Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Out With The Old, In With The....Wait, Do You Really Need New Clutter?

There Janet was, peacefully washing dishes one evening, when suddenly a loud thumping and banging sounded from the front walkway. The clamor continued through the front door and down the hall. Alarmed, she peeked around the corner with some trepidation.

The source of all the ruckus? Her 6-foot-3 husband Ralph, angrily wrestling the giant outdoor garbage-can-on-wheels through the narrow hallway. Directly into his packed-to-the-gills home office.

"After years of my suggesting that he clear the mounting debris, he finally took action," Janet explains. "But instead of taking his time to carefully sort through it all  -- for example, separating aged pizza boxes from working laptops, brand-new wireless routers from ancient modems -- he was furiously tossing it ALL in the garbage!"

What a sight to behold!  Normally a sweet-tempered guy, Ralph was finally fired up and fed up with the mess. Janet took safe cover in the laundry room until the storm blew over.
Ralph, in suddenly leaping from one extreme to the other (from "underdoing" to "overdoing"), provides an excellent example of how ADHD symptoms create problems in dealing with stuff.  To be sure, though, plenty of other ADHD-related traits can contribute to the pile-up. 

In fact, you could say that ADHD and clutter is a match made in….well, not exactly heaven.  "Walking into my apartment feels like entering Dante's seventh level of hell," laments 53-year-old Steve, eliciting groans of recognition from almost everyone at our Adult ADHD discussion group in Silicon Valley.

Other group members chime in to say they often feel consumed by their clutter ("just looking at it exhausts and depresses me"). But do they always articulate this frustration to themselves or others, especially their partners?  Sometimes not. Perhaps because then they will be expected to do something about it. And if they knew what to do about it, they'd have done it already!

Now for the Partners' Perspective

Consider these sample reports from an online support group for the partners of adults with ADHD (sponsored by CHADD of Northern California but open to the public) and see if they resonate for you:

(Please note: I share them here not to be "negative" but to help break down barriers.  Many couples are bearing silent shame and sometimes loud resentment about the mess that is their home; most hardly suspect that specific ADHD-focused solutions can help pave the way to calmer cohabitation.)
  • "Over the many years we've been together, I have developed an ability to not see things -- mess, stuff my husband is hoarding, his unfinished projects. I block them out of my consciousness. It's the only way I could cope. Otherwise, I was constantly nagging and he was arguing with me.  The downside was when visitors came to our house, then I suddenly saw things through their eyes and felt so embarrassed. Lately, I have been doing more myself to keep on top of it. It's hard not to be resentful that I bear most of the burden, but at least I feel better when the place is somewhat clean and orderly. I can think better, too."

  • "The only way we've survived through 20 moves over 30 years is that I have always disposed of my husband's junk.  For him, it was always 'out of sight, out of mind.'  It usually worked, except for the time we ran into a guy on the street wearing his one-of-a-kind tattered flannel shirt.  My  husband poked me and said,  'Amazing! That guy has the same amazing shirt that I have.'  A few minutes later, 'Hey, that IS my shirt.'   Oops."

  • "My wife buys multitudes of things because she's going to 'make a mint' selling them some day. Occasionally, she actually lists something on eBay but puts the price so high that nobody bids. Same with Craigslist. People call and offer very reasonable sums for the boxes of designer shoes cluttering the bedroom, but she wants full retail price. Is there something in ADHD that makes people over-value objects? She sees so much potential in junk and is constantly dragging all these 'great finds' into the house.  But I can hardly breathe for the 'unsold inventory'!" 
  • "My girlfriend has a million 'creative projects' going at once and never finishes any of them. But she's afraid that if she puts them away, she'll forget them entirely. So every flat surface is covered, including the floor!
  • Finally, from years of living a partner who has ADHD, Sheila analyzes the traits that seem to add to her partner's expanding flotsam and jetsam:
  1. Afraid of losing something important.
  2. Afraid of not making a good judgment as to whether something should stay or go (poor decision-making).
  3. Special emotional significance of the object (if she holds onto her mother's rusted cheese-grater, she'll hold onto more memories of her mother).
  4. Fear of being poor (if she has stuff, that means she's not poor; if she has stuff, then she can survive if she becomes poor).
  5. No clue where to put the object (poor organizational skills and no sense for setting up structures).
  6. Even when there's a place to put it, it's difficult to put the object away (little motivation for tedium; poor follow-through).
  7. Out of sight, out of mind  (she needs to see her stuff; otherwise, she might buy a replacement!).
Helpful Strategies: From Chaos to Clarity

