How I Fought Back Against Clutter

When her messy home had her on the ropes, this boxer got to work. Learn how a professional organizer helped her stop making excuses, get rid of clutter and showed her the way to new professional opportunities.

ADHD Organization Help: How I Knocked Out Clutter
ADHD Organization Help: How I Knocked Out Clutter

Once in my long struggle to get organized with ADHD, I consulted FlyLady, an online organizing guru who used to tie flies. She had helped many of my friends stranded in what she calls CHAOS — Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.

FlyLady’s daily e-mail imperatives included: Wear lace-up shoes, and keep your sink shiny clean. Despite my best efforts, I found myself wearing slippers while a banana-bread pan soaked in my sink. I removed myself from FlyLady’s e-mail list.

A few months after she and I parted ways, I broke up with a guy who may have loved me, but who, I was sure, could never tolerate my disorganized house. On the rebound, I wondered how to break up with my messy rooms. I knew I would be more alluring if I could find two matching socks. It was around this time that I was diagnosed with ADHD, and was encouraged, by my doctor, to hire a professional organizer. I went on medication, but it didn’t have much effect on my scattered life. My sessions with the doctor cost $125 an hour.

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

Hiring an organizer, at much less an hour, made sense, but I did some soul-searching. I felt ridiculous needing a professional to help me sort through my stuff. Was I lazy, immoral, incompetent? I felt like a misfit. I had rationalized not getting organized: After losing my keys, mismatching my socks, and forgetting to add baking soda to the cake batter countless times, I didn’t want to try — and fail — again. Maybe cleaning is bourgeois, I decided. Neatness is a neurosis. I would rather read a book than maintain an orderly home.

I also told myself that impulsive, playful types, like me, don’t make good housekeepers. I threw myself into learning a new sport — boxing — and trained hard to master uppercuts and jabs. My boxing mantra was “Never tired, never scared,” but my heart sank at the idea of getting organized.

Making the Move — Finally

Imagine how surprised I was, then, to feel empowered by Betty Huotari, an organizer I found on the Internet. During a phone interview, I found out that she had coached other clients with ADHD to organize their flotsam and jetsam. Betty cautioned me not to do anything until our first appointment. I didn’t have to pretend to be organized before she arrived to work her magic.

As soon as I saw her, I knew I had made the right choice. She was an elegant blonde, wearing high-heeled black boots, which she changed for flats once inside. Her appearance alone let me know that she could impose order on my scattered life.

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

Betty was unfazed by my chaos: a hall closet with no room for her coat, tables covered with sports books, tennis balls, and bills, chairs thick with dog hair and cast-off clothing. She told me that she had seen worse and didn’t judge me.

Our first task was to dig out the telephone table — a small desk, built into a corner of the kitchen, with a drawer and a cupboard underneath. From this command post, I answered the phone and scheduled my appointments, and it was a mess. We cleared everything off the tabletop and out of the drawer and cupboard. We found a paperback, Animal Crackers boxes, a broken vase, medicines, tissues, artwork, the rudder to my windsurfer, coupons, and twine.

I confess that I didn’t stay on task, dividing my attention between cleaning up and my dog’s pleas to be let out. Eventually, I returned to our project, embarrassed to see that Betty was still working on a job that was supposed to be a joint effort

My ADHD kept acting up: I was sidetracked by any project that I thought needed my attention. Each time, Betty gently guided me back to working on the telephone table. She relegated a bronze plate from China, tarnished from oxidation, to a high shelf on an out-of-the-way bookcase, and suggested I deal with that another day.

[The Ultimate Room-by-Room Organization Guide]

Neat Strategies

After everything was sorted into piles, Betty gave me strategies to organize them. My job was to figure out which way worked best for me. I thought I’d use two file cabinets — one for household paperwork, another for career items; buy organizers to make the drawer self-sorting; keep a single notebook by the phone instead of the three that resided there; reduce my gaggle of pencils and pens to three; create a control notebook that contained all the important information for running the household: reminders of recycling day, garbage day, gas-meter-reading day.

Before Betty taught me her system, paperwork was my downfall. I would toss papers on an empty table or shelf — until it became a precarious pile. (Betty calls flat surfaces “horizontal monsters,” for their uncanny ability to collect papers.) If I needed work space, I’d stick the papers somewhere else, and seldom find them again. Thanks to Betty, that all changed. I didn’t have to remember where, say, the warranty for the new garbage disposal system went. I filed it away within an hour of receiving it.

Clear Desk, Clear Mind

To my delight, my home, and my home office, became functional. Instead of sitting in a wood chair that kept falling apart, no matter how often I glued it back together, I glided through the room on an office chair with wheels. My supplies were stored in a cabinet behind my desk. My projects hung in folders on top of my desk. On one of her visits, Betty said that she could tell my life was overbooked by observing the row of folders.

She was right. There were separate ones for job interviews, substitute teaching, a singles newsletter I was editing, the art gallery at which I was volunteering, two tennis clubs, two sailing clubs, my paddle tennis club. She helped me prune away folders for some of the less important activities.

Life was good — and it got better. The more organized my desk became, the better I was able to set priorities. Without two-dozen items competing for my attention, I could stick with a project until its completion. When I finally filed away the last bit of paper and looked at an orderly desk, it occurred to me that I had to look for a new job. With Betty’s help, I saw myself anew — as someone capable of managing my household and my life. I had silenced that inner voice that used to condemn me.

Organizing my life was as exciting as honing my boxing moves. Being in control of my surroundings released feel-good endorphins, the way a sweaty tussle with the slow bag did. I felt ecstatic every time I opened a drawer of tidily arranged spices right next to my stove. So ecstatic that I was inspired to have fun trying new recipes. Life never tasted better.