Ask the Experts

Dear Organizing Coach: How Can I Stop Sweeping My Mess Under the Rug?

Getting and staying organized is a core challenge for people with ADHD, who may struggle to find energy for tasks that don’t particularly interest them. Shifting from internal to external motivation can help; here’s how to do it.

Q: “My work and home spaces are cluttered. My virtual desktop is usually full, which I fix by periodically sweeping it into a folder called “Sort This Stuff Out.” I have lots of different filing conventions that I sometimes use for a while but not consistently or with discipline. Occasionally I even throw a sheet over piles in my home or shed to make them look neater. While I know it isn’t useful, functional, healthy, or fair to my loved ones, I don’t feel any motivation to apply discipline toward periodically tidying and putting stuff away. I tend to keep everything, like records and receipts — never sure if the IRS may want to know how much I paid for office electricity seven years ago. My ADHD nervous system is driven by interest more than rewards or punishments; hints from my work colleagues or my partner about being too embarrassed to bring friends home don’t get me moving. I have a go at organizing from time to time, but I’m easily overwhelmed by the volume and lose interest as soon as I have to work out exactly into which file the electricity bills go. How can I find the energy to tackle my mess?” —DJD


Your questions are among the most common — and commonly frustrating — for individuals with ADHD. It’s not only difficult to find organizing systems that work for you; it’s nearly impossible to maintain the ones you get going especially if you’re not motivated to do so. And that’s the part of your question where I will focus my attention.

Always relying on your own internal motivation is exhausting. So don’t! Use the external motivation of your environment instead. The environment plays a huge role in how we get things done. Here’s how to put it to work for you.

Do you respond to color? Surround yourself with colorful objects that make you happy — fun, colorful file folders, pens, markers, and containers can do the trick!

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

Do you have a favorite food? Sometimes pairing a special treat (frozen yogurt would be my choice) with the undesirable (tackling those papers) provides motivation.

Do you like listening to music? Music helps the brain plan, focus, and initiate. Create a playlist of music you love. The key is to ONLY play this playlist every time you sit down to tackle an organizing project. Eventually the music will act as a motivator; when you hear the music, it will signal your brain that it’s time to get moving.

Does your partner want to help? Grab him and work together! Sometimes “body doubling” (being in an environment where others are doing what you’re doing) helps us to stay on task. Plus, hard work goes faster when we do it with someone else.

The point here is to make it fun. Infusing energy and playfulness into your routine is a wonderful way to get your ADHD brain moving and motivated.

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

Just remember that trying to organize everything all at once can leave you feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. Try specific daily intentions instead. “Thursday night I’m going to tackle the papers on my desk.” “Saturday morning I’ll work in the shed.” In other words, break down your tasks into manageable parts to feel more in control.

Organization guru Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

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