Help! My House Looks Like a Hurricane Went Through!

ADHD and 'mess' go hand in hand for many (though not all).  Thing pile up; ADHD partners don't seem to notice mess; and they often like to acquire but hate to throw out.

This can cause issues in the partnership.  I recently heard from a non-ADHD partner that her husband's piles of stuff were so out of control that she no longer invites people to their home, creating some social isolation for them both.  I've heard form other non-ADHD partners that the mess literally makes their skin crawl - they feel uncomfortable and stressed out coming home.

Clearly, this is an issue that needs to be addressed.  Aside from my chore recommendations (see the chapters on the Chore Wars in both of my books), here is what might be going on with some specific ideas about how to deal with the mess.

Reasons for ADHD messiness:

  • they don't notice the mess
  • they notice the mess, but it doesn't bother them
  • they need to have things out and visible as a reminder system (they 'stumble upon' stuff at the right time...or any time)
  • organizing is not a strong point, so stuff stays out
  • poor memory sometimes means that it's hard to remember where stuff goes unless it's clearly labeled...so it gets left out, instead

Reasons for over-accumulating and having trouble throwing things out:

  • they subscribe to the 'world of possibilities' theory - everything might have a use, someday, so you should keep it
  • sorting through things takes many 'throw/don't throw' decisions, which can be very difficult, as well as tedious
  • they purchase on impulse, unintentionally accumulating a lot
  • they have a purchasing addiction (particularly online) - the shot of dopamine soothes their reward-seeking needs...but not for long, then they purchase again
  • they are optimists - figuring that they can fix things...but never getting around to it (procrastination and time management issues) so broken stuff piles up
  • they are drawn to the 'main attraction', but not the clean up.  For example, buying shoes online, but not tossing out the mailing box nor the shoe box

What to do

You have a few options, and should choose those that address the specific issue at hand, as outlined above.  Please remember that non-ADHD partners should not try to FORCE these solutions on ADHD partners (this won't work...plus it is rude.)  Instead, use these as ideas to facilitate a discussion about possible solutions to try out.  Here are some specifics:

First and foremost - ADHD treatment!!

  • Optimizing ADHD treatment will help provide better focus, a better ability to stick with things that might be boring; will include (always) a time management system that works into which ADHD partners can plug some clean up tasks, and more.  Download my free treatment e-book from the home page if you don't have it.
  • Cognitive behavioral training (CBT) has been demonstrated to help adults with ADHD change habits.  Talk with your therapist to see whether this is available near you, or Google search it

You have a backlog - ADHD partner doesn't like to sort; throw/don't throw decisions are hard:

  • Set a specific goal (i.e. 50% less stuff in the basement) and hire a clean out buddy for chunks of time, several hours at a time...plus a dumpster.  One couple I know did this with a great housecleaner they trusted.  This buddy will keep you on track for sorting through it all, and tossing what's not needed.  Commit one afternoon a week (or every other week) until you meet your goal.

Clean up isn't a strong suit:

  • Add weekly 30 minute straightening sessions to the weekly chore regimen as an assignment, with specific areas of the house to be tackled.  Note:  this is different from fixing a backlog.
  • If it's paperwork, work with an organizer or more organized partner to create a 'map' of a filing system that makes sense to the ADHD partner; create those files; fill them as part of the straightening sessions (or hire a personal assistant for a bit to do a backlog for you).  NOTE:  Bills can be handled in a simple accordion file; and papers that you need to keep for a while but not forever can be thrown into a single bin - they will naturally sort in reverse date order and can be sorted pretty easily.  I do this - in January of each year I set aside one day to sort through it all, toss what I no longer need, and file the rest.  Saves a ton of time, and means I know where stuff is almost all the time.
  • Hire a professional organizer who is familiar with ADHD to help create a system that is easier to use (for example, labeled bins and certain 'rules' for purchasing new items)

Optimistic - world of limitless possibilities; 'I'll fix this some day'

  • Find a location to put all of the 'needs to be worked on some day' stuff...a basement or garage; a pod that sits near the driveway.
  • Put this 'future project' stuff into date-marked areas or boxes.  If something hasn't been moved out of that box or area in an agreed upon timeframe (say 2 years, or even 5) then the agreement is that it gets tossed, recycled or sold

Impulse purchasing

  • Set impulsivity as a target symptom for ADHD and try to lessen it through treatment
  • Set low limits on a credit card; or create a separate 'purchase account' with only a limited amount of money in it each month (note -these are easy to get around - only the most motivated will actually succeed with this idea)
  • If you both agree impulse purchasing is an issue, create a 'waiting period' before using any item that arrives at the house - perhaps 7 days.  Get comfy with sending things back and getting refunds (which have their own benefits!)
  • Block key websites, if needed
  • Get addiction counseling, if needed
  • Keep a list of purchases and their costs for three months to make the size of the issue more 'real.'  This might motivate a change in behavior (not too likely, but maybe)

Need to have things out in order to remember them

  • add externally visible systems to your organization system - many people with ADHD use white boards, bulletin boards, or utilize a personal kanban system.
  • create 'piles' that are specific for when/how to do something (i.e. "today" and "this week")
  • designate a place for the ADHD partner to leave reminders - perhaps a specific counter...then 'visit' that location multiple times a day
  • sticky notes are a favorite...

Doesn't notice the mess

  • designate a few specific areas of the house as 'no mess zones' - in our house that is the living room and dining room.  In these places, it is understood that my husband won't leave a mess and I am in charge of keeping the space clean to my standards.  Also,  designate a few areas as 'anything goes ADHD zones' - in our house these are my husband's spaces - his office, the basement (for his hobbies), his side of the garage, his closet.  The rule on those is that I don't comment.  Ever.  All the other spaces are negotiated as needed.
  • Along these same lines, create different spaces if you can - drawers that aren't shared, different bathroom sinks (or different bathrooms), 'sides' of the closet.  All of this allows each of you to be 'yourselves' as much as possible
  • Hire a housecleaner for an every other week deep clean and straightening, or more regularly for picking up if you can
  • Put a sticky note next to the bathroom mirror as a reminder for a quick clean up.  One man with ADHD, whose job it was to keep the family room tidy set up a system of bins, then put a note next to his mirror.  If he hadn't done the daily pick up by the time he went to bed at night he went back downstairs and did it right then.
  • If things pile up on the floor and all over, get boxes, marked by date, and load them up once a week.  Leave the most recent 2 boxes (i.e. two weeks) out for easy access...then, after that second week, put the oldest box with the master collection of dated boxes and stack them somewhere accessible (basement or garage works best).  After an agreed upon time, the contents get tossed...or sorted with the sorting buddy (see first ideas)

Hire an ADHD coach or get CBT