It’s not a huge secret that organizational strategies promoted by the “gurus” don’t typically work well for those of us with ADHD (or anyone else with executive function difficulties). But what often feels like a secret is why they don’t work.
And since we don’t understand why they aren’t working for us, we tend to make the same mistakes with new “expert” advice, then get frustrated when we end up back where we started. The organization falls apart and our lives and living spaces are chaos again.
Lately, I’ve been enjoying watching home organization shows on television (while I don’t enjoy the process of organizing, there’s something satisfying about seeing it done. No? Just me?). I’ve especially enjoyed looking at the strategies they recommend and identifying why a particular idea doesn’t work well for those of us with ADHD. Some of the reasons might surprise you.
But the most fun I’ve had with this, is taking those “expert” strategies and “ADHD-ifying” them. Once you know why they don’t work for ADHD, it’s easier to identify what will work. So let’s jump in to 7 common but devastating organization mistakes you are making and what to do instead.
You’re going for pretty over practical
By practical, I really mean “most efficient.” Because what’s “most efficient” is generally not the prettiest option. When I was growing up, my mom always used decorative jars and containers to store her flour, spices, cereal, etc… That meant taking the food out of it’s original container and putting it in a different, prettier one. The result was a beautiful, organized look that was almost HGTV worthy.
Pretty, but not the most efficient option. And when it comes to ADHD, making our strategies as efficient as possible is key. I tried doing what my mom did and ended up with pretty containers of old food, half used and abandoned. Stored beside the same food, fresher, but still in it’s original packing. That resulted in more chaos and more clutter.
We don’t just do this with food storage either. How often do we choose a storage bin based on how pretty it is? Without stopping to think about whether it’s the most efficient option? Rarely, right? So we end up with storage containers with pretty lids, sagging totes, and drawers that like to “catch” a little when we try to open them. Pretty, but less efficient.
What’s most efficient tends to be storage that doesn’t require us to open a lid, “unstack” them to get what we need, or wrestle with them just to use them. I, personally, use firm fabric bins (without lids) because they are very easy to use. No opening or wrestling with them just to put something in or take it out. Oh, and I leave all of my food in it’s original containers. When it comes to your storage options, ask yourself “is this the easiest, most efficient option?
You’re making things too hard to get into
Choosing storage options that are more difficult to use isn’t the only way we make things “too hard to get into.” We also do that by overcrowding our storage spaces. Ever had a drawer that was hard to open because it was filled to the top? It’s a struggle to get it open and it’s a struggle to get it closed. And heaven help you if you are actually needing to try to find something inside because the contents will end up all over the floor.
When our storage is over crowded, it discourages us from trying to use it. So instead of putting things up, we end up leaving them out. The ADHD brain is always wrestling with (at least) a low key overwhelm when it comes to things we aren’t insanely interested in. So if you start adding anything that makes it even a tiny bit more effort (like an overcrowded drawer), we’re not likely to do it regularly. We just end up with stuff everywhere.
I’ve learned that an overcrowded drawer means either I have too much stuff, I need to add more storage, or I have no strategy and it’s just become a junk drawer. Often it’s a combination of these.
If it’s the first, get rid of stuff you don’t need to hold on to. If it’s the second, get more “efficient” type storage. If it’s the third, go through the drawer and separate stuff into loose categories like “office supplies” or “maintenance tools.” Then, create storage space for each category instead of throwing them all together in one place.
Related: The ADHD Speed Cleaning Checklist
You put your storage in the wrong place
We also make things difficult to get into based on where we put the storage options. So even if we choose the right kind of storage and we don’t overcrowd it, we can still be guilty of this organization mistake. We often put our organizational storage where it looks best to us, rather than where it’s most effective.
Our storage bins might look best tucked away in a closet somewhere upstairs but if what’s stored inside is usually needed or used downstairs in the living room, our efforts to maintain the organization will fall apart.
Think about craft supplies, for instance. We often store those where we think we should be doing crafts and it not where we actually end up doing them. If your craft supplies are all over the living room coffee table (because that’s where you usually do them), you need to have craft storage beside the coffee table. Not in the office or craft room upstairs. Heck, oftentimes even if your craft storage is on the other side of the living room, it’s still not efficient enough for us.
Store your things as close to where you actually use/need them as possible. For things you regularly use, you’ll want to keep the storage space as handy as possible. While tucked away in the closet might look the best, it’s often not efficient enough for us to maintain.
Your storage space isn’t visual enough
One of the challenges with ADHD is the “out of sight, out of mind” principle. We have difficulty with working memory so if things aren’t out in front of us, we can easily forget about them. When we’re talking about storage and organization, that often leads to forgetting what is supposed to go in any given storage bin or drawer and it results in most of our storage spaces becoming junk drawers and bins. An ADHD “free for all” kind of organization that isn’t very helpful.
I’ve noticed a huge difference in my ability to maintain the orginzation of storage bins that are more visual vs. those that are not. The more visual we make our organization, the more likely we are to use them regularly and keep them organized. What do I mean by visual here?
Our organization needs some way for us to easily tell what’s inside without having to look. Some people like to use clear baskets or open face bins so they can easily see what is inside, others like to use labels that tell them what is stored within.
