Organizing with an ADHD mind

Today we welcome guest post author Ryan McRae, who is the founder of the website TheADHDnerd (a blog dedicated to helping people with ADHD be more productive). If you’re interested in learning more, he has a free book for download, Conquering Your Calendar and Getting More Done.

I’ve had ADHD all of my life and I never had the natural ability to organize; I distinctly remember my third grade teacher dumping my desk out when I couldn’t find something. I remember misplacing my wallet constantly and having clutter surrounding me most of my days.

The amount of time I have wasted letting my ADHD run my organizational life could have earned me a Ph.D.

No more. The following are the strategies I use to get my ADHD to cooperate with my need to have my life in order.

Pick your battles

If you are looking to clean your house, your ADHD mind will quickly attempt to deter you from this enormous project. You have to break it down into manageable pieces and if your ADHD still pressures you to catch up on your Netflix queue, break it down into smaller bits and pieces.

Instead of “cleaning the bathroom” decide to simply tidy up the sink and throw out old, empty containers. Once you do that, you’ll find one more task to do and then do that. Set that strategy on “repeat” and you’ll find you cleaned the entire place without firing up “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Double duty

One task I absolutely detest doing is laundry. The entire spectrum of the task from loading the washer to putting away the folded t-shirts puts me into a fit.

So what I do is put on a movie I’ve seen before or a podcast and listen to it while I do this abhorrent task. If there is ever a Kickstarter project that eliminates this task, I’ll put a lot of money behind it.

If you can couple something you love with something you don’t quite enjoy, you’ll be much better off. As Mary Poppins said, “A little This American Life makes the laundry get put away…”

Develop routines

When I used to get home from work, I’d change out of my work clothes, flop down on the couch, and think about what dinner was going to be. Many times I didn’t get up from the couch. I noticed that the next day I couldn’t remember what I did with my keys and where my shoes were. My mornings didn’t start off great and left me no time for coffee. And who has two thumbs and loves coffee? This guy.

So I had to develop a routine that I would launch into as soon as I went home so I knew where my stuff was as well as leave me room for my beloved nectar, my best friend, coffee.

When I get home now, I simply do the following:

  • Grab the mail and go through it and only take in the house what I need to process. Throw out the rest.
  • Empty my pockets in the container by my front door immediately.
  • Change out of work shirt and evaluate if it can be worn again: hamper or hang it.
  • Wash hands
  • Fix Dinner

I do this every time. This way I know where everything goes and I don’t have to sweat getting my evening going. I’ve built a great morning routine and before-bed routine as well. This minimizes my stress and headaches searching and wondering what I’m doing next.

Maintenance day

I stole this idea from Chris Bailey in The Productivity Project. Having one day, a maintenance day, to do all of your low energy tasks is much wiser than alternating between something that takes a lot of time (cleaning out the garage) and then trying to do something simple (dusting the living room). Batch all of your simple tasks together.

He calls these “low-return” tasks. Instead of doing them throughout the week, depleting some willpower throughout the week, just knock them out all in one day.

For example:

  • Grocery shopping
  • Clean house and office
  • Do laundry
  • Water plants
  • Clear out the inboxes

Since my Thursday is my maintenance day, I will get up early, and attempt to get all these little tasks done before 1:00 p.m. It’s my own personal competition — this way they are cleared out for the week and I can set my mind on other larger projects.


ADHD can trick me into being collectors of all kinds of things. My weakness is t-shirts. My t-shirt collection grows due to sales and convention swag every year. I can’t get enough t-shirts.

It becomes a storage issue quite quickly. So I have my own personal Hunger Games when it comes to my t-shirts. Once I can’t fit the folded shirts in the drawer, it’s elimination time.

I use my ADHD to quickly assess which t-shirts will remain and which will be donated to the local thrift store. I simply sort them and if they don’t grab my attention, they must go. If I try it on and it’s a bit of a stretch, it is soon eliminated.

Scan, store, or shred

Paperwork can grow like this overwhelming kudzu, filling the desk and creeping into every bare surface in the house. When it comes to paperwork, there are only three choices.

Paperwork I know that I need in a moment’s notice, I’ll scan using my smartphone. I save everything on Evernote and make sure it’s secure. Examples of what I scan are: travel itineraries, passport information, and my car insurance card.

When I need to store something larger, I have a file folder system — this is for manuals, workbooks, etc.

Otherwise, I shred it and don’t look back.

8 Comments for “Organizing with an ADHD mind”

  1. posted by @ChiefEO on

    It seems like a common theme is to simplify things in to common, individual tasks and to focus on one thing at a time. At work, I had an extraordinarily long ToDo List so that I could hardly keep it realistically prioritized. I ended up designing an intricate excel ToDo List that worked great, so I’m developing it in to an app. It follows the same theme in that it surfaces the few tasks that are really the important ones at any given point.

  2. posted by infmom on

    I don’t have ADHD although it does run in my family. I just wanted to comment that my 6th grade teacher dumped my desk because it was too messy for her liking, and when I refused to pick up the contents from the floor because I wasn’t the one who put them there, she sent me to the principal’s office. That still feels unfair to this day, 50+ years later. 🙂

  3. posted by ADHD100MPH on

    I have ADHD and I’m always comforted when others are navigating through it successfully. My ADHD is so severe I counted 4 times my mind wandered while reading this article and twice I had to restart this comment. So thanks for the tips, they are going to be helpful

  4. posted by Sarah on

    @infmom: It WAS 100% unfair, but I say “BRAVA!” to YOU for holding your ground and refusing to pick up what the teacher dumped on the floor.

    The teacher needed to be sent to the principal’s office to be FIRED.

  5. posted by Phalynn on

    @Infomom – was your teacher Mr. Bruce or Miss January? I too had my desk dumped from a psycho….

  6. posted by Ryan McRae` on

    This is Ryan, the author. Having that teacher dump your desk—ugh. I get that and I’m glad you stood your ground. I’ve checked out ToDo and I’m a big, big fan of Evernote. You’re welcome for the tips and I have a book for Unclutterer fans—just click the link by my name!

  7. posted by PA Fulkerson on

    I was on meds as a child for hyperactivity. Now in my 50s and feeling overwhelmed I stumbled onto an article on ADHD and realized why my desk is always a mess! In reading your article I realize I’m on the right track as some of the things you mentioned I’m doing already. The others will fit in nicely and I Thank You for the article. Now I’m going to get off the couch and find my keys!

  8. posted by Karen Finkenbinder on

    It took me 50 years to discover that once things are hidden in file cabinets and boxes, they do not exist for me. I would forget what was there and often make a new copy of something I already had. I have the attention span of a gnat. The answer is to scan and keep stuff online (for me, Evernote). I have boxes labeled in my office for frequently used stuff. I have one big red binder on my bookshelf that is labeled “death” and it has copies of wills and important papers (SSN blacked out), instructions, etc. so they don’t have to search my whole house to find my next of kin and my wishes. 10 years ago I was drowning in paper. Now I can almost be a minimalist. It is so much more relaxing. With online bill paying too…I have very few actual papers to keep! That said, I have a log of online passwords, tucked away for my family so they can close out those accounts. I have so much more energy to do what I want and not feel overwhelmed each time I walkin the room. Freedom!

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