Manage Your House

Shortcuts to a Cleaner, Less Cluttered House

Life is too short to stress over laundry, bathrooms, and kitchens. Free yourself from the burden of overwhelming housework by following these practical, ADHD-friendly tips for living cleaner and more organized every day.

If it’s hard to concentrate on one task, such as folding laundry or washing dishes, all the way to completion, try doing it in increments. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and stay on task until it goes off. If you think you can do more, reset the timer.
If it’s hard to concentrate on one task, such as folding laundry or washing dishes, all the way to completion, try doing it in increments. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and stay on task until it goes off. If you think you can do more, reset the timer.

Should it be called “housekeeping” or “house arrest”? It’s not easy to tell the two apart, especially for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). As Erma Bombeck put it: household chores are “a treadmill from futility to oblivion, with stop-offs at tedium and counter-productivity.”

There ought to be a better way — and there is. In my 16 years as a professional organizer, I’ve helped hundreds of adults get organized with ADHD and stay on top of their housework. Here are the tips my clients with ADHD swear by for housekeeping made easy. Feel free to modify them to suit your needs.

Straightening Up

Many people with ADHD like to keep their stuff in full view because they find that seeing a thing helps them remember to repair it, return it, remove it, or replace it. Unfortunately, clutter is unattractive and distracting. I wish there were a painless way to get rid of clutter. Alas, it takes a bit of work. But it will go more smoothly if you do things systematically.

To keep stuff out of sight but not out of mind, use labeled, see-through containers, bins, and baskets. Once you fill a container, that’s your cue to go through it and toss what’s not needed.

Start in one room, and then move to the room to your immediate right. Repeat, until you have circled back to where you started. Carry a plastic bag as you move from room to room. Anything you want to discard goes into the bag. Toss out old magazines and junk mail, but do not waste time going through loose papers. Just put them in a neat pile and move on. Come back to go through them when you have more time.

[Self-Test: Is Your Clutter and Disorganization Out of Control?]

When you’ve cleared a desk, table, or another surface enough to shift, shift stuff left and dust, then right and dust.

Pay special attention to chairs and sofas. As I tell my clients, “You deserve to not share your chair with anything but your derrière.”

If you encounter something in one room that belongs in another, toss it toward the door. Pick it up on the way out of the room, take it to the appropriate room, and then return to your rightward circle.

Doing Laundry

Get one giant basket for darks, another for whites. Get rid of hampers, and have family members deposit their soiled clothes directly into these two communal baskets.

When the baskets are full, load the clothes into the washer and — to make sure you follow through — set two timers. Leave one atop the washer and take the other with you as you move through the house doing additional laundry-related chores. These include making beds (comforters save time because they double as blankets and bedspreads), matching socks, folding linens, ironing, and so on. When each load is finished, put it in the dryer, reset your alarms, and do more laundry-related things.

Doing the laundry will take at least three blocks of 40 minutes, or two hours, once a week.

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Cleaning the Kitchen

If the sink is full of dirty dishes and the backsplash is grimy, your kitchen can be made of marble and gold and it still won’t look good.

To keep track of when to run the dishwasher, use a “clean/dirty” sign. After dinner, rinse the dinner dishes, load them into the dishwasher, and turn it on. Next morning, unload the clean dishes. Rinse and load the breakfast dishes — but hold off on running the dishwasher. After dinner, rinse the dinner dishes, load them into the dishwasher, and turn it on. Repeat this routine every day.

Each time you open the refrigerator, take a whiff and toss anything that smells iffy. Once a month, give the fridge a thorough cleaning. Sponges quickly get covered in germs, so I recommend paper towels instead. Lots of paper towels. To clean up spilled liquids, use a dry paper towel. If something is dry (crumbs, for example), use a wet paper towel.

If you insist on using a sponge, use it for no more than seven days, then wash it in the dishwasher and use for another seven days. Then throw it away.

Don’t use furniture spray on wood surfaces. It only attracts dust. Wipe with a slightly damp cloth instead.

Mop the floors and clean the countertops at least once a week (and any time you create a mess). Simply shift everything on the counters to the left and clean, then shift everything to the right and clean again. If there’s so much stuff on the countertops that shifting is impossible, it’s time to de-clutter.

Cleaning Bathrooms

Once a week, close the bathroom door and run the hottest water possible in your shower. The steam will give you a head start on cleaning.

