By Michelle Seitzer
While the rest of the world is spring cleaning, it’s just another round of “reclaim the bathroom for the rest of us” or “find the floor again” at my house.
As a person who loves order, I knew being married to someone with ADHD meant I’d have to get comfortable with messes.
What I didn’t know is how many messes there would be. I pictured an overflowing hamper in a bedroom corner, and maybe a bathroom counter cluttered with toiletries.
Instead, there are multiple areas of mess throughout the house, and the objects are mixed up. It’s not only a pile of clothes, it’s a pile of dirty and clean clothes — plus some paperwork, trash, and maybe a set of keys.
While we’ve had plenty of fights about lost keys and wallets over the years, we’ve found what works for cleaning and decluttering our home together. And we’re going on 19 years of marriage, so — believe it or not — ADHD and organization can live under the same roof.
Here’s how we make it work:
Tip 1: Activate those hyperfocus skills.
Many people with ADHD tend to fixate on a preferred activity, object, topic or food, and this fixation can last for hours, weeks or even months. While you may get tired of hearing about their latest interest, hyperfocus is a superpower when it comes to cleaning and decluttering.
When my husband is fixated on spending time in his workshop, he can organize the place like a pro. It may take hours, but if he’s given that windfall of time to stay at it — uninterrupted — he can get the job done.
Tip 2: Support the process in helpful ways.
About that “uninterrupted” thing: It’s important to give your partner space and time to work on that huge pile of clothes, tools or paperwork on which you’re requesting their focused attention. That means: Don’t nag them, don’t pressure them with constant reminders and check-ins, don’t criticize how they’re doing or how fast they’re moving, and certainly don’t control the process.
Instead, offer help. But first, ask what type of help is best. My husband likes when I talk to him while he’s working on matching a hundred pairs of socks. When he’s organizing his workshop, he’s usually on the phone with a friend. It may seem like a distraction, but it actually helps him focus (probably because the social connection distracts him from the non-preferred task of cleaning up).
Tip 3: Choose a day and time that’s ideal.
A Saturday with nothing on the calendar may be a rarity. But when it pops up, it’s a great opportunity for focusing on projects that require a few hours of uninterrupted time. If you set out to clear out the entire garage on a weekend when you’ve got a Costco run and two birthday parties to attend, there will be issues. You’re either a) going to procrastinate, b) start, but get massively frustrated when you have to stop — and then avoid cleaning out the garage for the next two years, c) argue with your spouse about who has more junk, or d) all of the above.
A word to the wise: Plan your big jobs for days when you have lots of time. And even then, don’t be a hero, and don’t blow the entire plan-free weekend on cleaning and decluttering. It feels good to look out at a clean garage. But spending every free minute of an open weekend on cleaning it does not.
Tip 4: Manage overwhelm with motivation.
I may not have ADHD, and organizing is a preferred activity for me. But I still have moments of total overwhelm when it comes to certain cleaning tasks. Often, that feeling leads to avoidance. These feelings are magnified for my spouse with ADHD, and it’s why he often seeks my help in getting started on clearing a pile of stuff.
If it’s his desk that needs clearing, I’ll go through first and sort the stuff into “categories.” Then, he’ll come and take the piles away one at a time, putting the objects where he prefers them to be: paperwork in a filing cabinet, books on a shelf, pens and pencils in a vintage coffee can, odds-and-end tools to his workshop.
Another way we manage overwhelm is through motivation. “After we do this for one hour, we’ll go for a hike.” Or: “After I can see my desk again, I’ll buy myself that new ergonomic mouse pad I want.”
Tip 5: Set a goal and visualize it.
My husband uses a big dry erase board in the basement where he can see it — to block off his time and schedule tasks. He often starts by making a bullet list of goals: “During spring break, I will … . ” Then he’ll sit down with a calendar and designate a task or two a day based on what else is on tap for the week.
Breaking things down into smaller, more manageable chunks helps everyone feel at ease about cleaning and decluttering. This makes the giant looming thing called “spring cleaning” seem doable. And you’re more likely to experience success — both individually and as a team.
Read more about ADHD and marriage in What I’ve Learned as the Spouse of Someone with ADHD. And read more about home organization in “Cleaning and Organizing with ADHD: A Tool to Help You Stay On Task.”