Set rules: such as a clean dining room table always and members of the household are more likely to comply.

Mismatched Organising Styles

A space that feels orderly to one person may feel cluttered and disorganised to another. Differences of opinion about how a house should be kept can cause a lot of stress and resentment for couples. Communication and compromise are key here. I know one couple who shared a home office for years, but the wife couldn't stand the mess her husband made, so she converted a large hall closet into an office. I also have clients who make rules about specific rooms. Maybe they've agreed that the dining room table should be free of clutter or that their children's toys are not allowed in the living room.

Another common issue for families is when one person has a hard time parting with one or several types of items. A spouse may become frustrated with their partner for never throwing away newspapers or magazines. Or frustration boils over when one person doesn't have enough room to store their books, shoes or baseball hats but won't get rid of any of them, even though they're not being used. Again, compromise is the answer; coming to an agreement can be difficult, but once one has been reached, there's usually a healthy level of competition for each person to keep up their end of the deal.

One couple I work with has decided that the husband can keep newspapers for a week. Once the newspapers have been around for more than a week, they must be recycled. Another client has decided to compromise on the number of shoes she stores in the closet she shares with her husband. She's agreed to discard shoes that have not been worn in a year and store her out-of-season shoes underneath their bed.

Major Life Events

Other organisational challenges arise as a result of a significant life event such as illness, death, a move or divorce. When circumstances overtake normal routines, it can take weeks or months to get things back in order and people are understandably overwhelmed. Bills have piled up, laundry bins are overflowing, and every surface is stacked with things that haven't been put away in their proper place. It can be hard to know how, and where, to start getting things organized again when your surroundings feel chaotic.

When you feel overwhelmed and distracted, it is best to set small achievable goals that will help you stay motivated.

I recently helped a woman pare down after her husband died. We set up several two-hour appointments, and each time tackled a specific project (i.e. books, hall closet, medical supplies, artwork and other collectibles). Another client who was diagnosed with breast cancer wanted to prioritise organising her home office. She wanted to feel ready to get back to work in a neat and soothing space after her surgery. I've also had two clients who were each worried about how long it would take to get settled into a new home. Instead of trying to do everything at once, one decided to focus on unpacking and organising the kitchen before moving on to other spaces. The other woman decided to get everyone's closets set up first.

Attention Disorders

We've heard much of the challenges kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder can have in school. But when attention disorders follow a person into adulthood, everyday organisational tasks become challenging. Some of these people are good at organizing certain aspects of their lives. Perhaps their closets and kitchen are tidy, but they can't stay on top of incoming mail and bill paying. Or maybe their office is functional, but they can't ever find what they need in their kitchen.

One longtime client sets a timer for 10 minutes at the end of each workday and cleans off her desktop. She files papers, puts supplies away and leaves a list of things to do the next day. Another client has created a checklist for her son with ADHD to complete each morning before he leaves for school. He checks the boxes on a whiteboard to confirm he has his backpack, lunchbox, water bottle, homework and phone. Tasks such as these work well for people with attention disorders because they don't require much time, and they are specific and the same every day.

Nobody's house, including my own, regularly resembles the tidy and colorful precision we see in the media. Real life is sloppy, imperfect and constantly changing.

It is important to acknowledge this reality before you try to get organized. Don't strive for magazine perfection. Figure out what works for you, and work to achieve it. If new habits have made life easier and more functional for you and your family, then that should be your measure of success.

- Anzia is a freelance writer and owner of Neatnik writing for The Washington Post.