Making Peace With Your Clutter

Many adults with ADHD have cluttered workspaces and homes. If you work well in those surroundings, then it’s time to make peace with your organized chaos. If not, learn how to prevent clutter from overwhelming you.

A woman with ADHD wondering "How do I get motivated to stay clean?"
Woman with ADHD laying on a pile of clothing with hands on head stressed by clutter in home

Some ADHD experts believe that a cluttered desk, closet, or house reflects a disorganized mind; others take it as a sign of genius. A lot of adults with ADHD, including me, agree with the latter opinion.

Either view can be true, depending on the individual and the degree of his disorganization. Those who are organizationally challenged spend hours — days, even — trying to get things neat. We lose quality time with our kids or a night on the town. “Controlled chaos” might be a better choice for ADHD adults. On the other hand, a mess that is ignored can grow larger, until we feel overwhelmed by it.

How do you distinguish a productive mess from a debilitating mess? Read on…

Messy and Organized

The guiding principle shouldn’t be what others say, but how you feel about clutter and how you function with it. If you’re an adult with ADHD who can perform well with clutter all around — at home or at work — who cares if someone calls you a slob (unless it’s your boss).

Some of the messiest people I know can find the document they’re looking for from a tall stack of papers without missing a beat. That’s what I call organized, messy or not. Living up to your own expectations is more rewarding than forcing yourself to conform to standards set by those to whom sorting comes naturally.

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

Family, friends, and co-workers may make judgments about our clutter and berate us for it. Neatniks assume that we are lazy or disorganized, when neither is necessarily true. If you are in control of your mess, and your mess isn’t controlling you, let the criticism roll off your back.

How do you know whether you are in control? Ask yourself, “Am I wasting time looking for what I need?” and “Am I being pulled off task — and accomplishing little — because of clutter?” If you answer no, you have a mess you can live with.

When I wrote my thesis for my master’s degree, my desk and floor reflected my “messy” mind. Spreading out my ideas and sources — papers and open books — allowed me to survey all of my ideas and put them in together in original ways. No one visiting my office could have seen the method in my mad array of papers, but the seeming chaos helped me develop a thesis that received rave reviews from my professor.

Messy and Dysfunctional

Chances are, ADHD adults may recognize the signs that their messes are controlling them. Here are seven obvious ones:

  • When you have to purchase items to replace those that you can no longer find.
  • When you spend time looking for things that you use routinely.
  • When your spouse or a disgruntled coworker complains about your mess creeping into his space.
  • When the mess on your desk becomes a distraction in itself.
  • When your boss tells you to clean up your cubicle. Most bosses will not intervene unless your disorganization is seriously affecting your performance.
  • When items are not in the right room — dishes in the bedroom, toothbrush in the living room, bedroom slippers in the garage, hairbrush in the kitchen, hiking equipment in the dining room.
  • When a stack of papers becomes so tall that it falls over, or when you find yourself stepping over things to move through a room.

[Free Download: Clean Up and Get Organized in One Weekend]

Don’t Let Clutter Overwhelm You

One of my clients was clearly a slave to his mess. He piled stuff — papers, clothes, sports equipment, unpaid bills — all around the dining-room table, kitchen counters, coffee table, and other shared spaces in the house. His wife picked up, but didn’t know where to put the homeless items. He suggested storing his clutter in his office, which was in the basement. They agreed it wasn’t fair for her to have to run up and down the stairs to get his stuff out of the way.

The solution? They placed a large wicker basket — about the size of a milk crate — in every room. They refer to the baskets as their “designer dumpsters.” Whenever she sees his stuff cluttering up shared space, she deposits it in the basket in that room. He always knows where to find the items that he’s misplaced.

At one point, I sat on the trunk in my office — amid the disarray of books and papers — thinking about giving up on my thesis. My thoughts came so fast that I didn’t think I could capture them in an outline. I took photos of the floor and desk — and of myself atop the trunk — to preserve the moment when I almost gave up. The photo reminds me that I am more than my mess. I am an ADHD coach whose contributions and academic achievements have made a difference in people’s lives.

Look beyond your mess — assuming it’s not messing up a colleague or spouse — and find something about yourself to applaud. I’m already clapping for you.

Clutter Control Tips for ADHD Adults

  • Use baskets/containers without lids for like items (e.g., boot box, gloves/hat/scarves box, kitchen spice box).
  • Place a wastebasket in every room.
  • Place a magazine rack in rooms where you read.
  • Spend 15 minutes a day de-cluttering (throwing and putting things away, filing, if necessary).
  • Designate at least one junk drawer in every room. If you don’t know where an item should go, or if it doesn’t have a home yet, put it in that drawer.

[Free Resource: 22 Strategies to Combat Clutter]