Spritz the mirrors with glass cleaner and the counters with non-glass cleaner. Wipe with paper towels. Mop the floor on your way out.

Not in the mood to clean? Put on a favorite CD, drink a cappuccino, sing, whatever. (Don’t turn on the TV — it’s too distracting.) Wear a pedometer, and make it a game to see how much exercise you can get. Away you go!

Don’t fret if housekeeping chores don’t get done exactly the way you want them done. What matters is that the chores get done on schedule.

Your home should be clean enough to satisfy an imaginary visit from, say, a bachelor brother. Unless your mother really is visiting, there’s no need for your home to be clean enough to satisfy her.

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19 Comments & Reviews

  1. This is potentially very useful for anybody to help keep their home clean.

    However, disposable dishes and cutlery is a terrible idea. Not only is it an added expense it’s horrible for the environment. We need to be creating less garbage, not more.

    For me, it mostly isn’t a helpful strategy for my ADD related housework battles. I don’t have it entirely figured out but I find it helpful to break things up into very small steps. For example, doing laundry is a big task for me. I would never do it if I had to spend a big block of time doing it. My schedule is to do a load one day, fold it the next and put it away on the third day. Because I only have to do a bit at a time it isn’t overwhelming and I’m more likely to start the process than put it off.

    1. I’m no angel in the tidiness stakes and these are a few things that work for me:
      When you are preparing a meal fill the sink with hot water and detergent and wash things as you go, leave them to dry in a drainer. When the meal is served refill the sink and encourage family to wash their own dishes. Boy Scouts do that on camps and I think it’s a brilliant idea. I learned a lot when my kids were in scouts.
      If you make the bed in the morning when you get dressed the room looks heaps better and is nicer to come home to. Use a doona/duvet but not a top sheet, then all you need to do is grab it at the bottom and shake. A tiny bit of straightening and the jobs done. Put your pjs under the pillow, give them a quick straighten and you’re done. 10 seconds max. Folding pjs is optional.

      1. Well some of the tips are useful, I am actually appalled at the suggestion of “lots and lots” of paper towels, disposable dishes and cutlery. The environment is in dire straights. The last thing we need is to use more disposable stuff. Especially single use throw away plastics like the cutlery, which most are not recyclable. It may seem faster and easier.. but it is not going to be easier on our kids, when they don’t have a liveable planet left.
        These suggestions make me even more fearful for our future.

      2. I thought exactly the same regarding the paper towels and disposable ware – not to encouraged at all.

  2. I think this is wonderful! I have heard some of this before and we use the thin white paper plates that you’ve seen everywhere. This cuts a tremendous amount of time! Then they go in the recycling bin. Not regular paper but it can be recycled. I am feeling like the moving right strategy is going to be especially helpful!

    1. You cannot recycle those paper plates. If you must get disposable plates- get compostable plates. Please check with your recycling center to see what you can and can’t recycle.

  3. OMG thaaaaaank yooooou!!! I have been struggling to wrap my head around cleaning up since I moved out of home (where I had an OCD Mom who cleaned up after me and a full time domestic cleaner)- 6 years ago.. let’s just say I could easily be a contender on the hoarders.. trying to cram 5 different types of crafting supplies plus office and teaching stuff in a tiny 1 bed apartment with very little cupboard space no laundry room or garage makes for a difficult task to wrap my head around cleaning.. I procrastinate by googling and watching YouTube cleaning hacks, tips and techniques.. instead of doing them… this article is the only one which I read and didn’t fill me with dfread.. instead my first thought was I can do that.. well except for the dishwasher thing..sadly apartment only has one plumbing spot and I figured having clean clothes are more important than having clean dishes… I eat toast for breakfast every morning and I’ve switched to paper plates for that…
    I washed 3 sinks full of dishes tonight… still have about 2 more to go.. but the counters are clean(er) and I swept up most of the crap on the I’m feeling optimistic… Thank you again

