Out of Sight? Out of Mind? Out of Control!
ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Electronic Files
by Stephanie Wright and Cris
BY THE TIME YOU'VE READ THIS INTRODUCTION, it’s likely
that at least one email will find its way into your inbox. Maybe
it’s the latest sale offer from a company you love, a reminder
that your cable bill is due soon, a Facebook update, or a nice note from
an out-of-town friend who was thinking of you and wanted to say
Whatever the content, there they are, filling up your inbox and pulling
your attention away from the task at hand. And it’s not just
emails, either. The popularity of paperless options and greener living
haven’t alleviated the piles of paperwork cluttering our desktops,
they’ve just relocated themselves to our electronic desktop. But
what can be done about it? Electronic bills and healthcare documents
can’t be shoved into a drawer for a quick fix, but neither can
they be neatly categorized into your paper-based filing system.
As modes of communication evolve and take on different forms, so must we
adapt our strategies for managing them. People with ADHD may find
themselves at a greater disadvantage in the digital age, as documents
are stored “out of sight” and can easily end up “out
of mind” and out of control. Add to that the multitude of blogs,
news articles, and social media updates begging for attention and it
becomes clear that managing digital files is no easy task.
Three general categories of electronic files require maintenance:
emails, documents, and photographs. These strategies are designed to
help you do just that.
Overall e-organizing tips
Searchability is the new filing system.
Filing systems are wonderful, but they are based on a world of
paper. It is not necessary to replicate the extensive system of folders
and subfolders to categorize and file away electronic documents.
Limit online files to broad categories such as “Family,”
“Home,” and “Cars” to eliminate confusion as to
which specific folder a file might have ended up in. For those
struggling with executive function limitations, it is likely that car
insurance documents, for example, may end up in “Cars” one
day, but be placed in “Insurance” the next. This
inconsistency in systems creates a tangled web of files that is both
frustrating and time-consuming to navigate.
The most important step you can take to maximize the probability of
finding the file you need is to name it purposefully, using keywords.
File names are no longer limited to a certain number of characters, nor
do they need to be fancy. For example, if you can never remember if
you’ve saved your child’s camp information in the
“Activities” folder, the “Johnny,” or the
“Summer” folder, consider doing away with a few of those
folders and renaming the file along the lines of “Camp Horseshoe
Johnny Summer Registration Form.” The same idea works for emails
as well. When sending emails, be sure the subject line makes it clear
what information is being sent in the body of the message. Don’t
be afraid to ask friends and family to do the same when sending you
Get comfortable with the technology.
Emails, e-readers, e-bills…enough already! For those that
didn’t grow up Google-ing, texting, or chatting with friends on
Facebook, the structure of the digital world is not always intuitive,
and is often overwhelming. Understanding how technology works is the
first step towards making it work for you.
Most computers, software, and browsers have built-in shortcuts or
features that can streamline almost any process. However, if
you’re not quite sure what the terms file extension, control
panel, or operating system mean, it’s likely that you’re
missing out on the benefits of these features. Some computers, for
example, can search for pictures not only by file names, but by using
facial recognition software already included in your desktop. Simply
show the program who you want a picture of, and it will bring up any
photos of that person. The more you can make technology work for you,
the less daunting a task will appear, and the less likely you are to put
off tackling it for another day. Take a class, ask questions, and
don’t be afraid to explore the e-universe.
Embrace the process.
Nothing in life is perfect, and electronic files aren’t
going to be the exception. The goal of organizing online files should
always be to alleviate stress and increase productivity. As with any
process, the hardest part is generally getting started. Procrastination
is common for people with ADHD, and there is nothing easier to leave
until later than old files or emails—or the gigabyte of photos
scattered across your hard drive.
Break the process down into more manageable pieces to get things
rolling. Not having the time or inclination to name each individual
photo with the names of who is in it, where it was taken, and what the
date was, is perfectly acceptable. Instead, make it a goal to create one
main photo folder per event and then leave individual files unnamed.
