Love It, Use It, or Lose It

“The only time I ‘sort of’ clean up is when I invite people over. This doesn’t happen often these days, because I’ve run out of closet space and other hiding places for all the junk.” Don’t hide your clutter or feel guilty. Find hoarding help in these 13 ADHD-friendly rules to organize your home for good.

A woman with ADHD looks shameful and upset
A woman with ADHD looks shameful and upset

An ADDitude reader recently asked: “I’m 35 and a wife and mother to two boys. I was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD two years ago. I like to hold on to stuff — knick-knacks from my grandmother, a ticket stub from a play I saw with my husband five years ago, and so on. The only time I ‘sort of’ clean up and get organized is when I invite friends or relatives over for dinner. This doesn’t happen often these days, because I’ve run out of closet space and other hiding places for all the junk. Can you give me some hoarding help, so I can have my friends over again?”

Clutter-shame is a complaint of many adults with ADHD. There are lots of reasons we find it hard to let things go. Here are a few:

1. We have many interests and find it hard to set boundaries (on what we buy, what we keep, and where we put things).

2. It is easy for us to see possibility and potential, so we tend to hold on to things “just in case.”

3. We struggle with systems and getting things done, so it’s easy to wind up with stacks of mail or piles of laundry.

[Free Download: 22 Clutter-Busting Strategies for Adults with ADHD]

4. We keep things because they help us to remember an experience (tickets, programs, souvenirs).

5. We form emotional attachments, making it harder to let go of things (even if we dislike our aunt’s embroidered napkins or struggle to find space to store 200 drawings our children did in grade school).

6. We keep things visible because we might otherwise forget about them. We tend to “file by pile” because “out of sight is out of mind.”

7. We make impulsive purchases when shopping because individuals with ADHD are usually in search of ways to stimulate their brains. This adds to clutter at home.

8. We have difficulty prioritizing and making decisions, so we just find it easier to keep everything.

9. We get distracted and leave things where they were as we move on to something else, whether it is a kitchen counter with the remnants of last night’s dinner or a sofa with piles of magazines on the cushions.

10. We forget — or can’t find — what we have, so we buy extras.

11. Poor time management and lack of interest makes it challenging to follow routines — emptying a dishwasher to avoid a sink full of dirty dishes or putting away clean laundry before it gets wrinkled.

The result? Our home becomes, and stays, a mess.

[Don’t Organize It, Purge It: 10 Things to Throw Out Now]

Having guests over is an excellent reason to get activated to straighten up. Unfortunately, the cleanup is usually done in a rush, and hiding items adds to the clutter in your hiding places. Use invitations to friends and family to incentivize the organizing process, then organize by following these strategies:

1. Tone down the emotion. We think, “I really have to straighten up” or “I need to declutter,” and our ADHD brains react by going into the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When there’s too much to do, we’re likely to avoid doing anything. Start by accepting that the smaller our task, the more likely we’ll get it done.

2. Understand the difference between a task and a project. Organizing a room — or a closet — is a project. Breaking the job down into smaller steps gives us tasks. What are the specific areas that need to be organized? Think of each shelf, surface, or drawer as a separate space or task. Imagine each as a branch on a hybrid fruit tree. Each branch holds a slightly different fruit, and together they are part of the “room tree.”

3. Imagine success. Think about how you will feel when you walk into a room that is organized to your satisfaction. Remember how great it feels to invite guests to your de-cluttered home. Think about what a good role model you’ll be for your children, and how appreciative your husband will be. Forecast this feeling of pride, calm, and comfort, rather than focusing on the stress and discomfort you will go through to achieve it. Think of the current situation as temporary. Accept the fact that things may get worse before they improve. As you organize, look for progress, not perfection; effort, not excellence. It’s better to promise yourself less and deliver more. Relax, breathe, and smile.

4. Create an ‘Organizing Plan.’ Decide on the areas you want to organize. Make a list of the projects (rooms, closets, etc.) and the specific tasks (spaces or things that need to be organized). Don’t worry yet about how you’ll organize — that can stop you before you start. Now decide which areas get priority. If you have difficulty prioritizing, think about where you’ll feel the greatest joy when it’s organized (or where you feel the greatest discomfort now).

5. Organization doesn’t just happen. There’s always something more interesting or urgent to do, so schedule organizing time on your calendar. Be specific as to which tasks you’ll work on. Unlike your Organizing Plan, which is a Master To-Do List, create an Action Plan for each organizing session, so that you are working toward realistic goals.

6. Create a supportive vibe. This is not an easy process for you, so stop thinking it should be. That’s a trap. Put on background music that will help keep you energized and focused. Make sure you have sufficient lighting. Stay hydrated and avoid hunger. Keep the mindset that what you are doing is a gift to yourself and your family.

7. Love it, use it, or lose it. Pick one shelf, one surface, or one drawer. Look at each thing there and ask, “Do I need this? Does it really need me?” Judith Kolberg, founder of the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (now called the Institute for Challenging Disorganization) encourages over-personalizing the elimination process, by asking if an item is a friend, acquaintance, or stranger. You keep your friends and get rid of strangers. You enjoy acquaintances for a while, then are happy to see them go.

8. Minimize the sense of loss. If an item is something others might use, either donate it or give it to a friend or family member who would appreciate and use the item. Think of this as blessing someone else with your stuff.

9. Take photographs, then discard, recycle, give away, or donate the object. You can use those photos, whether of memorabilia or art projects, to create photo books or create a DVD that you can share with others.

10. Group like with like. As you go through various spaces, group similar items in one area, so you will get a feel for what you have. This makes it easier to decide what you want to keep. Group items by function — how things are used. The book on first aid goes with the first-aid supplies.

11. Everything needs a home. Decide where the items should live. You might store linens in a central closet, or, for more convenience, in the rooms where they’ll be used. Think in terms of prime real estate. Those items used the most frequently, or those you want to display, should live in your prime real estate. Store the less-used items farther away.

12. Say “enough.” Set boundaries by deciding (without looking at what you have), how many of a certain type of item you need. If you have limited space to display your goodies, be more selective. When the space is full, it’s time to stop. If you don’t love an item enough to give it priority, then it’s an item you can release. When we have too much, everything loses some of its value.

13. Don’t go it alone. Working with a friend or family member provides moral support, a sense of focus, and an objective perspective (“20 vases on that display shelf makes it hard to appreciate any of them”). Let them hold up items that, if you touched them, might reinforce an emotional bond. Avoid working with anyone who has a “just throw it all out” mentality.

[The Ultimate Room-by-Room Organization Guide]