It must be said: People with ADHD often have the best of intentions about "getting organized." They load up on books, planners, software, and gadgets with great zeal.  Still, many seldom achieve sustained success. Why is that?

In part, it's because standard organizational strategies don't work for most adults with ADHD, say the authors of the book ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life (psychologist and veteran ADHD expert Kathleen Nadeau  and knowledge-management consultant Judith Kolberg, founder and former director of the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization). Simply put, these generic strategies fail to factor in ADHD traits such as inconsistency, forgetfulness, and a low threshold for tedium.

I've seen tech-savvy adults with ADHD plow through planner after PDA, always chasing the latest technology and organizational gurus. Trouble is, they forget to carry the planner or PDA with them, forget to refer to it, and frequently misplace it.  In short, they haven't implemented ADHD-focused strategies for using the darn things.

In their book, Nadeau and Kolberg offer many strategies for taming the disorganization. Central to the effort are the three S's:

1. Support: 

This is includes self-support (examples: avoid perfectionism by setting reasonable goals; replace negative self-talk with encouraging affirmations; recognize your progress instead of focusing on all that's left to be done).

It also means asking for support from friends and family or professionals, such as ADHD coaches and ADHD-focused professional organizers.

2. Structure: 

Folks with ADHD get into trouble when they rely solely on "mental" structure – that is, trying to sort things out in their heads.  They gain better, much more consistent results by externalizing structure. Examples:
3. Strategies: 

Make that ADHD-specific strategies, of course, such as this sampling from the book:
  •  "Organize for reasons that matter to you."
Shoulds and oughts aren't the great motivators for anyone, but especially people with ADHD.  Clearly identify how streamlining your stuff will benefit you. (Examples: Less anxiety, a more harmonious relationship, more room to have fun, etc.)

  • "To get organized, get energized."
When she's tackling kids-room pickup, my friend and former disco-queen Patty summons motivation by playing her favorite dance tunes. (Of course Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" is a favorite!) Bonus: Since both her young children have ADHD, they're learning from mom that chores don't have to be a giant drag.
  • "Be a sprinter, not a long-distance runner."
"Being a sprinter means dividing up organizing projects into small pieces that can be completed, from start to finish, in one dash," say Nadeau and Kolberg. "That way, you're less likely to be interrupted, to tire of the project, or to become distracted."  For example, instead of organizing an entire room, focus on one corner or one set of drawers. If you find it hard to tune out the rest of the mess while you focus on one spot, follow an example shared in the book:  Cover it up with sheets!
  • "If decision-making is not your strength, accumulating things will be your weakness. Always subtract before you add."
When it comes to everything from items to commitments on your time, follow this rule: "I won't add anything new until I finish or eliminate what I already have." (Managing time is a key component of managing stuff.)
  • "Create a 'crisis' to stimulate de-cluttering!"
The authors recommend a manufactured crisis as preferable to a real one.  In other words, create a deadline. Want that dining-room table cleared and the living room reclaimed?  Invite company over.
  • "Reward yourself with experiences instead of things."
In a lecture I attended years ago, Dr. John Ratey shed important light on ADHD-related "shopaholic syndrome."  He explained that dopamine (the "reward" neurotransmitter) is released upon anticipation of buying something, not in actually having the thing.

