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The Buzz: The Wrong Stuff

What happens when your possessions take over your life

Illustration by Daniel Elchert

The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization ( is based in St. Louis. We’d rather not think about the implications of that, so instead we asked for a definition. “Chronic” means the chaos has lasted years, maybe a lifetime; “disorganization” means it’s interfering with a happy life. “Traditional organizing methods may not work,” warns Katherine Trezise, the group’s president. She described a few chronically disorganized types for us.

The rat’s-nest paper piler: “Often he’s very visual and needs to have things in front of him. Filing, he’s not confident he’ll find something again; if it’s put away, it might as well be gone. So we set up desktop filing systems, maybe vertical slots stacked, or do color coding.”

The woman whose shape goes in and out like an accordion
: “She’ll hold on to multiple sizes, jamming things in the closet she never wears, and what she does wear piles up on a bed. We get the alternate sizes into storage."

Those still reeling from a loss: “Often people will even stop opening the mail... I call it layers of life: Someone dies, and the new things pile in front of the old, because they can’t bear to get rid of the old. We do a lot of listening.”

The over-eager collector: “We play ‘Friends, Acquaintances, Strangers.’ I’ll ask the person to bring out those 100 drinking glasses, and then I’ll say, ‘OK, pick out the friends. Now the strangers—why would you have them in your closet? Everybody else is an acquaintance.’”

The multiple-messes maker: “For an insurance agent who was also a Little League coach, we turned his office into a ball diamond. An on-deck circle included upcoming appointments. His desk was home. File cabinets were the outfield.”

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