These are my best decluttering tips, not only for people with ADHD, but for everyone who has a hard time structuring their process of getting rid of stuff. I have ADHD and a lot of this has worked for me. So I hope it’ll do the same for you!
Break down tasks into small tasks
If this »old but good« tip does not work for you yet, that’s because you ain’t doing it right. You can try my approach, maybe it works for you! But everyone is different and it might not. But this is essential and used all over the world in ADHD therapy as a strategy. Also, it’s kinda common sense that breaking up one big chunk of a task into smaller and faster doable tasks is less overwhelming. You don’t need 20 years of research and a huge meta analysis to get that. So. Here’s how:
When it comes to tidying up, you need to break down three things:
- your mess itself,
- your mental blocks and
- the things you need to do to get rid of your mess
But first some basic principles for decluttering for my ADHD folks…
Even without ADHD (!) for most people decluttering is usually a bit overwhelming. And you should accept that it will come to this no matter what you do, because the only thing that helps with it is constant practice. Which you don’t have… otherwise, why are you living in a mess? So keep in mind: Always go from large to small, from general to specific and from overview to detail. Never the other way around!
Breaking down your mess
Your mess isn’t just »Oh, my room is full of stuff and everything is on the floor«. Your mess has more than one place. There is the desk, aka the root of all evil. Then there’s your bed, which you probably don’t just use to sleep in, cause you’re naughty. I’m not talking about f_cking, I’m talking about reading, eating and watching videos. There’s the laundry basket (or two of them, if you’re as bad as me). And so on…
So what you need to do is to find the different messy spots and that’s what you’ll later use to decide on the tasks (and their priorities, respectively), in order to get done fast with your decluttering. So note down the worst corners on some list, and make the categories or locations concise enough that they look manageable and cleanable already.
Breaking down your mental blocks
Decluttering for people with ADHD isn’t much different from »just decluttering«. Literally the only difference is that you make the sub-tasks smaller and more easy to do than the average normal person would.
Every barrier you can think of needs to be lower for you, because of your ADHD. E.g. if it causes you stress (and eventually leads to you giving up early) to write down your tasks, then start with visualizing them. It has been shown that visualizing to dos as well as possible issues that could come up in the realization of those chores, can help with actually accomplishing your everyday goals. So if you don’t have it in you to even start taking notes, start by having thoughts.
Anxiety and feeling paralyzed
If even thinking about it is hard and causes anxiety, start by getting into the mood. Like: You know you want to clean up your room and declutter your things. But you don’t even want to look at your mess. Okay, but what about the kitchen? Can you do the dishes after breakfast? Then do those. Find a nice podcast to listen to while you do it (you can check out mine), and just keep your hands busy until you feel more like it.
You can’t be a nighthawk—it just does not work.
I also highly recommend to cease the day and start early. Don’t wait until midnight, unless it really helps (and doesn’t wake up anyone who could give you crap about your tardy tidying enthusiasm). I myself am super guilty of late tidying sessions. Because in the morning, I just have a hard time shaking off my shitty mood. I am however not a proponent of this habit, because it’ll lead to later bedtime(s). Those tend to lead to less sleep and/or getting up late, which then feed into less social interactions or lack of quality of social interactions, and overall the feeling to be more alone, more helpless, less integrated and kind of lost in life. More early sleep is undoubtedly the key to a happier life. And even though I am a nighthawk and hate getting up early, in my opinion, hanging on to the romanticism of late night life is bullsh_t and leads to stress. It’s much more intelligent to just accept that you can not change our early morning society and try to fit in with that and optimize your schedule so that you actually can make it work, instead of whining how you are just wired differently and all of this is so wrong and unfair.
Give yourself tough love (but not too much)
In general, a little bit of tough self-love is something that can help here. Mental blocks are just that: mental. Nobody is actually keeping you from getting your chores done. Anyway, last but not least, I recommend also visualizing the preferred outcome. In this case: Your clean and tidy room. What will it look like to have accomplished this? How does it feel? How will it make you feel? What would working be like at your freshly decluttered desk? Imagine the awesomeness of it and not get off your a__ and start!
Break down all tasks
Now think of part one again, where we talked about breaking down the problematic messy zones in your space. What were those? This part works just like decluttering in categories, but with locations. If you plan on decluttering your whole apartment or house, I don’t necessarily recommend this. If you’re just decluttering your room, this is perfect though.
Going from locations to categories
Basic rule: If you declutter your whole home, it’s usually better to declutter by category, like the Marie Kondo method. If you have to just tidy up a small space, sectioning the process by location makes more sense.
An example could be:
- window sills
Now you order your messy spots by the following criteria:
- How fast can it be done?
- How satisfying will it be?
- How much space does it generate to clean up that area?
The more positive your answers to these questions are, the higher should the priority for this particular part of your mess be. For me, the highest priority would be my floor and/or laundry. I usually have a bunch of laundry all over my place, and to get rid of it instantly gives me more space. It’s done fast and easily, and it’s satisfying.
The space part is important, because if you have ADHD, a lot of clutter will just be very overwhelming and any added free space will take away from that overstimulation and make it feel more doable and less stressful for you.
Creating »mini tasks« make decluttering a lot easier for people with ADHD
After you prioritized your tasks, you then take the main tasks and break them down, e.g. like this:
- remove leftover food and cutlery
- put away all camera gear
- dust the desk
- wipe desk and laptop
Sure, you can just write »tidy / clean desk«. But what fun is that? It feels way better to check off 4 boxes instead of just one. And you want to feed your little instant gratification monkey, don’t you? If you want to be a little extra, you can even add tasks after you’re done with them, just to make your list longer. Go crazy. It’s your list. At the end of the day you are supposed to look at it and feel good about yourself.
