The door bursts open and in flies Jill, out of breath from climbing two flights of stairs to my second-floor office. She is flustered and upset.
"Sorry I'm late!" says Jill, as she plops down on the chair facing my desk. "You wouldn't believe my day."
Jill has been diagnosed with ADHD and is one of my patients. She is in her late 30s and a top research scientist in Boston. She is temporarily living with her friend while her own house is being renovated.
"Last night, when I came in," she says, "I put my keys down somewhere, and this morning, I had no clue where they could be. I looked everywhere -- the usual places, which, of course, are not the usual places, since it's not my apartment. If you think I am disorganized, you should see her place."
"Well, did you find them?" I ask.
She nods ruefully. "Eventually."
"Where were they?"
"Right on my friend’s kitchen table! All the time they were right there…right there in front of me. Unbelievable!"
"Sounds frustrating but pretty believable, as those keys have eluded you before."
"My day was in shambles from that point on." Jill had arrived at work late for a meeting, and returned to her desk to find a barrage of e-mail reminders that further annoyed and overwhelmed her. She sent out a snippy reply to the wrong person. Her e-mail gaffe kept her from attending to a project due by noon. She missed the deadline, turned it in two hours late, and received an unenthusiastic response from her supervisor.
"This happens all the time," Jill says, teary-eyed, angry, and ashamed of her poor performance at work. "At this rate, I could lose my job...just because I can't keep track of stupid things like keys."
Launching a New Strategy
After a little while, I offered Jill a solution. "I have thought about how to start your day tomorrow. You need a launch pad for your keys. A place where you always put your keys and maybe your ID and glasses, too. That way, you'll know that's the place they're always going to be... and every morning that's where you'll launch your day, ready for lift-off."
This resonated with Jill. First, it was an action-oriented solution, something she could do right away and without great difficulty. But more important, the launch pad served as an image, a reminder of how one’s day can begin, not in confusion and distraction but with precision and predictability.
Since Jill adopted two launch pads -- one at home and one at work for project materials and reminders -- she hasn't been late for an appointment with me or missed a beat delegating critical tasks to others in the office. This small success helped Jill become more confident. She starts her morning on a more positive note, heading out the door on time and ready for a successful day at work, as opposed to being already demoralized, frustrated, and down on herself because of a moment’s inattentiveness.
My experience with Jill illustrates a few important points about organization. First, as most adults with ADHD have learned, moments of forgetfulness and disorganization can have major consequences. Second, just as one episode of forgetfulness triggers a series of negative events, so can one small step forward lead to giant leaps of improvement in the organization of one's life. The launch pad is a simple solution, but its effects go far beyond knowing where your keys are. You begin to think about other things you can organize. You have more time. You are less stressed before you leave the house in the morning. You enter a new environment more relaxed and thinking more clearly.
New studies in neuroscience explain why these changes occur. The brain has its own built-in system of organization and regulation, controlled by its own Rules of Order. The brain strives for order and can tamp down our emotions when they get in the way. A study shows that once you can better manage your emotions, you can harmonize the thinking parts of your brain, opening up a whole new world before you. As the case of Jill showed, you can't get organized, or make rational decisions about how to get organized, when you're distraught. The launch pad suggestion not only helped Jill react to the problem at hand, it started a new process of thinking for her. Here are some solutions that could start you down a new path.