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ADHD 101 Series: Cleaning with ADHD

For many of us with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), cleaning can be a daunting task. When faced with a kitchen of dirty dishes or the chaos of a disorganized closet, the ADHD brain gets overstimulated and results in an increase of ADHD symptoms. The result of this overstimulation manifests in a variety of ways: some people become paralyzed and can’t get started on anything, for others they may be too overwhelmed to even see there is a problem and

block it out of their mind. This results in an inability to prioritize properly and finish tasks to completion, which then leads to further build up of mess and the cycle starts all over again.

Hopefully some of these tips will help you break out of the cycle and clean up your life!

Tip 1: Take it Step by Step

When starting to teach yourself to do any task, go slow. People often jump ahead and start with the end goal, but to set ourselves up for success we need to focus on the first step: not step 5 or 6. For example, let’s say our goal is to teach ourselves to do the dishes regularly at the end of every day.

Breaking this goal down into steps might look something like this:

  • Step 1: Bring dishes to the kitchen when done with them.

  • Step 2: When dishes brought to the kitchen, scrape them/rinse them and pile them neatly.

  • Step 3: When you bring the dishes to the kitchen, wash them.

  • Step 4: Establish a schedule for wiping counters/bigger cleans (e.g. fridge, garbage, etc).

The same process could be applied to laundry:

End goal: Do laundry regularly: including all clothes put away neatly.

  • Step 1: Put dirty laundry in the basket

  • Step 2: When putting laundry in the basket, check the pockets first/unfold socks/sort it into loads, etc.

  • Step 3: Establish a regular schedule for at least one load of laundry per day/week/month, depending on your needs

  • Step 4: Put away the laundry when clean.

  • Step 5: Fold/put away neatly.

  • Step 6: Do up buttons/zippers when hanging.

If we try to establish all of these steps at once, it gets too overwhelming and is not very sustainable. It is much easier to learn these skills one at a time until we feel comfortable with our level of skill attainment and we don’t have to think about it as much. Perhaps each week try one skill to learn, or for a month, or even a few days.

Tip 2: Practice, practice, practice

Dedicated practice time can be very helpful for establishing new habits. Intentionally spending a few minutes every day focusing on one or two skills will eventually lead to the skills become automatic habits, that you do without thinking about them. To get to this point, we need to repeatedly practice the skill over and over to build muscle memory. Mozart did not learn how to play the piano overnight, and the same goes for any skill acquisition. Training our brains and bodies to form habits takes deliberate and intentional practice, just like when learning to play an instrument.

To motivate yourself to practice try tracking your skills or keeping a list of the ones you accomplish. Here are some common skills to practice in the area of cleaning and organization:

Catching up Cleaning:

  • Schedule a specific day/time for each section & put your schedule in a visible place e.g.

  • Have a cleanup blitz day (consider calling in friends/family/services to help).

  • Establishing a regular cleaning schedule for a big clean e.g. once per week/month/year.

  • Put away 5 things before bed every day.

  • Tackle one extra cleaning chore per day e.g. one load of laundry, one cupboard/shelf cleaned.

Maintaining Your Cleanliness:

  • Bring a thing: Don’t leave a room without bringing something that doesn’t belong there.

  • The floor is lava: do not put the thing down unless it is going it it’s proper home.

  • Do 5 things tomorrow-you would appreciate. E.g. put out your clothes, pre-set coffee, etc.

  • Put things back in their place when done using them.

  • Establish a schedule for specific things, one at a time. E.g. each room, each task like laundry

  • Pick up all the garbage/cans/paperwork in the house regularly

Tip 3: Rotate your skills, but not too much

Often people get very enthusiastic about learning new skills, and they try to focus on too many things at once. This results in getting a tiny bit of progress in each area, which is more difficult to recognize and celebrate. A better option is to choose a limited number of skills to focus on at a time so that you can see vast improvement in those areas first. Having a few skills or modifications on the skills you are practicing, can be helpful to keep the ADHD brain more engaged. Some research shows that slightly modifying the skill you are practicing can help you learn the skill faster.

A rotating schedule might look something like:

  • Week 1 day 1: Focus on hanging clothes up neatly.

  • Week 1 day 2: Focus on doing the buttons/zippers up when you hang things up.

  • Week 1 day 3: Focus on folding things neatly.

  • Week 1 day 4: repeat day 1

  • Week 1 day 5: repeat day 2

  • Week 1 day 6: repeat day 3

  • Week 1 day 7: take a break!

Everyone is different for how many skills they can take on at one time, and how long they need to spend on each skill. Once you are comfortable with your ability to complete the skill that is suitable for your lifestyle, move on to the next!

Tip 4: Learn to mono/multi task

To keep yourself focused and able to complete a project, you can implement mono tasking and multitasking, and a hybrid version depending on the situation. Mono/multitasking can help make a task more enjoyable and immediately rewarding, which is essential for ADHD motivation.

For example, let’s say you are trying to clean your bathroom but it is very overwhelming. You would mono task by just focusing on one aspect: let’s say cleaning the sink. That is the only thing you focus on cleaning at a time until you are done: mono tasking the sink.

But, let’s say you are the kind of person that you hate cleaning the sink and in order to convince yourself to do so you need some sort of distraction: that’s where a hybrid version can come in. While you mono task only cleaning the sink: you also use some distraction such as music, a podcast, dance party, etc. to make the task more interesting and keep you motivated to do the task.

Mono/multi-tasking can be done by job or by area. For example, if you have trouble picking up garbage, you can focus on that specific task. For example, walking around the whole house while chanting aloud “garbage” to keep yourself focused just on picking up garbage can keep you from getting distracted. For mono tasking an area, an example would be perhaps shutting the bathroom door as a reminder to yourself to slow down and not leave until you are done cleaning.

In a nutshell: when you need motivation to do the task: multitask to get yourself there. When you need to stay focused to complete a task: mono task the thing or the area you are in.

Tip 6: Set up your environment for success

Environmental modifications are sometimes necessary to help make things more efficient. Spending some time examining your physical environment can help you determine if there are changes that could be helpful to make learning more efficient (and more successful!)

For example, let’s say you want to work on your laundry skills, starting with getting all the dirty laundry into the laundry basket so when you go to wash it then it is ready. To do this, in some cases it is as simple as teaching a rabbit to poop in a litter box.

Rabbits are very habitual and clean, and they will typically poop in one spot in their enclosure. You simply have to put the litter box in the spot they prefer to poop and voila: the rabbit will typically poop in the litter box with very little intervention needed beyond that. Humans are kind of the same: If you put your laundry basket in the place where you already put your laundry anyway, you are going to be way more likely to get it into the basket. This simple environmental change of moving your laundry basket to your preferred laundry dumping place, may help you start on the process of getting your laundry to its home.

Tip 7: Therapy Helps!

Implementing these strategies can be difficult on your own. In therapy we can go through your problem areas together and tackle what you are struggling with most. Counselling sessions can focus on tackling the specific barriers that are getting in the way of your success. In addition, ADHD counselling can help you stay motivated and accountable for your goals.

Tip 8: Celebrate your success!

You have learned some new stuff, that’s exciting! It is important to celebrate even small wins along the way. We are not born with the ability to clean and organize our lives, learning these things can be challenging and you deserve to celebrate your hard work.

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