How people with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder Stay Focused, Manage Clutter, and Get Organized
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) are common neurodevelopmental disorders. They are more commonly diagnosed in children, but adults often experience difficulty with the disorders as well. By the age of 25, an estimated 15% of people diagnosed with ADHD as children still have a full range of symptoms, and 65% still have some symptoms that affect their daily lives.
(For the sake of brevity and convenience, I’m going to only use the acronym ADHD, but I am referring to both disorders, congruently.)
In order to understand how people with ADHD cope with organizing, it is important to first understand some basics about ADHD. Some symptoms in children are:
- trouble paying attention
- difficulty controlling impulsive behaviors
- being overly active
- inattentiveness and being easily distracted
- appearing forgetful or losing things
- being unable to stick to tasks that are tedious or time-consuming
- appearing unable to carry out instructions
- constantly changing activities or tasks
- having difficulty organizing tasks
Symptoms in adults may include:
- carelessness and lack of attention to detail
- continually starting new tasks before finishing old ones
- poor organizational skills
- inability to focus or prioritize
- continually losing or misplacing things
- restlessness and edginess
- speaking out of turn, blurting out responses, interrupting others
- mood swings, irritability, quick temper
- inability to deal with stress
- extreme impatience
- taking risks in activities, often with little or no regard for personal safety or the safety of others. (For example: driving dangerously)
Hyperfocus and Distractibility
According to ADDitude, hyperfocus is a common symptom of ADHD, but it is also a bit counterintuitive to what you would expect from someone with ADHD if you don’t know much about it. It is the ability to zero in intensely on an interesting project or activity for hours at a time. It is the opposite of distractibility, and it is common among both children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The concept of distractibility in ADHD usually means that people are unable to block out unimportant distractions or visual distractions in order to focus on matters at hand. There are internal (one’s own thoughts) and external distractions (noises or visual stimuli) that can be difficult for people with ADHD to cope with.
Hyperfocus isn’t necessarily harmful in any way, but it can cause someone to lose track of time and get wrapped up in a particular activity, which makes it difficult to get through an entire to-do list or manage taking care of a whole home, versus just one room or area. One might have the intention to declutter their entire first floor, but they become hyperfocused and spend several hours reorganizing a single workspace. A great coping mechanism for this is to set a timer and only allow yourself that amount of time to work on a particular task. Be sure to set realistic limits, so you don’t get frustrated when the time is up and not much has been accomplished. Give yourself adequate time to reach goals. Another amazing tool is the Pomodoro App, which is essentially an alarm that breaks down work with rest periods in intervals. A friend of mine uses this app and turned me on to using it, too. Most of the time I just use the timer on my phone, but Pomodoro is great for when I’m doing very long tasks, such as reorganizing a large space or designing floor plans.
Distractibility can be more challenging to overcome. First, turn off any distractions that you have control over. This includes the TV, computer, notifications on your phone, etc. It could also include closing curtains. We’re talking specifically about staying organized on this particular blog, so I’ll point out that having an organized home where everything is already in its place, and you don’t have piles of clutter distracting you, asking to be put away or dealt with, can be extremely helpful in avoiding distractions.
How can we help?
Now that you know a bit about ADHD, you can see how incredibly imperative it is that a household be orderly, organized, and decluttered for a person with ADHD to live in the space comfortably and efficiently. Having an organized home reduces difficulties with distractions and misplacing things. It also reduces overall stress, which puts someone with ADHD in a better position to thrive. As a Professional Organizer who understands what ADHD minds need in order to thrive, we can help develop a customized plan for your home.
I chatted with my friend Michelle, who was recently diagnosed with ADD as an adult, although she has likely lived with it for many years. I wanted to find out how she has worked on overcoming her challenges with ADD in her home. She told me, “When I started out trying to get everything together in my home, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. Will power, reminders on my calendar, written lists of tasks – none of them worked. I had to hire a professional organizer to come into my home and see it from an unbiased vantage. I needed someone to see what I was glossing over, and point out obvious (and not so obvious to me) re-arrangements of my current possessions.” I love that she sought the help of a professional who helped her to set up her new home in a way that was conducive to her brain’s functioning.
The more structure there is to a person with ADHD’s day, the better they’ll be able to function. The same is true for the structure of their organizing systems. Labels for everything, and of course, the classic, “a place for everything, and everything in its place!” My friend Michelle adds, “I prefer to have a designated space for my things so that I don’t end up with scattered piles. Piles are the hallmark of an ADHD home. But they are mostly categorized piles, so it makes sense in our brains. I usually know exactly which pile something is in, months after I first put it there. But a lot of the time I would forget which category the “something” fell into or I might tuck it away in a safe space away from the pile so I would for sure remember it was in a safe place. I never remembered the safe space.”
“Having special bins with specific labels is wonderful. I love having special bins in my cabinets and even in my fridge. They help me so much. I can clearly see where something should go and if it doesn’t fit, then I need to toss something to make room. There is no more cramming things into nooks and crannies in my pantry or my fridge.”
I also highly recommend this book:
This is great for families with ADHD children and/or adults. It explains how the ADD mind functions differently when it comes to organizing, and it would be a great resource for someone who is learning to cohabitate with someone who has ADD/ADHD in a way that makes everyone more comfortable. The strategies don’t make the rooms pretty, but rather create routines that an ADD brain can easily follow.
Quick actions you can put into place right now to make your life with ADHD easier:
- Throw out your junk mail as soon as you walk into the house
- Keep the things you use the most out in the open and close to where you use them.
- Don’t just make to-do lists, make to-do schedules. Put your list in order and set time limits for each item.
