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?

[Making Peace With Your Clutter]