Home Neat Home: An ADHD Organization Plan

ADHD is not synonymous with mess. Here, professional organizer and author Lisa Woodruff offers advice for adults with ADHD on how to tackle the clutter, set up weekly systems, think beyond the to-do list, and maintain a positive mindset while making progress every day.

How to Organize Your Home When You Have ADHD -Home Neat Home Graphic

Home organization is a skill that can be learned by anyone at any time. I honestly believe that. It’s just easier for some than for others. I do not have ADHD, but I have successfully parented, taught, and professionally organized people who do. And along the way, I learned a lot about how the ADHD brain works.

ADHD is a spectrum disorder that manifests through the eight executive processes of the brain:

  1. flexible thinking
  2. working memory
  3. self-monitoring
  4. task initiation
  5. planning
  6. organization
  7. impulse control
  8. and emotional control.

Basically, the executive functions of the brain help you plan, organize, and complete tasks.

If you have ADHD, and are trying to organize your home, it’s likely that you are struggling with one (or more) of these executive functions, which makes getting organized especially challenging. Challenging, but not impossible. These tips will help you change your mindset about what an organized home should look like, and encourage you to get started.

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1. Ditch perfectionism when organizing your home.

I have not researched the link between perfectionism and ADHD, but I have seen it many times. Perfectionism appears to exacerbate executive function deficits. If I have two clients with the same ADHD symptoms, and one is a perfectionist, it is harder for the perfectionist to get organized. Start a project with the understanding that perfection is not the goal, progress is.

2. Assemble a home-organization team.

A professional organizer is a great resource, but organizers are not accessible to everyone. Play a game with your kids to see who can declutter the most. Confess to your spouse the stress you feel, and about your desire to live a more organized life. Everyone in your family may not be on board, and that’s OK. Find those who are and enlist their help.

3. Create organizational structure.

Schedule your organizing task for the same time every day. Before long, your muscle memory will take over and your organizing will be on autopilot. We do this with our morning coffee and as part of our nighttime routine.

4. Take “before” photos of your mess.

Individuals with ADHD have a hard time seeing how much progress they have made and estimating how long tasks will take. Even if you’re embarrassed, take the photos! You don’t have to show them to anyone. Once you begin to make progress, you’ll be glad to have a visual reminder of how far you’ve come.

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5. Find one organizing mentor and stick with him or her.

Each organizer does things a little differently, which means not every program will work for you. But don’t bounce around trying to gather the best tips from all of them. Find a person you like, and a program you can afford (some are free), and stick to it until the end. Even if it isn’t the perfect program for you, you will make progress, and will be free to move on to the next project.

6. Set small organization goals.

Don’t try to organize a thousand books in one sitting. You don’t have to dump every article of clothing onto the floor. Break a big job into small pieces and take on one piece at a time. You’ll feel accomplished, and fight off discouragement.

7. Pick the right time of day.

Some of us are morning people. Many people with ADHD are not. There’s no commandment that says you have to work in the morning, so if it’s better for you to work at night, go for it! Be willing to try different times of day.

8. Make positive associations.

Drink your favorite tea or soda while you’re organizing. Allow yourself to listen to that page-turner audiobook while you’re working on your home. If you associate things you like with something that’s difficult, motivation comes easier.

9. Get a physical roadmap.

If you join an organizing program, print it out and post it somewhere you will see it. If it lives only inside your phone or computer, it’s easy to forget about it. You won’t forget about the 10 sheets of paper on your bulletin board.

10. Trash your trash.

So much of what is “disorganized” in our home is garbage—actual garbage that can get thrown in a trash can, or things that can be recycled, like bottles and paper. Grab a big trash bag, go through your home, and pick up everything that belongs in the garbage. You’ll be shocked at how much clearer your space looks.

11. Declutter your home.

Once the trash is gone, decluttering should be easier. You don’t need to be a minimalist (I’m not!), but keep only the things you love and use. It doesn’t matter whether an item still works, or that you paid good money for it. If you don’t love it or use it regularly, let it go.

12. Focus on practical solutions.

Pinterest is a great tool, but it can also be intimidating. If your snacks aren’t arranged according to the colors of the rainbow, don’t feel bad. The goal is to have only things that you use and love in your home, and to know where they all are. That’s it! Practicality is all.

13. Find one task to start and complete.

It will give you a feeling of success and motivate you to take the next step. You are building your task-initiation muscle.

14. Find others you can share your struggles with.

This can be your best friend across town, or a free Facebook group of strangers. When you’re going through the same experiences as someone else, it’s affirming. It’s not just you.

15. Don’t buy anything.

I know that sounds counterintuitive, because home organization sites are full of beautiful bins and baskets. Resist. Declutter first, figure out how your space can be best utilized, and then make only the purchases that will keep you on track.

16. Match your containers to your stuff.

Don’t take up a whole cabinet for spices if you never cook, and don’t jam 30 sweaters into a tiny drawer. Once you’ve decluttered, and you’re keeping only the essentials, you can find containers that function. That may mean making purchases, or it may mean switching dressers with your daughter (who’s at college) because hers is bigger.

