A universal challenge for people with ADHD is disorganization — of things, priorities, and time —so how do you transform chaos to order?
In my experience, the first step comes with recognizing the pain that disorganization is causing you or your loved ones. The next step: Adopting a meaningful philosophy of life that guides all future actions.
I am so pleased to present an excerpt from a inspiring new book from Jaclyn Paul: Order from Chaos: The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized When You Have ADHD.
Jaclyn’s is a decidedly thoughtful and intelligent voice on many aspects of ADHD, shared through her blog, The ADHD Homestead. We met many years ago—when I discovered a review of my first book on her website: Book Review: Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD?
At the end of this post, I’ll share links to that post and her guest posts here at the ADHD Roller Coaster.
By Jaclyn Paul, Guest Writer
“Lazy is as lazy does.”
I scribbled these words onto the back of an envelope after yet another argument with my husband. It didn’t matter that he’d said them. The words had power because I felt them.
At 23, we were unbelievably young—and new homeowners, newly married, and new to sharing responsibility for our own household.
Neither of us had been diagnosed with ADHD…yet.
But was I lazy? I scrambled to record my husband’s accusation — you’ll notice, on a scrap of mail pulled from a pile somewhere — because I wanted to remember it. I wanted to hold it up against similar labels I’d received as a teenager: selfish, ungrateful, irresponsible, and yes, lazy.
When I looked inside myself, I saw someone different. I always had. Yet here I was: free from my family of origin and its labels, only to run up against them in my new life with my new husband.
We Need More Than “Trying Harder”
Many adults with ADHD struggle with the dissonance between our true selves and the people we show the world. I’ve begged many times over the years, first of my parents, then of my husband: give me another chance. This isn’t who I am. I’ll change, I promise. Please let me show you.
In that argument so many years ago, my husband gave a familiar response: he was fed up with my mess and my excuses. It seemed awfully convenient that I had time to play video games with friends but not open three months’ worth of mail. He wanted to tell me I was grounded, but he wasn’t a parent and I wasn’t a child. One thing was certain: he was finding it harder and harder to believe in me.
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And do you know what? I couldn’t blame him. Something had to give. After a lifetime trying to prove I wasn’t selfish, lazy, or ungrateful, I was about to stop believing in myself.
The Real Cost of Chaos: A List
One day, I sat down and made a list of everything my chaos and disorganization were costing me. The list spanned the personal, professional, and financial:
- Lost money in every way possible: I misplaced checks and sometimes found them when they were too old to take to the bank. If I did find them in time, I missed out on the interest they could’ve made in my savings account. I paid late fees on bills, even though I had money in the bank — I’d just forgotten to pay them or lost the bill in my piles. I bought new items because they were on sale with a rebate, but forgot to mail the rebate form.
- Dealt with chronic health worries because I never scheduled doctor’s appointments.
- Lived in constant fear of being “found out” by people who held me in high regard. I always felt others’ trust in me was misplaced.
- Suffered from nonstop anxiety, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
- Struggled to create a social life in our new home. I either felt I didn’t have time because I needed to catch up and calm some of the chaos, or I wasn’t organized enough to make plans in the first place.
- Felt insecure in all my relationships, both personal and professional.
- Had nowhere to retreat. My life was such a mess, I had no space to gather my thoughts or be by myself. Chaos lurked everywhere.
- Rarely communicated with long-distance friends or family.
- Wanted to write a book and publish articles in magazines, yet dedicated almost no time to my creative pursuits.
It Took A Few Years to Figure It Out
All of these things left me feeling anxiety, panic, guilt, and dread every single day. I had no idea why my life was such a mess. I was a hard worker. Despite my outward appearances, I did care about my family, friends, career, and finances. Every time I got fed up with myself and cleaned up a little, I swore I would never let the chaos return. I had no idea why I failed every time.
Though it took me a couple more years to figure it out, the answer was ADHD.
ADHD: The Chaos Machine Hiding My True Self
We ADHDers often find ourselves amid chaos because ADHD presents unique challenges to getting organized. At the beginning of my organizing journey, I wrote in my notebook:
I feel like there’s an invisible force pulling me away from getting the laundry from the washer, putting another load in. What is that?
