Attack of the Paper Stacks!

Papers piled high, a heap of mail and magazines, a towering mountain of laundry—here’s how to defeat these masses of mess, one at time.

ADHD and Organization: Attack of the Stacks!
ADHD and Organization: Attack of the Stacks!

Adults who have ADHD get “organized” by putting papers into piles. This would seem innocuous to someone who doesn’t have ADD, but that habit is the stuff of nightmares for those with ADD. The junk takes on angulated, monstrous proportions, and leaves the ADHD adult defeated and feeling inept. Of all the problems I work with, this one, which seems insignificant, is one of the worst.

Laugh, Then Attack

A good way to take it seriously is to laugh at it. If you can laugh at your junk, you regain control. To those of you who see not an iota of humor in this hell, take heart. You can solve this problem. You may not be able to laugh yet, but you will be laughing soon.

It takes a while for junk to become a malignant problem. The piles start small, with little stacks of paper or a dishful of lost staples, clips, coins, paper clips, and other bits of debris. But they grow and proliferate like the kudzu weed. The stacks become gangling towers of papers, magazines, and laundry, tilting like their owner’s self-esteem.

This is no way to live. So take a deep breath and attack your problem. Get into battle gear, or at least into battle mood. Acknowledge the fact that you are up against a formidable foe, but a foe that you can defeat. You created this adversary, and you can certainly un-create it.

How to Fight Back

1. GIVE YOURSELF A PEP TALK. Lose the defeatist attitude the mess has hexed you with. Shame and blame only make the problem worse. Think of yourself as a gardener who has neglected the weeds too long and let the kudzu run wild. There is work to do, but it is good work, and you can do it. Pulling out the weeds does not require special skill or extraordinary talent. All it takes is time. Do it little by little. Each bit you clear will make you feel better.

2. CREATE A FILING SYSTEM. Keep it simple, or you will soon create new piles, made from the stuff you purchased to create a filing system. First, pick a place to put your files. Next, get a generous supply of folders and plastic label holders. Then get a Brother label maker. It costs under $20 or so, depending on the model, and its value is priceless. Now you’re making progress.

3. GET YOUR HANDS INTO THE PILES. Dislodge the stacks from where they sit, stuck like barnacles. Pry them loose and pick them up. Feel the control flowing into your blood, the endorphins of triumph over those nasty parasitic piles.

4. MOVE THE PILES, ONE AT A TIME, to the dining room or kitchen table or some other place that is not cluttered, or take a pile to the library in a box. The novelty of reclaiming your places and spaces is exciting. Soon you will have the exhilarating experience of walking into a nearly empty room. You will feel a sense of ahh.

5. CHUCK IT. Pile by pile, pick away at what used to be a total mess, filing what you need to file and ditching the rest. Chucking the piles, one by one, makes it clear who owns what. The fact is, you own the piles, they don’t own you.

6. INITIATE PILE-CONTROL. When you have disposed of your piles – once you have rooted out the kudzu – develop habits that will keep your garden healthy. I learned a great way of doing it from a former patient of mine. He suggested the acronym OHIO. It stands for Only Handle It Once. Whether it is a letter, a magazine, a bill, a memo, or anything else, get into the habit of acting on it right away – by answering the letter or paying the bill – then putting it into one of the labeled files you have created or recycling it.

After you develop these habits, the piles will return, but they won’t take over your living space like an uncontrolled weed.

From Delivered from Distraction, by EDWARD M. HALLOWELL, M.D., and JOHN J. RATEY, M.D. Copyright 2005 by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and John J. Ratey, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved.