Organization is a common challenge for adults with ADHD. But it can be done! Below, ADHD specialists share their foolproof tips for cutting out clutter, managing time, creating an efficient space and more. Remember that the key to organization is having a simple system that works for you and your family. So experiment with these tips, keep what you like and toss the rest.
1. Use a planner.
People often underestimate the power of a simple planner. “An effective, consistent planning system is the number one strategy to better organize, prioritize and manage time,” according to Laurie Dupar, a certified ADHD coach, nurse practitioner and editor and co-author of 365 Ways to Succeed with ADHD, a full year of bite-sized strategies to help you thrive with ADHD.
Psychotherapist Terry Matlen, ACSW, who has ADHD, uses a teacher’s style spiral “at a glance” calendar with large boxes. And it goes everywhere she does.
2. Use eye-catching materials.
“Copy a schedule of your weekly planner on an obnoxiously bright colored piece of paper [so it stands out] at the beginning of the week,” Dupar said. Cross off what you’ve done and add Post-It notes for tasks that come up.
3. Keep tasks straight with spiral notebooks.
For instance, she has one notebook for her daughter’s medication and another for phone notes with her webmaster. Matlen keeps each spiral notebook with related paperwork in a file folder with a matching color. If she uses a notebook regularly, she keeps it on a wall organizer for quick access.
4. Have a “brain dump.”
That’s how Matlen describes one of her notebooks. Here, Matlen records any notes, phone calls or other plans, and dates each page. Her latest page features the foods she’s ordering for the holidays along with her winter travel plans, which include detailed flight information.
5. Bank online.
Put a stop to paper statements, so you have less paperwork to manage. Use direct deposit and automatic withdrawal, said Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, psychotherapist and author of four books, including 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD: How to Overcome Chronic Distraction & Accomplish Your Goals. She also suggested using money management software, such as Quicken, and getting a receipt scanner so you can throw away paper receipts.
6. Forget your appointment time.
Instead of focusing on when your appointment actually is, plan around the time you’re leaving. If Matlen has a 2 p.m. appointment, she knows that she needs to be out the door by 1:45. This way you don’t think you have more time than you really do.
7. Sort items using a five-box method.
Sarkis suggested having five boxes with the labels: “Keep, Toss, Give away, Donate and Trash.” When figuring out whether to keep or toss an item, avoid asking yourself if an item has any value or if you’ll need it some time, said Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a psychologist and author of the new workbook Understand Your Brain, Get More Done. (The answer will probably be yes.) Instead, he suggested asking: “Does this item have enough value? Will this get in the way of finding more important items?” As he added: “These questions yield very different answers.”
8. Purge excess possessions — ruthlessly.
The more stuff you have, the harder it is to get and stay organized, because there’s less space and more laundry, more dishes and more to clean. As Tuckman said, “At some point, it becomes impossible [to organize] — you can’t organize 10 gallons of water into a 5-gallon bucket.”
That’s why Susan C. Pinsky, owner of Organizationally Yours in Acton, MA, and author of Organizational Solutions for People with Attention Deficit Disorder, takes a radical approach with her clients and helps them purge most of their possessions. She believes that good organization for adults with ADHD is all about efficiency with the least number of steps and effort. And managing less will always be less work, she said.
Pinsky asks clients to pick one or two indulgences, such as books, shoes or music, and pare down the rest. For instance, do you really need a cabinet filled with Tupperware? With a little resourcefulness four to six pieces are plenty, Pinsky said. And you’ll find the same with dishes, knick-knacks, shoes, documents and other items.
9. Get creative with visual reminders.
“When my daughter’s meds are running low, I turn the bottles upside down in the cabinet as a reminder that I need to call in soon for refills,” Matlen said.
10. Enlist an organization buddy.
This can be anyone from a friend to a family member to a coach to a professional organizer, Sarkis said. To avoid burnout, work for 30 minutes, take a 15-minute break and then repeat, she added.
11. Cut out company logos for your file folders.
12. Sort mail over a wastebasket.
This makes it all the more convenient to trash what you don’t need without moving papers or going to another space. Maynard also believes in using the O.H.I.O. principle when sorting mail: “Only Handle It Once!”
13. Say no to junk.
Remove your name from junk mailing lists, Maynard said. You just end up tossing it anyway.
14. Keep certain items in sandwich-sized bags.
Matlen keeps one plastic bag in her car for driving directions and another for quarters for meters. She also keeps a baggy in her purse for receipts.
“Clear your desk and work on only one thing at a time,” Maynard said.
16. Set small goals that you can finish.
For example, “Don’t tackle the entire garage all at once if you do not have the time to finish it,” Maynard said. Instead, start and finish just one corner, and keep it organized ‘til you’re ready to move on to the next section, she said.