This would explain the steady dopamine feel-good flow as eBay bidders anticipate close of auction and finding out if they've "won" a coveted item.  It would also explain why these coveted items often end up in the closet, unopened. The thrill was gone the minute the transaction took place. In other words, rewarding yourself with things is like a squirrel chasing it's tail: a never-ending game. And one that usually gives you something new to feel anxious about: mounting credit-card bills.

The Bottom Line

Sure, change can be hard. But for late-diagnosis adults who long ago exhausted their optimism on non-ADHD-savvy "get-organized" strategies, it's heartening to know: Informed strategies do make a difference.

So, if you've been procrastinating on heartfelt New Year's resolutions to curb that chaos, start now with a new attitude and a willingness to consider new habits, advises Holly Graff, an upstate New York-based certified-professional organizer who specializes in ADHD.  Most importantly, she advises, start NOW.  That is, with these three guidelines in mind:

No need for perfection.
O – Ongoing organization (not a one-time event)
W –Work in one small area or section at a time (30 minutes)

Has ADHD-related clutter affected your relationships?  Please share your stories and your strategies. You're bound to find good company -- and at the same time provide support to others.

-- Gina Pera


  1. 1989. I found myself walking in circles, unable to approach the clutter in my basement -- until I understood that I didn't have to earn my place on earth by being a resource to everyone (so you'd know which toaster was best), thereby freeing me to toss 10 years worth of of "Consumer Reports" magazines.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Oh Gina!!!!! I am rolling on the floor laughing! After making you and the rest of the group laugh with that story, now I am laughing!

    I started reading your blog only to say, "Hey, this sounds familiar. Wait! This *is *familiar!" It is funny to see my life story in print!

    Thanks for writing on this topic. It is very timely since we are moving and we have to go through our stuff because we refuse to move things we don't want or need anymore. It is a slow process, but we are hiring help to make it (hopefully) less painful.

  4. Last year I boxed up all of the things that my grown sons left at my house when they moved out. You would not believe how many cartons of stuff that I had! Each carton was sealed shut, labeled with the kid's name, and stacked in the back hallway. The next time each one came to visit me, I made them take all their cartons with them. When my #2-Son came, he was with his long-time fiance in her truck and his boxes filled up almost the entire back of her truck ~ WOW!!! Did she ever have a few choice words for him!!! When they got home, she made him go through all the boxes and get rid of almost all of the stuff.

    Now if I could only get rid of most of Husband-Man's collections of junk/junque, I'd be set!

  5. After 35 years of marriage, I never understood until now why my husband never finished projects, hoarded junk,was so disorganized and never used his planner or a calendar but I am thankful that I now understand. I thought there was something wrong with me for many years and sought counseling but he never complied. Now that I know what is wrong , I feel guilty for putting him through all the arguements and I have changed my attitude. I focus only on the positive things that he does and I feel better.I have come to understand him more

  6. Thanks for these great stories. I'll bet if you ask these people, they would admit that their behavior is nothing new. The mess and unfinished projects have stuck with them since childhood. When I read each of these anecdotes, I recall requesting more time from a teacher so that you can finish a term paper you've had weeks to work on. I think about the blow-ups with parents about cleaning your room, even college applications with missed deadlines. And I think about the frustration and depression I see in kids who think that something must be wrong with them because it just isn't that hard for everybody else.

    Maybe it's easier to see in kids because ADD issues are particularly visible in a school setting. We're less forgiving of adults. We think they should have 'grown out of it' or they are not trying. That's just wrong, I think. Adults want to be successful, want to finish what they start, and want good relationships. Just like kids, however, they sometimes need a hand.

    Thanks again for this helpful blog! I will send people to it--and have linked to it on my own site.

  7. Hi Dr. Nadoolman, thanks for visiting!

    You are indeed an empathic pediatrician, as evidenced by your words here and your excellent blogs. I'm so pleased to know you practice in the Bay Area (Berkeley).

    Parents, Dr. Nadoolman recently posted an excellent piece examining the efficacy of developmental optometry when it comes to children with ADHD/LD. (And many other interesting posts related to ADHD as well.)



