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Professional organizing, like every profession, has its own vocabulary. And people within the profession may be in the habit of using acronyms or technical terms that can baffle new professionals and their clients, too. Let’s review some basic organizing concepts and terms you’ll want to know.

Be aware that a term may be used one way in one industry or group and used differently by another group or by the general public, and as we go along I’ll mention some cases where this occurs.

So here is an introduction to some of the common terms and concepts used by professional organizers. And come back next month, when I’ll share a glossary of some of more common terms used in professional organizing and their definitions.

Is there a difference between de-cluttering and organizing? Is organizing different from tidying up? Is organizing the same as categorizing?

Eliminating excess means to remove unnecessary items. De-cluttering means to remove confusion, for example, by making things visible, establishing “homes” for all items, putting things in containers, and storing categories of items close to where they’re used. Categorizing refers to classifying things according to some quality such as shape, size, color, or genre.

  • Organizing is a process that includes sorting things into categories, getting rid of items that are excess, then storing what’s left in appropriate locations in appropriate containers, if needed.
  • Tidying up is a non-technical term that refers to putting things away.

A cleaning crew can probably tidy up by putting things back where they belong, but organizing refers to the whole process of figuring out the proper place for each type of thing and making a pleasing and functional space tailored to the needs of the users – the homeowner, office staff, or whoever uses the space. De-cluttering and categorizing are just two parts of the whole organizing process.

What is clutter? Is there a difference between clutter and excess?

Clutter refers to “a crowded or confused mass,” says Merriam-Webster.com, or things in “a state or condition of confusion,” according to Dictionary.com.

Excess refers to having more of something than is useful or required.

Let me give you an example. If your client has 10 pairs of shoes but they are all kicked into the back of the closet, mixed with books and boxes, and covered in clothes, they don’t have excess – 10 pairs of shoes is not a very big number for most of our clients – but they do have clutter, a confused mass. They need help de-cluttering. But if instead they have a hundred pairs of black heels all neatly lined up on shelves and stacked in boxes, there is no clutter (no confusion) but there is probably excess (more than is useful or needed).

What is a collection?

A collection is a group of related items arranged in an orderly way for display or study.

Imagine a client with several-hundred baseball cards. If the cards are labeled and put into some kind of order (alphabetical or chronological order, for instance, or by league or position played, or by value) and put into a box, or the cards are displayed for enjoyment in frames or binders, we would call it a collection. If, on the other hand, the cards are piled into a box in no particular order and some of them are spilling onto the floor, it is not yet a collection, it’s just a big number of baseball cards.

What is chronic disorganization?

Chronic disorganization, as used by professional organizers and other professionals who deal with the issue, is marked by these characteristics:

  • Repeated failed attempts to become more organized in adult life
  • Problems with organization that seriously impact daily life, such as inability to pay bills on time
  • Inability to maintain organization without sustained help

Be aware that it would be easy for a client to hear the term “chronic disorganization” and say, “That sounds like me. I can just never get it together!” They are using the term casually and not in the technical way described above.

What is hoarding? What’s the difference between hoarding and being a collector? What’s the difference between hoarding and being a “pack rat?”

Hoarding is a serious disorder identified by certain characteristics, including:

  • Keeping a large number of items, including things that appear to be worthless
  • Keeping so many items that spaces and rooms cannot be used as intended
  • Keeping so many items that they cause significant distress

Some people with a hoarding disorder may keep numerous broken televisions and other appliances, for example, or a large quantities of expired canned goods, things that most of us would identify as worthless. Trying to get rid of these items will typically cause them significant distress; they can’t just say, “Oh, this is expired or broken, out it goes!” They may pile books on the bed and then sleep on the sofa, or store boxes and bags of stuff in the shower so that the shower can’t be used. As a result of the hoarding behavior, they may have conflicts with neighbors, landlords, or family members, and their personal safety may be at risk.

This is not being a “pack rat,” which is an informal term for someone who gets pleasure from keeping a lot of stuff. Nor is it the same as being a collector, which is someone who keeps related items for study or display.

For a more complete description of hoarding disorder, see my book From Hoarding to Hope: Understanding People Who Hoard and How to Help Them. In it I include a chapter in which Dr. Michael Tompkins describes in detail the qualities that characterize hoarding disorder.

Besides hoarding disorder, are there other disorders that contribute to disorganization? What is TBI? What is OCD? What is OCPD? What is ADHD?

Yes, hoarding disorder is not the only disorder that can impact a person’s ability to get and stay organized. Be aware of these concerns:

  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) can occur in a number of ways, including an accident such as a fall or vehicle accident, or it may result from surgery to treat a cancer, among other causes. TBI can permanently diminish a person’s ability to get and stay organized by impairing their ability to make decisions or remember things.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has several forms. Hoarding was formerly considered a form of OCD but is now viewed as a separate diagnosis.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) is a mental illness with symptoms that may include perfectionism and extreme orderliness. It is not the same as OCD.
  • Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can seriously impact a person’s ability to focus and make progress on a task or project. Organizers who work with clients with a diagnosis of ADHD typically have specialized training in the techniques that help these clients.

Working with clients with TBI, OCD, or ADHD may require special skills or techniques to compensate for the disability. This is another place where informal use may conflict with the way professionals use the terms. When a prospective client tells you “I’m kind of OCD about things,” they may not be using the term in a technical sense but may just mean “I’m very particular” or “I always want things a certain way.”

If a client refers to him- or herself as a “hoarder,” “ADHD,” or as having “OCD,” it is a good idea to ask them whether they have a diagnosis from a doctor so you can determine whether you are dealing with the actual disability or someone using the informal meaning of the term.

For more details about the symptoms and treatments of these and other illnesses, consult the Mayo Clinic website.

Who are some of the other professionals who work with people who have organizing challenges caused by an illness or disability?

Here are a few terms you’ll want to know:

  • Psychologist: someone with a graduate degree in psychology, who has received specialized training and is licensed by their state to provide psychological evaluations and psychotherapy. In a few states they have a limited ability to prescribe medication. The American Psychological Association’s website provides more details.
  • Psychiatrist: a medical doctor specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. A psychiatrist is qualified to diagnose conditions and prescribe medication. The American Psychiatric Association website provides additional information.
  • MSW (Master of Social Work) and MC (Master of Counseling): though both provide psychotherapeutic services, these two professions receive different training and work with clients in somewhat different ways. The Simmons College School of Social Work is one good resource to help understand the difference.
  • PA: Physician’s Assistant
  • RN: Registered Nurse
  • CNA: Certified Nursing Assistant

Build your business vocabulary. Learn the words, abbreviations, and acronyms that professional organizers, productivity consultants, and industry insiders use.

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