17. Assume tasks will take longer.
Lack of time may be one reason you haven’t started or completed a task. “A useful rule when estimating how long something will take is to make your best guess and multiply that times two,” Dupar said.
18. Learn from yourself.
“Analyze what you do organize well, and adapt that strategy to other things you are not so organized with,” Maynard said.
19. Have a home for everything.
For example, keep your wallet, purse and keys in a basket on your entryway table. And keep your planner on your desk, Dupar said. This way you don’t lose anything and don’t waste time looking for things.
20. Be mindful of placement.
Because people with ADHD have a hard time with “Finishing Tasks,” it’s important to make following through easy and convenient. Instead of keeping the outdoor trashcan in the backyard, keep it next to the garage door, so you can fling in your kitchen garbage on your way out the door, said Pinsky, who’s also author of The Fast and Furious 5-Step Organizing Solution. In other words, “[You want to] reduce the barriers to putting things away by making your system as user-friendly as possible,” Tuckman said.
Many people with ADHD beat themselves up because they can’t do it all. But delegating isn’t a sign of weakness. Rather, it’s a smart strategy. Experts suggested hiring a housekeeper, bookkeeper, virtual assistant, laundry service, lawn service, professional organizer or any other service you might need to make your life easier. “Focus instead on doing those things that you are uniquely suited for and everyone will benefit,” Dupar said.
22. Have a recycling basket.
Pinsky also is adamant that people can eliminate the majority of their paperwork. Even though she’s a business owner, author and mom to three kids in college, Pinsky only uses two file drawers.
To reduce paper piles, Pinsky recommended having a ‘Paper Only’ waste bin under your desk. Get a bin that’s large enough for papers to lay flat and deep enough to fill up in a year, such as a milk crate. Here, you might toss in “just in case” paperwork, Pinsky said, such as confirmation numbers for purchases. “On the 1 percent chance that you will need that information again, it will be filed chronologically in your waste bin for a year before the bin fills and is tossed.”
23. Keep your files manageable.
You don’t want to go overboard with file folders. Pinsky said that a manageable number is six to 12 files per drawer with two drawers max.
24. Don’t be so prepared.
One of the biggest reasons people accumulate so much stuff is because they think they’ll need it in case of an emergency or some other rare occasion. But this ends up taking space and requires more organizing. “It is better to be resourceful than prepared, and it is saner to be resilient about occasionally doing without than to keep lots of overstock,” Pinsky said.
25. Grocery shop for one week only.
Groceries also quickly pile up. The key to simplifying is buying only what you’re going to eat until your next regularly scheduled shopping trip — minus one meal. If you shop weekly that means only buying food for six dinners. Pinsky said. “Be resourceful with leftovers rather than stuff your cabinets with overstock items.”
26. Have a shoebox for tax receipts only.
You don’t need to categorize every receipt that comes in. Keep only those receipts that have tax consequences and simply throw them into a shoebox. When important tax information arrives, such as your W2 or 1099, stash it in the same shoebox. “As long as you start a new box on January 1st for the New Year, your receipts will be all together and easy to tally on the one afternoon in April when you put together your taxes.”
27. Keep policies in one place.
Some experts will suggest putting your policies (such as insurance and homeowners) in separate file folders. But Pinsky said that just one folder with all your policies makes it easy to file and find. This also reduces the number of files in your drawer — and your overwhelm. “After all, why read a novel when a poem will do?” she said.
28. Buy only what’s on your list.
Impulsive shopping is a common problem for people with ADHD. So Pinsky suggested “keeping a running shopping list and never buying anything that hasn’t spent some time on a list.” Let’s say you see artwork that you think will be perfect for your house. Measure it, go home, measure your space and think about it. Impulse buying doesn’t only lead to more stuff (and less in your wallet), but there’s more receipts to track and organize. And it’s more fun buying something than returning it, anyway, Pinsky added.
29. Organize items based on how you retrieve them.
As Tuckman said, “The goal of putting things away is to be able to find them when you need them, so think about how and when you will go looking for those items.” So make sure frequently used items are handy.
30. Keep contacts in one spot.
Rather than having scraps of paper with phone numbers all over the place, Matlen has a dedicated folder. She keeps information from babysitters, old friends, potential doctors and other professionals.
31. Use clear bins.
Store your items in clear plastic bins, Sarkis said. Also, you can use a labeling machine to list the contents (or just write them out).
32. Know when to say when.
Tuckman cautioned readers against going overboard. Remember that you don’t need to organize every piece of paper and keep every space spotless. Take receipts, again. There’s no need to categorize them, he said. Just toss them all into one place. If you actually need a receipt, you can just go through your pile, which will naturally be in chronological order, he added.