ADHD and Clutter: Is It Organized Chaos or Just a Mess?

Many ADHD adults have cluttered workspaces and homes. If you work well in those surroundings, then it's time to make peace with your organized chaos. If not, learn how to prevent clutter from overwhelming you.

Many ADHD adults have cluttered workspaces and homes, but if you work well in those surroundings, then it's time to make peace with your organized chaos. ©istockphoto/fasching

Some ADHD experts believe that a cluttered desk, closet, or house reflects a disorganized mind; others take it as a sign of genius. A lot of ADD adults, including me, agree with the latter opinion.

Either view can be true, depending on the individual and the degree of his disorganization. Those who are organizationally challenged spend hours -- days, even -- trying to get things neat. We lose quality time with our kids or a night on the town. “Controlled chaos” might be a better choice for ADD adults. On the other hand, a mess that is ignored can grow larger, until we feel overwhelmed by it.

How do you distinguish a productive mess from a debilitating mess? Read on...

Messy and Organized

The guiding principle shouldn’t be what others say, but how you feel about clutter and how you function with it. If you're an ADHD adult who can perform well with clutter all around -- at home or at work -- who cares if someone calls you a slob (unless it’s your boss).

Some of the messiest people I know can find the document they’re looking for from a tall stack of papers without missing a beat. That’s what I call organized, messy or not. Living up to your own expectations is more rewarding than forcing yourself to conform to standards set by those to whom sorting comes naturally.

Family, friends, and co-workers may make judgments about our clutter and berate us for it. Neatniks assume that we are lazy or disorganized, when neither is necessarily true. If you are in control of your mess, and your mess isn’t controlling you, let the criticism roll off your back. How do you know whether you are in control? Ask yourself, “Am I wasting time looking for what I need?” and “Am I being pulled off task -- and accomplishing little -- because of clutter?” If you answer no, you have a mess you can live with.

When I wrote my thesis for my master’s degree, my desk and floor reflected my “messy” mind. Spreading out my ideas and sources -- papers and open books -- allowed me to survey all of my ideas and put them in together in original ways. No one visiting my office could have seen the method in my mad array of papers, but the seeming chaos helped me develop a thesis that received rave reviews from my professor.

Messy and Dysfunctional

Chances are, ADHD adults may recognize the signs that their messes are controlling them. Here are seven obvious ones:

  • When you have to purchase items to replace those that you can no longer find.
  • When your spouse or a disgruntled coworker complains about your mess creeping into his space.
  • When items are not in the right room -- dishes in the bedroom, toothbrush in the living room, bedroom slippers in the garage, hairbrush in the kitchen, hiking equipment in the dining room.
  • When a stack of papers becomes so tall that it falls over, or when you find yourself stepping over things to move through a room.

This article comes from the Fall 2009 issue of ADDitude.

To read this issue of ADDitude in full, buy the back issue.


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