Ask Unclutterer: Organizing and uncluttering strategies for people with ADHD and visual processors

Reader Shannon submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Do you have any tips for people with ADHD that go beyond the stuff you see or hear all the time in other publications? Work is pretty okay except for the whole “getting started” part, but my home is the tough area. I am one of those people who has to see something to remember I have it but that keeps things cluttered.

Based on the information you provided in your email, it is very likely that you’re a visual processor. I’m one, so I empathize with your need to see your belongings.

After years of working with students who have different forms and ranges of severity of ADHD, I’ve come to realize that there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution for staying organized. This is true for the non-ADHD afflicted as well, but for some reason unknown to me, it’s much more widely accepted in the general population than for those with ADHD. So, I’m going to provide a number of different strategies and I suggest you try the ones that speak to you. These same strategies might also work for other visual processors, with or without ADHD.

  • Less is best. Too much stuff in a space likely bothers you immensely. If a drawer or closet gets too full, you may stop opening it and decide to ignore its existence. The fewer items you have in your home competing for your attention, the less you’ll feel overwhelmed by all of the visual stimuli. Just because you can own 25 shirts doesn’t mean you should own 25 shirts. (I own about 20 shirts, but 8 of them are the exact same shirt, just in a different color.) The first step to finding sanity is to get rid of as much clutter as possible — you don’t have to be a minimalist, but a minimalist-influenced space will work well for you. Remember: It is hard to be messy when you don’t have a lot of stuff to get messy.
  • Think outside the closet. A traditional hanging rod for clothes might be a great idea for people who are auditory processors, but they’re likely a bad idea for you. Consider getting an Expedit bookshelf (or something similar) for your closet where you can group outfits together in cubbies. Then, hang a picture of yourself in each outfit on the lip of the cubby hole so you can “see yourself” in the outfit when making decisions about what to wear. (This also helps when returning clothes to your closet.) If cubbies aren’t for you, consider installing valet rods so your clothes can face you. Give your clothes as much room as possible so you can see each item well.
  • Use an accountability partner. I mentioned this earlier in the week, and I think it’s ideal for someone with ADHD. Have a friend come over and sit on the couch and keep you company while you unclutter and organize. The person doesn’t need to lift a finger, his or her presence is usually enough to help keep you on track.
  • Consider duplicates. Although I just suggested you have as few things as possible, it will probably work to your advantage to have duplicates of the things you do use. For example, keep a pair of scissors in the same container as your wrapping paper and another pair in your kitchen and another pair in your desk drawer. The scissors are much more likely to be returned to the wrapping paper storage container after you finish wrapping a present then they are to be returned to your desk drawer in the other room. I have multiple battery rechargers in the house because I don’t remember to recharge batteries otherwise.
  • Shelves are better than drawers. Whenever possible, use shelving for storage instead of cabinets with doors. In your kitchen, consider removing your cabinet doors or having glass doors installed. It’s a lot easier to find things when you can see them. This is true for bookshelves, too. You may prefer to use shelves with outward facing books instead of traditional spine-only displays.
  • Routines, routines, routines. You probably operate very productively when running on auto-pilot. As a result, try to create routines for the repetitive actions of your life — load and unload the dishwasher every Monday and Thursday, do laundry every Tuesday night, take out the trash every Wednesday, etc. It probably takes three or four months for things to become routine for you, so don’t be too hard on yourself as you’re establishing these routines. If you’re consistent, they’ll eventually stop being things you have to remember and become things you just do.
  • Label simply. If you need to make it out the door every morning with your briefcase, car keys, and phone, mark these objects with the letters A, B, and C. Put a luggage tag with the letter A on it on your briefcase. Put a keychain on your keys with the letter B. Adhere a sticker to your cell phone or get a decorative cell phone case with a big letter C on it. Then, every time you leave your house or leave work you only have to remember A, B, and C. You can do a quick check to make sure you have those things, and be on your way. These simple labeling strategies are great for using with kids, too.
  • Use beautiful things. Plain things may feel invisible to you. I can only use manilla file folders for archived papers (like tax returns) because I can’t “see” the files. For active files, I use ones with designs on them — birds, patterns, funny sayings — because the designs help me to remember what is inside them. My desk calendar is designed by Jonathan Adler with bright colors and little designs throughout it. If it’s not pretty, I’ll lose it or forget it. If I like looking at it, chances are I won’t forget about it. If you don’t own many things (see the first “Less is best” point), these beautiful things stand out in your space and tempt you to use them.

Thank you, Shannon, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please be sure to check the comments for even more suggestions from our ADHD and visual processing readers. Good luck on your uncluttering and organizing journey!

