Updated: Feb 9
Guest writer, Spencer McBride Spencer is an inherently disorganized person, luckily married to a professional organizer, the wonder of Control the Chaos and can comment firsthand on the very real benefits of having a more organized life. For credentials, he has ADHD and is currently completing a Master’s Degree in Psychotherapy.
People with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder aren’t disorganized - we are just organized in a way others find hard to understand.
Each of the main symptoms of ADHD - inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, are safety behaviours our brain uses to help us survive. The quick re-focusing on new subjects as they pop up, the passionate proactivity, and the quick reactions to new stimuli were all great at helping our ancestors ward off predators and find new prey. Of course, they present a lot of problems in our more systemic, sedentary, and predator-free modern life, but that doesn’t make you bad at life, or even necessarily disorganized. Most people with ADHD have some way of keeping themselves on track and getting things done, even if it doesn’t look like much of a system to the people around them.
It’s important to not judge people that do things differently and to not judge yourself for needing to do them a different way. But at the same time, as someone with ADHD, I know that taking a look at how my life is structured helped me sort out the healthy and natural behaviours from the unnecessary coping mechanisms and chaotic messes.
Today we’ll go through 4 organizational problems faced by those with ADHD, and see what can help.
NOTE: If you think you have ADHD, you should seek help from a licensed professional rather than self-diagnosing. Also, there are far more serious consequences of ADHD than a messy bedroom, and we don’t mean to minimize that by showing just this one aspect. These are just a few helpful hints.
1. “But I know where everything is!”
No, you don’t.
You can eventually FIND where everything is, and that’s very different from having a special place where you know you always store that item. I, too, suffered from the illusion that I knew where my spare batteries and garlic press were, until I started living with someone who had a system for organization, and discovered that it didn’t count if you had to spend 10 minutes looking for it and that those two items should not be in the same “Miscellaneous” drawer.
There’s a good reason that we do this. Inattention to detail doesn’t mean forgetfulness or incompetence, and it is often possible to put something down in the first place you find, and not worry about it, then just find it later. What I learned along my organizing journey was that it is easier to cope with the inattentiveness that comes with ADHD when you have pre-arranged places for everything, that is agreed on with the others in your house.
Putting something away is a small distraction from what you’re doing, but trying to find something is a huge distraction.
The best example for me is butter. After my wife and I agreed on a single place in the fridge to put the container, it made my whole morning easier. There is a deep relief that comes from reaching into the fridge and knowing where to find the butter, rather than looking for it where you left it (veggie drawer) finding it’s not there, and then losing all your trains of thought and forgetting what you were thinking about (important work document) and what you meant to do after this (important work), and why you even needed the butter (toast), and then ending up going to the bathroom and only remembering about the toast an hour later.
Taking the time to organize your living space makes living with the symptoms of ADHD much easier. You’re less liable to get sidetracked, and much more comfortable with daily chores, to the point that now you can say that you ACTUALLY know where everything is!
But this brings us to another issue…
2. “Organization is boring.”
This, to Brittany’s deep chagrin, is one that I still believe. She thinks it’s fun. Takes all kinds.
But I have a new belief that has taken precedence over the first: that being disorganized is worse than organizing.
I always felt comfortable in my disorganized mess of a bachelor apartment, though it might sometimes take me a while to sort through my junk before I dug up my treasures. It would never have occurred to me to organize things, as that seemed like a complete waste of time. I hated wasting time. So much to do, so many hyperactive thoughts on my mind and hyperactive things to do, that taking a full day to stack books and get rid of old clothes seemed an utterly pointless and painful use of my precious free time.
What a waste of time that was.
There was nothing more boring than searching for something I shouldn’t have thrown in a pile, or more time-wasting than spending 10 minutes every day looking for the same item I always put in arbitrary locations, or more pointless and painful than sorting through my emails only when I was in a desperate rush to find an important document.
Systemic organization is a focused task that takes a long time, and as such it will always be difficult for ADHD - lack of organization is literally one of the defining criteria in the DSM-5. And when we finally started these sessions I found it difficult and even painful to do these boring tasks. But it was always worth it.
3. “I’ll keep it there for later.”
This one still makes sense to me, and I would hate to admit to my wife how many tabs I currently have open on my browser.
I know there’s a good reason we do this. I am well aware of my propensity to be forgetful, and if I keep a tab open on my computer, or a tax form sitting on the side of my desk, then I can feel safe in the knowledge that its presence will remind me of the task, and I will eventually do it.
This has never once worked.
Again, I never saw a problem with this. I just kept a bunch of stuff in weird places until, eventually, I moved. But when I eventually moved in with my wife, who I will unabashedly proclaim to be the best professional organizer in the world, and started unpacking all these pointless things, I found that things suddenly had particular places they had to be. At first, this was frustrating to me. I knew where I had left my socks - they were in the middle of the floor. And now, mysteriously, they were gone, to lord knows where. I also knew why I had all those papers. They were probably important.
In truth, when I sorted through them, 99% were not important, and the other 1% needed to be dealt with right away. I had kept them around as overcompensation for my impulsivity. I knew that I didn't have the impulse to deal with them when I got them, so I kept them around in case I got that impulse later. The solution to this was not to find better ways to accommodate my impulsivity but to combat it.
At least, in terms of dealing with important documents - I like to keep the fun version of impulsivity on full display!
4. "Where do I even start?"
Once we deal with overcoming the barriers to systemic organizing and get to the point where we actually want to change things, we look around us in a different light, and ask “Where do I even start in working with these piles?”
I don’t know.
For me, my solution was to marry a professional organizer, but that’s not feasible for everyone. In my biased way, I would suggest hiring her. She’s good. But that’s not always where you need to start. ADHD is complex, and if you don’t treat the symptoms that caused the mess in the first place, it will just come back.
Talk to a professional in medicine and/or counselling, and find out more about you and your condition. Then get help tackling that disorganized pile causing you stress, bit by bit, with the help of friends, loved ones, and/or professionals. It won’t make you lose the things that you love about yourself and maybe even about the way your brain works. It will just make you more knowledgeable and a little more capable of the boring but important stuff in our contemporary world.
Depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem are all very common for people living with ADHD. Most modern workplaces and homes are ordered in a way that requires a high degree of concentration, making adults with ADHD feel like they’re bad workers or bad partners or bad parents.
But with treatment, and with adjustments to your lifestyle, you can make ADHD work for you.
Treatment works in many different ways and applies to every aspect of your life. In dealing with this condition, you should always prioritize your health and what’s important to you.
🤞🏻 Remember, organizing is a process. Learning new routines and strategies takes time, however, the more you repeat those processes the more likely it is that you will see long-lasting results!
When you’re ready to work on organizing your home, just remember that it is possible to control the chaos - and when you need help, we’re here for you.
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