Old joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One, but the light bulb has to want to change. It’s the same with a disorganized person—the desire to change has to be there.
I’ve turned down many jobs because the person who reached out to me was not the disorganized person but was their mother, sibling, friend or spouse who wanted them to change. Giving time with a professional organizer to a disorganized person is like giving a week at a rehab facility to a drug addict. It’s not welcome or effective if the recipient doesn’t want to change.
Even if the recipient of time with an organizer does appreciate the thought and does want to change, I’m suspicious as to how well the new habits stick when a person doesn’t shell out their own hard-earned money. It’s been proven that people tend to value things they pay for themselves much more highly.
Rather than try to change another person, offer them the gift of your example. You need say nothing. Showing through doing is much better than telling. As one of two magnets on my refrigerator says, “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person; your behavior does.” (The other magnet says, “Art is a velvet painting in flames”).
The next thing you can do, if the disorganized person is one of your children, is to do the organizing for them. I used to think this would be detrimental to the organizational future of the child, but I’ve seen over and over that a messy, clutter-loving, disorganized pre-teen or teenager often grows into a neat freak, high achieving college student. Maybe it’s the necessity of less clutter due to dorm room size, the pride in being on their own in an apartment or simply maturity. At any rate, I haven’t seen much stunted growth in kids whose parents made their beds, put away their laundry and organize their closets.
Doing it for them can also work with your spouse. Most experts say that if you want an organized home, you have to be willing to keep it up yourself. The snag is when the person doesn’t want you touching their stuff. If they don’t care, easy-peasy, organize their sock drawer and fold their undies into neat triangles. But if they do care, and moving around the tools in the garage causes a melt-down, you can a) try talking about it, b) hire a therapist to help you talk about it and/or c) just keep quietly folding your own undies, maybe mentioning every third day how nice it is to be able to find x, y, z when you need it (tape, allergy medicine, your sunglasses).
When it comes to friends and those not living under your roof, I advise letting it go as if it were a clear glass florist vase in a cupboard of collectible ceramics. Don’t recommend a book or a podcast or a Netflix series on organizing unless asked. If it bothers you to spend time in a disorganized person or hoarder’s space, suggest a neutral place to meet or invite them to your house.
People often worry when the disorganized person is a parent that they will be left with a huge mess when the parent dies. The truth is, they may let you clean up and declutter, but you will never finish that job and will likely still have a mess and a lot of clutter to go through anyway. A decluttered, clean environment has to be a high value or priority in order to be maintained, just like a fit body or healthy teeth.
I had a humbling experience once after thoroughly cleaning out a hoarder’s home, to the point of filling two dumpsters, and all with the permission and participation of the hoarder who paid for my work herself. I felt like I had really made an impact. But then the client’s daughter came over. “Doesn’t it look amazing?!” I exclaimed. “Yeah,” the daughter said unenthusiastically. “But we do this every year.”
There are exceptions, but generally, organizing a person who doesn’t care about organizing is never finished until somebody dies. You might as well live—and let live.