How do I organize my life and surroundings
March 25, 2013 1:45 PM   Subscribe

I lack basic skills to manage a normal day. I have no structure at all and want to be able to get by in life. I am a chronic mess maker and lose much of everything, so I want to learn life skills to be able to live normally.

I notice that what often helps me is someone with a domineering and "in-action" personality who makes me do things and really persists. I know it's my fault, but my mother is probably an enabler. I can get too comfortable with that. Sometimes I wish she'd give me ultimatums or force me to do things. She's only had a couple, temporary jobs since I've been around her and is pretty lazy herself, so I never got a good work ethic influence, and she never pressured me at all into anything like doing homework. She hardly cleans either and can't be bothered to do much. (And I'm not like an adult baby. I mean, I cook all my own food and her food often and can do laundry and stuff.)I'm sure there's people you can pay to do these things, but I can't afford some kind of life coach.

Anyway, every room that I've had, whether big or small, has turned almost into what a hoarder's home looks like. Things pile up seemingly out of nowhere, and I try and clean, but it gets messy again. I need to be cleaner. I need to not lose everything, like I have with homework all my life. I've always had messy bags and binders and generally couldn't manage to hold on to anything. I sleep on piles of stuff currently, and it all falls behind my bed. People in my house get mad at me for making messes.

I need to sleep normally. I end up sleeping in the day often. Some of it is caused partially by lack of motivation and feeling like there's nothing else to do. It's often hard to get out of bed, and I don't have any friends here, but it's also structural problems.

I recently failed a number of classes this past year at college, and I'm planning to leave now. I also messed up high school in ways I won't get into, but it ties into the organizational stuff, not going out as a consequence of that stuff + procrastination, and the inability to stomach the thought of sitting through classes seven hours straight.

I put things off that are really important to get done. I forget and then when I remember, it's too late in the day, and it repeats. I made a lot of progress in the past year with exposure. I almost have my license. I mean, I quickly drove without fear, but I've yet to get my license after a year even though I can get it at any time. And all of my driving instructors said I drive too fast, and everyone gets scared with me driving "like a manic" in my mother's words, so I don't want to waste the money until I refine it. Plus, I have anxiety about calling and dealing with people. It makes my heart race to even order food on the phone. I want a job very badly and would love the structure involved and just having something to do, but I get nervous to even think about applying in person and with no experience.

I don't know if I have tourettes. I jump around and get really hyper like a little kid, even now. I have tics too. It affects my life enough. And I can get really depressed easily and lie in bed, not going to classes because I feel like a disappointment or something..or my work is not up to par..and just do not want to do anything. I want a busy, active life that's interesting. I do need plenty of time to regroup though. I need to sit in a dark room and just think or lie there for hours.

I'm trying to get a therapist again, but I need a referral and to wait a while with my insurance.

Okay, so what I'm asking for are life hacks and organizational tips I guess, that go outside of the basic "to-do list" recommendations because that does not help me. I can't even finish to-do lists. I could try other forms of lists if they are effective enough. I do think I need a schedule though to remind me to do basic things like taking a shower.
posted by wholecornandsalt to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
If you're sleeping on "piles of stuff," getting nothing done every day and either sleeping or wondering where the day went and you need a schedule to remind you to do things like take a shower, you're not in life hack territory, you're in therapy territory. You mentioned you need to wait on your insurance, but also mentioned that you're still in college -- I recommend starting with health services at school.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:52 PM on March 25, 2013 [14 favorites]

While you are waiting to get into therapy (and therapy is an excellent idea!), I suggest Unfuck Your Habitat for the cleaning, routine, and messiness issues you're having. Start here.

Try to start with just one thing. Rome was not built in a day, and neither was your mess -- but if you start doing one more thing per day, you'll start seeing progress, and it'll snowball. You can totally do this.
posted by pie ninja at 2:01 PM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Small steps. Don't try to do it all at once. Tackle one pile. Organization doesn't come as a complete system ex nihilo, it is built from the ground up. Work on that foundation. Make sure you create places to put everything before expecting everything to go in its place!