17. Monotask.

In my 100-Day Home Organization Program, we focus on one task per day. We don’t organize the entire house in one day; we organize the spice drawer. Monotasking can be hard for a person with ADHD, but having a clear roadmap makes it easier.

18. Get audio clues.

Whether it’s a podcast or an audiobook, hearing your strategies triggers a different response in your brain than reading about them. You can find motivation and direction in the voice of someone who’s been there.

19. Write it down.

If you think it, put it on paper. If you write it down, it’s an object, not just a thought. Objects are much easier to organize than thoughts.

20. Time each task on your to-do list.

I used to hate emptying the dishwasher. I thought it took 20 minutes. So instead of emptying it, I turned on a TV show or did something else. I thought emptying it would take forever. One day, I said, “Let’s time it.” It took four minutes. Knowing that the chore takes four minutes allows me to squeeze it in here and there rather than avoiding it.

20. Don’t keep a to-do list.

What, am I crazy? I just told you to write everything down! You can keep a master list of tasks you want to achieve, but don’t stare at it every day and hope you get them all done (then feel bad when you don’t). When you plan your week, choose three and only three tasks from your list each day, and bring your focus to those tasks. Yes, you will get only three things done, not a million, but you weren’t going to get a million tasks done anyway.

21. Small progress is still progress.

Three tasks completed is not a hundred, but it’s better than zero. An organized shelf is not an organized pantry, but it’s better than a disorganized shelf. Small progress is still progress.

22. Give everything a home.

Most of us don’t put things away because we never defined what “away” was. The number one mistake I see people make is that they try different organization systems all the time. Change is your enemy. New is not better. Keeping your keys in the same boring spot for 20 years is perfect. Organizing your home is not where you need to show off your creative side.

23. Schedule a time to put items away.

This is a big barrier to organization — not putting things away. At the end of the day, set a timer for 10 minutes to “close down” your home and put things away. No one likes to do this, but if you can make it a habit, it becomes easier and less mentally taxing.

24. Organization is a skill, not a talent.

It’s not something you are born with. It’s a habit that is cultivated over time. It’s never too late to start. And when you do start, get an organizing buddy with similar goals. Encourage each other to make progress in organizing your homes. The best scenario would be for both of you to organize the same spaces in your homes at the same time so you can share ideas.

25. Hire it out.

If you can afford to hire help, do it. You’ll save so much more than money — in time, in lower anxiety — in someone else’s expertise. You can hire out an entire project, or just have someone come and clean after it’s done. You don’t have to do everything yourself.

26. Take “after” photos.

Compare them to the “before” photos. You did it! You made progress. Treat yourself to your favorite drink or a night of relaxation. You deserve it.

27. Give yourself grace.

Your worth as a person has nothing to do with how organized your house is. Refocus the energy you spend on worrying about your home’s condition, and you’ll be free to do what you are created to do.

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Use a Sunday Basket

The Sunday Basket is the system I created to help me get on top of all the paper and daily to-dos I had as an adult. A Sunday Basket is a container — it can be a basket, a box, or a bag — in which you toss all of your paper each week. You will check this container on a regular basis. I check mine on Sunday. For you, it may be Friday or Tuesday. Here’s how to create and use a Sunday Basket:

Step 1. Grab a laundry basket and go on a scavenger hunt around the house. Pick up every piece of paper from every room and put it in the laundry basket. Finding your paper does two things: It gets all the paper out of your rooms, so wherever you go, you’re not going to see paper. That will bring down your stress level and give you some breathing space. Second, you’ll know where to look for things. It might take you 15 minutes to find something, but it won’t take an hour.

Step 2. Make yourself a cup of coffee or have a glass of wine, turn on mindless TV, and sort through the laundry basket, one piece of paper at a time, and divide the pieces into piles: trash, a “to file” pile (insurance statements, tax returns), and a shredding pile. The only thing left in the laundry basket will be actionable items—an invitation to a graduation party, permission slips that have to go back to school, and so on.

Step 3. Work on the actionable items in your basket, setting aside time in your calendar weekly to do this. Some weeks this takes me two hours; other weeks, I can get it done in 15 minutes.

If clutter overwhelms you before you can make any progress in organizing a room, walk into the room with a mission to do one thing—and only one thing.

Session 1: The first thing to do is find everything that is trash. Take a trash bag and talk to yourself, chanting, “Trash, trash, trash.” When you chant “trash,” even if your mind starts to wander, your mouth is saying “trash,” which snaps you out of it. The first time through you will see the obvious trash. The second time through, you’ll think, “Oh, I didn’t see that.”

Session 2: The next time you come into the room, you’re going to chant, “food and dishes.” Collect all the dishes and take them to the sink. Collect all the food and put it away.

Session 3: On the third time through the same space, focus on clothing items. Say, “Clothing, clothing, I’m picking up clothing,” and take it all right into the laundry room.

Now that you’ve gotten the obvious items out of the room, it’s time to do 15-minutes-a-day organizing tasks. Some examples: Go through all the DVDs or collect all the pens and pencils scattered around and put them away.

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