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The Costs of Disorganization

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“Jean”, a 60 plus-year-old woman, called for help with her “paper problem”. As I stepped into her 900 square foot home, papers crunched underfoot. Progress was slow, but by the end of our appointment, amid junk mail, mortgage papers, and photos, we uncovered money. Not the green stuff, but uncashed checks. It would be an uphill battle to cash in those old checks. Jean was paying dearly for her disorganization.

Uncashed checks are not the only way disorganization costs you money. There’s the return you don’t make to the store because the receipt is lost; late fees for not paying bills on time; lost income from not sending an invoice for money owed to you; interest not accrued on money sitting around; penalties for not filing your tax return on time; not getting a promotion at work.

Disorganization can get expensive. What’s it costing you—health, relationships, or time? The expense is often overlooked because it’s stretched out over time, perhaps decades. It takes an audit of sorts to view these costs in their totality, and face them head-on.

In Jean’s case, the trappings of clutter were literally making her sick. Sure, she was no spring chicken anymore, but disorganization was taking its toll. Dust—you can hardly see it until you stir it up—was very harmful to Jean’s breathing. She spent minimal time at home because of this. Another detriment to health is the stress created by doing things down to the wire. Does running to just catch the BART train really use every minute or just add pressure, exacerbating certain health conditions?

It can cost friendships when you overbook yourself and have to cancel frequently, or don’t return calls because you can’t find the phone number—or the phone buried under a pile of clothes. Forget someone’s birthday enough times and they feel they are unimportant to you. What about your good word? If you tell your friend, child, spouse or business associate that you will handle something—and don’t because your thinking was cluttered up, you’ve let them down. So it costs you the regard of others, and they pay the price along with you.

The C.H.A.O.S. (Can’t have anyone over) Syndrome affects relationships too. When we’re ashamed of how our home looks, we don’t want to reveal “our dirty laundry”, so we isolate and get more wrapped up in ourselves. The cost of not sharing yourself is not making room for the growth and joy of new experiences.

This is tricky because we confuse busyness with actual productivity. Sometimes we work too hard, run around too much, and make mistakes from rushing. Now we spend fix-it time to make it right. Former ER nurse Diane Sieg calls it “Living Life Like an Emergency”.

Studies say that we spend as much as an hour a day looking for things. Do the math and that’s almost a month. Factor in your annual salary (i.e. what is your time worth), and the cost is astounding.

Your weekends
Most of us would not be too thrilled about having to spend every Saturday for the rest of our lives “getting organized.” Yet that is how some people are spending their weekends. Living life with no maintenance along the way causes the need for drastic measures.

How often do we say “I don’t have time for ….?” My family called me on this the other day, when I said I didn’t have enough time to exercise. Well, how much time does it take? In my case, it’s under 45 minutes door to door (thank you Curves). We find time for the things that we value. True, it may mean putting something else aside for a time, but the trade off should be worth it.

Quality of Living
Jean had no place to sit in her living or dining room. Oh, there was a sofa and two chairs, but they were covered in clutter. If she wanted to watch TV, which was in the living room, Jean had to sit on the steps leading upstairs to her bedroom and peer below. With the dining table disabled by clutter, she ate on a lone chair sitting next to the sink. She valued her antiques and art, yet they were hidden by the clutter. Despite having “nice things” Jean was surrounded by ugliness in her own home; an environment in which she had complete control.

Add it up
It’s time to add up the price you may be paying for disorganization. Write down every cost you can think of in terms of money, relationships, health or quality of life. As you face the truth, it may be painful, but this is good. Without pain, you won’t have reasons to make changes in your behavior that led to a disorganized life.

But it’s not all pain. The second part is to add up what you will gain by changing to organized behaviors. What will you gain in space? How will it feel to have room to breathe in your home, office or schedule? How will it feel to not go on a massive search for a hairbrush or a clean cereal bowl every morning? How will family life be when you are a stronger role model for your kids? How will it feel to free from internal nagging of “I gotta get organized”? How will you feel knowing your loved ones can count on you?

The purpose of adding up the costs is to see on the big screen, in full color, how much disorganization costs you. Aren’t you paying too much for a way of living that you have the power to change?