If cleaning your desk is all your depressed a__ managed to do that day, so be it. Make it look like more than what it actually was. It’s just for you and it’s okay to cheat. The main thing you are supposed to take away from this is: It feels good to get something done. You are not supposed to end the day thinking »Oh well, I only did my desk, everything else is still a huge mess.« Everyone always goes on about »the little things«, no? This is them.
Use boxes for categories
As explained here, I don’t think that you can get around categories completely when you are sorting out your space. When decluttering, it’s easier for people with ADHD to go by locations, cause it is easier for your brain to separate those and separation generates order and order reduces stress.
However, sometimes things just don’t have a good place yet, and in order to find one, you need to categorize the thing you want to put away neatly, and in order to do that you need to move it from the »location pile« to the »category pile«. Eventually you can then go full circle and when you are done decluttering, all items of the same category (or a small enough sub-category) should go in the same distinct spot and stay there, so you’ll always find them and you never have to waste brain power on wondering where to put them again.
E.g. your shoes go in the shoe closet, not in front of it. Cables go into some box, where all the cables are – you shall not have several boxes unless you’re a huge nerd and got good reason. All the cleaning utensils, they can have one spot. Unless you live in a large house, why would you splatter those all over your place? And so on…
And for that, I do recommend the use of boxes and the boxes represent those categories like cleaning tools, books, paperwork to file somwhere, clothes, memories and my favorite soon to be dealt with unfinished business.
Don’t tell other people
Now, this decluttering tip is also just for people with ADHD and/or an anxiety disorder and/or burn-out experience. If you are the type that buys a pair of pants a little bit too small, because you want to lose weight, but then it never works… or if you are the kind of person who would tell everybody about your new business idea that actually does have potential, but then you never start even planning it… then this is for you.
A little pressure is great. You can actually use it to cope with your ADHD to create urgency and get started. But this weight can be tipped over super fast and then it becomes some kind of bad pressure that just holds you back, even though you know you could do it. You could just snap out of it. Only you can’t. So let’s just keep it to ourselves whenever we have a cool project. Trust me, that accountability crap online coaches blab about for hours, all that commitment shit, it’s not helping people with ADHD. All it does is set you up for failure.
It’s a failure trap, because it’s just another form of a negative self-fulfilling prophecy as described nicely by Watzlawick in his hammer story. By telling your friends, what you actually do is not hold yourself accountable or get them to motivate you. You just create another way to fail and prove that you’re a loser who can’t see a project through. Because that is what you have done numerous times, and by this point everyone already expects it. Your friggin subconscious expects it. And it’s telling you: You are going to fail.
So instead of involving everyone you know in something you are afraid of not being able to finish, involve yourself in it. Elaborate on the tasks, make lists, get in the mood, visualize the outcome, celebrate finishing partial tasks. And just start. Just starting will get you half-way there, and it is way more important than planning it. In my opinion planning does help with reducing the barrier of getting started. But if you end up having analysis paralysis, maybe just start without a plan. Cause in the end some success always, 100% of the time, sucks less than zero success.
Try the “diffusion method”
I explain this method in this »Declutter with me« video along with some other decluttering tips for people with (and without) ADHD, but basically what it means is:
Whenever you go from A→B, you want to take something with you that belongs more to B than to A.
Like, if there’s a sock in your kitchen and you are going to the bathroom, where your laundry basket is, anyway. Pick up that sock and take it with you. And even if you just pass by the bathroom, well then drop it there. It’s better than leaving it in the kitchen.
This way, little by little, making use of all the random walks you do throughout the day, your stuff will just diffuse into the places where it belongs.
It’s a great habit and something you can always do. No matter how tired you are, if you got a hand free, you can just pick something up. Just don’t fall for the »counter top trap«, aka leaving stuff on surfaces… no no no. It is supposed to be a little annoying, so that when you get to the place, you will actually feel the urge to give this thing the final attention and put it away for good.
Make use of the 70% rule
I can not explain this rule better than STRUTHLESS, so just check out his video(s) on it and you’ll be better than fine. Basically the 70% rule is a quantization of the idiom »Done is better than perfect!«. It helps to understand the fact that perfectionism leads to getting less done and therefore being the inferior approach most of the time.
And I am a total perfectionist. I would actually prefer 100% over 70% all the time. But we are talking probabilities here. And if the probability of reaching 100% is close to 0, then it really (mathematically) does not matter how often you try. You will literally get more done by just lowering your standards, you will be happier and feel more accomplished, and most of all, 99% of people don’t even see what you see.
I use this for my YouTube videos all the time. People don’t care if the white balance is perfect or everything is ultra HD, they just want to see my stupid face, I guess. (Also: I really don’t plan to make content for perfectionists, cause why would I put up with folks I can never please, when I’m not even content with myself, as if that’s not enough? I am a perfectionist, not a masochist.)
Those were all my tips for decluttering for people with ADHD
I hope these helped and I wish you all the best with your decluttering journey! Just keep in mind, decluttering is harder for people with ADHD. And yes, you need some pressure, but if you overdo it, you know what happens: You just shut down. So make it doable, make it satisfying and make it make sense. You will get there in time (but not too much time), and the outcome should not be perfect—as in, yes, it is not even supposed to be perfect. And in the end, the feeling of having just moved forward and done something, that’s your reward. No video game, no food, no shopping. Having tricked your brain into braining, that’s what it’s all for.