Organizing the ADHD Brain
It’s All About Executive Functions
by Ari Tuckman, PsyD, MBA
“Where the *#%^ is that
THIS IS THE COMMON REFRAIN of those who struggle with
disorganization. For many adults with ADHD, getting organized is a
constant process that rarely seems to come together. They too often
curse the piles when they are frantically looking for that crucial but
missing item. In quieter moments, they may feel guilty about not
attempting to restore some order to the chaos but just can’t bring
themselves to make the investment even though they know they really
should. Why is this all so hard? And shouldn’t getting burned a
few (hundred) times provide ample motivation to whip those piles into
shape once and for all?
To answer these questions, we need to understand the executive
functions, our highest-level cognitive processes that help us navigate a
complex world and create a better future for ourselves and the people we
care about. The executive functions enable us to do what we know we
should do. They exist in that gap between intentions and actions by
shaping what, when, where, and how we do things. They enable us to bring
all of our other talents and abilities to bear on the challenges that
life throws at us.
Research has shown that people with ADHD have less reliable executive
functions, so they are less consistent with doing the right thing at the
right time, despite good intentions and good effort. This certainly
applies to organizing, a task that requires strong executive functions.
Creating and then maintaining an organizational system are actually
pretty complex processes. First, you need to keep in mind everything
that you need to organize and then mentally manipulate those objects to
figure out good homes for them all. This system should take into account
how often you need each item so that the most frequently used are most
accessible. This takes a lot of working memory (one of the executive
functions). Without it, things get stuck in places that don’t
Once you’ve conceptualized your grand organizational system, you
need to kick yourself into gear to put things away and then follow it
through to the end, even when you’re tired of doing it
(self-activation, another one of the executive functions). Of course,
then you need to maintain this system, which means remembering where
things are supposed to go as well as managing your time well enough that
you have a little extra to clean up as you go. All in all, there’s
a lot going on here, both when people with ADHD struggle as well as when
Throughout this entire process, we continue to live our
distraction-filled lives where new items and new demands keep coming.
The world never stands still. It’s the executive functions that
enable us to sort through all these competing stimuli so that we can put
and keep our attention on what is most important in that moment.
According to Russell Barkley’s response inhibition theory, in
order to do this, we need to be able to stop the action and put a small
pause between stimulus and response. That is, we need to be able to hold
back a response to every new stimulus that hits our senses (especially
the really interesting but usually less important distractions). Because
people with ADHD have less of this ability to stop that quick response,
their attention is pulled more easily away from the things that they
ideally should be paying attention to. Unfortunately, this especially
applies to a lot of organizing activities where the best thing to do in
a given moment often loses out to some more enjoyable activity.
Make the most of your executive functions
Let’s take a look at how three of the executive functions affect
your organizing activities, followed by some helpful strategies that
work around each executive function weakness. The better you understand
the executive functions, the better you understand ADHD—and the
better position you will be in to create more effective habits.
WORKING MEMORY. Working memory is our most immediate
form of memory. It takes in information from the world around us, pulls
information from our long-term memories, and then processes it all
together. Working memory stores what we are paying attention to. When we
get distracted, it’s because some new stimulus or idea knocks the
more important information out of our working memory and we forget what
we were paying attention to. Therefore, people with stronger working
memories tend to also have better control over their attention. Because
people with ADHD tend to have weaker working memories compared to their
overall intelligence, they are more easily distracted and forgetful.
This weaker working memory leads to numerous difficulties with
organizing, starting with remembering all the relevant factors when
creating an effective organizational system. Once people with ADHD have
created a system, they may have trouble remembering where something was
filed away, since information needs to pass through our
attention/working memory before it can get transferred into long-term
memory. They may also have difficulty remembering to return to a task
after an interruption. Finally, they may struggle to remember multistep
directions and accurately track where they are in the progression
through those steps, such as when sorting through lots of different
items and addressing each kind in turn.
Fortunately, because we know about how working memory functions (and
where it is vulnerable to getting off-track), we can create strategies
that will help you be more consistent:
Reduce distractions so
there is less information competing for your working memory.
For example, turn off the phone so you won’t interrupted, ask the
kids to occupy themselves for a time, close the office door, etc. This
is especially true when the task is more complicated and requires
stronger attention. Relatively simple tasks that don’t require a
lot of attention, like sorting magazines, may go more quickly with some
Do it right away.