  4. One thing I do that has helped with laundry over the years is to try and buy clothes that are all the same or about the same color. I work in food service so I have to have black slacks (who decided slacks work for scrubbing floors and the bottoms of prep tables I don’t know, because they never last more than a couple of months), so I buy most of my other clothes in black or grey. I do have other colored shirts, but here’s the thing – I wash clothes I buy right after I buy them when I get home. This takes care of any additional dyes that may mix with other clothes, so I don’t have to worry about them getting washed with other colors. Plus, brand new denim jeans are not comfortable until after they’ve been washed. Whites or lighter shades, not colors, like lighter grays, I don’t worry about much because you don’t have to worry about white dyes, but I don’t bleach them unless it’s an absolute necessity. But I also don’t buy white shirts or pants. White socks or undergarments aren’t that big a deal, because nobody’s going to see them, so if they get faded or mix with dyes from other clothes, it doesn’t matter. Doing this, I don’t have to worry about mixing darks, whites, or colors. I try to wash pants separately because they take up more space and more time drying, but if I only have a small load to do, one pair of pants and some shirts, socks and undies can all go into the same load together and I don’t have to worry about them. So, basically,

    1) Try to get all your laundry in the same color or close to it. This reduces worrying about colors bleeding or fading and also makes it easier to get dressed in the morning because everything is an outfit.

    2) Wash new clothes before wearing. It gets out dyes and makes them more comfortable.

    3) Wash loads of lighter material, such as shirts, socks and undies, first, and wash heavier materials such as pants last. The heavier materials take longer to dry and large loads of jeans may have to dry twice, so it gives you more time to do things while they’re drying.

    4) Find the person who decided the same slacks worn by office workers were ideal for hot food, grease and oil, hard tile floors, and caustic chemicals, and make them pay. (Feel free to skip this step)

  5. I know that it is really critical to hone in on what is important in life and not to let the small things get you down. I know it is hard to orchestrate the lives of a whole family when one has ADHD. But, I have to say I have stayed deeply troubled all day by a couple of your suggestions for dealing with mess. We cannot replace dishes with throw-aways.We cannot continue to live as if our own needs are paramount. It is estimated that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish! Time’s up on this kind of thinking.

    Why paper towels – “lots of them”? When did germlessness become the goal and does it make sense? How about good ol cloths? You can microwave them and sterilize them and use them over and over again. Germs, sometimes. Clean, yes.

    I so appreciate your ideas for keeping life simple and streamlined, but we cannot bring up another generation who only know how to use, throw out and use more.

  6. Paper plates are expensive and not eco friendly, and while it keeps your sink clean, it fills up your trash and you have to take it out more often. Also, I find that if I clean by focusing one room at a time, I will never make it out of room #1. I try to tackle ‘categories’ instead, such as grabbing dirty dishes from every part of the house, then I move on to say, finding any dirty laundry and start a wash cycle. I listen to music to motivate me, and I try to use a custom music playlist while cleaning so that hearing a song I don’t like doesn’t have me looking on my phone or radio for a better one. I agree with the tv comment. I don’t even like tv that much, but it definitely distracts me.

  7. I am glad to see several people objecting to what made me think, “oh HELL no!” We are drowning in our own trash. I have BLACK & BROWN towels, I buy them at thrift stores, yard sales, etc. or Target, Home Goods, and they don’t stain much at all.
    I also wear mainly cotton or other natural fabrics, which work well as RAGS. When the cat vomits, I clean it up with the most threadbare rag, and throw THAT out. I haven’t bought paper towels since 1986.
    I suffer with clutter and it’s hangover, guilt, and use what I was taught is called a BODY DOUBLE; some person hired to clean with me, which forces me to A)make a list of tasks for them and for me, and B) Stay ahead and prepared so I am not paying someone to wait for me!
    My ADHD Coach has been instrumental in teaching me coping mechanisms, authors and magazines, and a wealth of wisdom available all over the place. Life is better!

  8. I use a local ironing service. There is still plenty of housework but it helps a little. I’d rather support a local business than spend money on disposable items that harm the environment.

    I bought several identical pairs of socks so they are easier to put away. I put all my frequently used plates in a cupboard right above the dishwasher so it’s easy to unload. I let my teen boys choose from a selection of chores and reward with a small item such as ice cream. They help more willingly when they choose their own task. I shop as little as possible to avoid purchasing unnecessary items that become clutter.

  9. I’m reading a lot of comments on this article that are disparaging the use of disposable items as a work around an issue of clenliness. They suggest with casual ease that one can simply wash reusable items, do the dishes, and sanitize rags. The overall environmental impact of humans use of disposable items is extreme, of course.

    However, this environmental thinking is actually counterproductive in this case. The advice here is targeted toward the percentage of our population that have this disability. The negative reaction to this advice likely stems from this not being a visible disability.

