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ADHD ORGANIZING TIPS

7 Executive Functions Affected by ADHD & Tools to Compensate

Laura Coufal

About Laura

Who I am is a Southern California turned small-town, Midwest Mom. I am wife to Bruce and mom to my three girls. I am also dog mom to Ollie, our quirky Labradoodle.

Back when I first started my professional organizing journey in 2013, I had what I thought of as a dirty little secret. I have ADHD and although I am organized, and enjoy the process of sorting, and tidying. I knew that there were many others with ADHD who really struggled with staying organized. I had a case of imposter syndrome and mostly kept the fact that I had ADHD to myself. That is until I learned that there are other really successful professional organizers who have also learned to compensate for their ADHD the same way that I have.

I eventually realized that my need for order and simplicity actually stems from having ADHD as a way to compensate for my short attention span. So my gifts and my challenges are all ironically tied together to create who I am,  and I am able to relate to and help others as a result of this coping method that I have developed for myself.

I help women and moms with ADHD, but I also help those who struggle with clutter without having ADHD.  Because simplicity and less clutter are always at the heart of staying organized, there is much overlap when it comes to finding solutions to clutter and disorganization.

I am dedicated to keeping my life as simple as possible and to helping others do the same by teaching them how to declutter their homes, simplify their lives, and manage their busy families better.

I have been helping others stay organized since 2013.

It is my deepest hope that you will find resources here that will bring you closer to living a simpler, more intentional, and more peaceful life. 

always have

something

beautiful 

in your space…

…but let it be

as simple

as a daisy

in a vase.

 

Here are the 7 executive functions most affected by ADHD and how to compensate for them:

For starters, what are the 7 executive functions affected by ADHD?

Executive functions are cognitive processes that help us plan, organize, initiate tasks, manage time, stay focused, regulate emotions, and more. There are 7 executive functions that people with ADHD often struggle with.

The term “executive functioning” was coined in the 1970s by Karl Pribram, whose research determined that multiple executive functions take place primarily in the prefrontal cortex portion of the brain. 

Russell Barkley, Ph.D., who is an author and clinical professor of psychiatry, is credited with publicizing these 7 executive functions (and dysfunctions) specifically as they relate to people with ADHD. 

Dr. Barkley is author of Taking Charge of Adult ADHD”. I just finished reading this book myself, and it is an exceptional resource for those wanting to understand, accept, and manage their ADHD better.  Many of the following suggestions are takeaways from his book.

Let’s take a look at each of these 7 executive functions as they relate to staying organized at home:

1. Verbal Working Memory

This involves the ability to hold things in your mind. Essentially, visual imagery — how well you can picture things mentally. Individuals with ADHD often have difficulties with working memory, making it hard to remember and follow through with daily tasks or to keep track of what needs to be done.

Tools to help you compensate:  

Dr. Barkley suggests using visual reminders to get what’s floating around in your head out into the world so that it is tangible. That’s why I LOVE to-do lists. They help me get what needs to be done on paper and out of my head. What visual cues can you use to help you remember to complete tasks?   

Sticky noteswhiteboards, calendars (phone or paper), planners, and journals, are all great tools that provide you with visual reminders to get things done. I also like to use the notepad on my iPhone.

A few examples: Place a sticky note on the mirror to remind yourself to clean off the bathroom counters every morning before you leave. Put one on your car’s dashboard to remind yourself to clean out all the trash each night when you arrive home. You can also put a trash can nearby in your garage to make this task easier to do. Add a reminder to your Google calendar, (or set an alarm) to remind yourself to take out the trash every Wednesday night.

Sticky note pads and pens.

2. Emotional Regulation

ADHD can make it challenging to regulate emotions, resulting in mood swings and heightened sensitivity to stress. This emotional dysregulation can interfere with the motivation and emotional stability required for effective organization and task completion.

Tools to help you compensate:  

If your emotions tend to get the best of you to the point that you just can’t muster the motivation to get things done, Dr. Barkley suggests incentivizing the job with some kind of reward when the job is done. A Starbucks coffee, a treat, a nap, or 30 minutes of a favorite TV show are all good examples.  

When tackling projects that need to get done at home, keep your emotions in check by staying focused on your progress. Give yourself credit for each small success you have. Avoid focussing only on how much is left to do. Don’t beat yourself up for falling short, because this will only stop your progress and sabotage your organizing efforts.  

3. Sustained Attention

Maintaining focus on tasks is a core executive function, and ADHD is characterized by difficulties in this area. Individuals with ADHD might become easily distracted by various stimuli in their home environment, which can prevent them from completing tasks or maintaining an organized living space. 

Tools to help you compensate:  

You can remedy this problem by breaking down larger jobs into small easily attainable steps.  If you need to organize or clean a large room in your home, chunk it into manageable-sized projects. You may even want to write each step out on paper and cross them off as you complete them. Silencing your phone, and removing other distractions from the room you are working in is also helpful. 

4. Inhibition

Inhibition is the ability to control impulsive behavior and resist distractions. It is also known as self-restraint. Individuals with ADHD often find it challenging not to immediately act on their impulses, leading to poor decision-making and actions that can disrupt their organizational efforts at home. For instance, they may start multiple tasks but struggle to complete any of them.

Tools to help you compensate: 

Once you recognize that you tend to jump from task to task, you can mindfully bring yourself back to finishing one task before moving on to another. Just gaining the awareness that you possess this tendency, is the first step in redirecting yourself. Breaking bigger jobs down into simple tasks helps with this as well. 

It is also helpful to avoid leaving a room before you have finished a project. This will discourage you from getting distracted and never returning. When doing an organizing job with a client, I use a box labeled RETURN to toss things that need to be returned to another room. We wait until we are finished with our project before running around the house to return everything. 

