“How I Got My Messy House Organized”

“We can’t use the systems that work for other people. We must have systems that are ours.” How one woman tackled her clutter creatively — and effectively — in her own ADHD-friendly way.

A messy desk in the messy house of someone with ADHD
A desk or table covered in papers, pens, tape, two hands, scissors

Erica — the woman I had called in desperation to help me clear out my clutter — held up a yellow scrap of paper, and I crumpled in shame. I had misplaced this note at the bottom of a laundry basket full of papers that I stashed in my husband’s office. The note was buried there for two years.

We women with ADHD need our piles. We are so afraid we’ll lose something in a drawer or a folder — “out of sight, out of the ADHD mind” — that we keep everything in the open where we can see it. But after a couple of days, we can’t see the important stuff anyway. It’s buried under the new stuff we don’t want to lose.

The Price of Being Disorganized

Disorganization is expensive for me. I lost the contract for a magazine article I wrote, twice, and was too embarrassed to ask for it a third time. When I cleaned out my car, a week before I traded it in, I found an uncashed paycheck that was eight months old.

My messy house causes me physical injury, too. I was picking my way through a narrow path of stuff in the garage and caught my shoe on a planter that was sitting in the walkway. I fell on the concrete, cracked two ribs, and broke my wrist. It still hurts to think about it.

And there’s the simple aggravation of not being able to find things when I need them. A researcher who studies such things says that if we spend five minutes looking for our car keys each day, it adds up to 30 hours a year. Multiply that by an 80-year life span, and we spend 13 weeks of our lives trying to find our bloody car keys.

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

The truth is, clutter drives me batty. I swear, ordinary household objects silently scream at me to be put away or tended to as I walk by: “Put me in the dishwasher!” “Call the repair guy, so I can stop leaking!” I don’t stop to take care of those things in the moment because my brain is overloaded from thousands of other screams: “Can’t you be on time for once?” “These pants are too tight; you need to eat less.”

Erica tried to organize me her way. We found a rolling cart, with lots of skinny drawers, in the attic. We assembled it, placed it in the kitchen — clutter central in my house — and labeled each drawer. The cart would have helped if I had used it. We can’t use the systems that work for other people. We must have systems that are ours.

I found my systems. An acquaintance, who also has ADHD, told me about a revolving plastic organizer that she uses with great success. It worked like a charm for me. My most important papers were corralled, and I could always find the unopened mail.

Erica calls my filing system “creative.” She grimaces and frowns because I don’t file alphabetically. I file by topic. Sometimes, the associations in my head are one-of-a-kind. If my brain thinks of life insurance policies and bicycle warranties the same way, that’s how I file them. When I return to that folder, I’ll find them both.

[Perfect Is Pointless: 16 Organization Rules You Can Follow]

Another system I use is what I call “Think Once,” also known as “Think Once Really Hard and Then Don’t Think About It Again.” I take on a knotty, persistent problem — dealing with incoming mail, say — from all angles. I spend a lot of time working through all the challenges and my solutions to them, but, eventually, I devise a workable system that will allow me to not think about the mail ever again.

One strategy that works for me is having duplicates of things I use often, like reading glasses. There are probably 15 pairs floating around my house, office, and car at any moment, each pair with a braided neck cord, so I don’t lose it. I have four sets of makeup: one for home, one for the car, one for work, and one for travel. Medication, pens, and measuring cups are a few of the other things I keep extras of.

While I doubt that I’ll ever be a professional organizer, I do think I’ve earned another title. How about “Professional Disorganizer”? There’s a label a woman with ADHD could wear with understanding and good humor.

Now where did I put my brand-new Brother labeler?

[13 Clutter Hacks for the Easily Overwhelmed]

Excerpted from Confessions of an ADDiva: Midlife in the Non-Linear Lane, by Linda Roggli (Passionate Possibility Press). Copyright 2011.