Organizing Life with Adult ADHD
If you ask anyone with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to name their top challenges, chances are high that “organizing life” will appear on many ADHD adults’ lists. Why? – because getting (and staying) organized is an ongoing process involving many brain systems associated with executive functioning skills. Here are several reasons why organizing your life with adult ADHD remains challenging and some tips to help you break old habits and replace them with easy-to-live-with solutions.
When many people hear the term ADHD, they picture a young classmate fidgeting in his chair, bouncing off the classroom walls, an impulsive teen, an unhinged family member, or a coworker or friend who talks a mile a minute and monopolizes the conversation. But according to Dr. Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D. at the Yale Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders, at heart, ADHD is a “developmental impairment of executive functions” that unchecked, can result in hyperactivity or disordered behavior that many people notice.
Executive functions (EFs) are the skills your brain uses to help self-manage. They help you pay attention, manage space and time, analyze social situations, learn from past mistakes, and plan and organize. In the ADHD brain, EFs are weakened, leading to disorganization, trouble starting, stopping, or focusing on a task, remembering instructions, or managing emotions.
Organizing details, managing tasks, and maintaining systems require synthesizing several important EFs. This is why many people with ADHD struggle to both get and stay organized at work and home. But it’s not a lost cause! Organizing can be a skills gap, therefore it is a skill that can be learned. And the more you use the following systems and processes to keep you on track, the more natural it will become.
Organizing Life for ADHD Adults
Clutter, misplaced objects, towering to-be-filed piles, an overflowing email inbox…it all takes a toll on your ability to function on a daily basis. These organizing tips will help you dig yourself out of the disaster zone.
1. Work on one area at a time.
Getting organized can seem overwhelming, and when the ADHD brain gets overwhelmed, it tends to shut down. But Rome wasn’t built in a day and your office doesn’t have to be decluttered in a day, either. Break things up into manageable chunks. Work on one drawer, shelf, or surface area at a time. When you’re done with that one, head to the next. This 21-day challenge will help you get started and complete projects daily to stay on track.
2. Use the five-box method.
As you’re cutting through the clutter, keep five boxes handy and label them:
- Things I want to keep
- Donate, sell, or give away
- Recycle or trash
- Belongs Elsewhere
- Finally, this box should be reserved for stuff you are still unsure about – and figure out how to decide it.
Deal with the first four boxes accordingly. Stow the fifth box in an out-of-the-way location and leave it closed for a few weeks. Open it and review those items in a month. If, after a month, you haven’t needed or used an item in the box, it’s probably safe enough to get rid of it.
3. Make daily, weekly, and monthly checklists.
Write down everything you do on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, and then make checklists based on these things. This makes it easy to keep track of simple tasks like running the dishwasher, changing the bedsheets, and cleaning out the garage. If it helps, you can set reminders or apply due-dates to your tasks.
4. Ditch the perfectionist mentality.
All too often, people with ADHD don’t start a task because they don’t have the time, energy, or knowledge necessary to make it perfect. “Perfect” is an unattainable goal. Focusing on “good enough” can ease the pressure you’re under and allow you to make some sort of progress – and some progress is always better than none!
5. Process paperwork and emails immediately.
“I’ll deal with this later” is one of the most dangerous phrases a person with ADHD can utter. It’s important to create a habit stack to help you deal with incoming paperwork and email. Did your boss just drop an important document on your desk? File it now. Did your spouse just bring in the mail? Sort it now. Did your phone just ding with an email? Delete it, reply to it, or put it in the proper folder now. Things can’t build up if you don’t give them a chance.
6. Set reminders for recurring tasks.
Write down everything you do on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, and then make checklists based on these things. Another way to create links to your daily life is to use ‘reminders’ in Google Calendar for those recurring tasks that make life easier (a.k.a.chores!) This makes it easy to keep track of simple tasks like running the dishwasher, changing the bedsheets, and cleaning out the garage. If it helps, you can set reminders or apply due dates to your tasks.
7. Organize to support your personality preferences.
Each of us has natural preferences for how we like to get and stay organized. The Time and Space Style Inventory (TSSI) can help you analyze your organizing troubles from the inside out. The TSSI doesn’t necessarily teach you how to change (although if that is what you’re looking for, it can help you learn how). Instead, it teaches you how to work within your established preferences while making small shifts to stop wasting time and start getting organized.
Time Management Tips for ADHD Adults
When we talk about helping adults with ADHD become more organized, the focus is usually on “things” – but your time is an essential element to master when you want to organize your life. If you’re constantly feeling like the clock is getting away from you, these time management strategies can help organize your life.
1. Keep a master calendar.
When organizing life for ADHD Adults, calendaring is essential. If I had a dollar for every adult who relies on memory vs. setting up and keeping a calendar, I’d be a millionaire. As irritating as it can be to have to write down every little thing, neurodivergent brains crave constant reminders. Keeping (and constantly updating) a master calendar means that forgotten meetings, late payment fees, and missed birthdays and anniversaries are a thing of the past.
2. Track your time and tasks.
Have you ever truly tracked your time? Do you know how long it takes you to make your morning coffee, log onto your work computer, or clean up after dinner? The answer might surprise you. By tracking your time and tasks, you can see exactly where your minutes and hours are really going, identify ways to be more efficient, and find ways to eliminate common distractions.
3. Set time limits.
Because of the ADHD brain’s tendency to hyperfocus, it’s important to set time limits so you don’t get lost in a task or activity. Developing a relationship with ‘healthy constraints’ will help motivate you to take action. Constraints work. They will help you start because you can do almost anything for a short period of time. So, in order to get things done and better manage your time, decide how long you want to spend on whatever you’re doing and set a timer. When the timer goes off, stop – even if you’re not finished. At that point, you can decide to set another time constraint or whether you should move on to something else.
4. Be mindful of the time you give to others.
People with ADHD can often be people-pleasers. Since many have struggled socially, they may develop a strategy to please and make others happy – even at the expense of their own sanity. It’s great to want to help family, friends, and co-workers, but it’s too dangerous to lose yourself in the service of others. Instead of leaving your needs last on the list, put them first, and let others ‘earn’ your yes. Get comfortable with saying ‘NO‘. If you answer every request with the reasons why you can’t do something first, it will help. With practice you’ll learn to stop making commitments you can’t keep or that will interfere with your own life.
5. Make things easy for “future you.”
We’ve all been there. It’s the end of a long day and all you want is a glass of wine and the latest episode of Yellowstone. Before you completely check out, spare a thought for “future you.” What would make things easier for that person? Incorporating this moment daily will help set you up for success tomorrow. So consider how to be successful tomorrow. Try prepping lunch, setting out your outfit, packing your work bag, or even just double-checking that your keys, wallet, and phone are where they should be. Do things to wrap up your day to make tomorrow go more smoothly.
Unlock the Secret to Organizing Your Time and Space!
When we talk about organizing life for ADHD Adults, it’s important to state (and embrace) that we all have our own unique preferences for books, food, and movies, we also have our own unique preferences for the way we manage time and space. I created the Time & Space Style Inventory™ (TSSI) to show people how to understand and embrace the organizational and time management strategies that come naturally to them.
Organizing your life may be more difficult for those with ADHD but it’s far from impossible. Over time, simple tips, tricks, and hacks help condition your brain to naturally implement these strategies rather than having to consciously think about them. This, along with the TSSI assessment, is a recipe for success!
Learn more about the TSSI assessment here.
Schedule a free Discovery Call with me here.