Conquering Clutter Presents a Challenge

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CII, No. 3March, 2002

Jackelyn S. Frost, CSW

The lifestyle of many musicians tends to be highly unstructured, since work schedules and sleep schedules can be erratic. This unstructured lifestyle may attract many musicians, who already possess an ingrained aversion to structure. But often a general tendency toward lack of structure can spiral into chronic disorganization that permeates all aspects of your life.

Organized people save time and money, make more money, and have lower stress and frustration levels. Clutter can weigh you down both physically and emotionally. Problems with disorganization can run the gamut from simply struggling with a proclivity for clutter to becoming a prisoner of your hoarded belongings. If your organization problems are not too severe, you may only need to learn how to make some minor changes to better manage your time, paper, information and space.

Consider starting to declutter small areas of your home, like a cupboard or drawer. Tackling the work in manageable segments and working steadily will help you get the job done. Get in the habit of asking, “If it’s not practical, is it beautiful?” If the answer is no, you should probably get rid of it. Also, ask whether you have used a particular item in the last six months. If not, it’s probably non-essential and you can do without it.

However, if your organizational problems are more chronic, you may be suffering from deeper underlying issues that are impairing your overall functioning. Chronic disorganization is usually a symptom of a larger problem, and a wide variety of issues may be associated with it:

  • Sometimes chronic disorganization results when someone’s brain works differently. This is seen commonly in people with attention deficit disorder (ADD), which is often undiagnosed until adulthood. ADD looks different in different people, so if you suspect this may be the problem it would be helpful to get some information from books or the internet and/or seek a consultation with a mental health professional, since ADD can be treatable.
  • Chronically disorganized people can simply be very “right brained” – creative, intuitive, “big picture” people who are less talented when it comes to detail-oriented tasks. If this sounds like you, there are strategies to help you adapt.
  • Chronic disorganization can be a result of psychological issues. Long-term depression (which may be masked or exacerbated by substance abuse) can drain a person of the motivation and energy to take care of basic maintenance tasks.
  • Chronic disorganization may result when an adult has a deep and real resentment about having to “grow up” and take care of him or herself. Someone who has suffered trauma or loss in childhood might respond by feeling that “I didn’t get the care I deserved as a child, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to have to do it all by myself now.”
  • People who hoard – acquire and hold on to a large number of possessions that are useless or of limited value, filling living spaces to the point that rooms cannot be used for their intended purposes – may have a type of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Though difficult to treat, it can respond to treatment, particularly if the person has a willingness to change. However, OCD hoarders usually lack the insight that their behavior is out of control, or they may not think that it is unusual.
  • There are other mental disorders in which hoarding behavior is seen, such as anorexia nervosa, dementia and sometimes psychotic disorders.

Clearly, a wide variety of situations can lead to chronic disorganization. In severe situations, a person’s organization problems do not get significantly better in a lasting way until the underlying problems are resolved.

Mess can become so dominant that a person’s self-esteem and social life suffer, as the shame can lead to isolation. If you succumb to hiding and resign yourself to not inviting people over, a strong motivation for keeping your home clean may disappear.

Those who hoard characteristically exhibit indecisiveness, perfectionism, procrastination and avoidance, fear of forgetting, and inability to accept that we can’t be in total control. For some, the idea of losing something that has even remote sentimental value can be scary. There may also be an underlying fear of death.

People who hoard often have a close relative who has similar problems, but it is unclear whether this is a result of genetics or learned behavior. Early signs of hoarding generally are manifested in adolescence and gradually intensify in later years. Hoarding is the imaginary line of defense in the face of the inevitable loss of control that occurs as a person ages. But the potential consequences – of fire, risk of falling, inability to find medications, etc. – can be severe.


Therapy and/or medication may be helpful to address extreme disorganization issues. Specific forms of behavioral therapy show the best results. Also, support groups exist to help address these issues – for instance, the national group called Clutterers Anonymous, which you should be able to find on the internet.

For those with less severe clutter issues, hiring a professional organizer can be remarkably helpful if you can afford it. Organizers provide solutions and suggestions, do the physical work and give you encouragement and support. They will also tailor the solution to your needs, preferences and lifestyle, and they won’t be judgmental about disorganization or treat it as a moral issue. But to fully benefit, you need to make the time to participate in all steps of the organizing project, make decisions, and be willing to make changes. Also, you must be willing to do maintenance once the organizing project is complete.

If hiring a professional organizer for the whole project is beyond your budget, consider hiring one for any task in the project you find to be really odious – paying for just a few hours of work can make your situation much more manageable. Or consider trading some time with a friend – two hours of decluttering for two hours of doing something for them that they hate and you are good at.

If you, or a family member, are struggling with issues related to disorganization, you may call (212) 397-4802 to schedule an appointment for a free consultation with a MAP social worker at Local 802.