Reader Question: I’m chronically disorganized, are my kids destined to be too?

Last night we received a heartfelt post on our facebook wall. It was such an important question that I didn’t want to dash off a quick or glib answer or be limited to the character count allowed by Facebook. So I’m answering it here on our blog. Our reader asked:

I am beyond hopeless when it comes to getting organized and I do NOT want my two children to end up being that way. Is there anything I can do that can help me get them started now? They are two and seven.

It’s a question I’ve pondered myself many times since the arrival of my two little guys (remember I’m the recovering yo-yo organizer of the buttoned up bunch!). I can’t promise to have the complete answer, but it is an issue I am intimately familiar with and for which I have tested work-arounds to in my own life.

The Roots of Chronic or Yo-Yo Disorganization

My battle with organization started when I was young – I shared a room with my highly conscientious little sister and we literally got to the point where we had to draw a line down the room to mark our “territories.” My side was strewn with discarded clothes (I never was good at going with the first outfit I tried on in the morning) and the usual scholastic debris. My sister’s side, on the other hand, was neat as a pin. If my crap ever strayed onto her “side” of the room, she could confiscate it. Lord knows how many Esprit tops I lost that way!

Every few weeks I’d hit a visual disgust threshold with my side and force myself to spend an hour or two whipping it into tip-top shape. The perfection would last a day or two and then I’d start the slow slide back into chaos again.

My disorganization wasn’t just limited to my stuff. I struggled with big projects that were designed to be done over weeks, months, or worse, a semester. I was forever doing them at the eleventh hour. Pulling all-nighters and trying to believe the phrase I constantly muttered under my breath: “Diamonds under pressure baby…we create DIAMONDS under pressure!”

If only.

It sometimes felt as though, even though I wanted to stay organized, stick to my diet, drive more slowly, or do that project bit by bit over the semester rather than cramming, I couldn’t make myself. My brain knew what I should do, but that wasn’t enough to get me to do it.

I devised work-arounds like study buddies and weight loss groups to help myself stay on track. And those kinds of things did help. But the yo-yo pattern was still there under the surface.

And it made me feel like a failure. A high-functioning one, but a failure nonetheless. I knew I was capable of so much more.

Then, in my years on Madison Avenue and eventually as an entrepreneur and co-founder of Mindset Media, I had the opportunity to take a deep-dive into the world of psychology. One of the most fascinating things I had the opportunity to study was something called the “Five Factor Model,” which is a robust construct devised by academic psychologists to describe human personality. There are five factors or “domains” that serve as the fundamental building blocks of our personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each of those five factors is comprised of six facets or sub-traits.

We all express various positive or negative degrees of each of the big five factors (and their sub-traits). If you’re curious, you can take this free personality inventory survey anonymously to get a sense for your personality thumbprint. Nothing to worry about as the data collected benefits academics.

I guessed that the trait most linked to my kind of disorganization was conscientiousness. And in fact, I found I scored rather low on that factor, meaning I have trouble persevering. Perseverance refers to an individual’s ability to remain focused on a task that may be boring or difficult – and the ability to stay the course in the face of distracting stimuli.

The reason I bring all of this up isn’t to bore you with some academic chalk-talk, but because viewing disorganization through the lens of personality helped me make a life-changing shift. Once I was able to view my behavior as an expression of psychological wiring, I was liberated. Rather than berating myself for being such a “flake,” I started looking for ways to mitigate the trait I just happened to have (focusing on the topic of organization 24/7 for Buttoned Up sure doesn’t hurt!)

The objective, academic personality classification meant I could stop taking my organizational failures so personally. I wasn’t a failure who would never get organized. I simply happened to score lower on a personality domain called conscientiousness. It took the sting away, which in turn freed me to focus on finding more effective, preventative work-arounds and turning those work-arounds into habits. I stopped saying “I am hopelessly disorganized,” and started saying, “I have this trait (kind of like you’d say I have hypothyroid), and I have to take steps to treat it.”

When my boys were born I started to wonder just as you are, if they, too, would struggle with the same issue. I read that your level of conscientiousness is influenced both by heredity (49% heritability) and by environmental factors, so I figured there was a good chance that they’d be afflicted. I watch carefully as they play, looking for signs of impulsiveness. I don’t always love what I see, especially for my oldest. But it’s hard to tell. The pre-frontal cortex, which (I’m pretty sure) regulates this tendency isn’t fully developed until the late teens or early twenties.

Either way, since environment plays a significant role here, I decided I would do anything to help them hardwire as many conscientious habits as I could before they fly the coop. Below are a few of the strategies that have worked for me or that I’ve used to good effect on my sons.

Six Simple Strategies

Objectify the Impulsiveness:
Blame and shame are a waste of energy; they do no good and keep you (or your kid) trapped. If you notice impulsive behavior in yourself of your kids, do yourself a favor and depersonalize/destigmatize it. Call it by name (low conscientiousness) and reiterate to yourself, or out loud to your children, that this just means you have to work a little harder to prevail, but it doesn’t mean you can’t. Just as a dyslexic person adopts strategies for reading, the person low in conscientiousness can adopt strategies to get (and stay) organized.

Instill One New Habit Every 6 Months:
One of the best strategies by far is to develop habit sets that keep chaos at bay. Young brains are learning machines, so instill habits early and they are likely to stick (effortlessly) for a lifetime. Start with something like a morning routine as I describe in this post, using rewards and praise to cement the good habit. Don’t let them “get out” of even one day. By the end of six months, it should be as ingrained as brushing teeth and you can add another habit to the repertoire.

Engage Them in Organizational System Problem Solving:
Ask them to solve an organizational challenge in the playroom, such as where and how to keep the Legos, the trains, and board games organized so they enjoy their toys more. Encourage ones over the age of 5 to research good options (maybe go online with them to search Pinterest), pick out their own containers, decorate them, and put them in place. Resist the urge to do it for them. This not only is a great way to teach them the basics of solving organizational problems, but the more invested they are in them, the more likely they will be to adopt them without a fight.

Actively Foster a Link Between Organization and Joy:
Look for ways to link the emotion of joy and pleasure with being organized. The stronger the positive emotional link, the more likely they are to do it. So make a big deal out of their organizational successes.

Involve Them in Organized Sports:
I’m convinced that the structure, the accountability to my teammates, and the scary coaches who demanded I follow through all helped build my discipline muscle. And that paid huge dividends in other areas.

Talk to Their Teachers:
Let the teacher know that your child may suffer from disorganization (and that they’re leaning on a weak stick in you). Ask for a heads-up on big projects that need to be done over many weeks, ask about any strategies that work when it comes to building organizational muscles, ask frequently how your child is doing.

I’d love to hear what you think. Have you been stuck in the thought pattern that you’re either organized or you’re not? Do you find this construct helpful? If you have a disorganized child but you, yourself are organized – have you tried any of these strategies? Let me know!