"Touch It Once" Rule May Be the Reason Decluttering Is Hard for You

There's a time and place for the "Touch it once" rule but clearing out a clutter pile or a DOOM box might NOT be one - at least if you have ADHD. Read this post to learn why and what to do instead!

Ilona T.

4 min read

If you've searched for productivity or decluttering advice online, you've probably heard of the "Touch it once" aka "Only Handle It Once (OHIO)" rule, the organizing and productivity hack that many gurus swear by. It states that when dealing with incoming papers or items in a clutter pile, you should handle each of them only once, which means deciding what to do with it and then executing the decision before moving on to the next item.

This does sound like a diligent and organized way of doing things, doesn't it? Like The Proper Way to do things, similar to being consistent and following routines. Simple and effective, everyone tells us! We've been so indoctrinated with the virtues of being diligent, organized and systematic, that we've begun to believe we're faulty when following this kind of advice only ends up with this kind of situation: (see the meme below)

However, this rule doesn't take into account that such a decision-execution process requires a lot of mental effort, and if you have executive dysfunction (like neurodivergent people do), it may be a recipe for disaster:

Facing all the clutter, taking one item, going through several questions to decide what to do with it, then executing the decision, and coming back to the clutter pile requires such emotional, logical, and task-switching efforts that you'll probably end up exhausted and overwhelmed after handling just a couple of items. And then you're left with the rest of the DOOM box or paper pile all over your dining table, bed or floor, and all you want to do is either curl up and cry or sit there doomscrolling to dissociate from reality.

When you pause to think of it, the OHIO rule actually doesn't make any sense when sorting through papers or clutter. When you're folding laundry, you're probably not processing one piece of clothing at a time*): taking it from the laundry pile, folding it, taking it to the dresser, and then returning back to the laundry pile to process the next item. And folding laundry isn't even mentally as draining decluttering with all the decisions about whether to keep or toss something.

*) And if you are doing it this way, and it's working for you, that's awesome! I'm all for finding ways that work for you, even if it doesn't make sense to someone else!

Don't get me wrong, there are situations where the OHIO rule is very valid and worth following - but sorting through a DOOM box or a paper pile is most likely NOT one, if your executive functions aren't top notch.

"How should I do it then?" you ask.

Getting started can be super hard for us ADHDers, but once you get started, things may actually roll quite nicely. BUT if you constantly need to switch tasks between making decisions, go somewhere else to put things away, and getting back, it's like getting started a million times, and the risk of getting sidetracked is huge. No wonder you get overwhelmed and exhausted after 5 minutes!

The path of least resistance goes through finding a smooth workflow that aligns with the ADHD brain and its natural tendencies. Once you get the momentum, it's easier to stay in one mode than to switch modes.

Kermit lying on a bed saying '5 min after you start organizing your closet
Kermit lying on a bed saying '5 min after you start organizing your closet

This principle is one of the three key elements of DOOM Box Tamer, and in practice, it looks like this:

Instead of trying to do all the steps for one item at a time, do one step for all the items!

For example, a paper in your paper pile can go to seven different end locations. If you're sorting through papers, don't take a paper and try to decide where it should go (too many different questions to process all at once!).

Instead, go through all the papers asking just one question and divide the papers into two piles based on the answer to it. There are eight questions used on different steps for this in the paper pile module in DOOM Box Tamer, and I'll give you one of them as an example.

When processing papers, the first question to ask is:

"Is this trash, can I get rid of it?"

Go through the whole pile and ask the question "Is this trash?" for each of the papers. If the answer is "Yes", put the paper to the "Toss" pile and if the answer is "No", put it to the pile you'll process next with the next question.

This way, your brain can focus on quickly processing just this one question - no need to switch tasks all the time or get overwhelmed by all the different questions!

So what do you think, are you ready to stop swimming in porridge (or drinking tar like we Finns say) by trying to follow the conventional rules and start using tools that align with the way your brain works?

Because working with your ADHD brain - not against it - is the best and only way to get and keep your home tidy without exhausting yourself!

Join the DOOM Box Tamer waitlist to be the first to know when DOOM Box Tamer - a gamified interactive online tool tailored for ADHDers - is released!