genes for things like ADHD and Autism would contribute to being a clutter-ful person. HOWEVER, there are lots of environmental factors and compensation mechanisms that come into play that will govern the expression of clutter-ness.

  37. posted by Eileen on

    Depression is sometimes a major cause of having a disorganized house. People sometimes have difficulty with energy, concentration, focus and decision making. Depression can be genetic also. Treatment helps to varying degrees.

  38. posted by Elaine on

    Both my parents were very messy, and in completely different ways. Mom was depressed and alcoholic; she hid behind attempts to create the illusion that she was very neat and clean — she’d often say “I hate dirt!” but that was about as far as it went.

    Dad, on the other hand, loved to start projects, but had trouble completing them. And so, stacks of do-it-yourself magazines from the 1950s crammed his space. The garage became a dumping ground for terrible clutter, which eventually led to its destruction — solvents plus a forgotten cigarette — you get the picture. At one point he decided he MUST begin recycling. But he was too busy to separate things out, so he piled bags of garbage in the garage (before it burned down), intending to sort things on the weekend. But he (also an alcoholic) didn’t get around to doing that. Soon we had mice. So out went the garbage, unsorted, which brought him the pain of being a “bad citizen.” Both of my parents loved to describe me as lazy and sloppy, but I was the one who dusted and rearranged shelves, and the one who knew how to find things. “Wow, lookit that!” my parents would say. Both of them came from large families, all of whom had orderly homes and lives. The common factor: alcohol (and lack thereof). Being pathologically sloppy is part of a huge interconnected web of attitudes and behaviors. Just like alcoholism.

  39. posted by lola meyer on

    The front door is my key organizing tool, I try to let very little through it.
    The less you bring in, the less you have to organize, and the less you are overwhelmed.

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