FlyLady, while very ridiculous, helped me out of some serious depressive squalor.
posted by decathexis at 2:03 PM on March 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

In terms of finding things, make sure these things have a home and put them there every time. For example, my keys and my wallet go on the end of my desk and have since high school. When I take them out of my pocket, I put them on the end of my desk. When I need them for something, I go back and put them at home when I am done even if "oh yeah I'll totally remember later" and it's kind of a pain in the ass because I know I damn well will not remember it. Same goes for my glasses, my iPod, my phone, etc., they all have homes and they go back there every time. Every. Time.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:12 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a mix of OCD and bipolar disorder. The above posters are right -- therapy will help you eradicate the patterns that have been established through your relationship with your mother so you can establish more productive life hacks that can help you overcome the organization side of things. A psychiatrist may be a worthwhile resource to help with your depression so you feel emotionally and mentally equipped to make big changes in your life. This isn't just a matter of bad habits that you can fix with a few small routines. This is lifelong stuff that needs proper attention and care.

Moving out of your mom's place may actually help you jump start this process more than you know. Good luck. Let us know if you need resources.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:26 PM on March 25, 2013

I'm not saying you have or don't have ADD, but you might try looking at some of the organizational tips for people with ADD.

Use a calendar and a to-do list. Train yourself to look at them regularly. You can use tinyhabits to work on learning how to establish good habits.

When I get completely overwhelmed, I ask myself what the important task for the day is (has to be a discreet task like "do the dishes" or "finish taxes", not "reorganize the things." I do that thing and then I congratulate myself, and then I consider doing another task.

Also, I agree with the above suggestions to seek therapy.
posted by bunderful at 2:28 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Getting therapy is a great idea and I'm happy to read that you are going with that option.

Like decathexis says above, small steps. Here are some things that I do now that have helped curb my anxiety immensely:

1. Purge your belongings. I have gotten rid of a ton of extraneous crap over the last few years. Having less stuff has reduced my anxiety greatly. There is less to store, clean, and mentally inventory.

2. Physical activity. Start with a walk around the block if that's all you can manage. I hate the gym and will never be a serious athlete, but I do Zumba and hula hooping because they're fun.

3. Get bloodwork done as soon as you can. I switched doctors last year and had routine blood work done for the first time since I was 18. Turns out I had hypothyroidism, which is treated with dirt cheap meds that run me under four dollars a month (before insurance!) I'm not saying that's what's wrong with you, but something that simple went a long way in explaining my general malaise, which I had mistaken for normal. Another friend found her mood and energy levels got waaaay better when she started getting B12 shots. For another it was iron deficiency. Get all the basic stuff checked out.

Of course all of these things take time. They are all things I have come to realize in the last fifteen years. In March 1998, I was living in a squalid apartment surrounded by my own filth (weeks-old dishes, overflowing ashtrays, etc. And bugs. Yeah, not happy times). I slept all day instead of going to class, so I flunked all of my courses in university and got booted out. I somehow morphed into a responsible, university-educated grownup who gets shit done on time and lives in a modest but relatively clean apartment. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to chat. Good luck.
posted by futureisunwritten at 2:36 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, "ridiculous" is a polite word for FlyLady but her initial guidance actually really did help me, and it has an incredibly low barrier to entry.

Most retail places take applications online, not in-person. After that they'll want to interview you, but for entry-level stuff (like working at a grocery store) that won't be any big deal. They won't require experience unless the position description specifies it. As an aside, you might consider just rolling with the daytime sleeping for now and getting a third-shift position; it's usually very short on interactions with people, and while I can't recommend it long term because it can also be very isolating, it served me well as a regular commitment that didn't require being happy.
posted by teremala at 2:37 PM on March 25, 2013

Ah - I notice too late that you say that to-do lists don't work for you. Can you explain how you have used them in the past, and what goes wrong?
posted by bunderful at 3:07 PM on March 25, 2013

Chiming in to agree with pie ninja: UFYH is great, and has that "NO EXCUSES" vibe that works well for me, too. Look through their site or subscribe to their Tumblr; they routinely post stories from people in situations very similar to yours, and how using their technique has started to turn things around.

Good luck.
posted by absquatulate at 3:11 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

A small tip, but the list you need first (in my opinion) is not a "to-do list" in the sense of a list of things that you are definitely going to get done today, or this week, or soon. Instead, it's a "brain-dump list" where you write down everything that occurs to you that you may need or want to do, but with no expectation that it will all get done, ever. This relieves your brain of the effort of remembering all that stuff, and whenever you're worried you might be forgetting something, you just sit down and read through the list. But this won't work if you believe you have to get everything on the list done - then you'll just start avoiding it because it screams "obligations" and "duties" at you.
posted by oliverburkeman at 3:55 PM on March 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding craven_morhead, you really need more help than the internet can provide you. Therapy via the school is a good start. Also, don't make any drastic decisions (like leaving college) until you are in therapy - it doesn't sound like you're in a very good spot to make life decisions right now.