5. Task Initiation

This relates to how well you can motivate yourself to complete a task when there is no immediate consequence. Initiating tasks is a common struggle for those with ADHD. They may procrastinate, experience a lack of motivation to get started, and frequently over or underestimate the time required to complete a project that needs to get done. 

Tools to help you compensate: 

The previous suggestion of incentivizing the task applies here too. Dr. Barkley recommends using the power of your own emotions. and visualization. Close your eyes and clearly imagine how having successfully completed a task is going to make you feel.  

Let’s say you are facing a task like organizing your closet, visualize yourself walking into your beautifully organized closet and immediately finding what you are looking for. Then imagine how great you’re going to feel about your accomplishment. Visualizing success on the other end can motivate you to get started. 

6. Planning and organization:

This relates to how we formulate solutions in our minds to come up with new ways of doing something to solve problems. By playing with ideas in different ways in our heads, we are brainstorming a plan to solve problems. 

Impaired planning and organization skills are perhaps the most obvious executive function issues related to ADHD and disorganization at home. People with ADHD may struggle to set priorities or develop strategies for decluttering, cleaning, and maintaining order.

Tools to help you compensate:  

Establish routines and habits that help you to get things done. I can’t stress enough how much doing this one organizing hack has revolutionized my own life. Routines and habits can be our best friends when it comes to staying organized from day to day.  

I have a laundry routine, (every Sunday) a bill-paying routine (every other Monday), and a dishwasher-loading routine (every morning after breakfast) just to name a few of them.  

To introduce a new helpful routine – first strategize on paper, what household tasks you can automate by making a routine for. This might include things like; cleaning, laundry, organizing, meal planning, self-care, pet care, and bill-paying tasks. You likely will initially need a reminder, to do these tasks at a given time each week. A planner made specifically for those who have ADHD, a calendar, an Alexa, a timer cube with an alarm, and your mobile phone are all tools that can help you develop new helpful habits. 

Writing in Journal.

Over time, you likely will start performing these tasks automatically with minimal effort and will no longer need the reminders. This is when the routine or habit becomes automatic and starts to serve you and not the other way around.

7. The last of the 7 executive functions affected by ADHD is cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and shift attention when needed. Inflexibility and a tendency to become ‘stuck’ on certain tasks or routines can hinder your ability to adjust your organizational strategies when circumstances change.  

This means that it may be difficult for you to stop doing something enjoyable to get something done at home that is a bigger priority. Or you may spend too much time hyper-focused on organizing your jewelry box, instead of organizing the rest of the closet as you had intended.

Tools to help you compensate: 

Use some kind of a timer to remind you to stop or start a task. A timer watch is also a great resource. You can also write out each step of your project in a notebook or on a to-do list. Cross each step off as you make progress and refer back to your notes often.

The impact of these 7 executive function deficits can manifest in various ways within the home environment. And how ADHD manifests itself is unique to each individual. The good news is that with the right strategies, you can improve your executive functions and develop effective organizational skills. 

Other tools to help you manage your ADHD and your unique executive function deficits:

Acceptance that you have ADHD is the first step:

The key to successfully navigating your own ADHD is knowing yourself and understanding your own unique challenges. Dr. Barkley states that “accepting that you have ADHD and owning up to this fact is the first step in adapting to them.”  

Look into whether or not medication, coaching services, or therapy might be right for you.

In addition to using tools like calendars, reminders, timers, and checklists, Dr. Barkley also stresses that it is important to consider seeking other helpful resources to help manage your ADHD.

ADHD Medications can be very effective and therapy or coaching to learn coping strategies can be beneficial as well. I also highly recommend educating yourself as much as possible by reading or listening to audio books, listening to podcasts, and learning as much as you can about ADHD. 

Try meditation  

Studies have shown that Meditation can be very helpful for improving focus if you have ADHD. Especially the kind that helps you practice your concentration skills. According to Web MD, “Research now shows that mindfulness meditation, where you actively observe your moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings, may be an effective tool for calming your mind and improving your focus long term.” 

Create an ADHD-friendly home:

The more stuff you keep in your home, the harder it will be to keep it all organized. For those with ADHD, clutter is more overwhelming than it is for those with neuro-typical brains. So if you have ADHD, it is important to view every single thing that you store in your home with a critical eye. If you do this one thing and do it thoroughly, you will greatly improve your ability to keep your home organized from day to day.

Use labeled containers without lids, to keep sorted items together, making everything super identifiable and accessible. Don’t micro-organize, instead go for easy maintenance. Place lots of trash cans, recycle bins, and open topped laundry bins everywhere that laundry or trash seems to gather. Install hooks in places like your closet, bathroom, and entry and exit door to make hanging things up super easy for yourself and your family.

I also have lots of helpful organizing tips with product suggestions for creating a home that supports you in the following posts: 15 ADHD Kitchen Organizing Tips That Really Work and 13 Simple ADHD Closet Organization Tips. Store things where you use them and organize everything in your home so simply that even a child can locate, retrieve, and put things away.

Conclusion:

By applying the right strategies, and understanding how your ADHD uniquely manifests itself, you can learn to compensate for those executive functions that are the most challenging for you. You can also utilize the many other tools available to help you effectively manage your ADHD long term. 

Step by Step Home Makeover Guide For Those with ADHD

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2 Comments

  1. Susan

    What a wonderful article. I appreciate all of the tips that you have given I have struggled with ADHD for about the same amount of time but still struggle despite medication I feel like I need to learn more about this disorder.

    Reply

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