A Quick Guide to Taming ADHD Clutter at Home

Coming home to an ADHD partner's mess can raise the stress levels at home, encourage long-term resentment, and ruin your sex life.  Here's how to clear up the clutter fast.

I hear with some frequency that living with the visual and physical clutter of an ADHD partner eats at your soul.  If clutter has accumulated over years there can now be so much of it that it seems impossible to tackle - even if it's negatively impacting your relationship, as one couple recently wrote me.  We have a little bit of that here, too, in the Orlov household, though I've managed to isolate some good part of my husband's clutter by assigning it spaces - which has helped tremendously.  As part of the overall negotiation, I have also come to terms with the idea that he has a 'collection' of bikes and bike parts that is outrageously large (and constantly growing).  Bikes are his hobby...and it's not my place to dictate whether or not it should change.  But that doesn't mean that clutter needs to take over my life...or yours.  Here are some specific ideas that can help you tame clutter that's out of control.  The basic concept is this - MOVE now; SORT later.  That way you get immediate visual relief, reduced stress, and sorting can happen...whenever.

  • MOVE the clutter to one location or a few locations.  Certainly, make sure your bedroom is clear of all clutter, since you want that to be a sanctuary for you both.
  • If you have a large enough piece of property, and money, consider building a shed or extra garage to move clutter into.  You can do the sorting in the shed (I'm guessing this is only practical in colder climates if you have it heated :-)
  • Rent a moving "cube" into which you can store a lot of clutter - typically they drop them off in your driveway, and people put all their junk in them for a period of time - like renting a trailer by the month.  The inconvenience of having the cube in the drive may remind you to sort.
  • Put all your junk in your side of the garage.  Getting the snow off the car that you must leave outside in the winter will remind you (daily) that you need to sort it.  See below for the fastest sorting method.
  • Allocate specific spots for the ADHD partner to be messy.  For example, in our home those spots are:  my husband's office; the basement; my husband's half of the garage; his closet; the entrance hall.  If things get messy outside of those spaces you can move the stuff into one of the mess locations pretty quickly.  The ADHD partner will always know where to find it.
  • "Tidy" the mess by putting it, untouched, into dated moving boxes and storing them in the basement or closet out of sight.  If you need to find something you can locate the appropriate boxes.

Many people with ADHD think that they can't hire help to sort through things - there is too much nuance to the job.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but they are wrong.  There may be some stuff that you feel you must go through, but reality is that most stuff can be sorted by a complete stranger using a set of rules.  Always.  Even if you fear it's not true.  Here are some examples of sorting categories:

  • All tax files back to 2004 go into this pile, here
  • All tax files older than 10 years old get shredded
  • All other financial files go in this box, here (label the box.  You can sort through it later if you want)
  • Any papers related to health goes into this box (labeled)
  • Anything related to my extended family goes into this box (labeled)
  • All photographs go into this labeled box
  • All woodworking tools go into box on work bench
  • All clothing gets folded and put on bed (sort through it all at once to figure out what goes to Goodwill)
  • All books get put into a pile (once piled up you can sort through them quickly to figure out which get donated to the library)
  • All sports equipment goes into this corner
  • Any artwork goes into this bin
  • Kitchen and cooking items go into this box (labeled)
  • Anything that doesn't fit into a category gets put next to the stairs (if you see many like items in this area, create another category and pull them apart from the pile)

You can take these categories and boxes from room to room if you need to.

You will have your own "rules" based on what your specific mess is, but you get the idea.  HIRE SOMEONE to work with you for 3 hours a weekend until it's done (or 3 hours a day, if you want to rip the bandaid off all at once!), put on some music to stay pumped up or relaxed, and soon you will be sorted and past your anxiety about letting things go.  Hiring help is really important when you're overwhelmed with the mess because a.) you can use their great organizational skills and b.) their energy as you work side by side will keep you going.

If you want some more ideas about getting organized with ADHD, see Kohlberg and Nadeau's ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life.