  8. Anonymous #1 -- let us know when you figure out how to apply that technique to your husband's junque. ;-)

    Anonymous #2 -- Many of us feel consumed with guilt once we learn our partners have ADHD. We regret the harsh judgments we might have made and harsh words we might have said. And at the same time, as you point out, we often do blame ourselves, thinking that if we just came up with a better strategy, a clearer way to communicate, that our partners would behave differently. Or maybe if we were more lovable, we would inspire them to behave differently. What confusion! :-0

    It's great that you've been open to learning about ADHD and reframing your husband's past behaviors in that context. And I hope he's meeting you in the middle, as far as learning new behaviors.

  9. When busy with my own deadlines, I ignore my husband's clutter. But then after months or years, I look up and can't take it any more.

    I'm going through the house organizing and throwing stuff out. I usually put his stuff in baskets and take it to his designated rooms and areas and figure he can live in his own clutter as long as my spaces are free.

    But now I've decided he needs help. I'm going through stuff wtih him, making stacks I think he could throw out and asking him to review them.

    When he tries to organize, he just goes out and buys lots of boxes and shelves and seems to make things worse, more complicated, instead of just throwing stuff out.

  10. Just reading this post is exhausting for me. My boyfriend moved in with me about 9 months ago, and it's been a constant battle over the cleanliness of our bedroom and the apartment in general ever since (especially considering we have a non-ADHD roommate who is sharing the space).

    I have to admit that clutter is the one thing that I have very little tolerance for, and it's taking me this long to be okay with some of it. You see, I am a notorious perfectionist, list-maker, do-er, likes her space free of mess so I can focus kind of gal. Part of it though is more than just perfectionism. Because I've suffered from depression and anxiety on and off for many years, the clutter actually triggers that in me. I do my best to keep my space clean so that I can relax and clear my mind and do what's best for my own emotional well-being.

    Unfortunately, my bf's ADHD and my depression/anxiety that's related to my perfectionism clash over and over again. My desk, which is also in our room, becomes his personal playground, even though I've told him repeatedly that this space is off limits because it's where I do my work (I'm a writer/filmmaker). But, it never fails, that I'll come home and find my desk full of his lovely things. Oh, and he has things.

    Shopaholic is most definitely a way to describe him and I've done everything in my power to help him with that problem. In fact, he's made a lot of progress to be honest. But, that doesn't stop him from buying loads of T-shirts because he doesn't "have the time" to do laundry. So, the laundry piles up everywhere. He leaves shoes everywhere. Gadgets everywhere. Magazines keep showing up and ending up everywhere. Though I've found some solace in reading and learning more about ADHD, I feel like I'm short-changing my own well-being, especially since he refuses to seek help for his ADHD.

    I've pointed him to books, this blog, support groups, therapy, and even made CHAAD the home page on our web browser so it reminds him. I've set up chore lists and schedules recently to help him realize he has to do his part. I invited him to the roommate mtg where we were to discuss those chores and schedule so he could have ownership over what we decided and instead he chose to miss the mtg. to hang out with friends. I was furious to say the least. That night I almost completely broke off our relationship, despite how in love I am with him.

    I feel like I try and try and try... by even keeping up with his chores, and actually even doing some of his chores to help, but I'm at the end of my rope, and frankly, I'm exhausted. I'm working double time doing my own stuff and on top of that making sure he does his part so that our roommate doesn't think less of him or gets frustrated with him. I just can't constantly do that for him. But, what makes me angrier is that he blatantly will show or tell me that he doesn't care or doesn't want to do something. At that point I'm so angry that I don't know what to do with myself. It affects my mood constantly. How do I take care of myself when my ADHD partner refuses to be a part of the process?

    I'm no saint, I know this, but I've done everything I can to help myself through my problems so that I can be the best person I can be in our relationship; therapy, meditation, exercise, diet, making sure that I'm managing my anxiety/depression. But, every time I bring up him needing to get help it feels like a door being slammed in my face -- repeatedly, in one instance.

