Clothes piled high on the floor, papers all over the desk and cutlery in the hardware drawer. Signs of a disorganized person? Not in strict psychological terms. In psychology, organization doesn’t relate so much to neat and tidy as planned. By contrast, disorganized acts are done without planning or on impulse. So to understand the psychology of a habitually disorganized person, it helps to start with what might be affecting their ability or desire to make and follow plans.
In personality models, disorganization usually falls opposite a trait called “conscienciousness”. Conscientiousness brings together qualities such as self-discipline, persistence and goal-directedness. At the other end are people who prefer things to be flexible and spontaneous. These different tendencies can appear at quite an early age.
Psychologist Walter Mischel found in his famous “marshmallow experiment” that some four-year-olds were able to resist eating a marshmallow in front of them for twenty minutes if it meant they would get two later on. Others were less able to control their natural impulse and delay gratification even though it meant settling for a smaller reward. Children’s reactions to the marshmallow test at age four are thought to predict whether the individuals will lean more towards impulsiveness or self-control in adulthood.
The first factor, then to add in building a profile of a hypothetical “disorganized person” would be someone who has trouble controlling their spontaneous impulses. They might be able to make plans, but won’t be so good at sticking to them if something else catches their fancy along the way. People led by this capriciousness lose organization because everything can be changed by a mood or whim.
Similar to impulsiveness is what’s sometimes called “present-focus”. But where impulsiveness has to do with a person’s desires, present -focus concerns someone’s relationship with time. This present-focus isn’t mindfulness of the moment that’s taught in relaxation training, it’s a kind of temporal near-sightedness. People know in their heads that there’s a deadline coming up in two months, but it stays vague and out-of-focus until it’s tomorrow. They have a hard time starting before the last minute because that’s when it finally comes into view and becomes real for them.
Aside from present-focus, a person may be disorganized because they have a poor judgment of time. Time is a quantity like volume and some people are better than others at calculating how much there is and how much is needed. The person who is always twenty minutes early overestimates how long it takes to travel from A to B, the person who is always late, underestimates it. A chronic under-estimator will plan, but not accurately and things can begin to topple like dominoes.
So far, these examples are of individuals who can’t help but be disorganized at times. But in some cases there’s an element of choice - and one of the things they choose to do is gamble. People can become disorganized because they’re trying to hedge their bets or hold out for the best offer. They don’t want to be locked into specific plans and methods in case something better comes along, and can leave things open for so long that there’s little chance to organize themselves when they do eventually make a decision.
The last possible factor we could throw into the pot is a fear of being accountable. To organize yourself, you need to accept a certain amount of responsibility for the plans you make, the methods you adopt and whether or not you follow through. People can sometimes choose the path of disorganization when they don’t have enough faith in their own judgment and worry that they’re likely to make bad decisions. Staying disorganized does two things for people with these anxieties. First, a large portion is left up to luck rather than actions they can be held accountable for. Secondly, blocking what they need to do until the last minute then rushing around in a frenzy means less time spent fretting.
So then, what might be the psychology of our disorganized person? People are individuals, of course, but as a tentative profile of an extremely disorganized person we might look for someone who is strongly influenced by moment-to-moment moods and desires, has a poor perception of time, and problems with commitment and decision making. It’s important to remember, however, that we can all become disorganized – at least temporarily – when we’re under stress.