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Why Are We All Suddenly So Disorganized?

At the time I started my business, hardly anyone outside of union politics had ever heard the term “professional organizer” before. (In fact, when I told strangers what I did for a living, they assumed I was a Hoffa-style labor leader, running picket lines and fomenting worker rebellion. That’s me—I’m a kneecap-breaker!) Even my own chronically-disorganized mother couldn’t imagine my getting paid to help folks declutter. But that was then, this is now, and the productivity industry is booming in the 21st century. Our profession has been featured on the US News And World Report “hot job tracks” list, and membership in the National Association Of Professional Organizers has grown tenfold since I joined in 1998. Organizing has come into its own because we’ve finally admitted that society is suffering from a debilitating illness—disorder is just one symptom of the larger disease, and this rising demand for expert help is our way of seeking treatment.

An Epidemic Of Urgency Addiction

There’s no doubt that the human race is moving at a more frenzied pace than ever before—and it’s a sad state of affairs when a single day’s turnaround time is considered a luxury by contemporary standards! Innovations like cell phones, texting, instant messaging, isocial media, and e-mail-that-follows-you-flipping-everywhere have trained others to expect (nay, demand) an instant response to even the most piddling and unimportant requests. We’ve become a stable of 24/7 beck-and-call girls (as well as boys)—answering to a merciless electronic pimp!

But we can’t blame it all on ceaselessly beeping gadgetry and unreasonable external presumptions about our time. Homo sapiens have a near-compulsive (and semi-patho-logical) attraction to stressful situations. It’s always more exciting to put a fire out than to prevent it from catching ablaze in the first place—and some of us (who routinely get off on turning every situation into a crisis) have developed an unhealthy addiction to that “high.” We realize that this is not a good way to be. But just like a junkie who can’t quite break the habit, we keep going back to score another hit when we’re jonesing for that adrenaline fix. Too bad Big Pharma hasn’t developed a methadone for urgency addiction!

Working More Hours To Accomplish Less

I’m all for working hard, but our species has officially taken this idea to a harmful extreme. Everyone I know is always (and I mean always) clocked in. Since when did the 9-to-5 grind become a 24-hour-a-day commitment? I clearly missed the memo on that development—guess I must have been out playing hooky when it came across my desk! The Department Of Labor has found that 85% of men and 66% of women in the US work more than 40 hours a week. (All hands on deck! Full steam ahead! Evenings and weekends be damned!) However, the Bureau Of Labor Statistics simultaneously reports that collective global productivity is through the roof. That means we should each be able to achieve the same standard of living as a middle-class 50’s-era Ozzie or Harriett by putting in just one-quarter the number of hours.

So why all the overtime? It’s because much of our day is wasted on less-than-fruitful activities—and it’s taking us longer to get the job done. We’ve perverted our industrious ancestors’ Protestant work ethic, mistakenly equating “busy” with “productive.” We shuffle TPS reports (any Office Space fans out there?), attend pointless meetings, fight with the printer, and search for a lost stapler—then wonder why we’re stuck in that cubicle until 9PM every night. But if we could just find a way to spend each “working” minute completely focused, we’d all have the 10-hour week that God intended!

The Side-Effects of Full-Time Employment

As long as we’re waxing nostalgic about a simpler age, let’s take a look at the evolution of the modern family unit. The Census Bureau reports that in 1950, more than 75% of American households had an adult at home full-time—by 2010, fewer than 25% of clans were structured in this way. Donna Reed has hung up her apron, Mrs. Cunningham will not be serving dinner, and June Cleaver’s days of vacuuming in high heels and pearls are over! I personally get down on my knees each night to thank Gloria Steinem for giving me career options other than “housewife”—but when you’re so busy bringing home the bacon, who has time to cook it?

And I’m not just talking about conventional mom-dad-kid arrangements. The holding down of a full-time job (at least the way things are done these days) makes it hard for anyone to keep a house in order—be that a singleton, a pair of DINKs, or a traditional nuclear grouping. Cleaning, lawn care, fix-it projects, meals, laundry, errands—it’s no wonder folks need help staying on top of it all!

Trapped In A Hyper-Materialistic Society

Pop quiz, hotshot. If we could have that boomer-generation quality of life while working a mere fraction of the hours, why don’t we? Allow me to answer one question with another. How many people do you know who would be satisfied with a more moderate Atomic-Age level of affluence? A three-channel TV and a family sedan used to be all the material comfort anyone needed—until Madison Avenue talked us into trading true prosperity for copious amounts of unnecessary stuff. We swallowed that yuppie BS about “whoever dies with the most toys wins,” hook-line-and-sinker. But we haven’t touched those playthings in at least two decades—and now we’re paying the price in terms of clutter.

Ironically, the biggest offenders are leisure activities. In a desperate attempt to convince ourselves to take more time off, we load up on paraphernalia that we think will make us engage in novel and exciting hobbies—but when our interests shift, we’re not especially diligent about cleaning out the old to make room for the new. A hundred years from now, anthropologists studying ancient closets (in order to learn about our spending habits and unfulfilled dreams) will view the “layers” of belongings like rings on a tree—oldest at the bottom, with consecutive years’ worth of junk spreading up and out from the center!