    What can I do? I would love suggestions from you or anyone else reading this blog or this comment. Thank you in advance!

  11. Hmmm, you say you are a "notorious perfectionist." And your evidence of how unreasonable you are is that you don't like your boyfriend dumping junk on your workspace? Seems like a reasonable thing to me.

    And what's wrong with being a do-er and a list maker? Does it work for you in the rest of your life and is a problem only when it comes to your boyfriend? If so, watch that you aren't falling vulnerable to being "gaslighted" by a partner who might be threatened by your efficiency and seeks to make himself feel better about his deficiencies by downgrading your competencies.

    The point is not whether you are "saint" or not. The point is, does he truly have ADHD and are his symptoms not only interfering with being a responsible roommate to two people but also having a respectful relationship with you and a functioning work life, etc. If that's the case, then there are other issues to address beyond your alleged perfectionism.

    If he has ADHD, it's not your job to do all the compensating for him. It might be time for both of you to learn more about what you're dealing with. Develop a strong foundation in understanding ADHD and its treatment strategies.

    As it stands right now, it sounds like you are increasingly frustrated and trying to "fix" everything from your end. That parent-child strategy seldom works in the long-run. And if you are a "hyper-responsible" type, you risk letting that spin out of control into anxiety and depression.

    Good luck,
    Gina Pera, author
    Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

  12. Thanks you, Gina. I really appreciate your response. Lots to mull over. I purchased your book recently. I hope it will make a difference in helping me, and him, decide what's best.

  13. This is so important. People who are oblivious, or even partially so, can overlook the value of fundamental order. Then, even when a disordered environment undermines stability for everyone, the person in a household who is aware and working to keep order is often criticized for being too "fastidious," or "perfectionist," or whatever, and the list is long and convoluted.

    It sometimes is the case that the person with AD/HD is the one trying to maintain order, because s/he has become aware of how much order supports the ability to carry out executive functions. In a cruel irony, an indifferent and/or undiagnosed AD/HD partner can keep monkey wrenches thrown into the works on a daily basis.

    I have worked with couples in which the diagnosed and treated partner is the one doing the compensating, is trying to learn to function in perennial disorder, is sustaining a scaffolding of structure for children -- and if that person is the kind who notices everything, the task has become to not notice the mess, the dishes in the sink instead of 18 inches away in the dishwasher, the dog food bag on the counter next to the cutting board, etcetera.

    How does a couple experience intimacy when one partner hates the bedroom because the clutter disturbs her/his mind? How does a partner manage the negative feelings that are naturally evoked when accused of being critical, when the “criticism” is a request for order? To the extent the messy person can’t do much better, how legitimate is the request? Yet, for the partner living in disorder who needs order, what recourse is there? These are relationship killers, and no amount of psychotherapy is going to alleviate this set of problems.

  14. I am a senior in college, struggling with my last month before my degree. I was just diagnosed with ADHD after years of hoarding papers, planners, and books on studying that never seemed to work for me because I would read a paragraph and move on to another book...Thanks for this information. I now know that I need to stop making investments in things that won't help me!
    I look back on my shopping sprees and cringe. I even bought things I never needed. I am not in credit card debt luckily. thank you thank you thank you for having this blog.

  15. Hi there, and thanks for making my day. It's always great to know this blog connects with readers and helps to ease daily hassles.

    I've often thought we should do a "swap meet" of organizing tools at one of our local Adult ADHD discussion groups. You know, let everyone bring in to give away to others the things they bought to help organize themselves, didn't find useful, and now sit in the closets.

    Then I thought, well, it might be too much temptation for those with hoarding tendencies. :-)


  16. WOW!!!
    Finally....I see ALL of me! It has a name and I can actually say that I'm happy about it! I recall years ago, when I was a child and my mother calling me a procrastinator. It hurt me being called that, as if I was a big loser or a problem child. She would say I was a pack-rat too.....but I WAS and still am. But now it's not such a bad thing to acknowledge and accept because I can do something about it and it doesn't have to restrict my life to one way of living. I'm still a great person, even with ADHD/ADD but now I can hold my head up high and be proud of whatever accomplishments I make, no matter how small they may seem to others.
    Thank you Gina :-)
    P.S. I'm gonna buy your book but I promise to get rid of 10 others I NO LONGER need, lol.

