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After making New Year resolutions this year, I realized I wanted to make living with ADHD easier for myself — and that would mean reorganizing my apartment. I’m a full-time freelance creative and I live with a roommate in a small, two-bedroom apartment. The apartment functions as both a workspace and living space. For folks like me with ADHD, environments are extensions of the mind, so I wanted my space to better suit the way my brain works.
Generally, people with ADHD have lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (associated with motivation and reward) in their brains. This often means that a task must be more interesting or exciting to their brain in order to get the same amount of dopamine for it. For me, this means that I have a tendency toward mounting clutter. It’s common for me to pick up stuff I need for my projects throughout the day. I get excited and can’t wait to get to work, so I often decide it makes more sense to leave them out in plain sight for the next day. Then the left side of my bed becomes my “desk”, and when it’s time to begin an important project, it’s like doing an archaeological dig to locate what I need again.
When you’re already trying to do something your brain isn’t well-suited for, it’s easy to get pulled away by anything more exciting, which is literally everything. Working from home with all the world’s distractions around you, it can be easy (even for a neurotypical person) to lose track of time and let their mind wander. Add to this the fact that many folks with ADHD brains struggle with implementing organization and structure in general.
But, Dr. Natalie Bliss, a New Orleans-based psychiatrist, warns, “ADHD can look very different in different people.” If you have ADHD, what I just described can sound right on the money, or not like your experience at all. And the tips that work for me may not make a huge difference for your home. But either way, making progress can start at home. “How you keep your home is a reflection of your mental state,” says Dr. Bliss. “Someone who is depressed might have lots of old trash and have trouble keeping up with chores. That can also happen with ADHD.”
If, like me, you’re in need of a little motivation on where to start, here are six tips and tricks from Dr. Bliss and actress and writer Jessica McCabe, who runs the YouTube channel “How to ADHD,” for making your living space more accommodating for ADHD.
For me, visual cues are almost too powerful; in sight, in mind. Out of sight, out of mind, I literally forgot it existed. Add to that the dimension of time! Researchers Dr. Edward M. Hallowell and Dr. John J. Ratey wrote in their (fantastic) book, “ADHD 2.0.,” that people with ADHD are only able to intuitively grasp two concepts of time — now and not now.
A zone is an area of your home where a collection of visual cues tell you to do a certain activity, like household tasks or something more creative. “As much as your brain needs to focus, it also needs to be able to wander,” says McCabe. “Sitting next to a plant (even a fake one!) jogs your mind into a creative mode.” Super inspired by this, I made myself a little corner by my windowsill where I can sit next to my succulent and write my little poems.
Focus on the “point of performance.”
Certain zones should be set up at point of performance — the critical place and time for performing a task — to make completing a task easier. If you’re in the kitchen making coffee, the mugs, coffee beans, the kettle, French press, milk frother, and sugar should all be within arm’s reach. Having everything together in one spot eliminates distractions that come with assembling everything you need for a task. McCabe picked this strategy up from waiting tables. A couple months into my lease, I realized I hadn’t played my guitar for a month simply because I had it stowed in the back of my closet along with my amp. Now, I keep my instruments in plain sight and hooked up, so I can just power on and play them when I see them.
Bring your good habits closer, and put distractions farther away.
If there are activities you want to encourage yourself to do, you should take away spatial barriers to doing them. I’ve started setting my yoga mat between my bed and my bedroom door, so I have to touch it before I leave my room in the morning.
Because my desk was completely covered up with mail, bottles and the crumbs of dying makeup palettes, I rarely used it for its intended purpose: work. So I end up sitting on my bed with my laptop in all kinds of strange postures. Sometimes I don’t want to do all that, so I just don’t open my computer, and put off my work until later.
For ADHD folks, Dr. Bliss says, “decluttering your space is the biggest thing you can do” to maintain zones at a point of performance. “Instead of having different types of drinkware that don’t stack together, have all of one kind,” says Dr. Bliss. “Try to keep only a couple of ‘fun mugs’ you can take out when you’re in a fun mood and store them in a different place.”
Distinguish “clutter in motion” from “clutter in stasis.”
For me and many other ADHD folks, clutter is a natural result of being a visual thinker. While some people might be able to read five pages of a book, and then stick it back on the bookshelf for tomorrow, I know that if I put that book on my shelf, I won’t touch it for five years — maybe never again. That’s why I need the ZONES!
Another common issue in ADHD homes is clutter. Some level of clutter is inevitable, but the important thing is to distinguish “clutter in motion” from “clutter in stasis.” Sometimes a person with ADHD will take things out of their dedicated place to use them — we might sit with our laptops and books and coffee cups, and this can even feel comforting. That’s clutter in motion. Clutter in stasis happens when an object has been out of place for so long that you stop noticing it’s there and it becomes a permanent fixture. So some ADHD folks could end up having lots of piles.
Over time, someone with ADHD might filter out clutter in stasis, but working around it still uses brain power, which is why sometimes decluttering is a great way to get past overwhelm. McCabe hired a pair of designers experienced with ADHD, Carmen Nave and Lenore Brooks, who she featured on her channel. They pointed out that clutter in stasis often happens when the object of clutter doesn’t have a place to go.
I found this language extremely helpful because it has empowered me to see my clutter as another way of understanding my needs and the way I use space. Looking at my clutter in stasis has made me more mindful of how I use it while it’s still in motion. A housekeeping hack, according to McCabe: Just find a cute-looking bin for the pile. Now it looks clean! A quick trip to the Container Store made me feel like all my little knick-knacks finally have a place to live.
Set up visual cues and systems for both safety and leisure.
“I always say, plan for bad brain days. Don’t put together a system that only works when your brain is working really well,” says McCabe.
A key to this is creating time-bound rituals and iterating your systems to fit how you really use the space. Dr. Bliss suggests creating a ritual of emptying bags and putting everything in a designated place as soon as you come home — the phone in the charger, the keys on their hook, your coat on the hook.
When I mentioned to McCabe that I nearly burned down my apartment over-boiling some eggs while watching “Sex and the City” reruns and she suggested I train myself to turn on the light above my stove anytime I’m cooking with gas. That way I can glance over and see the light is on and turn off my stove before it’s too late. She also programs her smart lights to dim at night as a cue to stop working and start getting ready for the evening.
Have you figured out ways to make your home more ADHD-friendly for you? Please share in the comments!