Mental disorganization is a common problem among adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They can’t shake the nagging sensation that there’s something important they need to do—if only they could remember what it was.
As an adult with ADHD, do you invest a lot of energy trying to “fight the forget” and stay on track? If you’ve been relying solely on your mental capabilities and sheer force of will, things are probably still slipping through the cracks. You’re likely also often anxious because you’re constantly worried about missing things.
Mental organization doesn’t come naturally to those with ADHD, but it’s possible to allocate your time more effectively. This post provides a step-by-step approach for improving mental organization for adults with ADHD. It also offers tips for overcoming common organizational setbacks.
1. Write things down right away
Adults with ADHD struggle with working memory (they can’t hang onto information long enough to do something with it). When an interesting idea randomly occurs, they feel like they only have two choices: ignore it and continue what they’re doing or completely switch gears. Many ADHDers choose the latter, so they end up jumping from one incomplete task to the next.
We’re here to suggest a third option: documenting random ideas/thoughts right away then continuing with the original task. We recommend writing down any thoughts that threaten to sidetrack you, whether they are trivial (“daydream about dessert recipes”) or more consequential (“dentist appointment tomorrow morning”).
The more you document, the less you have to remember. To minimize disruption to your current task, you should have something available to write on at all times. Some people with ADHD use a bullet journal/planner, a stack of sticky notes, or a small notepad.
If you tend to struggle with physical organization and lose things easily, sending yourself a text may be a better fit. You can get more hi-tech by using a smartphone app, such as Todoist, Habitica, or Google Keep. Google Keep is an excellent option because it is already installed on most smartphones, syncs across all your devices, and allows you to take notes hands-free by linking it with your Google Assistant. Once it’s set up, say, “Hey Google” to activate Assistant, then “take a note.” Finally, speak your thoughts out loud to create a new item in Google Keep.
Just remember that there’s not much use writing something down if you never look at it again. A common setback for people with ADHD who put sticky notes all over their living space is that the notes quickly become part of the scenery and are therefore ignored. That’s why taking notes is just the first step toward improving mental organization with ADHD. The second step is to. . .
2. Compile your notes into one place
If you currently have a rainbow of stickies strewn everywhere, that’s okay—as long as you regularly take time to compile them into one place. Otherwise, it’s too easy to lose and forget things.
Set a recurring reminder to collect your notes from various places at the end of each day. Then look at each one, categorizing it as either “time-sensitive” or “do it whenever.” The “whenever” notes can be transferred to their own binder, folder, or mood board to be revisited for inspiration during your free time.
For time-sensitive items, we recommend ranking them according to importance. If you use sticky notes, you could create separate columns on your wall like “do this week,” “do this month,” and “do within three months.” You could designate a separate page in your binder/planner for each category. Alternately, you could leave all your notes in the same pile and arrange them in descending order of importance.
3. Schedule important tasks on your calendar
This step is essential since it will allow you to create reminders. It will also force you to budget your time, deprioritizing or eliminating nonessential tasks. After all, there’s only so much you can do in a day, and putting things on a calendar makes it easier to see that. Don’t forget to leave plenty of buffer room around tasks just in case things take longer than you expect.
If you prefer to schedule things a week at a time, go for it! Just keep in mind that weekly scheduling isn’t quite as flexible as daily scheduling. If something unexpected happens or a task takes longer than expected, you’ll have to push back and rearrange everything for the rest of the week. When you schedule things a day at a time, yesterday’s snafus will already be accounted for.
However often you decide to schedule your tasks, try to be as consistent as possible. At first, you’ll need to set a recurring reminder (“Organize and schedule tomorrow’s tasks”). If you stick with it long enough, it will become part of your routine, and it won’t take any effort to remember.
4. Check your calendar regularly
This will also become habitual over time. Until then, don’t count on your brain to remember. There are a variety of techniques that can help with this.
One technique we highly recommend is to use audible reminders/alarms. Depending on your preferences, you might decide to set a reminder for each task on your calendar. Another approach would be to set regularly recurring alarms (one at morning, noon, and night, for example) to remind you to check your calendar. If needed, you can set them to go off even more frequently as a reminder to stay on task.
To avoid missing notifications when you’re away from your computer, you could rely on your phone or smartwatch and always keep it with you. If possible, adjust the settings such that your alarms go off continuously until manually shut off, discouraging you from ignoring them. Also, use a sound notification that is distinct from your other sound notifications. You don’t want to hear a ding and think it’s a text message that can be ignored, when it was actually your reminder to look at your calendar.
Visual reminders geared toward organization can also help. Buy a paper desktop calendar or hang a whiteboard if having your calendar hidden away in your planner or phone isn’t working. Some people with ADHD also put a sticky note with their current task somewhere in their field of vision. To make your reminders more attention-grabbing, use bright colors or a design that draws your eye.
5. Troubleshoot Setbacks with a Professional
You might be thinking to yourself, “I tried all of these things, and it didn’t work”. Implementing new habits can be really difficult for ADHDers. Rarely do things work out the first (or even tenth) time. By working with an adult ADHD specialist, you can figure out where the obstacles are and problem-solve how to address them. Rather than tossing out the whole system, with the help of a professional, you can find ways to adapt and modify it to actually work for you.
If you’re seeking professional support from an ADHD specialist, then message us to see how we can help or book a free 20 minute consultation call with Dr. Lee, Dr. Abbene, Dr. Barajas, or Dr. Goldman.