- If you don’t have ADHD, and you live with someone who has it, it’s so important to understand what their brain is going through, and how to effectively cohabitate with them. Learn what they need in order to thrive. Is it a minimalist environment? Is it a sound-proof room for them to complete tasks without distractions? Do they need a little bit of grace from you? These are all great things to discuss with the people in your home, and find a way to function together within these needs.To find which type of organization works best for you and everyone in your home, take the Clutterbug Test
- Start with something small and easy. Visible clutter, such as a countertop or a desk is a perfect place to begin. Focus on putting only those things away. When the area is decluttered and organized, you’ll see real results quickly, and it will spur motivation to continue. Remember to set alarms so you don’t get sucked in for too long. Make it a game by seeing how much you can accomplish in just 5 minutes.
What’s the best way to organize your belongings?
Just as I would recommend with any client, it’s vital to give everything a home where you would most likely use it, or where you would most likely look for it when you need it. This reduces the time spent transitioning between tasks, when the mind can wander and lose focus. Ever go upstairs to get something, and the moment you reach the top step, you’ve already forgotten what you went upstairs to get? Imagine that, times one hundred. Only, instead of it taking the amount of time to walk up the steps, it’s the split second between having a thought and writing it down on the nearest piece of paper! For some, this is what ADHD is like, and this is why it is so critical to have an organizing system that puts things exactly where they are needed. Michelle testifies that her entire home definitely benefited from having a professional organizer design the flow around her family’s lifestyle. She told me, “I was able to see what I needed to keep and what was safe to toss or donate. And once the spaces were designated, it has been much easier to follow through on up-keep as well.”
I first became intrigued with the specialty of organizing and productivity with ADHD when I noticed a ton of related posts on an organizing forum I participate in. I have pulled some excerpts from those posts to give you some insight into what someone with ADHD needs in order to be organized and productive at home. If you live with someone who deals with ADHD, this could be helpful for you to understand things from their perspective:
“These are the things I’ve started up doing today and this is where I am now. Somebody called during my lunch. My husband asked if it was okay if he turned the iron off half an hour after I finished using it. Emptied a drawer in the dresser because it is falling apart so all the tablecloths are going in the big cupboard in our mudroom. Now I have to sort everything from that shelf. Then I saw shoes from another cupboard I needed to go through. I forgot to fill up the soap dispenser from the bathroom, too. Oh, and I have promised my son to go for a walk. Sometimes I just laugh at myself… I am good at starting things up but ending them is a bit difficult.”
This mom experiences distractibility, the classic ADD/ADHD symptom. We all have a lot on our plates, but with ADHD, it becomes more and more difficult to get to the end of a to-do list, because the distractions are always fighting you. To combat this: Set timers, make lists, take breaks, and put yourself in an environment that enables you to focus as much as possible.
Another member of the group asked:
“What advice would you give me? Tips, tricks? My house is a disaster and having ADHD and Anxiety doesn’t help. Mom of three humans and three dogs.”
Group members replied with their advice:
“Music, trash bags, and weekends for me.”
“Pick a buddy! Someone you trust that you can phone text whatever to hold you accountable. For example, I call a friend and have them on speakerphone sometimes and declutter while we chat. Then you can get a quick 2nd opinion super-fast…. Should I keep that hideous knickknack my ex got me when we were dating?? No? Out of my house it goes.”
Other members suggested using clear containers for everything, so you can see what you have, and keeping things on display, if that can be done neatly. For many people with ADHD, everything is “out of sight, out of mind!”
This desperate mom and wife made a plea for help from others who have been in her shoes. Can you identify with her struggles?
“How do you deal with everyone else in your house sabotaging your efforts? Alone, I am a neat, organized person. As soon as hubby and kids are in the mix, it’s chaos. My 5 year old tries, but she’s still little. My 7 year old has ADHD and would forget her head if it weren’t attached. My hubby has suspected ADHD, depression, and anxiety, and couldn’t clean to save his life. I’m constantly barely getting by trying to keep up with their inability to organize. I’ve realized that all things have places, but I cannot get anyone to actually follow it and items back where they belong!!I am the “breadwinner” in the family and work long hours. I feel like my house gets destroyed in a matter of minutes and it takes me hours each night to catch up, only to get destroyed again the next day. I admit, I have a lot of stuff, and I hate it when the kids touch my stuff. Yesterday my 5 year out found some art paints of mine and painted a laundry basket (in the hour between when school ended and I finished work). Ugh…”
A supportive mom answered with very helpful feedback:
“I feel you so much! I get to the point that I just give up and stop caring. Then I go into depression. Then I get sick of depression and start cleaning again. It’s an evil circle. I’m trying really hard this time to not fall back into the dark side. Don’t ask your family for help. Say.. Hey, I need the garbage taken out, x I need you to take care of this for me asap please. Husbands and children do better when given specific directions and being told it needs to be done right away.”
Another mom added:
“ADHD here. Husband has to figure out it is important for himself. You can’t keep doing it for him. I don’t know what that is going to look like in your world, but he needs to figure out how to make it a priority. Depending on the severity of his ADHD he may not be able to do it without help. He may need lists of what needs done on what days, and then for you not to bail him out when he does not get it finished. He may also save it all up to a breaking point then “rage clean” his way through all of it in an afternoon. Side by side cleaning is also super helpful or him finding a friend in a similar situation and trading off cleaning days with each other to work together. Do you have labels on all the bins in basket to put things in? Even on shelves it works wonders!”
For our blog about organizing with Autism, visit Organizing on the Spectrum
Disclaimer: I am not formally trained in any psychological disorders. I have worked with people who live with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and I have gained a lot of insight over the years. My blog posts are strictly based on my experience and things I’ve learned from those who feel comfortable sharing their lives with me.