3 Reasons Decluttering Is Hard for ADHDers And How to Overcome Them - Part 1: Overwhelm

If you're a disorganized ADHDer, you know the struggle is real when it comes to mess, clutter, and organizing your home. The mere thought of decluttering your messy space or conquering those DOOM boxes might trigger an overwhelming wave of stress, fatigue, or sheer boredom.


8 min read

But fear not! In this series of three blog posts, we'll delve into the three major challenges ADHDers face in decluttering and explore some game-changing strategies to make the process not only manageable but surprisingly satisfying. So, fluff up your feathers and and let's dive into the duckpond of challenges and possibilities!

It's not rocket science!

Some of you might know that I'm an engineer and a trained scientist; I have a PhD in space technology (or actually the degree is DSc (Tech), Doctor of Science in Technology, but the acronym doesn't usually say much to people) and I've worked as a radio astronomer in my past life. I don't know if it's my training, my personality, or perhaps it's my ADHD, but I really need to understand the phenomena I come across with. I love to dissect concepts into atomic parts and understand how each of them work and contribute to the big picture.

My messiness defied all my attempts to analyze and understand it for years. I tried all the routines and methods but nothing helped and I couldn’t figure out why. But once I was diagnosed with ADHD at the ripe age of 39, everything made sense! Since then I've spent quite some time and my rocket scientist brain power to make sense of all the quirks that constitute the ADHD messiness (mine at least, I know everyone is different and there are super-tidy ADHDers, too).

From my own first-hand experiences and from countless online discussions in How to Align Your Ducks FB group as well as in other ADHD peer support groups, I've identified three primary reasons why decluttering and tidiness are so hard for many of us ADHDers.

These are:

  1. Don’t know where to start or what to do (Overwhelm)

  2. Not enough energy (Exhausted from surviving in everyday life, also comparable to no time)

  3. It’s booooriiiing! (Feels obnoxious, distracted easily)

In this first part of a 3-part series, we'll deal with the first reason: overwhelm.

"I don't even know where to start, so I end up paralyzed and get nothing done!" is probably the most common complaint ADHDers have when we talk about clearing out a cluttered mess. And it's no wonder, considering the innate shortcomings of our brains.

Executive Functions and Dysfunction

As you might know, ADHD comes with a sidekick called executive dysfunction. Executive functions are cognitive processes that handle eg. planning, task initiation, organization (of both mental and physical things!), and decision making. And the dysfunction part means your brain circuits struggle to run these processes at optimal level.

All these processes are very much needed in decluttering and tidying up, so it's no wonder many of us ADHDers tend to live in a messy home, and getting and keeping it tidy feels like a mission impossible. This also means that no matter how messy your home is, it's not a reason to be ashamed or feel like a failure.

Or do you think that people with physical disabilities should be ashamed of the manifestations of their disabilities? Of course not! So give yourself the same grace and stop blaming yourself for the mess!

My life as a beaver

Another metaphor I'd like you to consider is this:

Imagine you're a beaver, but without the long, sharp buck teeth beavers are known for. You haven't really paid attention to what other beavers have in their mouths. You just see your beaver neighbors effortlessly cutting down trees and building their lodges, while you struggle to gnaw through one tree with your small, blunt incisors.

Others have their lodges ready and are waving happily to you, just like Mr. Flanders to Homer Simpson. And seeing all the trees you still have to cut might make you feel overwhelmed and discouraged, right? Like a failure of a beaver…

This is exactly your brain with the huge pile of clutter in your home. The overwhelm your mind experiences with clutter is relatable to the overwhelm of cutting full-grown trees with short blunt front teeth. Soooo much work that feels really hard and upright painful! Ugh!

Wanted: Tools

Imagine then learning about the sharp incisors your neighbors were born with.

"Wait what, it's that easy for them? And I thought it was me not trying hard enough..!"

Yup, you just don't have the tools they have! And luckily tools can be acquired even if you weren't born with them! You can head to the beaver hardware store and buy a chainsaw!

In a similar way, you can use external tools to help your blunt executive functions reach goals that would otherwise be hard - or even impossible - to achieve for you.

So - what kind of tools do we need in decluttering..? Let's break the process down and take a look at what neurotypicals automatically do inside their mind.

The process of cleaning/decluttering a chaotic home (or doing anything, really) consists of the following steps:

  1. Prioritizing and defining the task - what it is that you actually need to get done and what needs to be left out

  2. Defining the end result - what does the goal look/sound/feel like

  3. Planning a roadmap - how to break the task into several tangible subtasks and in which order to tackle them

  4. Implementing - actually following the plan (or improvising along the way, which is totally ok) from start to finish

The "don't know where to start" overwhelm deals with the first three steps, so they are covered in this part of the series. The last step, implementation, can be such a huge undertaking and is connected to reasons 2 "no energy" and 3 "painfully boring", that the two other blog posts will be dedicated to it.

