The Clutter Paradox: How Can I Clean When I Don’t Notice Mess?

ADHD makes me blind to the cluttered environment around me — to the irritation of my less-oblivious wife. Here’s how I try to regain control.

A dirty dish left in a cluttered environment by someone with ADHD
Dirty white dish knife and fork

Clutter is a constant in my life, as anyone who lives near attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) will understand. I leave a trail of debris behind me that rivals that of my four-year-old. Between the two of us, my wife fights a losing battle to keep the house clean. She asks, “Doesn’t it bug you to live like this?” My answer: “Like what?” I have finally convinced her that I just don’t see clutter. I see a house. I can only imagine what my wife sees, some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, if her reactions are anything to go by.

I Am a Clutter Machine

The small victory of getting her to understand that my capacity to generate clutter is part of who I am now runs up against my commitment to never allow my ADHD to be an excuse for anything. When I made this commitment, I was thinking of things like doing well in school, getting and keeping a job, and other big life goals. But the time has come for me to apply it to the smaller things as well. Rather than asking her to live this way, I want to reward her patience with me by making a better effort to contain the clutter.

It sounds great, but the question is how? It’s easy to clean the house. Well, not always easy, given the state into which our house sometimes degenerates. But it’s simple enough. What is more difficult, for me, is to create a system in which my blindness to clutter does not handicap my ability to do my share around the house. The cluttered environment of our house, as I write this, drives home the point that this is an ongoing process.

[Free Resource: 22 ADHD Clutter-Busting Strategies]

Out of Mind, Out of Hand

The obvious solution is to generate less clutter. After all, I am often asked, how hard is it to carry a dish into the kitchen and put it in the sink? It’s very hard. Along with “out of sight, out of mind,” the saying that sums up my experience may be, “out of mind, out of hand.” The second I am done with something, it ceases to exist. This leads to the daily ritual of searching for my keys and other things. I often have to retrace my steps, and my thoughts, to determine exactly when I needed my hand for something else, and dropped the keys or whatever on the closest surface. Likewise, a dish, a wrapper, a book, an article of clothing, and anything else I touch is likely to be discarded without a thought the moment it ceases to hold my attention. This often leads to amusing situations, but it just as often frustrates those around me. The sad truth is that I will probably never change.

There is a cycle to cluttering in our house. I try to keep up, but things start to slide, until my wife can’t take it any more and gets mad. This makes me mad, at myself but also at her for less-than-clear reasons. I find that anger is an aid to focus, and, for a time, the house stays somewhat clean. But I have neither the capacity nor the desire to stay angry, so my neatness dissipates — and, with it, my ability to clean up after myself. Then the whole thing starts again.

The solution is to find something other than anger to help me keep clutter and cleanliness at the front of my mind. At this point, it comes back to not allowing ADHD to be an excuse. I’ve resisted applying my vow to something as small as hanging the towel back up. But it’s not just the towel. It’s my ability to contribute as my wife has asked me to. And what could be more important than that?

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  1. Thanks for your honest article. Especially for describing how the interpersonal relationships within the house affect the cluttered cycle, it’s good to know those sorts of things are happening to other people!

    What’s interesting to me in your article is seeing the parallels and cross-sections with our own home, only I’m the wife with ADHD and he’s the neurotypical husband. But I’m still the one who gets mad, and that’s when all the clutter gets cleaned up. But the clutter’s not him. It’s me and the kids. We have a humorous photo of my husband’s side of our bedroom versus mine to prove this. To me that says that part of this conundrum, ADHD or not, is part of the differences between men and women. I don’t know about all other couples, but the clutter bothers me more – I’m just horrible at preventing it in the first place because of my ADHD (your “out of mind, out of hand” is the perfect phrase for this).

