• Alana Stern

The Down & Dirty on Disorganization

How the Core Symptoms of ADHD Contribute to Disorganization

So much of “adulting” requires organization -

· shopping and cooking

· keeping track of to-dos

· cleaning up

· managing your emails or your money

· Keeping track of appointments – yours and your children's


Types of Organization

There’s spacial organization that deals with your stuff – possessions, paperwork, money or digital information. Then there’s temporal organization that helps us organize our time – planning, prioritizing and accurately allocating our time. We also need to organize our thoughts and ideas, like when we have to support our point of view in an argument or weigh up pros and cons of a decision.


If it’s one thing I hear all my clients say they want, it’s to “be more organized”. Disorganization can get in the way of many talented, motivated and gifted people. These are people who know what to do but lack the systems needed for consistently doing what they know. And in ADHDers, the extent of disorganization can cause serious problems with achieving goals, relationships, self-esteem as well as daily functioning.




Organizing is an Executive Function

If you've read recent ADHD literature, you've probably heard of executive functions. "Being organized” can be viewed as one of these brain functions, or thinking habits that help us execute tasks. Actually, "being organized" is a two-part skill. The first part is establishing the system, whether it be where things should be kept in your home or desk, how to structure your day or how to allocate and keep track of your money. Your approach would differ slightly, depending on what it is you are trying to organize. For most physical things, organizing entails grouping like items together and then assigning “homes”for each group. If your brain's "organizing function"is weak, you might need reminding of the above procedure before you try to organize a space. Organizing time involves assigning tasks to certain times and making sure it all fits together into a day or week or month. You will need to set aside planning time for this. We will talk more about that in a minute.



The second part of "being organized" is maintaining said system. This is often the harder part for ADHDers. Aside from other executive function weaknesses such as memory (remembering the system), activation (starting as opposed to procrastinating when needing to maintain said system) and follow-through (maintaining said system in the long run); the actual core symptoms of ADHD – problems with attention, impulsivity and hyperactivity – can also contribute to a lack of organization.


Attention Defecit Hyperactivity Disorder

Nowdays, your ADHD is classified as one of 3 presentations:

  • ADHD hyperactive/impulsive type

  • ADHD inattentive type or

  • ADHD combined type.


Let’s take a look at how controlling your attention, impulsive attention shifting and controlling your activity (hyper/hypo active) contribute to disorganization, and what you can do to circumvent your organization challenges.

1. Attention

To hold the attention of an ADHD brain, the task needs to be highly stimulating – either interesting, new, positively challenging or something that elicits passion because it connects to a core value. Maintaining an organizational system is often a low-stimulation, mundane activity – filling in a budget sheet, sorting through your email inbox or packing away your belongings. According to Sari Solden, author of Women with Attention Deficit Disorder, “This is where medication can actually help. It turns on the brain and helps to focus when there isn’t anything externally stimulating you.”

Strategies that Work

If you need to tidy up, sit down and record your spending or process emails, think how you can add a stimulation factor to keep you focused? Can you challenge yourself to finish within a certain time? How can you reward yourself for getting it done? Can you listen to something interesting or watch TV while you file paperwork?


2. Impulsivity

Impulsivity can manifest as excessive shifting of attention. With all the typical organization demands culturally expected of women, especially mothers, there are a million things demanding your attention. ADHDers have difficulty filtering out distractions. This has implications for how you organize yourself in time and results in jumping from one activity to the next, having difficulty picking the most important thing to do or work out the proper sequence of events.


Strategies that Work

Pause & Plan - Instead of wading through your day reacting to whatever catches your attention, be proactive by dedicating a few minutes near the start of your day to prioritize the most important things for today. But that’s not the end. Be sure to also plan when you will fit these priorities in. Depending on how hectic your day is, you may need to refer back to your plan a few times during the day. Don’t carry the plan in your head. The more you can make it visible, the more it will keep you grounded. That may mean you stick a Post-it with your plan at the top of your computer screen or on the fridge. It may mean you write your plan on a whiteboard in a central place. It may mean you pin a digital Post-it onto the home screen of your phone.

3. Hyper / Hypo Activity

Hyperactivity can leave you speeding from one activity to the next without the required planning, commitment or follow-through. Having a visible plan as mentioned above can help you stay anchored to your intentions. However, many adults with ADHD do not have the typical physical hyperactivity. It can be hyperactivity of thought – “lots of noise in my head”, or a feeling of restlessness or intense inability to tolerate boredom. All of these feelings get in the way of staying organized.


On this side of the spectrum, Sari explains that “even though traditionally thought of as problems with hyperactivity, many adults struggle with the opposite, hypo activity.” Dopamine is the chemical that is low in the ADHD brain, and dopamine is the chemical that is responsible for that feeling of motivation – it helps you to “feel like it”. This symptom can make a woman work too slowly to keep up with her organizational demands.

Strategies that Work

Firstly, ADHD medication strives to regulate the level of dopamine in your brain. Regular physical exercise, enough sleep and protein, mindfulness meditation or even listening to calming music can also help to regulate dopamine.


Here’s a brain-hack you can try if you are frozen with the “I don’t wanna” feeling. Think baby steps. It’s easier to get moving if you feel you can get through something easily, rather than if it’s just the beginning of a long drawn-out process. So if you need to clean up the kitchen, how can you break it down into steps so small that you won’t be thinking, “I don’t feel like it”. What’s the very first step? Exit Facebook? Next? Put down the phone? Next? Stand up from the couch? Good, what’s next? Walk into the kitchen? Usually by the 4th or 5th step, you are over the hurdle of starting, which is the hardest part if you already have a system in place.

But I Am Organized

You may check some of the boxes for ADHD but be thinking, “this is not me, I’m very organized”. Sometimes, the difficulty in organizing can morph into vigilant and obsessive organization in an effort to “keep on top” of everything. Being organized is good, but needing to have everything in it’s place to function can take a toll. Focusing too much on being organized can cause imbalance in your life and it can affect your relationships with your partner, children or friends.


If this sounds like you, I highly recommend the books, “ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize your Life.” and "Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD". If you find it difficult to “get organized” on your own, professionals like coaches or personal organizers are there to work with you to build and maintain your systems. Schedule a free discovery call to find out how I work with women to help them organize their lives.

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