Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ryan McRae.
Trying to be organized when you have Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a heavy burden. It’s like trying to do calligraphy on the back of a runaway train. Our minds aren’t designed to have these neat compartments for organizing our stuff and keeping track of a calendar. Our ADHD minds are designed more for chaos than for order.
So how do we stop the runaway train of our minds from going off the tracks and instead head where we want it to?
We have to unburden our minds because they aren’t meant to hold ideas and information; our minds are meant to generate ideas and create.
When we try to track all of the things we have to do, the projects we face, and the appointments we need to attend to, our minds become like a hoarder’s house, filled with stuff we are storing that we don’t have to. We can get started by clearing a path to clarity.
So how do we start this decluttering process? How do we unburden ourselves from the mental mess? Follow the steps below.
Grab 30 Minutes of Time This Week
Take some time to block out 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. If you have to head to a coffeehouse, an abandoned movie theater, or a creepy motel to do it, then do it. Mute your phone. Turn off your gadgets. It’s going to be “go time” very soon. You need this time to be sacrosanct; try to be as unreachable as possible.
Use a piece of paper and a pen for this exercise. But Ryan, I’m much better on a phone. My fingers just fly! Nope. You know what a piece of paper and a pen don’t have? Access to Facebook and Candy Crush. So we are going old-school. I don’t care if it’s a Fields notebook or a steno pad. We are doing this 1970s style.
Use the DJ Maneuver
Play some tunes that you know. If you love some Cyndi Lauper (and who doesn’t?), put on an ’80s remix. The music will help you reduce distractions, but make sure it is music you know. If you want to listen to the new Radiohead CD (and who doesn’t?), you are going to run into problems because your brain cannot parallel-process. It can’t take in new information (the lyrics and sounds of new music) while trying to process other new information (“what do I have to do?”). Your brain will suffer a cerebral collision and you’ll be unable to focus on either task.
Cue up music you know by heart. (It’s Fleetwood Mac, isn’t it? That’s why we are best friends.)
[Since you made it this far, I’d like to offer you a free ebook: Conquering Your Calendar and Getting More Done.]
It’s GO time
You have the time, the paper and pen, and the music cued up. It’s time to write down every single thing that is on your mind. And I mean everything. Whatever detritus you have in there, whatever appointments, tasks, things you need to remember, whatever is clogging that cerebral cortex of yours, get it written down.
It doesn’t have to be in order. It doesn’t have to be pretty. You don’t have to edit. Give yourself at least 10 minutes to get it all down. Set a timer so your ADHD brain doesn’t say, “How much time is left?!” and get in the way.
If you start slowing down, take a look at your list and see if anything on it triggers any other memory. So if you see “Doctor,” do you have to make a dentist appointment? If you see “pick up new release at bookstore,” do you have to return books to the library?
When that timer goes off, it’s time to take a little break. Don’t look down the list just yet.
Grab a glass of water. I know it sounds silly, but it’s more than likely that you are dehydrated. The next couple of tasks will be a bit harrowing, and you’ll be able to think a little bit more clearly if you’re hydrated.
Sort the Madness
To make sense of it all, sort what you have written down into three categories: Tasks, Appointments, and Projects. If you want to use different-color pens or highlighters to do it, or transfer the list to a different piece of paper, go for it. (I recommend transferring it — but that’s me.)
These are things that take no longer than 15 minutes. These are quick, hardly-any-thinking-required tasks, such as:
- Making a dentist appointment
- Confirming your plans to meet friends for drinks this week
- Putting all of your receipts together to sort
- Dropping off clothes at the dry cleaner’s
These tasks are one-step items and can be handled in batches, meaning that you can get them all done, one after the other. You are putting your brain into “make phone calls” mode or “run errands” mode. One of the hardest challenges we have with our ADHD minds is recovering from “task-switching” fatigue: we bounce from one kind of task to another and our brains have to switch gears. Batching helps with this; making five phone calls in a row is much easier than making three phone calls, doing one load of laundry, and tidying your desk.
These are time-specific tasks that need to be put in your calendar so you don’t forget. (Reminder: the biggest lie our ADHD tells us is that we will remember a task, but since our minds are like bulletin boards with no pins, we remember something for a while and then it joins the rest of our good intentions — on the floor.)
Put appointments in a calendar immediately. I recommend an electronic one that is most likely on your phone, but if you like pencil and paper, that’s fine. Make sure you limit yourself to one calendar. Don’t have calendars for different events, topics, or projects. You’ll most likely forget to check one or even misplace it.
Projects are simply a bunch of tasks that have an end goal. Let’s take “clean out the garage” as a project. It’s not as simple as getting up on a Saturday morning and just starting. It takes some planning so you don’t wind up frustrated and simply giving up.
Whether right now or before you take that project on, you want to break it down like MC Hammer. So “clean out the garage” might look like this:
- Move all the cars out of the driveway.
- Pull out everything that is on the garage floor.
- Check the shelves and decide what to pull out.
- Decide what to give away, what to keep, and what to throw away.
- Toss the trash into the trash can or recycle bin.
- Load up the car and drive your donations to a charity.
- Sweep the garage completely.
- Borrow Bob’s pressure washer (and give him a six-pack in exchange).
- Push out all the water and wait for the garage to dry.
- Move back the rest of the items.
The project does not seem as daunting when you break it down into chunks. Before I moved to Shanghai for three months, I’d start to break into a sweat when I thought about everything I needed to do. To calm my nerves and make all of the preparations, I simply kept a notebook in my pocket. When I thought of something I had to do (for example, cancel my cell phone contract), I simply wrote it down, an ongoing mind dump. When I completed a task, I crossed it off. The last task was “get to the hotel in Shanghai.” When I could cross that off, I was elated (and exhausted).
Your Mind Will Thank You
Your ADHD mind cannot hold all those tasks, projects, and appointments. The strain of remembering what to do next and where to be takes a toll, and you can unload that strain by writing all of it down and putting it in one place.
At the end of this process, you’ll find contentment and peace — because that’s what a decluttered mind offers.