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

25 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Organizing and uncluttering strategies for people with ADHD and visual processors”

  1. posted by Dee on

    Excellent!! I can’t fix a boss or child with ADHD but this article just gave me an incredible

  2. posted by bea on

    Thanks SO much for this post, Erin. Those of us with ADD (even mild forms) have such a difficult time organizing. A lot of what I’ve been doing is ruthlessly culling what I’ve got and keeping only what I really NEED. It’s hard to get distracted in the kitchen and forget to make coffee when the only things on the countertop are the cookie jar and the coffeemaker!

  3. posted by Jo@simplybeingmum on

    Wow this was fantastic thank you Erin. And also thank you Shannon for asking the question. I do not have ADHD – but in reading this wondered if I had (I don’t – just googled it) as I do have similar behaviours. The thing about multiples is really interesting. As part of my life simplification I have tried to reduce so i only have one of everything where I can, but our family hairbrush got lost so many times that I have had to buy another for emergencies. I never remember to put things back (as my mind wanders onto something else), so we have to have toothbrushes in three seperate locations also. Really interesting – in fact very topical also. I lost one of the Kids DVD’s in March on holiday – found it today in a completely CD case in the kitchen – Bizarre! Great stuff!

  4. posted by Christy on

    Another help? The post it note is your friend. You can purchase larger notes that are 5 by 7 in size. I have one fixed to the dashboard of my car with a checklist on it. (uniform, shoes, socks, ID, apron, coffee, phone, wallet) I check the list before I pull out of the driveway.

    At work, I have notes posted above my work station reminding me to check dates on things and clean the sink before I leave! (I work in a kitchen)

  5. posted by Dee on

    Excellent!! I can’t fix a boss with ADHD but this article just gave me an incredible amount of insight into the mindset. I spend the bulk of my day organizing and cleaning up after the “hurricane”. Although, having multiple sets of everything and keeping everything out in plain sight rubs me the wrong way, it just might help him. Thanks for the article.

  6. posted by JN on

    Thank you so much. This article almost made me cry! You are so right! The most orderly, uncluttered places in my house are the ones where I can SEE what’s there. All of your suggestions were right on the money. I reiterate: THANK YOU

  7. posted by laura on

    I take notes, or lists like when I go out of town which is rare, I have a check list of items for ex: 2 swim suits, sunscreen, beach hats, etc. The kitchen can be distracting and I keep it decluttered as its easy to have things messy over one day. I agree with having duplicates like scissors, extra pens and tablets for notes, etc. Those living alone have it easy, as they can’t blame anyone for misplacing items or leaving a mess. Writing a list when running errands, grocery shopping, saves gas and time.

  8. posted by Another Deb on

    I would like to recommend a book called “Organizing for the Creative person” by Dorothy Lehmkuhl and Dolores Cotter Lamping. The authors describe a life of “chasing dandelion fluff, first, one seed, then the other.” I have never been diagnosed with ADHD but am definately distractabe, and very visual, both have been helped by the insights in this book.

  9. posted by Ann on

    In a workspace, I have found that the elimination of “visual chaos” is a help to keep me on task. I keep my “to work on” files behind my desk on a table, and only what I am working on in front of me. That is so, when I look up, there aren’t 300 “to do’s” staring at me. I keep a list of the files to be worked on to my right, but out of my direct line of sight, so I can get a quick view of what is to be done, rather than messing with the actual files.

  10. posted by watercolorgirl on

    I don’t have ADHD but I am very visual and I think some of these strategies will work well for me. Thank you!!

  11. posted by Laura on

    I have ADD (I’m NOT hyperactive!).

    I have scissors: in 2 places in the kitchen, my desk and by the phone near the family room; my husbands desk in his office; a couple of pairs in my art/creative/reading room; in my nightstand; in my bathroom; in each of 3 kids’ bedrooms.

    That’s just scissors.

  12. posted by Tabbyfoo on

    I have ADD and some visual processing tendencies, and several of the things on this list are also things I do. I would add “label storage” as if it has a name and a place to live, I am much more likely to put it away. However, this doesn’t work for my daughter, who is much more visual than I am. She lines up all her toys in groups, but refuses to store them in their proper bins. :P The hardest one, that would be the most helpful, is the accountability partner. I have asked over and over for friends to just come sit at my house while I clean, and everyone thinks I’m crazy! They all laugh like I’m kidding, but I”m totally not. Having someone there sitting on the couch is a forceful, visual reminder that I have something I am supposed to be doing, and it isn’t farting around on facebook.

  13. posted by Marjoryt on

    I used to teach GED classes to ADD and ADHD students. I would ask them to work on something (get them on task where they weren’t observing me) and very quietly time their time on task. Over the course of a week or so, I’d do this several times at different times during the period. The average became the “time on task” – how much I could expect each individual to work. From there, we’d try to extend that time if possible, and always come up with a quick distractor.