The Consequences Of Unrealistic Expectations

When you live in a land of endless opportunity, you’re taught that you can have anything, do anything, and be anything that you want—but what they don’t tell you is that you can’t have, do, or be it all at the same time! We humans, God bless us, are eternally optimistic about our capabilities, and absolute rubbish at drawing boundaries. (Always a fatal combination!)

This is especially true for women—ever since the sexual revolution, the XY-set has bought into the entirely ridiculous notion that successful females must be all things to all people at all times. If you can’t raise 2.5 children while running your own company, look like a supermodel while earning your PhD, or balance the books while serving on 23 com-mittees (and still finding time to bake homemade cookies every day)—you’re falling short. Keeping up with the Joneses now means comparing busy schedules, one-upping other folks’ stress levels, and wearing “hectic” like a badge of honor. You know what I say to that? Malarkey!

Attention Deficit Disorder As A Modern-Day Plague

Hyperactivity has been recognized by shrinks since 1902, but it wasn’t until the 80’s that doctors routinely began handing out potentially dangerous and mostly untested pharmaceuticals in the name of ADD. Now (according to the Centers For Disease Control) diagnosis rates are rising by more than 5% a year, and there’s been a 700% increase in stimulant prescriptions for minors since 1990. What the hell?! Has something happened to young peoples’ brains, making our offspring universally impossible to control without drugging them? Or is it possible that some other factor could be to blame? Methinks the latter might be the case:

  • pathologizing developmental differences—Do we tend to see tykes who are overly energetic, poorly-disciplined, or less mature than their peers as “dys-functional” (and in need of treatment)? Quite possibly.
  • faux deficits—Is the entire population suffering from societally-induced ADD (brought on by inadequate sleep, caffeine/sugar-laden diets, short-attention-span entertainment, and electronic overload)? Most likely.
  • poor examples—Is the next generation being crippled by a nation full of “workaholic-stressed-out-lacking-focus-management-skills-so-how-in-the-world-can-they-guide-their-progeny” role models? Of course.

Above all else, can these poor lost souls be taught to function more effectively through a little organizational retraining? No doubt! I’m certainly not making light of those suffering from true brain dysfunction—and we’ll be covering some useful tools/techniques for helping these individuals later on. But I just can’t stand watching a bunch of Crackberry-addicted-Starbucks-infused-Headline-News-sound-bite-tweeting poseurs bogart the atten-tion (pun entirely intended) away from those with legitimate medical concerns!

Teaching Poor Organizational Habits To Our Children

Regrettably, even kids who haven’t been diagnosed with a pharmacologically-profitable “syndrome” are being inadvertently pushed into disorganization by the rest of us. We buy young-uns enough toys to last three lifetimes—then complain when their playthings are scattered all over the house. We leave our offspring in the care of net-nannies and boob-tube-babysitters—then bitch when they can’t focus beyond the length of a commercial. We assign 6-year-olds more homework than I had in grad school and fill their “free time” with endless extracurricular activities—then chastise them for not getting their chores done.

The mixed messages you receive when you’re little follow you for the rest of your days, screwing up all your best efforts to stay organized as a grown person. (Think about how different our clients’ lives would be if someone had taught them early on that organizing is fun—if their parents hadn’t sent them to clean their rooms as a punishment!) We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us, preventing today’s overloaded tots from becoming tomorrow’s burned-out adults!

An Unprecedented Level Of Information Overload

According to Ihe New York Times, the average person is exposed to more than 100,000 words a day—that’s 175 newspapers’ worth of info. (Or to put it in a slightly more frightening context, the equivalent of covering the continental US and Alaska in a 7-foot-high stack of Twilight novels!) Turn on your computer and it gets even scarier—the size of the internet doubles every 18 months, and we’ve already surpassed the zettabyte mark for electronic content. (To you non-techies, that’s a 1 with a staggering 21 zeroes after it.) This unfettered access to data is a godsend for “informavores” like me, who consume facts rather than food. But for most folks, it just leads to a bad case of information overload.

Actually, the larger problem isn’t quantity so much as quality. It would be one thing if we were buried under an avalanche of useful knowledge. But who needs to hear the same supremely unfunny joke 27 times in one day? To have an in-box full of spam ads for Viagra? To be informed of a celebrity’s breast implants or baby bump as “breaking news?” Finding meaningful information in this “data fog” is harder than locating a designated driver at a frat party! And eventually, our minds end up so cluttered with irrelevant crap that we have trouble keeping track of the important stuff. More becomes less, as evidentiary overwhelm kills our collective attention span—and dumbs our communi-cations down to 140-character illegibly-abbreviated text messages.

As you can see, POs are not just fighting clutter and chaos. On some level, we’re battling modern society! Our clients like to blame their woes on a lack of skills, inappropriate systems, or an inadequate understanding of organizing principles—but these issues represent just a few scattered pieces from much larger jigsaw puzzle. We also have to help them see that their problems are the inevitable by-product of unrestrained tech-nological advancement, rampant prosperity, and badly misplaced values—and that the most powerful cure for those ills is learning to draw better boundaries.

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and RamonaCreel.com.

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