Learning how to get organized with ADHD is possible through efforts like task tracking, developing a routine, and the use of helpful tools.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder resulting from changes to the brain during development. While doctors usually diagnose ADHD during childhood, symptoms can persist into adulthood.
Hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention are the flagship traits of ADHD, but under those umbrella terms is a broad spectrum of ADHD experiences. Inattention, for example, can appear as anything from distractibility to forgetfulness.
Being unorganized can also be part of life with ADHD. If you find it challenging to put the world around you in order, don’t lose hope. You can learn how to get organized when living with ADHD.
When you live with ADHD, organization isn’t only about the spaces around you. It’s also about how you manage tasks in your day.
Timing your day
Timing yourself can be a great way to organize your day, see where your time is going, and acknowledge places for improvement.
Dr. Regina Lark, an organization and productivity specialist from Los Angeles, California, recommends starting this process by making a list of things you do every day and how long you think they take.
“Don’t spend too much time overthinking this,” she says. “And then, when you have your list, start timing yourself. Chances are good you’re going to find out where your time is going and [what’s] stopping you from getting on with the important [tasks] in your day.”
Lists, lists, and more lists
Lists have plenty of applications when it comes to staying organized in ADHD.
Dr. Rosie Gellman, a pediatrician, psychiatrist, and founder of Psych for Tykes and Teens, LLC, Louisville, Colorado, says any list can help keep scattered thoughts organized.
“In general, writing down ideas to get them out of your head and somewhere more permanent and concrete can be very helpful,” she says.
In addition to lists, other visual reminders can help keep you on track, too. A strategically placed sticky note on the bathroom mirror, for example, can bring your attention back to something you need to do.
The sticky note doesn’t have to be a list. It can be a word or a phrase that helps redirect you.
Using organizational tools
The commercial market is full of tools to help people get organized. Two of the simplest options that can make a difference are a calendar and an alarm.
“In ADHD, time management, and just the more general concept of time, can be a struggle,” says Gellman. “Keeping a physical calendar, requiring intentional effort and concentration to create the event, as well as physical reminders of the event, can be helpful.”
Setting an alarm or electronic notification can help support your calendar by adding another type of alert for important events or appointments.
A variety of apps developed specifically for managing daily life with ADHD may also be helpful.
Creating a routine
Behaviors done repetitively over time can become habits — patterns of behavior that become second nature.
Gellman recommends developing a daily routine that starts with a consistent wake-up time and ends with a consistent bedtime. During the rest of the day, keeping the things you do regularly at the same time encourages habit formation.
A daily routine can help with organization in ADHD because it takes away some of the pressures and worries that can come with an unstructured, unpredictable environment.
Getting organized doesn’t always have to involve big, sweeping changes or behavior adjustments. Sometimes, little changes can help, too.
You can try:
- outsourcing responsibilities, like cleaning, when you can afford to
- delegating chores
- setting up automatic bill pay and electronic invoicing
- keeping storage areas small
- scheduling extra time to make appointments and meetings
- keeping important papers in one place
- using labels
- keeping things simple by getting rid of unnecessary items
- breaking projects down into smaller tasks
Not everyone living with ADHD experiences challenges with organization.
Disorganization is only a potential part of the diagnostic criteria under inattention in ADHD, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).
The DSM, a clinical guidebook used in the United States for mental health conditions, defines disorganization as difficulty organizing tasks and activities. This can include challenges with:
- managing sequential tasks
- keeping belongings in order
- messy, disorderly work
- time management
- meeting deadlines
Disorganization is one of nine inattention symptoms listed by the DSM-5-TR, and only six of those symptoms must be present for a diagnosis of inattention in ADHD.
This means you can be diagnosed with ADHD of any type — inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, or mixed — and not have any symptoms of disorganization.
How does ADHD affect organizational skills?
As a neurodevelopmental disorder, ADHD affects the part of your brain responsible for executive function, the frontal lobe. This can alter many of the functions behind organization, such as memory, planning, motivation, and time perception.
“Our relationship to time lives in our executive function,” explains Lark. “So too [does] our ability to plan, prioritize, and produce the things we want to accomplish today or plan to accomplish next year.”
She indicates that understanding your individual abilities of executive function can go a long way toward helping you get and stay organized.
If a loved one is living with ADHD and finds organization a challenge, you can help them by offering direct support as well as through practices that honor their efforts and show compassion.
Lark and Gellman recommend:
- focusing on kindness
- avoiding judgment or criticism of disorganization
- working on tasks together
- becoming comfortable with “good enough”
- learning about how the ADHD brain approaches organization
- helping them purchase organizational tools like reminders, timers, or alarms
- strategizing with them to create a plan for their days
- asking them if there are specific projects they want support with
- meeting with them regularly to check in
- offering to take on responsibilities to lighten their load
- helping them set up automatic payments and services
Learning how to get organized in ADHD can be challenging. ADHD affects areas of the brain that control processes important to organization, like memory, time management, prioritizing, and planning.
Living with ADHD doesn’t sentence you to a disorganized life, however. By striving to create routines, utilizing organizational tools, and simplifying daily life, anyone can improve their organizational skill set.