Friday, June 17, 2011

ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your LIfe

A couple of months I read several books about ADHD and organization.   Though I am probably not diagnosable ADD, books about organization and ADD work better for me than ordinary organization books because they deal with issues at a more specific level than ordinary organization books do. .

At least some of them do.   Some of them still fall into the trap of basically saying "How do you get organized?  Get organized!" (that is, arrange your folders alphabetically, or whatever).   This doesn't quite get to the heart of MY problem because it seems to interfere at a lower level than that.   Something like "get color-coded folders and organize your incoming papers by topic" can sound like "go climb Mount Everest" to someone with ADD.   It is multi-step, involves some emotional strain and sounds arduous without much natural reward, which are all things that are difficult for an ADD-type person to deal with. 

An ADD-type person isn't necessarily disorganized.  Rather, his brain is set up to receive information in a non-linear/sequential way.   Often there are difficulties with processing, so the brain "hangs" during critical moments rather than engaging.   It's like one of the older computers you may have around the house that has plenty of storage room but not a very powerful processing system so it slows down to a crawl when called on to do more challenging things. So it's not organization that's lacking, so much as spatial/temporal retrieval and processing.  

The book I found most helpful  of the several I read  was called ADD--Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.   The title describes its format pretty well.  Every chapter deals with a particular problem of ADD-type people. It opens with a few stories of people who have that kind of problem -- for example, with the issue of getting out of the house in the morning on time, it describes a young business type who is sort of classic ADD and loves doing several things at the same time and sort of enjoys the tension of getting to the office just under the wire.  It also tells about a mother of several who found her family was always frantically looking for things at the last minute and piling into the car without having eaten breakfast.

Then each chapter offers various specific solutions.  I don't remember the solutions for the young executive because I'm not so much a risk-taker type,  but for the mother, it was suggested that she start a simple breakfast, lunch and dinner routine -- SIMPLE being the operative word, and "convenient" being the other imperative.  In her family's case they relied quite a bit on prepackaged healthy snacks that you could just grab and go.  Another suggestion was to have a drop and pick-up basket by the door -- where you put your keys and cell phone and backpacks and whatever you will need to walk out the door with.

Probably most people do these things naturally but they are exactly the sort of middle-level solutions that I have trouble with.   Though I've made progress over time by necessity!   I only have to hunt for keys once a month rather than twice a week now, and the hunt is limited to 3 or 4 possible places rather than all over the hosue! 

Each chapter contains three "levels" of solutions-- things you can do by yourself, and things you can get help from your family or friends, or your professional adviser (whether that is an ADD coach or whatever).    I mostly focused on the self-help sections. 

The book seems to hit the target with common difficulties for ADD-type people -- like hyperfocusing and letting other things slide, procrastination, tendency to have floods of ideas at the same time so it's almost impossible to keep focused on what you are doing, difficulty in retrieval both mentally and physically, so that you can never find the right thing at the right time.  Also making decisions, having trouble thinking through things ahead of time so you end up behaving impulsively, and not being able to learn well from consequences, so you repeat the same mistakes over and over.  These things are not lack of organization strictly speaking, but they lead to lack of organization.   But they have to be coped with upon the level that they exist. 

One thing I've found especially helpful is what the book calls the Stubby To-Do List.   For this, you are supposed to take a smallish pad of paper and a sharpie, preferably in a bright color, and in the morning write down no more than 5 things you really want to get to that day.  You don't have to pay attention to priority or anything, just list them as they come.    They are things you don't already do by habit, things that would tend to slip out of your mind without the reminder.

Then you keep the list in a handy place where it's easily visible and refer to it.  If something doesn't get done you simply put it on the next day's list.  But if it keeps not getting done, that is a clue that it might have to be broken up into smaller sections or that you might have missed a step.   For example, if I write "call Aidan's insurance company" and find it sliding for more than one day, perhaps I have some ambivalence or I have to figure out what to say more carefully or I need to have the phone number ready at hand.  It's silly, but these little blocks seem to cause problems in getting things done for me.

Some ADD coaches recommend writing a 3-item list and working hour by hour instead of day by day.   That's probably for people with very busy jobs or lives.   For me, the 5-item daily list works better because it's so simple.  I don't usually use a bright Sharpie, either -- I can see that it's supposed to activate your brain but my brain gets irritable when faced by large bright bold writing.  So I just use an ordinary pen.

This short to-do list is distinct from having a regular calendar to write down appointments.   Though sometimes if I am going to an appointment and need to drop something off at the Post Office on the way, I will write that down.   It's also distinct from your ordinary daily routine, though when I'm trying to add something new to my routine I sometimes write it down on the to-do list for a few days until I don't need the reminder anymore. 

It seems to really work because when I stopped doing it for a couple of weeks I started letting things slide again.  I hate it when my husband or kids have to keep reminding me about something, especially when it then slides right back out of my mind.  So this gives me a way to address that issue.

After you're done with all the items, you throw away that page and start a clean one.  Simple!

I recommend the book if you find that ordinary organization books seem to bog you down with just another layer of things to remember.   It's practical and simply laid out and doesn't go into much detail about the inner workings of your brain -- it's all about trouble-shooting and finding solutions for common ADD-related problems.


  1. I'm not ADD, either, Willa, so I was quite surprised to find some of my traits here. Procrastination, poor organisation and forgetfulness are probably my worst tendencies. I have a number of sticky notes on my computer to remind me to pay bills and run errands, etc. This works quite well until someone springs something new on me and, then, the system falls apart. The family is used to having to jog my memory a lot - even to the point of keeping up a continuous reminder if we are driving somewhere new, as my habits are so deeply ingrained that I often take the familiar route if they stop reminding me for more than a minute. Oh dear, writing that down has made me realize what a sad case I am!

    This is another interesting post, Willa - very thought-provoking:)

  2. Ha, I do that too with the roads.

    I wonder if part of it is being very creative -- as you are, Vicky? Creative and artistic things seem to draw on a different part of the brain than typical procedural organization.

    My mother in law paints, AND is very organized, but she does write herself a lot of notes! And part of her organization is very visual/spatial/hands on -- she spends a lot of time straightening and making things look nice because it makes her feel good to have things looking nice around her.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!