Here are some tools I've found useful for preventing overwhelm in the three "getting started" steps:

Step 1. Prioritizing

It's hard to know where to start if your whole house is a mess! With executive dysfunction, prioritizing, and making decisions are hard to do inside your mind, so it's helpful to externalize the process on a piece of paper. Predefined rules can help with decision making, but at the same time, it's important to keep things flexible so the rebellious nature of ADHD won't kick in.

I've created a simple process for this and it's one of many similar executive function support tools inside DOOM Box Tamer. Here's a simplified version of it:

  1. To remove any emotional connection to the task at hand, pretend to be an archaeologist mapping out the artifacts in a freshly discovered ancient tomb (or your field of science of choice!)

  2. List all or the most prominent ones of the clutter piles, DOOM boxes or messy spaces in your home!
    Break big areas into several smaller ones (eg. a messy bedroom -> the right side of the bed, the bed, the left side of the bed, the dresser).

  3. Evaluate each item on your list using suitable questions, eg:
    Does this make my everyday life more difficult or inconvenient?(You'll find more tried and tested questions in the printable Mess Analyzer below!)
    Depending on your situation, you can come up with questions of your own, too. Rate each item on your list with 0-3 points for each question.

  4. Calculate the score for each and rank them from the top score to the lowest.
    And Voilà - you know where to start and how to proceed! No overwhelm experienced!

TIP! If the first ranking item feels super hard to get started with, start with the second highest and go for the highest one after gaining some momentum!

(And if you, after seeing the ranking order, find yourself thinking "What a load of BS, I'd much rather get started with clutter pile X!" - by all means, start there! After all, the goal of this little exercise was to know where to start, and if in the end you know it better than the list - Mission Accomplished! XD )

If you want to have this process at hand anytime, sign up below to download a printable pdf!
(The blog post will continue below the signup form!)

Step 2. Defining the end result

In this step you'll need to decide whether you just want to clear out the clutter and/or clean the area or if there's a need to reorganize the space on a deeper level - like arranging the furniture. For the scope of this blog post, the case is most often the former, so this doesn’t require that much executive processing.

But since we ADHDers are notorious for thinking "I'll just do this one small thing" before going to bed and ending up spending the night rearranging the furniture of the whole house as things escalated a bit, it's useful to make it clear to yourself that your goal is only to remove the clutter and not spend your energy on irrelevant sidequests!

Two practical tips for this scenario:

  • Write a note for yourself stating the scope of your project and what will the benefits be if you adhere to it (like having a good nights sleep and easier to wake up next morning)

  • Share your goal with a family member or a friend and promise that you won't let it escalate into a whole-house home remodel

Step 3. Planning a roadmap

Once you know which area, DOOM box, or clutter pile you're working on and your preferred end result, you need to know what are the steps that will take you there. Another point of "I don't know where to start!"

The steps you need to take depend on the area, the level of mess, and the type of clutter there is.

Some clutter piles are so small that it's easy, even with executive dysfunction, to tell that just putting things where they belong is enough and won't take long. No need to spend time and brain energy thinking of a roadmap in this case! (It's more of the question of getting your ducktail moving, which we'll cover in a future blog post!)

A medium-scale mess can be attacked with several different tactics:

  1. You can start from the left and move to the right (or the opposite or whatever direction you prefer) and just process what comes up one by one. Dirty jeans - take them to the hamper, candy wrappers - to trash, dirty mug - take to the dishwasher, just keep going.

  2. The 5 things tidying method by KC Davies:

    1. Pick up any trash in the area

    2. Take away any dirty dishes

    3. Process any laundry (dirty to the hamper, clean to the wardrobe)

    4. Put away things that have homes

    5. Make homes for things that don't have a home

  3. Process only a few items per day - think of it as a continuous process more than a project that demands a push to get started

And since we ADHDers love trying new things, it's advisable to try them all - and find and create more of them! This doesn't need to be a hunt for The One, this can be butterflying from flower to flower!

But a more complex piece of chaos with lots of things you don't know what to do with, will require a more elaborate plan of action. People with top-notch executive functions won't have problems forming a plan in their mind but with executive dysfunction it's not that easy.

I've developed a step-by-step process on how to approach a level "Mission Impossible" DOOM box or clutter pile. It's worth a whole module in DOOM Box Tamer (a gamified online course coming soon!) in which it is fed to you in bite-sized steps in order to prevent overwhelm. It's too much to cover in a single blog post so I'll just give you the Prime Directive that will make it easier to get started with a huge undertaking:

Sort everything into containers!

It will make everything so much easier - especially in the case of losing momentum when the finish line is still far away in the horizon..! But this will be the topic of the second post in this series: "But I don't have the energy!" (coming soon)

If you find yourself too overwhelmed to even follow the three steps outlined above, check out this free little gamified tool that I whipped up for you: 5 Minute Mess Buster! It takes you on a quick 5-minute cleaning adventure - just 5 minutes can make a huge difference! Sign up and get your ducktail moving!

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