Try to get in the habit of doing things right away, rather than relying
on your working memory to hold it—in other words, stop telling
yourself, “I’ll do that in just a minute.”
Write a reminder.
If you can’t do something right away, then at least capture the
idea as a reminder so that your working memory doesn’t need to
Label things clearly. Use bright and easily
readable labels which make it easy to find what you are looking for,
rather than relying on your memory of where something is or goes.
PROSPECTIVE MEMORY. Prospective memory is the ability to
remember to remember. It is our mental to-do list that reminds us to do
something at the right time and/or place. For example, “I need to
call the bank at two o’clock,” or, “I need to look up
that information when I get home.” Although written to-do lists
are a requirement for most busy lives, we also need to rely on our
mental to-do list for those million and one tasks that may not make it
For adults with ADHD, those good intentions to do something too often
fall through the cracks. This leaves them often scrambling to take care
of those tasks that fell off of their radar screen before suddenly
popping back on. Sometimes there is still time to do the task, sometimes
there isn’t (for example, it’s no use calling the bank after
five o’clock). One implication of often jumping to do something is
that it doesn’t leave any time to wrap up the current task and put
everything away, so partially completed tasks wind up accumulating.
As with working memory, by understanding how your prospective memory
works, we can create organizing strategies that are more likely to be
successful. For example:
In sight, in
mind. Leaving something out as a reminder can be a great way to
remind yourself to do something. For example, put the paperwork you need
to fill out tomorrow on your chair before you leave the office. Of
course, this only works if you don’t have too many other items
that visually swallow up the reminder.
Put tasks and reminders into
your calendar. It’s easier to keep your tasks organized
if you put them into your schedule, rather than mentally reminding
yourself to complete them. This includes tasks that don’t have a
specific time, such as researching a new plumber, but keep slipping off
the to-do list if they aren’t assigned a specific time.
Set an alarm. If you
tend to get absorbed into an activity and lose track of time, set a
quick alarm to let you know that it’s time to leave for a meeting,
for example, or that it’s time to switch to a different activity.
You may want to include a little extra time to put away the current
SELF-ACTIVATION. Doing the fun stuff is easy.
It’s the boring stuff that takes mental effort to start and
finish, which is why so many people with ADHD rely on procrastination to
help them get going on the undesirable tasks. By contrast,
self-activation is the ability to get ourselves going on something
without a looming deadline. For many people with ADHD, the process of
organizing, putting things away, and tying up loose ends requires more
self-activation than they can easily muster. If they do start it, they
may run out of steam or get distracted away, so things are left
half-finished. Of course, the more chaotic things become, the more
onerous and daunting it is to organize it all, so it gets pushed off
even longer. So, bad goes to worse. If they do throw themselves into an
organizing frenzy, they may not have time to really step back and create
the most effective system or think about the best place to put things
which makes it harder to find it the next time. In general, when someone
is having trouble tackling too many demands on their time, the
maintenance activities such as organizing are often the first to go.
All this suggests that certain strategies may help get you going with
Start smaller. If a
task is too daunting, shrink it down until it feels doable. For example,
if cleaning up your bedroom feels too overwhelming, then start by just
throwing all the dirty clothes into the hamper. If you feel up to it,
then tackle another piece, but at least this gets you over that initial
Create mini-deadlines to get
going earlier. Related to the prior strategy, break a larger
project into several smaller steps, each with its own deadline. This
way, even if you procrastinate, you will have a more manageable chunk to
bite off so you are more likely to finish that piece on time.
Remind yourself of the rewards
for finishing. Although wanting to avoid a punishment can
indeed serve as a motivator, going toward a reward is much more
effective. So for example, think, as vividly as possible, about how good
it will feel to be able to find something easily after cleaning up your
bedroom, rather than focusing on how boring it will be to do it.
Make a public
commitment. Since all people like to feel that they are true to
their word, telling someone else that you are going to do something by a
particular time can add that extra little bit of motivation you
Ari Tuckman, PsyD, MBA is the author of Understand Your Brain,
Get More Done: The ADHD Executive Functions Workbook (2012),
More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with
ADHD (2009) and Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD: A
Practical, Easy-to-Use Guide for Clinicians (2007). He is a
psychologist in private practice in West Chester, Pennsylvania,
specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD, as well as anxiety,
depression, substance abuse, and school/work difficulties.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of
Attention magazine. Copyright © 2012 by Children and
Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). All rights
reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without written
permission from CHADD.