That — the invisible force field between me and everything I knew I should be doing — was ADHD. But the term ADHD feels misleading. We don’t suffer from a deficit of attention, but more an inability to corral it.
A little brain science: ADHD primarily affects our prefrontal cortex, the seat of our executive functions. This part of the brain controls what we pay attention to, how we respond, and what thoughts have the floor at any given time.
Factors Getting In Our Way
I knew my messy life was screwing up my marriage and my mental health. Yet I failed again and again to make lasting improvements. While adults with ADHD may want to be organized, calm, and reliable, consider these factors getting in our way:
- Becoming uncontrollably distracted by random thoughts and stuff happening around us (people chatting near our desk, remembering we were supposed to send Uncle Steve a birthday card, a spider building a web in the corner, you name it).
- Making impulsive decisions without thinking things through.
- Having a lot of inertia. Once we start an activity, we may have trouble stopping when we need to (even if that means dropping the ball on something important).
- Not reading or listening to instructions carefully (this makes paperwork especially arduous).
- Having a hard time completing tasks in the right order.
- Struggling to organize our behavior and tasks in a way that makes sense.
Add that to the force field I described earlier, which usually surrounds chores we find unappealing. It’s unsurprising so many of us live in a mess.
That distractibility and impulsivity lead to a host of other issues, too. Piles of stuff filled my house— unopened mail, half-emptied shopping bags, laundry, etc. — because I couldn’t settle down and focus for long enough to figure out what to do with them. The only thing more overwhelming than the need for order was the difficulty of getting there.
Why Get Organized? To Ease My Own Suffering
Bottom line: I was in a lot of pain.
When I eventually organized my life, I did it to ease that pain. I didn’t do it because I wanted the tidiest house on the block or because I wanted my husband to stop hassling me about dirty dishes or late payments on bills. I did it for me.
If you have ADHD, getting organized will improve every relationship in your life. However, the reasons for change must come from within. Digging out of the mess and chaos is a lot of work. You can’t get through it, and you definitely can’t sustain it, based on a set of ideas from other people about what you should do or how you should live.
People with ADHD face significant obstacles to getting and staying organized. Most of us won’t grow out of these problems. My struggles only grew worse after I graduated from college, married, and bought a house. But that doesn’t mean ADHDers are doomed to a life of failure, conflict, and disarray.
Defining: “My Idea of a Good Life”
Here’s what I learned on my own organizing journey: I needed to define what a good life meant to me. And I began to create the conditions that make that life feel attainable. I didn’t do this out of a feeling of obligation, or because I finally tried hard enough. “Try harder” isn’t a solution or a cure for ADHD. We need a driving purpose, a reason to do the hard and tedious work our brains so abhor — something bigger than “because we should.”
We also need organizing systems and tools that work for our brains. If a person with ADHD tries to use an app, a planner, or even a filing cabinet that works against the way their brain processes information, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. There’s a good solution out there for everyone. For people with ADHD, finding it is critical to our long-term success.
What’s Next For Taming the Chaos?
Too many of us have done battle with ourselves to get cleaned up, get the bills paid on time, or stop missing meetings because we should. Because that’s what responsible adults do. But we never stopped to ask ourselves why this responsible-adult behavior is so important to us. We haven’t taken the time to connect this work to our core values — to the people we believe ourselves to be, and who we desperately want the rest of the world to know.
In my book, Order from Chaos, I talk a lot about getting to know yourself. Developing this self-knowledge was key to finally getting my life in order. I had to learn how my brain works.
I also had to learn how the rest of my family’s brains work because we’re very different people who need to manage a household together.
But most importantly, I had to figure out how all this hard work supported the person I wanted to be for myself and my family — the person who had previously been hidden under the mess, the fighting, the negative labels. Because if we don’t know where we’re going, we won’t do the work required to get there.
Read More From Jaclyn
Jaclyn Paul’s other guest posts at the ADHD Roller Coaster:
ADHD Medication and Relationships — essay based on reading my book’s chapters covering medication
Her book review on her previous blog: Book Review: Is it You, Me, or Adult ADD? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder
Thanks to Jaclyn for sharing that excerpt from her new book.
She and I welcome your comments!