    Of the estimated 11% of our population that struggle with ADD, there are a smaller percent that struggle with clenliness and clutter. (I ask that you forgive my imprecise numbers here.) This can contribute to major health and social issues if you are not able to focus on the task of clenliness. Giving someone another set of items (rags, sponges, dishes) to track and perform maintenance on may seem trivial, but it can be a monumental effort for someone struggling to develop and grasp basic life skills.

    Please set aside your horror at the thought of paper plates for a moment and consider the person who immediately forgets about something when it is out of sight. Consider this person may have only the attention to interact with the world of the kitchen to acquire something to eat.They are intimidated in doing so and are only driven to do so by hunger. They want the surfaces to be clean, the dishes to be washed, the pots and pans to be spotless. However, inability to focus on the task means that dirty dishes pile up, counters are grimey, stoves are crusted and pans sit idly after use without being scrubbed.

    Soon, the whole thing becomes insurmountable. Every dish is dirty and they can only bring themselves to wash one or two when absolutely necessary. Sponges and rags are caked with grime and unusable in any practical way. They live in a terrible mess and they are frustrated with themselves.

    This is not everyone. This is someone who’s unable to grasp this function easily. They are trying to do the right thing for the world by not using disposable cups, plates, and towels. By so doing, they are causing themselves a great personal injury.

    For these people, disposable dishes and cutlery and paper towels are an assistive device. They are, to a lesser degree, like captions for the hearing impaired, braille for the blind, or prosthetics. Note that these other things also have environmental and economic impact to produce, but you would not deny their necessity. There should be no shame in using them as needed for each case.

    Every effort should be made to minimize the need for such items. They are impractical, pricey, and have an environmental impact. They should assist and not replace practical and reusable items whenever possible.

    It is not laziness or weakness to use these available tools. It is simply necesary. I encourage anyone who needs them to make use and do not listen to detractors. Do your best to choose items that will have a lower environmental impact, but do use them!

    Recycle! Compost! Reduce waste! Be aware, but don’t be afraid to take what you truly need.

    1. Glad to see someone saying this. My boyfriend and I still use our dishes, but we at one point had a sink full for a year that we could never conquer which made us start using paper products to reduce the amount of dishes to tackle. Now our sink is mostly clear of dishes, and we don’t feel the burden anymore. My boyfriend has severe anxiety and adhd, so we’ve found this method best.

    2. While I agree with those concerned about the environment, I also agree with your take on this. I do the recycle thing, and it has added a whole other layer of chaos to my life and not just in the kitchen. I have on a few occasions done the paper plate route when I have salvaged them from events rather than see them thrown out and it was helpful at really busy times in my business. I have a wood insert that is usually out by morning, so I need paper to start my days fire and the plates worked well.

      I have at times started packing up the majority of my dishes, cutlery, post, etc. and left myself with a basic set of everything times 2 (I live alone and do not entertain because… you guessed it… the mess!) My theory was the less I had the less mess could potentially be created. It worked. For awhile… and then in moments of stress or thinking I’d mastered the problem, I’d start unpacking more. In no time, chaos reigned again.

      If nothing else, I can see others using the paper plats and wooden/bamboo, etc. stuff perhaps UNTIL they got a grip on their kitchens? Would that satisfy the question of recyclables?

  10. Take a breath environmentalist people. Disposable doesnt have to mean plastic. Plus it could mean that someone who is drowning in guilt has been thrown a lifeline!
    Perfectionism is the ruination of motivation for ADHD brains.
    My first thought also was “the recycle/environment thing”…therefore I might just still eat my toast leaning over the sink.

  11. As another commenter said above, I also sometimes have to clean by categories, not individual rooms. I listen to music, podcasts, or audio books while cleaning to keep my brain occupied. Another method that helps me is to set a timer, usually in 10 min increments, and I make a game out of seeing how much I can clean in that time. I tell myself that I just need to clean 10 min every day, which helps it feel less overwhelming but I usually end up cleaning longer once I get going! Also, I can definitely see how turning on the television may become distracting, but it’s a helpful tool for me when I’m putting laundry away! I dump the pile of clean laundry onto the floor, pull a drawer out of my dresser and set it next to the pile, choose what to fold first (all pants, all socks, etc.), and fill the drawer while watching a movie or series. Once that drawer is full or all of the same category is put away, I put the drawer back into the dresser and bring the next one into the room. I repeat this until all the laundry is put away. The TV really helps keep me on track and my mind from wandering.

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