    Part of why I would get mad is that I would feel that someone else should be keeping on top of this. Remembering to put things away. And actually putting things away. I think this is the common complaint of most women, but part of my reasoning was: “Because I’m bad at it. I need help remembering. How can I teach the kids to do this when I can’t do it? So someone should be doing this for me, because I can’t help my brain’s unusual wiring.” While it was good to acknowledge I need help, getting mad that some magical godmother wasn’t picking up after me like my mom did when I was a kid didn’t help. Or, well, the anger would help get the mess cleaned up, like in your house, but just made for a miserable day.

    I really do not have the whole clutter cycle beat. At all. I’m sitting with a bunch of toddler toys all over the living room and a hugely messy kitchen from making soup and mashed potatoes and everything else for sick kids this season as I write this. But I wanted to encourage you, and anyone else reading this, of a couple things that’s helped our house.
    The first is for me, and it addresses the “out of mind, out of hand” root problem. I’ve not mastered this for everything, I still constantly lose my house slippers, but it’s helped for things like keys and dishes. I’ve taught myself to not think of myself as “done” with something until it’s in the right place. When I come home, I’m not “done” with the keys until I’ve seen them go back in the cupboard. I’m not “done” with my plate until it’s in the sink. Putting it away has become a part of what I’m doing with it. ADHDers tend to think of the fun, creative, & interactive parts of doing something – because those are the parts that light up our brain – but then the other elements (namely, cleaning up) don’t go into our mental picture of the task so we don’t think to do them. It meant learning to think of putting the paint away after doing a picture as part of what I THOUGHT about when thinking of painting. Putting the spices away after the task of cooking is part of what I THOUGHT about when thinking of cooking. And so on. The herculean task is learning to apply this to more and more areas of my life, and making it a habit so that I don’t have to think about it. It’s hard. But in the few areas I’ve really applied this to, it’s helped.
    The second is for everyone in our house. We’ve established a rule in the house with the kids that we all help clean up, no matter who made the mess, because that’s what families do. We work together. We help each other. I try to keep the kids to only helping cleaning up the kids’ mess, regardless of who got the toys out, but sometimes it means putting my papers and books to the side when clearing the table for dinner. And that’s OK. Of course, I’m also attempting to teach the kids to remember to put things away in the first place so there ISN’T a colossal mess to clean up later. They see the wisdom in this. Chore charts, for kids and adults, can help with all this, and my husband and I have been discussing how to implement a new chart system for our house.

    Finally, we try to remember to tell each other “thank you” for putting dishes away, taking out the garbage, shoveling snow, making dinner – all the things – every day. And saying “it looks so good in here!” whenever someone cleans up after a mess, whether they made it or not. We try to make it a point to express the gratitude, the value, in the acts of service in cleaning up.

    1. AineMistig, thank you for sharing your ideas. Wow. I, too, am an ADHD wife, but rather than having the “normal” husband, mine is what some might call an “OCD neat freak.” Plus, he does a majority of the cooking, and often initiates the house-cleaning. And, we have 2 ADHD sons (9 & 13). Younger is more like his dad, though, but the older one is basically me in boy-form. I love your suggestion for the “out of mind, out of hand” dilemma. I think I do that to some degree (after years of subconciously developing coping mechanisms on my own), but I’m going to be more intentional with it. I also like the family cleanup and especially the “thank you for…” part. As a mom in my shoes, it’s hard to continually stay on top of things (like dealing with clutter), when you feel like your efforts (that are sometimes very difficult to accomplish because they aren’t my natural tendencies) are not appreciated. For this ADHD mom, a little gratitude gives me the extra boost I need to keep on task. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts 🙂

      1. You’re welcome! Thank you for letting me know you liked the ideas.

        My husband isn’t OCD, but he’s definitely tidier than the average guy, and is better with keeping up with more daily housekeeping than I am. He’s tried to take the lead in initiating more clean-up before it gets to the point that it’s under my skin — it’s almost like I can be blind to it to a certain point, and once it’s crossed that threshold, I go on the warpath!

        And I agree with you, a little gratitude goes a long way for me too.

        From our crazy happy house to yours, merry tidying and God bless you! 😉

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