What's the Difference Between Hoarding and Being Messy?

What's the Difference Between Hoarding and Being Messy? - Photo of Priscilla and Phillis Huberman's, twin sisters from southern Illinois, living room before the hoard is cleared away. "Kényszeres gyűjtögetők - élve eltemetve (5. évad) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ - CC 2.0 by https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwpkommunikacio/12968710814 - Lwp Kommunikáció (Flickr)

Maybe you have watched the "Hoarders" show on TV and thought "I might be messy, but at least I have never let it get that bad!" Alternatively, maybe you have taken a look at your garage, a closet, or attic and thought "I... might have a problem." In today's blog post, I answer a popular question about the difference between identified hoarders and people who are just disorganized.

Isn't there a pretty big difference between hoarding and being messy? Isn't one a mental illness?

Yes! there is a big difference between being messy and hoarding. In the professional organizing world, we classify three different types of disorganization:

What's the Difference Between Hoarding and Being Messy? - A Messy Room

Situational Disorganization

"Situational disorganization" is the most common type, and is brought about by an event that temporarily impacts one's living or work situation. Events such as a birth or death, severe illness, marriage or divorce, a move or a change in employment can all act as a catalyst for someone experiencing situational disorganization. Even though these events may trigger situational disorganization that lasts for up to many years, you can restore a sense of organization. Based on the situation, a person may choose to seek the help of a professional organizer to help with strategizing or motivation, but they also may be able to handle the situation themselves.

What's the Difference Between Hoarding and Being Messy? - Photo of messy child's room - "Before" <a  data-cke-saved-href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/" href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">CC 2.0</a> by <a  data-cke-saved-href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/gemsling/278243753/" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/gemsling/278243753/">Gemsling</a> (Flickr)

Chronic Disorganization

Chronic disorganization has been present in a person’s life for a long time, and undermines one’s quality of life on a daily basis, and is constantly present. Traditional methods of organizing do not always help someone in this situation. The Institute for Challenging Disorganization (a non-profit dedicated to providing education, research and strategies to benefit people challenged by chronic disorganization) describes someone with chronic disorganization if s/he:

  1. accumulates large quantities of objects, papers, and possessions beyond apparent necessity or pleasure;

  2. has difficulty parting with things;

  3. has a broad range of interests and many incomplete projects;

  4. needs visual ‘clues’ as reminders to take action;

  5. tends to be easily distracted;

  6. often has weak time management skills.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This person is NOT necessarily classified as a "hoarder" even if they have a "hoard" of things.


Hoarding is a medical disorder diagnosed by a licensed medical professional, who often prescribes a level of care that usually includes working with a both a trained professional organizer and a licensed medical professional - (psychiatrist.) Hoarding behaviors are seen in various illnesses and therefore has been difficult to place in a particular diagnostic category. The onset varies from person to person. Mental health professionals recognize hoarding as both a mental illness and a public health problem, but it is not typically an immediate crisis. Older adults hoard for the following reasons:

  1. items are perceived as valuable or provide a source of security;

  2. fear of forgetting or losing things;

  3. fear others will obtain personal information;

  4. stressful life events;

  5. self-neglect;

  6. physical limitations;

  7. receiving love not found from people.

Many resources can be found on the ICD website here, if you are interested.

#hoarding #organization #hoarders

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