Not being able to get out of bed, go to class, remember tasks, and get things done is a huge deal. Imagine having enough energy to get up, shower, make breakfast, spend the morning and part of the afternoon at school, and then come home and do homework without being completely exhausted. This is what most people can accomplish in an day, and it's what your life could look like if you got help for yourself.
posted by zug at 4:02 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I put things off that are really important to get done. I forget and then when I remember, it's too late in the day, and it repeats. ... I do think I need a schedule though to remind me to do basic things like taking a shower.

You can download a calendar from Worksheet Works. When you feel like you've fucked up your day, work on having a better tomorrow: sit down with a printout (and a pencil and a big fat eraser) and plan your ideal-yet-realistic schedule.

Ideal in the sense of: what do you most want to get done? What do you think would give you a sense of accomplishment and make your life better?

Realistic in the sense of: be realistic about what you can get done. Allow yourself the time you need to recharge. If you're scheduling something scary like a phone call, schedule a treat right after that, as your reward.

At first, you'll make mistakes in scheduling. You'll predict things can get done in less time than is actually possible. That's ok -- that's all part of the learning process. But keep at it. (Personally I treat it as almost a religious obligation to work on my calendar for 15 minutes at a time, 3 times a day; I have ADD, and I share a lot of the problems you mention.)

(And yes, one of your REALLY IMPORTANT goals should be jumping through whatever hoops are necessary in order to get therapy.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 4:23 PM on March 25, 2013

I agree with everyone's suggestions to get professional help, which I think will be what helps you the most. But I also recommend the "basic four" of a 12-step group called Clutterers Anonymous (which may or may not be of any help to you as a group):

Every day:
1) Make the bed.
2) Wash the dishes.
3) Put things back where they belong after you are done using them.
4) De-clutter one area.

If you can do just these four things, your organization and home will improve a lot. However, you may not be able to do so without more help. That's OK too. Get the help.
posted by nevers at 5:46 PM on March 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

I recently failed a number of classes this past year at college, and I'm planning to leave now.

I would see if they offer session(s) with a therapist who specializes in procrastination.

Also, talk to a counselor/advisor to set up the groundwork to leave/reenter gracefully: "So, once I've got my procrastination habit and related issues sorted out I can re-enter my program?"

I can't even finish to-do lists. I could try other forms of lists if they are effective enough.
Try some Getting Things Done approach where your list also includes fun-type items and stuff which is meaningful like learning guitar but isn't the one big deadline object.

Work on
* regular exercise
* regular eats
* regular sleep
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:18 PM on March 25, 2013

I agree that it sounds like therapy could be a great help to you.

However, in the meantime I would recommend something like Health Month to help you build some basic healthy habits. I am someone who never really understood how people kept their rooms from being a total mess, and remembered to clean their teeth every day, and I find it very hard to stick to healthy habits when left to my own devices. Using Health Month has changed my life more than anything I've tried before. It involves setting yourself rules that you want to follow x times per week (such as getting to bed by 11pm or cleaning up for 10 minutes every day), and you earn/lose points depending on how you do. There's even a Metafilter Team full of lovely people who help you out if you're down on points! It's free for the first 3 or so rules every month, and then you start having to pay $5 per month if you want any more.

Apologies if I sound like an advert, but I've found it so so helpful with the kind of challenges that you're facing. Worth a try maybe?
posted by thegirlmaxtous at 6:17 AM on March 26, 2013

outside of the basic "to-do list" recommendations because that does not help me. I can't even finish to-do lists.

Hey OP, I've checked a few times to see if you would clarify what you meant by to-do lists not working for you. I imagine the responses you are getting are a lot to process.

I wanted to point out that not finishing a to-do list does not mean it did not work. If I make a 10 item to-do list and complete 5 items, that is not necessarily a failure. This happens to me a lot, and it can be because I made my list too long, or I focused on the important things, or one task took a lot longer than I thought or my mom called ... whatever. I still DID complete 5 items, and I can be proud of that. I can look at the remaining 5 and decide if I should add them to a new list for tomorrow, or if maybe they aren't that necessary.

