6 Surprising Reasons Behind Your Messiness That Aren't About Being Lazy

Woman carrying a cardboard box in a room filled with plants, open boxes, and scattered items, appearing to be in the process of organizing or moving
Freshsplash / Getty Images

Dirty dishes piled up in your sink. Clean clothes mixed with dirty ones on the floor. Junk mail sitting on your desk. Oh, and is that an old food wrapper under the couch?

If your home is messy or disorganized, we’re with you.

“Very few people actually experience a clutter-free or mess-free life,” said Michael Tompkins, psychologist and co-director of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy.

While some people may view messiness as a sign of laziness, the reality is that there are many unexpected reasons you might be messy — from life stages to personality traits to mental health conditions.

We talked to experts about what these reasons are, and how to know whether messiness is a harmless part of your lifestyle or a problem that’s causing you distress. Read on for what might be the not-so-obvious reasons behind your clutter:

1. You may have ADHD.

A woman sits on a couch beside a black cat, surrounded by a messy pile of clothes in a living room
Alex Potemkin / Getty Images

Disorganization is one of the “hallmark symptoms” of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, said Terry Matlen, a psychotherapist and author of “The Queen of Distraction.” “Executive functioning is universally impaired in the ADHD brain.”

This includes having trouble planning, initiating and completing tasks, and problems with working memory.

“When you have difficulties with working memory... it’s very difficult for you to follow through from beginning to end of certain tasks,” Tompkins explained. “That means that you might get distracted easily.”

For example, when you walk into your house, you might get distracted by your dog running to greet you, and so you put your keys down on a chair instead of in their designated bowl.

“It’s not even a conscious decision,” Tompkins said. “The person just has trouble holding on to this idea of... putting their keys in the bowl.” Clutter can then ensue, he said.

People with ADHD may also feel overwhelmed by the steps involved in completing tasks, which can lead to shutting down and not being able to manage clutter, Matlen said. For instance, you may be reading a magazine and then realize you forgot to clean up the dinner dishes, and that your clothes have been sitting in the washer for days.

“The question/problem becomes: ‘Where do I even start?’” she said. “Executive function gets slammed.”

Tasks of low interest or with no real deadline are especially difficult for people with ADHD to initiate, said Natalie Christine Dattilo, a psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. Household chores like folding laundry or putting away dishes often fall into that category.

2. You may be dealing with depression and/or anxiety.

A person stands at a kitchen counter, leaning over a bowl, possibly preparing food. The environment is modern with a stainless steel refrigerator in the background
Fg Trade / Getty Images

“The state of our physical space can be a reflection of our state of mind,” Dattilo explained. “Our home may be messy and cluttered because we are overwhelmed and unorganized mentally, or simply too exhausted and burned out to keep up.”

A person who is experiencing depression is likely feeling low energy and a lack of motivation.

“Our motivation comes from a part of the brain that anticipates reward, and when we are depressed, that part of the brain effectively shuts down,” Dattilo said. “This can create a sense of apathy... which makes it even harder to generate the energy needed to initiate a difficult task like organizing, cleaning or decluttering.”

Depression and anxiety can also cause difficulty with concentration, which can make small tasks feel overwhelming, Tompkins said.

In addition, “studies have shown that clutter in our homes is associated with high cortisol levels ― the stress hormone,” Dattilo noted. So not only can feeling depressed or anxious affect our organization, but a cluttered home can make us feel more stressed and overwhelmed.

3. You may be going through a stressful life transition.

A woman cradles a baby amidst a cluttered living room with toys and laundry. Three other children play and move around her
Natalia Lebedinskaia / Getty Images

Big life changes can be stressful, and might affect a person’s ability to manage clutter — even for someone who is usually tidy.

If a person experiences a “psychosocial stressor,” it can impair their ability to cope, Tompkins explained. “Because they’re stressed... they may deprioritize getting things done around the house. Who hasn’t had that experience?”

Matlen said having kids can be a particularly tough transition, especially for parents with ADHD.