Every time a mini-goal is reached, follow it up with a reward. Being
more organized is certainly a reward in itself, but a new book or trip
to a favorite restaurant can be great incentives for pushing through a
difficult task. Also, once a new system is implemented, be sure to stick
with it long enough to really test it out. Starting new systems and
changing routines too frequently will not only leave your files in a
mess, but will likely lead to further frustration. Try your new system
for at least three weeks before reevaluating and changing what did not
Having years’ worth of pictures, documents, and emails to
sift through and organize can be overwhelming, to put it mildly. But
that does not mean it can’t be done. Rather than taking on your
entire hard drive as a project, consider starting fresh with
Each time a new file is saved, do so according to the new system. The
next time a batch of photos is uploaded, create a folder for it using
keywords about the event being documented. Overhauling everything
shouldn’t be the goal, but starting the process should. This will
keep the electronic pile from growing and is also a great way to try out
the new techniques before revamping everything. Then, to tackle the
backlog, set aside smaller windows of time to reorganize those pesky old
For people with ADHD, regulating attention is a key component to getting
things accomplished, and there is no greater playground of information
and stimuli than the Internet. Get the most out of organizing sessions
by closing any programs or windows that will lead to distractions (yes,
you, Facebook). Set a timer for fifteen to twenty minutes and work until
it goes off.
If it is still too difficult to face the task, try making it more fun.
Create an organizing playlist or CD full of songs that inspire you to
get moving. It works for the gym, it can work to get you pumped up and
inspired or organize as well. If you still can’t convince
yourself, ask a friend or family member to bring over their laptop and
be your organizing buddy.
What to do about…
Each time I order a product online or get information from a
website, it collects my email address and then sends me spam emails
Digital Novices: Consider
getting two separate email addresses; one that you use for truly
important emails (family, friends, etc.) and one that you use as a login
for online sites or frequent buyer accounts. Don’t bother checking
the junk email address unless you are looking for a specific coupon or
have time to read a newsletter.
Create filters in your email account that automatically identify and
file emails based on sender address or content. Most email servers allow
for both general and more specific rules for filtering. Some, such as
Google’s Gmail, will also allow you to customize the look of your
inbox and can automatically place unread or priority messages at the top
for easy viewing.
I don’t always use the same computer, but I need consistent
access to my files. Emailing them to myself after every change is
time-consuming and difficult to track.
Digital Novices: Start saving your files
online through services such as Dropbox. These accounts will allow you
to access your files from anywhere with an Internet connection. There
are many free and low-cost options for storing files online, and they
come with the added benefit of being safe should anything happen to your
Digital Pros: Saving
files to the cloud is still the way to go. If you have multiple personal
devices, consider networking them together so that you can see your
files regardless of which one you are using.
I’m always uploading photos from my camera right before
heading out to use it. I don’t have time to organize my files.
Instead of spending time on
individual files, simply create general folders for photos based on
events. Include the name and perhaps date of the event and dump all the
photos in there. Even if you have two or three events on your memory
card, creating two files won’t add a significant amount of time to
the process and will be worth it in the end.
I can never remember where a file is saved.
Focus on searchable file names rather than multiple folders. Instead of
spending time clicking through document, use your computer’s
search function to track files.
Many word processing programs will allow you to add a footer to
documents that will automatically stamp them with the file’s
location on your computer. Adding this feature to your documents will
allow you to trace where they are, even if you only have a hard
I leave emails in my inbox because I have to do something
Making a decision or taking action
is not always easy and there’s no shortcut to avoid them. If you
find yourself having trouble completing a task, schedule a specific time
to work on it, use a timer to get started, or invite a friend or family
member to help.
Stephanie Wright is a professional organizer with Organizing Maniacs
and a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers
(NAPO). She specializes in working with children and adults with ADHD.
She lives in Herndon, Virginia, with her husband and very spoiled cats
Cris Sgrott-Wheedleton, CPO-CD, CPO, is a Certified Professional
Organizer specializing in chronic disorganization. She is the founder of
Organizing Maniacs, a professional organizing company. She lives in
Ashburn, Virginia, with her husband and dog.
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