A New Way for Old Clutter

Apr. 30th, 2018

There are so many things about ADHD that make it a veritable clutter-manufacturing machine. Impulsive buying, poor memory (leading to purchasing things we already have, but don't recall or can't find), inattention leading to items being damaged or expired, anxiety, bouncing between multiple new hobbies, interests, businesses, and jobs, a deep-seated loathing and avoidance of paperwork, a somewhat mysterious but wide-spread fascination with stationery, and a propensity to surround ourselves with friends, offspring, and pets who share these traits with us and further add to the chaos that is our physical surroundings. There's no denying clutter is an extremely common challenge for those of us with this brain type.

I recently developed a new method of going through my accumulated stuff. It has the novel side effect of producing the visual order and calm before I've actually gotten rid of anything. Which makes me feel like I'm cheating, but as long as I keep up with the method, it will be taken care of in the end. I'm currently applying this method to theoretically go through every single item I own, but it will work just as well for one shelf and an entire house.

I built this method on a few central concepts of decluttering I've learned over the years, such as:

“Does this object being me joy?”

- The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

“How recently have I used this?”

“Can I replace this with $20 or less? If so, it is not worth keeping around.”

And my own decluttering mantra, especially useful in small spaces:

“Is this worth the space it is taking up?”

These are helpful to consider as items are weighed in the hand and in the mind.

A lot of what I write about in this blog is, to the best of my ability, ADHD friendly. This post might be an exception. There are many pitfalls inherent to this method that ADHD is prone to fall into. I tend to be an order muppet in my physical space. So the instructions below might not work for others with a more chaotic bent or who struggle to finish things more than I do.

Step one: Divide

Divide the area to be decluttered into the space of an average kitchen cabinet or less. I wrote out a list of these locations to move through them methodically, but this can also apply for more random decluttering. Limiting the space to be considered helps to reduce the risk of overwhelm and abandoning the work/project.

Step two: Empty

Remove everything from the space and place it on a flat, neutral, and temporary location, such as a counter, bed, or folding table.

Step three: Decide

Decide what category of objects will live in this location. Remember the principle that objects used most frequently need to be within most easy reach and as the frequency of use goes down, the ease of access can also go down. No sense in having our toothbrush in the garage but holiday decor in the top desk drawer.

One reason spaces become cluttered is too many types of things live in them. Some types of objects can usefully live together, such as cutlery and straws for example. But when too many categories of objects cohabitate it can make finding any one of them difficult.

Step four: Move back

Once it's been decided what category of object will be stored in this space, put everything back that belongs to that category. This is also an opportunity to make decisions about the order and arrangement of these things. If the items are perishable, remember to put them in order of FIFO or First In First Out so that the things that expire sooner are used sooner than those which expire later.

Step five: Box

Everything left on the neutral surface is now placed in a box labeled “Clutter”. This is not for storage. This becomes the repository of everything that will now be moved somewhere else, in whatever manner means it is less likely to become clutter again. Moving things we don’t have a use for or room for around the living space isn’t decluttering. Decluttering means making active decisions.

Step six: Rehouse

Spend time taking things out of the clutter box and putting them into a new box, that will then have all the same kind of thing happen to it. If the clutter is mostly or all paper clutter it may need more time to deal with because having to lay out and clean up piles of papers 15 mins at a time is a pain and not very efficient. Here is an excellent video on dealing with paper clutter for those of us with ADHD.

Here are some suggestions for the labels on the other boxes:

- Find a home for/Keep/Relocate

- Store

- Give away/Donate/Sell

- Trash/Recycle

- Destroy (EX. sensitive papers)

- Fix

A couple warnings.

When it comes to the Sell and Fix categories, there may be pitfalls for those of us who struggle with procrastination. I find it challenging to find time to simply drop off a box at a thrift store, let alone organize myself to sell something. And even people who love fixing things might struggle to fit that time into their lives. Sometimes it helps our stress levels the most to simply pass something along, allowing whatever happens to it next to no longer be our responsibility.

Also, the Store category can be tricky. There are a number of categories of things I am completely on board with putting in storage, such as seasonal items and craft supplies. However, use caution when deciding to store something indefinitely. If there is extreme resistance or anxiety around getting rid of anything, this might be the signal to seek professional help for emotions to do with parting from physical objects.

Once the box labeled Clutter is empty, take the things in the other boxes to where they belong, like a new home, or the thrift store

Step seven: Fine tooth comb

This is the newest stage of decluttering for me. Once I’ve emptied the clutter box and dealt with everything I sorted, then I go back to the original space I emptied out to make completely sure that I really do want to keep everything that’s there. For example, I know that all the plastic cutlery I’ve saved over the years does belong in the cutlery drawer, so that’s fine on an organizational level. But it’s just me and my husband, and we don’t take meals from home anywhere very often, so... How many plastic knives, forks, and spoons do we really need? Not the amount I have in that drawer, that’s for certain.

Another example is that yes, hair brushes belong in a bathroom or bedroom, but when you have hair less than 2 inches long, do you really need a brush, let alone three? Probably not. If I decide to grow out my hair in the future, can a brush be purchased? Most certainly.

Step eight: Accountability

In order to gain some traction and increase motivation around decluttering, I recommend getting some accountability or enlisting a body double to help. Having a trusted and non-judgmental person standing by in silent support of one’s efforts can be hugely helpful. The solitary and anti-climactic nature of decluttering can make it very difficult for those of us with ADHD to persevere at it.

One last thing! Ideally this system is designed to be done, to completion, one space at a time. Otherwise the end result might be a growing and overwhelming pile of boxes labeled “Clutter”. This is one of the pitfalls of having the calm visual space result before the stuff is actually dealt with.

What role does stuff play in your life?