There are many misconceptions about getting organized for adults with ADHD. Believing these misconceptions can quickly stall and sabotage your efforts.
For instance, one common myth is that one organizational approach works for everyone. If you internalize this myth, when one approach doesn’t work for you, you give up and assume you’ll never get your life in order. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Below, ADHD experts set the record straight on three stubborn myths about organizing — and what works instead.
1. Myth: You should handle paper only once.
Fact: “I cannot count how many times I’ve read or heard about this so-called life-saver of a technique for getting and keeping things organized,” said Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach.
However, handling paper once is just not realistic. It’s not realistic to expect yourself to put away every piece of mail you received after a long, tough day at work. Often you just don’t have the energy to file a bill or pay it right away, she said.
Plus, following this myth can actually build clutter. “[With this] myth playing in your head pushing against the reality of your schedule, you’re likely to just toss the mail in a pile,” said Dana Rayburn, a certified ADHD coach. And that pile is likely to grow and grow.
Instead, Rayburn suggested a strategy called “planned delay.” “Set up your paper system knowing you will handle paper more than once.” Create a temporary spot where you’ll stash papers until you’re ready to deal with them.
“When paper comes in, quickly decide what you need to do with it. If you won’t use it, toss it in the recycling or shredder. If you need to handle it later, put it in the temporary place.”
Review your stack every few days, so it doesn’t add up, added Rayburn, who provides group and private coaching programs to guide ADHD business owners and professionals to get organized and manage time so they can live more successful and effortless lives.
Matlen suggested this system for managing paperwork, which she discusses in her book The Queen of Distraction: How Women with ADHD Can Conquer Chaos, Find Focus and Get More Done.
She also added: “I’m not saying it’s not worth trying — maybe it will work for you — but I find that most adults with ADHD have quite a tough time with this strategy.”
2. Myth: If a strategy didn’t work the first time or stopped working, forget it.
Fact: Clients often dismiss a strategy that worked for a short time or never worked, said Abigail Levrini, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and co-author of the book Succeeding With Adult ADHD: Daily Strategies to Help You Achieve Your Goals and Manage Your Life with Frances Prevatt, Ph.D.
They assume that this indicates it wasn’t the answer for them, she said. But because of the nature of ADHD, it’s common for strategies to stop working. That is, the novelty of a strategy eventually wears off and loses its effect, she said.
Instead of tossing out a strategy altogether, what’s more helpful is setting it aside or tweaking it, said Levrini, co-author of the forthcoming book ADHD Coaching: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals. In the future, the idea might feel fresh and new, and thus work more effectively. If you’re using a color-coding system, a tweak might mean trying stickers, numbers or different colors, she said. In other words, slightly change a strategy, “but keep the main idea the same.”
3. Myth: Manage tasks and paperwork with a “tickler file.”
Fact: Rayburn has come across this tip in several books for people with ADHD. If you don’t know what a “tickler file” is, it’s a notebook or set of files numbered one through 31 for the days of the month, she said. People place paperwork, notes or even entire folders behind the date you’re supposed to work on them (e.g., pay a bill). You have to check the tickler file daily.
Rayburn surveyed her newsletter readers to see what they thought. “Most people said that tickler files don’t work for inconsistent people.” This kind of system is “too darn easy to screw up.” It falls apart, she said, when you neglect to check it for a day or two or more. “Bills go unpaid, papers get lost, planned tasks don’t get done.”
Instead, it’s better to create systems that function despite being neglected, she said. Rayburn suggested setting routine reminders on your phone or planner to prompt you when to do things.
When you have ADHD, knowing how to get organized and doing it can be overwhelming. It can help to see an ADHD coach or a therapist to find strategies that work specifically for you.
Frustrated office worker photo available from Shutterstock