This was the first passage I highlighted in ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life because it rings true for so many creative minds. Especially for those of us who pursued a studio art major in college, we usually found ways to circumvent the need to “sit still and listen” beyond our capacity. Circumventing “take charge of your life,” however, takes a different toll.
The highlighted passage above concludes: “Taking charge requires learning to organize.”
Unfortunately, learning to organize is something we’ve all tried before with limited success. We’ve embarked on our new course with the best of intentions, only to watch everything crumble and fade when the novelty wore off.
That’s okay. It happens.
In ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, authors Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau acknowledge the tendency for new organizing systems to fall apart, giving insight into the ADHD tendencies that make sticking with a new system so difficult. However, instead of offering strategies to counteract those tendencies, Kolberg and Nadeau propose that we work with them.
If you’ve ever tried to fight your natural disinclination to organize, chances are you’ll find this idea very refreshing. Not only do Kolberg and Nadeau acknowledge that strategies running counter to your brain’s natural chemistry are unlikely to work long-term, they get at a deeper issue: rather than forcing ourselves to fit the mold we think we’re supposed to fill, we need to find a way to meet our unique psychological needs in ways that are not costly to ourselves and the people we love. Only at this level of self-awareness can we configure a system for organizing our lives that allows us to care properly for ourselves and others.
Practically speaking, Kolberg and Nadeau outline a fairly comprehensive strategy for using your ADHD tendencies to support your organizing and, where that’s not possible, sharing the load with friends and family so they can provide much-needed support. They rightly point out that even if your helper isn’t physically doing anything to help you, he or she will keep you on task just by providing a supportive and grounding presence in the room.
One of the most important tenets of this book is that you need to “make the race short, so that you’ll be able to cross the finish line without stopping.” This is not tantamount to admitting defeat. It is acknowledging a simple fact: you are a sprinter, not a distance runner. Structuring your life as a series of sprints, not a marathon, will facilitate many more successes and lower your anxiety level, which will in turn increase your executive functioning capacity.
Kolberg and Nadeau also do a pretty complete job of identifying what elements of organizing feel uncomfortable. For example, my husband has a strong averse reaction to putting things in cabinet, drawers, or file cabinets. I used to try to make him use these things to store his belongings, but eventually I learned he actually loves putting things away in their “home” — he just doesn’t like not seeing them. After I helped him set up a few organizing systems using baskets, not drawers, he began putting his things away regularly. This is what Kolberg and Nadeau refer to as an “out of sight, out of mind” person.
ADHD adults face many organizing challenges, and understanding the uncomfortable or negative feelings around a certain task is often the key to creating a system that works. As you have probably learned, “when a plan doesn’t ‘feel right’ to you, it’s not likely to work.” The authors even offer several creativity-centered ideas illustrating how you can turn an overwhelming organizing task into a creative product, which I thought was great in terms of finding a way to make a system “feel” right for you.
I have two criticisms of this book. Firstly, the anecdotal stories seem to paint a pretty uniformly rosy picture. The mini-plotline became formulaic very quickly: ADHD adult’s life was a mess, ADHD adult got help and created a system that worked for them, and now ADHD adult is enjoying a high level of success. With all the acknowledgement of how easily organizing systems can fail for ADHD adults, I would have liked to have seen more anecdotal evidence of this. Even the best of systems can break down, and readers need to see that. They need to know this book, like any, is not a miracle cure, and “try, try again” is one of the most valuable skills an ADHD adult can learn.
Secondly, each chapter progresses in a sequence of strategies you can do with a.) yourself, b.) a friend or family member, and finally c.) a professional organizer. I think this sequence was supposed to demonstrate that no matter how many support systems or people you have available, there is always something you can do to make things better. However, in its execution this format puts the advanced strategies out of reach for many people. The authors even flat-out recommend on occasion that you not attempt a strategy without a professional organizer. I know not all artists — and not even all artists with ADHD — are poor and starving, but it is nonetheless safe to say most of us aren’t earning the kind of money that affords us the luxury of hiring a professional organizer.
At the same time, I very much appreciated the authors’ cursory treatment of stimulant medication. While medication is monumentally helpful — and I think necessary in the early stages of forming new ADHD-friendly systems and habits — I always remind people it is there to support good strategies, habits, and systems. I am medication-free right now and while maintaining order is hard work, it is doable if I work with and not against my brain chemistry. That philosophy is a central thesis throughout this book, and it’s one I really appreciate.
A final note: as you read Kolberg and Nadeau’s book, you’ll stumble upon little insights that aren’t strictly related to organizing, but that state truths in simple, yet new and enlightening language. For example:
“Those with ADD crave a sense of aliveness more intensely than others. Some ADDers are so intolerant of boredom that they start an argument or create a crisis to avoid understimulation. Stimulation-seeking behavior can be either your key to success or your undoing, depending upon how it is managed.”
If you’re an artist with ADHD, chances are that sounds very familiar. If you’ve had little success taking charge of your life, feel out of control, or just plain hate the idea of “organizing strategies,” this book is well worth a read.