Almost every symptom of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) plays out in the household, said Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and author of the book The Queen of Distraction: How Women with ADHD Can Conquer Chaos, Find Focus and Get More Done.
Disorganization and distractibility lead to lost papers, unpaid bills, piles of laundry and lots of clutter, which can negatively affect relationships and spark blowups, she said.
Lack of planning leads to late dinners, leading to both cranky kids and parents, she said. (Plus, many kids with ADHD also are picky eaters, which complicates meal-planning even more, she added.)
People with ADHD also might not have family and friends over because they’re ashamed of the clutter and chaos. “This in turn can trickle down to the children, who may be embarrassed to bring friends over or sense that the parent(s) may prefer not to have strangers in the house.”
Dan Perdue, an ADHD coach, blogger and parent with ADHD, can relate. He has similar concerns, and sees them with his clients.
“For many of the people I work with and for myself, running a household is riddled with challenges of mundane house chores, time management problems, organization difficulties, and what seems like a never-ending list of distractions.”
The good news is that you can get organized. The key is to find systems that work for you.
Below, Matlen and Perdue shared what’s been helpful for them and their clients.
1. Have a launch pad for the whole family.
Designate an area close to the door where each family member leaves from every morning for school or work, said Matlen, also an ADHD coach. There, have each person put their daily things — such as keys, backpacks, briefcases, phones and lunch, she said.
2. Create a playful pick-up.
“For younger children who have a tendency to leave toys all over the house, make it an evening routine to have a playful pick-up time,” Matlen said. This involves setting a timer and having each family member gather their things in one place, such as a laundry basket. Then have them put everything away.
Make it into a competition. For example, the winner, she said, can get extra computer time, or pick a TV program to watch that evening.
3. Use visual timers.
Perdue suggested using visual timers. (This piece lists 20 different visual timers.) As he said, “cleaning and organizing can feel like it has no end, which can make projects about as enjoyable as chewing on roofing nails.” Using a timer turns the activity into a game, and everyone knows there’s an end.
Every little bit counts. Thirty minutes of cleaning is more productive than none at all, he said.
4. Make laundry playful.
Buy an indoor basketball hoop for every child’s bedroom, Matlen said. Your kids can toss their dirty clothes through the hoop and into a basket below. “There’s a much better chance at getting items off the floor when you make it fun.”
5. Have a folder for each family member.
Matlen is a big fan of organizing bins from Pottery Barn, which have deep and wide slots for multiple folders. Place bins somewhere visible like the kitchen. Designate a folder for each person, which contains that day’s mail or school papers, which need to be signed, or any other important paperwork you don’t want to get lost, Matlen said.
6. Create notebooks for each project.
Matlen likes to use plain wire-bound school notebooks for different projects. This includes everything from her kids’ medical and school records (where she records doctor’s suggestions and phone conversations with teachers). Color-code each notebook, so you know which one belongs to each person, she said.
“In my case, I have a unit with eight slots that are filled with these notebooks — some have to do with family, but many are my own personal projects.”
7. Aim for “good enough.”
Perdue goes by Edward Hallowell’s concept of “well enough,” in his “Seven Habits of Highly Effective ADHD Adults.”
As Perdue said, “You don’t have to be perfectly organized; just organized enough. Start by organizing well enough, and you will surprise yourself.”
8. Hire help.
Perdue recommended hiring a professional organizer to help you develop a system that works for you and your household. “Just like you would hire a mechanic to repair your car, or a carpenter to repair your home, there is nothing wrong with hiring an professional organizer to repair your organizational system,” he said.
Matlen also suggested bringing in help whenever possible, such as hiring housekeepers and lawn maintenance workers. Hire college students who can take over homework time with your kids, which creates a much calmer household in general.”
9. Quiet comparisons.
Many of Matlen’s clients feel guilt and shame about the challenges of keeping a household. They may wonder: “Why can everyone else keep it together, but not me? Why can’t I be a better parent?”
She and Perdue stressed the importance of not comparing yourself and your family to others. “Expect there to be more chaos and clutter. Bring your expectations down a notch and do what works for you, not your sister or your mother,” Matlen said.
ADHD symptoms create many challenges, which make it harder to stay on top of household duties. But there are plenty of strategies that can help. Find what works best for you.