“Now you not only have others to care for when caring for yourself can be hard, but there’s also an onslaught of sensory electric shocks... crying babies, demanding toddlers, messes, meal planning [and] routines,” she said.

Some other life transitions that can be challenging: starting college, moving in with a partner, getting married, going through a divorce and dealing with hormonal changes (like perimenopause and menopause).

4. You may find it emotionally challenging to declutter.

A person in a cluttered kitchen surrounded by moving boxes and a bicycle waters a houseplant on a counter filled with various items
Justin Lambert via Getty Images

“It might be emotionally stressful to declutter [because] it might be a trigger to the past,” said Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University.

For example, cleaning up or organizing particular items, like souvenir cups, concert tickets or keepsake gifts, may bring back emotional memories.

“You pick the item up and you say, ‘Oh, I remember that trip. Oh, I remember that person.’ It [may] bring positive emotions, so you don’t want to get rid of it,” Ferrari said. “It might bring back some negative emotion... so [you’re] just going to put it down and not deal with it.”

5. You may have a laid-back personality.

A man in a green shirt is lounging on a couch surrounded by pillows and blankets, appearing relaxed

A man sleeps on top of duvets and pillows on a sofa in a living room.

Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Personality can play a role in how tidy you are, particularly when it comes to conscientiousness.

“Conscientious people tend to exhibit high levels of orderliness, dutifulness and self-discipline ... Think ‘Type A,’” Dattilo said. “People low in conscientiousness tend to be more easygoing, disorderly and less goal-oriented.”

She said most people fall somewhere in the middle, but people who are low in conscientiousness may have a hard time maintaining an organized space. However, they also tend not to mind clutter as much.

6. You may be indecisive. 

A person is sitting and curled up on a stool in a cluttered, messy room filled with stacks of books, boxes, and various scattered items
_ib_ / Getty Images

“People with lots of clutter... tend to be more indecisive,” Ferrari said.

With indecision (also called decisional procrastination), people often don’t make a choice so they can’t be blamed for the outcome of the decision, Ferrari explained on an episode of “Speaking of Psychology,” the American Psychological Association’s podcast.

If you don’t want to make a decision about where to put certain items, or whether to give away or keep them, you may end up avoiding the decision altogether, and so the clutter stays where it is.

How do you know when messiness becomes a problem? 

A person sits inside a wardrobe, holding their head and sticking out their tongue, surrounded by various clothes on hangers
Tatiana Meteleva / Getty Images

Most people experience at least some clutter and mess in their lives. But how do you know when it’s actually a problem?

There’s a “tipping point” when you have too much, and it creates “chaotic living,” Ferrari said. He and Catherine Roster, a professor at the University of New Mexico, look at four areas when measuring the level of clutter (or “overabundance of possessions”): Is the clutter causing you distress, affecting the livability of your space, taking a toll on your relationships or harming your financial well-being?

For example, if you’re late for an appointment because you couldn’t find your toothbrush and clean clothes to wear, that is disrupting an activity of daily living and causing distress, Tompkins said.

Additionally, research has shown that cluttered homes can impact our satisfaction with life and our overall well-being, Dattilo explained. “In the same way that a cluttered space can make us feel overwhelmed and anxious, a well-organized and tidy space can make us feel calm and safe,” she said.

If you feel like you’re struggling with messiness and disorder, you can search for a professional organizer in your area through the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. If you feel like you may have a mental health condition (like ADHD, depression or anxiety), make an appointment to get evaluated by a mental health professional, if possible. They can diagnose you and help you decide what treatment is best for you.

Remember, there’s no ‘right’ way to organize your space.

A person wearing a long-sleeve shirt and headband is organizing clothing in a closet. The closet has several shelves filled with folded clothes
Mapodile / Getty Images

If your messiness isn’t creating problems for you or someone else in your living environment, then it’s probably just a matter of your lifestyle preferences.

“The most common misconception [about messiness] is that there’s a right way for you to live in your living environment,” Tompkins said. “People have different tolerances to clutter, [and] organization is more important to some than others ... A lot of times, the problem becomes not accepting that we have these differences.”This article originally appeared on HuffPost.