Clearing out clutter is tough for most people. It can be especially tough when you have ADHD. For instance, the distractibility and forgetfulness may mean you’re regularly misplacing items and then replacing them, which means you end up with duplicates in strange, random spots, said Bonnie Mincu, a senior certified ADHD coach who was diagnosed with ADHD in her 40s.
You might have a hard time deciding what to do with the clutter—and simply give up. “The path of least resistance is to just keep everything and not worry about where to put it,” Mincu said. It’s also hard to know where to start and how to start.
It’s easy to get bored, which can impede your ability to focus. (In his book, Delivered from Distraction, ADHD expert Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., describes his own experience with boredom as “like being asphyxiated.” Psychiatrist William W. Dodson noted that if a “task is boring, it is a neurologic impossibility to stay on task.” See more here.)
You might’ve tried many, many organizing and clutter-cutting tips from magazines and websites. But nothing has worked. You’ve tried to tackle the toughest clutter first, but you can’t even get started. You’ve tried to purge ruthlessly, but you ended up with piles and piles of stuff around your house—with no energy to actually organize them.
Many conventional organizing tips aren’t helpful for adults with ADHD (e.g., it’s better for you to start with something pleasant or relatively easy). Below, Mincu, founder of the coaching practice Thrive with ADD, shared excellent, creative clutter-busting suggestions specifically tailored to people with ADHD.
Explore your assumptions and worries.
You might be clinging to certain assumptions or worries that stop you from decluttering. For instance, you might worry that you’ll need an item someday, so you keep it just in case. You might assume that if you don’t see certain items, you’ll forget about them. “The problem is, with everything left out, nothing is clearly visible in the mess,” said Mincu, also creator of The Clear Clutter Guide. “[A]nd usually there’s no reliable reminder system in place.”
You might assume that you need a big chunk of time to clear the clutter. But this only sets you up for failure. Because even if you do find several hours to devote to decluttering, you might not feel motivated. Or you might lack the attention span to stick with such a long stretch of time, she said.
What assumptions about your stuff are you holding? What concerns do you have about decluttering?
Before you start cutting out clutter, Mincu suggested asking yourself these questions to better understand your goals:
- What’s your vision for the room?
- Are there areas or types of clutter that you have no idea what to do with?
- What kind of storage solutions are you lacking? What can you do to remedy that?
- Is the problem really needing storage, or do you need to get rid of useless stuff?
Stick to a small area.
“Define a small area for a sorting session that won’t tax your attention span,” Mincu said. This should be an area where you’ll see a difference after you’re done. Don’t move until you’re done sorting through everything in that area, she said.
Have an “I Don’t Know” box.
“This is for items that you don’t know why you want to keep them, but you’re not ready yet to let them go,” Mincu said. Hide your box for at least 30 days. When you finally look at the box, you’ll probably be ready to let those items go.
Mincu suggested creating three to five piles in broad categories and putting on fast music to quickly sort through your stuff. For instance, for sorting papers, your categories are: immediate action required; medical papers; financial papers; work-related papers; and everything else.
Once your papers are in piles, sort them even further, depending on how you’d like to file them. Also, keep a trash can and an “I Don’t Know” box next to you.
Separate projects into small steps.
One of Mincu’s clients needed to declutter her entire house. They started by separating the project into rooms; then pieces of furniture or areas in that room; and then the various parts of each piece of furniture. For instance, the family room contained several bookcases. Each bookcase had several shelves that needed reorganizing. Each shelf became a separate step.
“With all of these smaller steps defined, even a short period of 15 minutes could be useful for clearing a shelf or corner,” Mincu said.
Have a visual reward system.
“A visual reward system is simply a way of seeing progress laid out in a way that allows you to see each step that you’ve accomplished, out of the whole,” Mincu said. This might be a checklist or spreadsheet with colored boxes. “As you complete each area, you can change the color of the box.”
One client created a gold star system. Every time she removed five large bags of paper from her apartment, she put a gold start on her list.
Cutting clutter is challenging for adults with ADHD. It might even be the last thing you want to do. But by adopting ADHD-friendly strategies, you can make significant progress, shrinking your stress, saving time and letting you focus on accomplishing what is important.