There are a lot of ways to use lists. You can have a very long list of everything you think you might want to do now or later. You can have a very short list, one or three items that are just the things you want to get done that day.

A lot depends on how you define the items for your list, too. Getting Things Done does a great job of explaining this: put the only next action on your to-do list. Your goal might be to write a paper, but what is the actual next step? Something like "select topic for paper." Or "go to library to find books on assigned paper topic."

TLDR: Don't beat yourself up for not finishing every single thing on a to-do list. Do try short to-do lists with clear tasks.
posted by bunderful at 7:31 AM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding bunderful: I'm not sure I've EVER finished a to-do list. But they're still a super-useful tool for me. The trick is to use them in ways that are GOOD for morale & focus.

When I find old ones lying around, usually some of the items are already checked off, and I go YAY. Sometimes when I read some of the other items I notice they can be checked off too because they got done in the meantime, and I go YAY. Then sometimes I see some other items that I haven't done yet, and sometimes those are things that no longer strike me as important, urgent, or useful, so I go YAY and toss the list out.

Usually though there are still some items I haven't done yet that I feel kind of bad about. Sometimes I toss the list, and sometimes I file it in a special file, for no good reason. But the main thing is that there are SOME items that I DID get done. To-do lists are definitely a glass-half-full situation.

A to-do list is just a device that can help you be active and do useful things that will make your tomorrow or next week better, like a raft helps you get to the opposite shore of a lake, but once you arrive at the opposite shore you get to leave the raft behind rather than drag that heavy raft with you as you continue your journey on foot. Maybe you'll take a single stick out of the raft, and use it as a walking stick, if your next day's journey happens to involve mountain hiking.

Making a to-do list is kind of like creating your very own Domineering-Personality Puppet to boss you around, since you find that helpful. The trick is not to create a Sorcerer's Apprentice/Snow Goons situation, where you give so much power to the creature you've created that it wreaks havoc on your life. You have to take your puppet a little bit seriously so it can be effective -- maybe write it in a SUPER-MENACING FONT, or something. (Personally I love making an empty circle next to each item, and then filling in the circle to show that item is done. It gives me a ridiculous amount of satisfaction.) But if you take it TOO seriously, it can just be something that makes you feel more inadequate, and prevents you from asking: what is the most useful thing that I can actually get done right now?
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:02 AM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thank you for the responses. Sorry I haven't replied. It just takes me a while. I've written a bunch of responses the past couple days, but each time, I just end up going to a different tab about something else and I end up exiting. I think I should break it up instead of trying to address everything in one big response.
posted by wholecornandsalt at 10:39 AM on March 28, 2013

Okay I think it's because I usually put very broad goals on to do lists(like, "finish this project, get a job, get healthy," rather than "start researching topic, apply to this restaurant, and eat more quinoa.") And I usually do it last minute when I'm the mode of panic because too many things need to get done, and I can't start them, so to convince myself I'm doing anything at all, I will write to do lists just to trick myself and feel I have it under control, all while knowing that I am sort of freaking out in the back of my mind.. and that mindset and timing is already setting my to do list up for failure.

But I think this thread gave me ideas about various forms of to do lists that are more manageable. And that it's a gradual process.

I like the HealthMonth link because it seems like it can disperse different goals throughout the week. I have the habit of getting really obsessed with one thing at once to the detriment of everything else, and I would really love to be able to manage all different life goals all the time.
posted by wholecornandsalt at 10:50 AM on March 28, 2013

I've written a bunch of responses the past couple days, but each time, I just end up going to a different tab about something else and I end up exiting. I think I should break it up instead of trying to address everything in one big response.

Good for you: this is a classic strategy for getting things done: notice that you keep getting distracted, conclude that the task is too overwhelming, and break it into smaller pieces. Clever & insightful.

(Not that you should feel obliged to respond to all or any answers in an AskMe, by the way. Your obligations don't extend beyond perhaps responding to a reminder email, which will automatically be sent out a month or so from now, asking you to maybe give an update or just mark answers that proved most useful, for the sake of future Askers with the same question.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 10:54 AM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Feral is right, there's no obligation to respond to a question.

I will write to do lists just to trick myself and feel I have it under control

This is very much in line with what oliverburkeman says above.

Do you have any friends who can help you? I have a friend who will bring her paperwork over, I will get out mine, and we will sit and watch mindless TV and drink tea and go through our paperwork and chat. We are both more productive that way.