    For instance, one student could stay on task 9 minutes for composition, and 10 minutes for answering questions or reading easy material. We established his distractor to be writing his name frontwards and backwards. He’d write for 9 minutes, then write his name frontwards and backwards (mirror writing), then try to get back on task. He gave himself permission to go off task as a reward – but only briefly. It worked – he passed all his GED on the first try!

  14. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    What excellent advice! I just have a few things to add:

    1. Hooks can sometimes work better than hangers.

    2. If you can afford it, you might want to hire out certain tasks. Get a housekeeper, pay someone to do the laundry, whatever.

    3. I recommend two books:
    Organizing Solutions for People with Attention Deficit Disorder – an easy read, with lots of pictures, and lots of good advice, too.

    ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life – more complex, but filled with good information.

  15. posted by Janna on

    I have ADHD. I also recommend the two books suggested by Jeri and add Organizing From the Inside-Out, by Julie Morgenstern. Her methods are infinitely adaptable and easy to implement, and all about finding what works for you. I used her methods for time management (Time Management From the Inside-Out) to manage my life when I was working as a church secretary, and her organizational techniques to re-organize the filing system (which was a disorganized mess before I got to it).

    I’ve always been good at organizing things, though. It’s keeping them that way that is my downfall. Tips for that would be wonderful – especially if they’re tuned to someone who is visually oriented, a kinethenic learner, and has two phrases that describe her housekeeping abilities: “the floor is simply another horizontal surface on which things can accumulate” (in other words, once the tables and chairs are covered, move to the floor); and “a box is just a contained pile” (in other words, just because it’s in a box doesn’t mean I have any idea where it is).

  16. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jeri — I didn’t know about either of those books. Now they’re on my reading list, too! Thanks so much for sharing the titles :)

  17. posted by Diane on

    I really like to have things out where I can see them, too, but the little paper stuff can get so lost. I have a desk drawer with hanging files and a folder for each day of the month to put things in that go with a day (like tickets, invitation with maps, papers to take somewhere) which is a great idea, but I hated looking in the folders every day to see if something was there. So, I finally figured to put a bright round sticker on my calendar if I put something in a folder. So, if there is a sticker on the day, then I look in the folder.

  18. posted by Shalin on

    Thank you soo much Erin for these ideas but more so the thoughtfulness for us visual folks :)

    –S

  19. posted by Liz on

    Oh. Wow. I’m a bit late to the party here, but this post hit the nail on the head for me. I never thought of myself as a “visual” processor until I read your suggestions and realized that I use some of them. I don’t have full-blown ADHD (at least I don’t think I do), but I identify with the frustrations. Thanks for this post and thanks to those who commented. I am going to explore more of these ideas.

  20. posted by Indi on

    Hi, my first comment here. First, I’d like to say that thanks to unclutterer and others, and my therapist, I’ve managed to overcome clutter, disorganized living, chaos and other things in like 6 months. I’m not over it yet, but I can say my house looks beautiful now, and it works for my projects and my lifestyle. I feel more confident, organized and tidy. I followed @Another Deb’s advice, bought Organizing for the Creative Person ebook, read it in two days, and it’s fantastic. It’s a great book, with lots of ideas for people like me, who don’t seem to have an internal order system. Order, like many things in life come from the inner self structure, it reflects somehow WHO you are and WHERE you are in your life right now. Thanks to all of you, you helped me through an enormous effort. My regards!!

  21. posted by Annette on

    What a great post! Thank you. For work I use plain composition notebooks to take notes. I always decorate them with big stickers. I know which one is the most current with just a glance. There are so many great ideas here!

  22. posted by Shannon on

    Erin, thank you so much for responding to my question! I will be trying out your suggestions in the weeks to come. I definitely agree that my uncluttered spaces are the easiest to be in. In fact, I moved into a two-bedroom recently and removed all the “stuff” that I have gathered over years and put it all in the spare bedroom. Now I just need to start decluttering that area, LOL. I already donated two boxes but need to do more. Thanks again!

    @Jeri – I actually bought Organizing Solutions two weeks ago and think it’s a great book! The visual examples coupled with the acknowlegement that some solutions won’t be visually appealing has helped a lot.

  23. posted by Eddy on

    WAY too long of a post for someone with ADD :)

    Got the bullet points somewhere?

  24. posted by Alex on

    I also do checklists like a few people mentioned. I don’t have add or adhd but I grew up in a cluttery house and never formed good organizational habits.
    The other thing I did was take pictures on my phone when the house was clean, so I can go back and see what different areas of the house are supposed to look like. I tend not to notice clutter building up so the pictures serve as a visual checklist.

  25. posted by Eliza on

    Thank you for the post and the comments. I am beginning to wonder if I am borderline ADD, but I certainly am a visual processor. Am going to ask my husband to read this so he can understand why our house is so untidy! (and help me improve of course!). The accountability partner is an interesting point – I got loads done the other day when I had an electrician working in the house, just him being around somehow kept me on tasks and less distracted.

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