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ADHD Tip: A Simple System for Managing Paperwork

ADHD Tip: A Simple System for Managing PaperworkFor people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), paperwork can become a big problem. ADHD impairs executive functioning, making it difficult to make decisions, sort and prioritize. Clients commonly come to psychotherapist and ADHD coach Terry Matlen needing help with paperwork — everything from bills to receipts to school papers to taxes.

She explains exactly why in her valuable book The Queen of Distraction: How Women with ADHD Can Conquer Chaos, Find Focus and Get More Done:

“Your brain’s circuitry finds it difficult to prioritize (Do I pay the bill first or send the wedding RSVP?), stick with ‘boring’ tasks (Paperwork is so boring. I think I’ll play a video game instead) or sort (Do I file under ‘Car’ or stick it in bills paid?).”

In her book Matlen, MSW, ACSW, shares a four-stage system to help readers with ADHD manage paperwork. She suggests thinking of paperwork in terms of what’s most important to deal with first – just like Emergency Medical Services prioritizes emergencies in order of significance or severity.

Here are four wise steps from The Queen of Distraction using this analogy.

Stage 1: EMS.

Designate a container to hold urgent documents that have deadlines. These documents need your immediate attention. They include bills (such as the mortgage, utilities and insurance), renewals and permission slips for kids.

Your container can be a clear plastic bin, with or without folders. Or it could be any kind of basket. Label your container to remind you of its contents, such as “urgent” or “important.”

As you receive these urgent papers, write their due dates on the envelope, and file them with the closest date at the front.

If you’d like to organize this bin even more, have different folders. For instance, a green folder might hold your bills, stamps and envelopes; a yellow folder might have papers that need your signature.

Stage 2: General Surgery.

This container holds papers that also require a response from you but aren’t urgent. As Matlen writes, “In other words, if you don’t respond to your friend’s baby shower invitation, you might really hurt her feelings, but your family won’t be left freezing in the dark in the middle of winter.”

Label your container something like “needs response ASAP.” It might contain everything from invitations to subscription renewals to donation requests to car maintenance reminders.

Stage 3: Reconstructive Surgery.

This container holds papers that don’t belong in either of the above bins, such as magazines, sales offerings, coupons and policy changes (for credit cards, for example). Also, label this container (e.g., “later reading”). You’ll still want to review these papers eventually.

Stage 4: Post-Op.

This container holds documents for later access. In fact, it could be a filing cabinet you store in the basement. It might include medical records, homeowners’ documents, insurance policies and pet info.

Matlen also suggests keeping critical documents such as stock funds, wills or life insurance policies in a safety deposit box at your bank or a fireproof lockbox in your home.

Every piece of paper you receive should go in one of the above containers — except for junk mail. That goes straight into the recycling bin. Matlen suggests sorting junk mail directly above the bin.

Keeping track of paperwork is tough for people with ADHD. Again, this is because your brain has a hard time “prioritizing what to do first, how to do it best, and when to do it,” Matlen writes.

Establishing systems — like Matlen’s practical strategy — can help you stay on top of paperwork.

ADHD Tip: A Simple System for Managing Paperwork

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). ADHD Tip: A Simple System for Managing Paperwork. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 20 Dec 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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