For pretty much my whole life, I’ve been a huge slob. We’re talking gigantic piles of clothes on the floor, dirty dishes all over the house, disgusting bathroom, “What is a duster and how do you use it?” levels of slobbery. I have ADD, and I always found it nearly impossible to focus long enough to clean something up, let alone maintain any semblance of organization. A couple years ago, I decided I was tired of my apartment looking like a frat house, so I made a commitment to change my behavior. I read this book, which is amazing and highly recommended. I learned to work with my ADD instead of against it. I consciously created a bunch of new organizing systems and cleaning habits. Today, I feel like an ADD success story. I’m still no neat freak (dusting will never be my thing), but I clean my house pretty much every day, willingly, and – gasp! — I enjoy it. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that might help you, too:
1. Be realistic. People with ADD tend to be dreamers and idealists. Our minds lend themselves to big ideas and exciting revelations, and obviously we tend to apply this to everything, including our organizing projects. The next time you’re about to tackle an organizing project, take a page from the serenity prayer — accept the things you cannot change, and then act accordingly. No matter how much you want to be the kind of person who keeps a meticulously alphabetized file cabinet, it’s probably not going to happen. No matter how cool that complicated closet organizing system look on Pinterest, it’s probably not a realistic option for you. The key here? Be realistic about the maintenance required in every organization system, and opt for the easiest one. That’s the only way you’re going to keep up with it. Trust me: acceptance is the first step toward a clean house.
2. Aim for organized chaos. A big turning point for me came when I changed my expectations about organizing. As I mentioned above, I used to aim for this super high standard of flawless organization, and I would fail over and over again until I just gave up. Now I know that I’m OK with a little chaos, as long as 1) I don’t have to see it every day, and 2) there is still a general sense of order. Here’s an example: I used to keep all my t-shirts in a pile on a shelf in the closet. Pretty much every day, I would ransack this pile trying to find the shirt I wanted, and I never cleaned it up. The shelf was a mess that stressed me out every time I looked at it. Finally, I moved my shirts to a drawer. Do they still get messed up pretty much every day? Yes, but the mess is contained, isn’t easily visible, and I always know exactly where all my t-shirts are.
3. Don’t “stage” things. My dad has ADD, and my mom used to get so mad at him for making “staging areas” all around the house, which were basically piles of things he intended to do but hadn’t gotten around to yet. There was a staging area for clothes that needed to be ironed, broken toys that needed to be repaired, mail that needed to be sorted, etc. This is a classic ADD behavior, and it makes it impossible to keep a clean house. Instead of staging things in to-do piles, put them away (yes, even if they’re wrinkled or broken!) and make a to-do list instead. This will ensure you don’t forget about your tasks, while keeping mind clear and your house neat.
4. Have a place for everything — a really specific, easy to access place. “A place for everything, and everything in its place” is a major cliche in the cleaning/organizing world, but for good reason: it works. And I’ve found it to be even more imperative for ADDers to abide by this rule. When something doesn’t have a place, you will put it down wherever. And then you will pile other stuff there. And then you won’t know what to do with your pile so you will just kind of relocated it around the house until you drive yourself insane. Giving everything a specific place will stop of the cycle of insanity!
5. Don’t ever set anything down NOT in its place. I read this tip in Real Simple a few months ago and it’s totally revolutionized my life: When you’re straightening up the house, don’t touch anything twice. What does this mean? Every time you’re tempted to set something down somewhere and “deal with it later,” force yourself to just put it back where it goes instead. It will usually only take you a few more seconds to deal with it now instead of putting it off. This one habit, once it’s ingrained in your routine, is a game-changer.
6. Use your multitasking powers for good. If you’re the type of person who thrives on doing multiple things at once (as many ADDers are), then work that preference into your cleaning routine. Sweep the kitchen while talking to your sister on the phone and making dinner. Scrub the bathtub while your deep conditioner soaks in. Straighten up the coffee table while watching a movie and giving yourself a manicure.
7. Never ignore a crazy cleaning whim. When you get the urge to clean, drop everything and do it. Cleaning when you’re in the mood will let you hyperfocus on the task at hand and get shit done, even if that mood strikes out of nowhere. Repeat after me: a 3AM cleaning rampage that results in a sparkling clean house is better than no cleaning rampage at all.
8. Think about organizing in terms of systems. Are you the type of person who likes to rebel against existing systems? Many ADD people are. Use this contrarian streak to your advantage when deciding how to organize your space. Here’s how: look up an organization method online (just google “How to organize books/bathroom/kitchen/whatever”) and then institute it exactly as described. Try to follow it for a week. Don’t get down on yourself if it doesn’t work out. Instead, identify all its inherent weaknesses and the parts of it that don’t work for you, and then use that knowledge to transform it into a brand new system that does. Tap into your creativity to come up with a custom solution that’s way better than the original. I know you can.
9. Set a timer. Another thing ADD brains struggle with? Time management. For many ADDers, time is experienced in a much more elastic way than it is for neuro-typical person. Depending on what we’re doing and how focused we are, 10 minutes can feel like 3 hours, or 5 hours can slip away in the blink of an eye. I have a theory that this is why many of us have an aversion to cleaning. It’s not a fun task, it’s hard to stay focused, and easy to get distracted, which means we either feel like we’re cleaning FOREVER (ugh) or lose track of time without accomplishing much. This is why you’ve got to find a way to wrangle time into manageable chunks, and a timer is a great way to do it. Set a timer for 15 minutes (I love using an hourglass so I can actually see time passing, but a phone timer or kitchen timer is totally fine too!), and force yourself to stay on task for that long. You’ll be so surprised at how much you can get done when you’re actually focused, that you might be tempted to set the timer again and tackle something else. After resetting the timer a few times, your whole house will be clean.
10. Own less stuff. The crazy artist in me has always been drawn to spaces that are cluttered and visually exciting — shelves full of quirky collections, coffee tables stacked with trinkets and magazines, closets over-stuffed with colorful clothes, etc. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that I’m just not able to keep a large quantity of stuff organized. It’s not in my skill set. When I own a ton of stuff, it gets super messy and disorganized, which makes me feel stressed and overwhelmed instead of inspired. Less stuff is easier to keep neat and organized. When you own less, you’re setting yourself up for organization success, and that’s really the whole point.