I started to say more about organizing, but I agree with previous commenters that seeking therapy and getting help is going to help more than any internet suggestions about lists or iphone apps for now.

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 1:55 PM on March 28, 2013

Okay I think it's because I usually put very broad goals on to do lists(like, "finish this project, get a job, get healthy," rather than "start researching topic, apply to this restaurant, and eat more quinoa.")

Getting Things Done has some extraordinarily useful and relevant advice here about putting together, using, and reviewing todo lists. Read it.

btw, I still maintain that seeing a therapist that specializes in procrastination might help on a fundamental level.

I need to sleep normally. I end up sleeping in the day often.

Regular exercise, regular sleep will help. As will goggles and melatonin and redshift software.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:24 PM on March 28, 2013

^The glasses thing is cool. My sleeping pattern is slowly shifting to normal times. It's just tempting to fall asleep at 5 pm, but I'm trying not to. I have some melatonin in my cabinets, but I haven't taken it yet.

"Do you have any friends who can help you?"

No... I don't make friends easily. I see certain friends who go to a college farther away like once a year, but I might see them more often in the summer.

Also to address some other answers about the school therapy - I tried that, but I wasn't satisfied with them, so I'm going to just wait until I can see someone else through my insurance.

Well I significantly cleaned my room. I kind of got inspired by the before and after pictures on that blog. It's not that clean yet, but it's much better, and I can see my floor somewhat. I did a bunch of laundry finally. Also, forcing myself to not go off the computer helps me to accomplish a lot more.

As for possible deficiencies - I ordered some DHA stuff. I know it might not definitely help with mood, but I know that I probably would have been deficient in that anyway because I haven't had any fish (or any kind of meat) in over two years. I got the algae kind. I don't know if that is as effective. And I make sure that I get b-12, but I know that issues with it are often from poor absorption rather than consumption. I got lazier with making sure I get enough b-12 over the years, though.

I'm going to quit my internet viewing significantly and just exit out even if something tells me I must view those twenty other tabs I opened.

Hm as I was writing this I got a call from a place I applied to apparently that I forgot about, and it was so awkward saying I had no experience, and upon being asked if there was anything about me that distinguished me from other people, I said, "No, not really." I also said I've never been to the place. And he said he'd be back in touch if they wanted me. I definitely didn't get that job. I'm trying not to feel bad. It just threw me off.

So yeah I think I am going to try to do more lists and organizational tactics but more for basic things because I don't think I can handle big responsibilities atm until I see what's wrong with me and what kinds of treatment I need. Thank you
posted by wholecornandsalt at 2:49 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

upon being asked if there was anything about me that distinguished me from other people, I said, "No, not really." ... I definitely didn't get that job. I'm trying not to feel bad. It just threw me off.

When a friend of mine was applying for academic jobs, she used to reward herself with a new skein of yarn for every 2 rejection letters she received. Not because she wanted rejection letters, but because they were a sign she was being active on the job market. (She now has a very nice job indeed.)

I'm not saying that you should keep applying for jobs (and I'm not saying that you shouldn't). Just that you shouldn't interpret not being hired as a sign of failure. The important thing is that you had put in the effort to get that far in the process. And along the way, you learn things that will make you more skillful next time you apply.

One thing you learned is that employers are looking for a way to distinguish you from other candidates. You now have leisure to come up with an answer. Obviously you want your answer to be good if possible, but don't worry if your answer isn't perfect, or perfectly justified. Imagine that someone out there really wants to hire you for whatever reason (if you put your birthday on the application form, maybe they're an astrologist and cast your horoscope, and became convinced that your physical courage will one day save their life). Now they're looking for an EXCUSE that they can use to explain to someone else (their business partner who doesn't believe in astrology) why they hired YOU. For any job, you'll have some skill or experience or spark of passion that you can brainstorm into a connection. E.g. if you applied to work in a pet store: "My guppy died when I was 8, and it was very sad. So I'm motivated to make sure that when people buy pets, they also buy all the equipment they need to take good care of that pet." Or for working as a cashier in an office supply store: "Organization didn't come naturally to me -- I do much better now that I use various tricks. So when I see people buying calendars and file boxes and label makers, I feel genuinely happy for them, because I imagine how much better their lives are about to become."
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:18 AM on March 30, 2013

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