These are ways that we can make storage more visual and take the guesswork out of figuring out what goes where. I personally use labels because I find that my brain can interpret the words faster than it can interpret a collection of things inside. Experiment with whatever works best for you, but make your storage more visual to help you keep it maintained.
You store things out of your line of sight
This is another problem of “out of sight out of mind” and leads to the break down of our efforts to maintain organization. When things aren’t stored in our line of sight, we easily forget about them. That often leads to us buying things we didn’t realize we already had.
This is often a big problem in the pantry. When we put canned foods on the shelf, storing them behind other cans, it’s hard to easily look and see what we have and what we don’t. So we end up with 5 cans of garbanzo beans that we’ll probably never eat, taking up precious room for other things that we need.
This is also a problem when we “buy in bulk.” We put that excess product in a storage area that we rarely look at and forget that it’s there, then buy more without realizing that we already have more than enough. That leads to overcrowding our storage spaces, too, which further complicates our organization efforts.
As much as you are able, store things beside each other rather than behind, unless you are storing duplicates of the exact same thing. So, you can store those 5 cans of garbanzo beans behind each other but put the canned corn beside the beans, not behind.
For other things like hygiene products, as much as you are able, store duplicates in drawers and cabinets that you regularly open, not tucked away in an obscure cabinet that rarely sees the light of day. (Though, in general, I don’t recommend keeping a lot of duplicates of stuff as it complicates our ability to maintain organization).
You don’t prioritize what goes where
I propose a hierarchy for your storage and organization efforts. Things that you use daily, should be the easiest to get to and things that are rarely used can be stored in places that aren’t as easy, efficient, or as often used (ie the cabinet under the sink or the upstairs closet).
So the kitchen appliances, hygiene products, etc… that you regularly need should be the ones allowed to have a place on the counter top. The ones you use often, but less regularly can be put in drawers and bins that are the easiest and most convenient to use. The stuff you rarely need can take the less desirable organization spots.
Things you use regularly are the ones that take the most energy and effort to keep organized, so if you are trying to put them in storage spaces that take more effort to use, they are probably just going to get left out on the counter.
So I have a spice basket beside my stove for the spices that I use all the time (before I implemented this, they were laying out all over my counter because it was a lot of energy to take them out and put them back in the pantry every day). The spices I don’t use as often are in a basket in the pantry.
Likewise, the hygiene products I use every day are the ones I leave out on my counter–the spray I use to refresh my hair, my toothbrush and toothpast, deodorant, make up, etc… but the hair products I only use on really bad hair days go in a drawer at the sink. It’s still really easy to get to and easy to just drop back in when I’m done.
This hierarchy helps preserve our energy. Stuff you use everyday is probably just going to end up sitting out on the counter anyway. You might as well make a home for it there. The stuff you use a bit less regularly don’t take as much energy to put back in a drawer (since you aren’t having to try to put them back every day). Efficiency!
You have too much stuff
I’m not a full on minimalist, though in recent years I’ve leaned in that direction. However, I’ve learned that the more stuff we have, the more effort it takes to keep it organized and the more overwhelming it gets when we “let it go.”
I’ll always hate doing dishes (they just suck) but they used to be a huge problem for me. I wouldn’t wash them until I ran out of clean dishes. By that time, I had a mountain of dirty dishes which was really overwhelming. In that overwhelm, I’d avoid them as long as possible so they ended up nasty, then I was even more overwhelmed. And the cycle just repeated.
When I reduced the number of dishes I had, it reduced the overwhelm. I still waited until every last dish was dirty before I washed them, but I was no longer staring at a huge mountain. Instead, I was staring at one sink full. And while I still dislike dishes, it is much easier to get myself to wash a sink full than it is to wash a mountain.
Unless you LOVE organizing and cleaning, downsizing is in your best interest. It limits how overwhelming things can get, it’s easier to get ourselves to do the organizing and cleaning, and it takes longer for it to become problematic.
All of these things make us more likely to do the organization and cleaning that needs to be done. For myself, I’ve found that since I have downsized my stuff, my house stays much cleaner and more organized than it EVER did before.
Want to know more ADHD friendly strategies to organize your house?
I’m working right now on a Home Organization Course for those of us with ADHD. It’s an in depth, detailed how to that walks you step by step through organizing your house in a way that WORKS for your ADHD brain.
We don’t just talk about minimizing your stuff, we go into detail about WHAT to keep or get rid of and HOW to decide. We go through strategies for every room in the house, including strategies that I recommend AND the details on how to “ADHD-ify” your own strategies. We even talk about how to manage overwhelm and motivation.
The course is not quite ready yet, but it will be soon. Sign up to be notified when it’s available and I’ll make sure you are the first to know. I might even throw in a little party gift for being on the list!
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These are mistakes we’ve all made, largely because most of us have never been shown how to work with the brain that we have. I know I’ve been guilty of them all! But now that I understand them better, I’ve been able to change my strategies to things that work better for my ADHD brain.
What organization strategies have worked or not worked for YOU? Have you found ways to “ADHD-ify” your organization? Let me know!