  17. Thank you so much Gina! Your blogs help put humor and common sense to a problem that up til recently had no name for me. I thought I was just hopelessly disorganized and going to be a failure at "being a responsible adult", as my parents put it. It is amazing to me how your stories ring so true, I always felt embarrassed and helpless and like I must not be trying hard enough. Thank you thank you thank you, and I agree with the anonymous post above, I will buy your book and get rid of 10 others!! haha!!!! Now only to convince my boyfriend that his problem has the same root cause.....
    --Lyndsay in KY

  18. Hi Lyndsay,

    I'm so happy that the blog has helped you. Thanks for letting me know.

    Keep those other books, though. You never know when you'll find a useful nugget. For being the "simple" condition the public often misperceives ADHD to be, it is very complex! As many conferences and lectures I've attended and books I've read, I still constantly pick up little nuggets that clarify pieces of the puzzle!

    As for your boyfriend, I've found that the clearer that you get (as the partner of an adult with ADHD) about ADHD's manifestations, the less room there is for "denial" in the relationship. Also, getting validations for your perceptions is important, because some "in denial" people with ADHD excel at turning their partner's heads around! :=0 It's typically not intentional; they're just operating from their own reality, which is sometimes skewed by unrecognized ADHD symptoms.

    Good luck!

  19. I am so lost that I have a feeling I wont ever catch up to my own life. I have 2 young kids, the women I work with have all decided to assume they know whats "best" for me and a husband that doesnt get the whole ADHD at all! I started Adderall after a few months of testing and visits with a handful of docs. Its made alot of areas better but some seem to be worse. How do I figure this out? Started anxiety med with little result and I dont want to return to my life without the meds for the soul purpose of my kids. Aside from being calmer and a bit more patient my spending is bad again and focus factors vary so much. I live in a area with really no ADHD help or coaching. Somebody please give me a straight road to follow because im exhausted just looking for help. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!

  20. Oh dear, I'm sorry that I never responded to this message. It's a little late now, so I hope that you've found some strategies.

    Getting the medication stabilized can be the biggest goal for some. As much as the ADHD naysayers like to criticize medications as a "quick fix," the fix is anything but quick.

    I write in my book about a practical medication protocol you can use with your doctor. It was outlined by a top ADHD expert, Dr. Margaret Weiss.

    Nothing will beat a careful approach to medication -- taking note of when the medication wears off, if new symptoms crop up (irritability, etc.) and other data that should be useful as you continue to adjust the medication.

    Write everything down. Don't try to keep it in your head. Meaning, write down your symptoms and note which are better and which are worse -- and what new side effects have cropped up.

    As for the "straight road to follow," would you really follow that if there was a straight road? :-)

    Good luck. I hope things are better now.

  21. Hi, I really liked what I read and can relate to sheila a observations. I have the added problem of having OA in both my hips and not one person around me understands how hard I am trying and how my body is getting in the way of my progress and I keep going but some days I think life is pointless. I can't afford the help I need, my family say they will help but they just want to do what they want and not what I need.

  22. It looks like I'll be getting divorced. I don't want to but I can't not say anything about the clutter any longer and when I do, my wife flies into a rage and claims all I do is pick on her. She is so determined not to address her pack rat tendencies that she'll start arguments about things that aren't true rather than talk about the mess. Almost every flat surface in our house is covered with some sort of clutter. And if I clean something she becomes angry because i haven't stored it correctly. Nine months ago we cleaned the large master bath. On the 3rd day, the counter around the sinks was covered in bottles of pills. When after 9 months of the sink area being covered I said something and a giant argument ensued before anything was accomplished.


Thank you for your comment. To receive any responses by e-mail, click the "subscribe" link just below this box.