ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Disorganization

Carlina Teteris / Getty Images

ADHD Symptom Spotlight is a series that dives deep into a hallmark or overlooked symptom of ADHD each week. This series is written by experts who also share their tips on managing these symptoms based on firsthand experience and research-backed insights.

Anyone can be messy or have those days where they just forget to pack their lunch or inexplicably find their keys in the freezer. With ADHD, though, disorganization reaches a new level. It’s chronic and pervasive, often in spite of our best effort to stay organized. Even if we manage to appear organized outwardly, it takes monumental effort to maintain the image—and we still end up slipping now and again.

How Disorganization Manifests in ADHD

Despite how much it can impact your life; it can also be hard to define exactly what disorganization means or what it looks like because it appears in different ways for different people. It can show up everywhere, too: in our physical environment, our thinking and planning, and even the way we speak. Here are some of the different signs you can look for.

In your physical environment, disorganization looks like:

  • Lots of clutter
  • A tendency to keep items stored in piles that you can see rather than storing them in drawers or closets
  • Often forgetting to take the things you need (like not bringing your homework to school or heading to work without your uniform)
  • Losing track of your belongings
  • Often forgetting to put things back where they go when you finish using them

In thinking and planning, disorganization looks like:

  • Forgetting appointments or deadlines
  • Difficulty maintaining a routine
  • Frequently jumping from one task to another in a haphazard fashion and often without finishing any of them
  • Difficulty breaking down long-term projects into a series of ordered steps
  • Difficulty recalling specific information on demand (such as “drawing a blank” after someone asks you a question that you know you have the answer to)

In speaking, disorganization looks like:

  • Telling less coherent stories without a clear progression from beginning to middle to end.
  • Including ambiguous references and extraneous detail that seem irrelevant or disconnected to others
  • Jumping around in sequence or telling stories out of order
  • Failing to reach a clear resolution or point

Why Are People with ADHD Disorganized?

The short answer: it’s probably due to abnormalities in the frontal cortex. Many of the most common and disruptive symptoms of ADHD are related to cognitive functions that happen in that region of the brain.

In one large-scale study where researchers scanned the brains of over 2,200 subjects with ADHD and 1,900 without, they found significant structural differences in the frontal cortex of the subjects with ADHD.

Organization is among the skills that would be affected by this. One possible complication of an abnormal frontal cortex is poor working memory, or the ability to keep a small amount of relevant information at the ready in your mind so that you can access it quickly—like remembering which three things you went to the store for or where you put your keys.

This is why many people with ADHD will compensate by using visual cues. They make lists or put the things they need somewhere where they can see them so they won’t forget. Hence, tending to keep things in piles on tables and chairs rather than inside drawers and closets.

When you combine that with the tendency to just drop a thing where it is when you’re done using it, instead of putting it back where it should go, the result is a very cluttered space.

While the person who created the mess can navigate it better than others, it can still lead to problems. Visual cues don’t work as well if the objects you intentionally put out get buried under objects you just left out because you were done with them.

In work or school, this can lead to a scatter of half-completed projects and difficulty keeping track of your work.

How to Cope with Disorganization

When looking for ways to stay organized as someone with ADHD, an important first step is managing your expectations. A little bit of messiness, both in your environment and in your daily life, comes with the territory. The goal is to find strategies that help minimize the negative consequences of disorganization, without demanding perfection or wasting your energy “fixing” things that are more of a quirk than a problem.

Make Your Own Planner

If you have ADHD, you’ve no doubt heard the “use a planner” line more times than you can count. You’ve probably also tried to start using one more times than you can count. In my experience, it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out a method that works for you and there’s no one right way to do it.

With that in mind, here are some things that work for me:

  • Have an erase option. If you use a paper planner, write in pencil. No matter how much I’ve improved at setting more realistic expectations for myself, I still tend to over-pack a day or otherwise need to move things around. When I wrote in pen, my planner just looked like a memorial to all the tasks I failed to do on time.
  • Have multiple time horizons. It helps to have a big picture view of your entire month as well as space for planning each individual day. I keep a monthly calendar on the wall so that appointments or deadlines are always in view. Then, I have a weekly planner with space to fill in to-do lists for each day.
  • Keep it in view. I know an empty desk looks cleaner but I’ve found that if I put a planner in a drawer, it’s unlikely to come out again. Keeping the planner out and open to the current day acts as a constant reminder of what I’m trying to get done.
  • Write the thing down immediately. Even if it’s a vague plan like a friend saying “let’s grab a drink soon,” you can put “pick a date to grab a drink with friend” as a task in your planner. If you don’t, you’re liable to forget it entirely, which can be misread is flakiness or callousness.
  • Be specific. For bigger, multi-day projects, I find it helpful to write down specifically what I should do for each day rather than just a vague “work on X article.” If you have an essay due for class, don’t just write the deadline down. Write down the pieces of the project you need to do each day.

Use Mind Maps Instead of Outlines

I do this for writing but I imagine it could also be adapted to breaking down any task. With ADHD, writing out a step-by-step process or sequential outline can be difficult. Instead of trying to figure out where to start, just start jotting down topics or concepts that feel relevant to the theme. Once you’ve got a collection, look for connections and start lumping things together to create a clearer structure.

When you start writing, write about whichever one of those pieces strikes you first. Jump around. You can pull it all together in the end and use your editing time to make sure it’s coherent and flows smoothly.

For non-writing projects, this can be your way of breaking down an overwhelming task into more manageable chunks and it gives you dozens of doors into the project so you can start wherever your brain wants to start. 

Get Rid of Excess Clutter

Keeping objects out to act as visual cues can be helpful. But if your home is piled with things that you just haven’t put away, that kind of clutter can make it difficult to find things. If the thought of cleaning it all up is too overwhelming, just start with one task. Toss out the junk mail or put the dirty dishes in the sink. Do one thing to make the space slightly less cluttered.

Once you get your space free of the clutter, do your best to maintain it. Set some time aside in your planner for decluttering.

Simplify Your Possessions

The fewer objects you own, the less clutter you can generate, even on your worst days. I keep a fairly minimalist wardrobe. Fashion isn’t one of my interests and laundry is something that tends to grow into massive, intimidating piles. I solved this by donating a lot of my clothes. Now, even when the laundry does pile up, it can’t reach intimidating heights.

You can apply this logic to everything in your home. If you live alone or with just one or two others, you don’t really need 12 of every dish. That doesn’t mean you have to give up things you love, though. Don’t ditch your clothes if you love fashion, for example. Just try to get rid of things you don’t actually use or things you don’t need as much of.

Use Notes as Visual Cues

If you have a habit of leaving the house without remembering to bring everything you need, tape a note at eye level on your front door with a checklist of things you should make sure you have before you go. You can also stick Post-it notes on your fridge or bathroom mirror for short term reminders, like remembering to bring your insurance card with you to your doctor’s appointment or to bring that pie you baked for family dinner this weekend.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jepsen IB, Hougaard E, Matthiesen ST, Lambek R. A systematic review and meta-analysis of narrative language abilities in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorderRes Child Adolesc Psychopathol. Published online November 22, 2021.

  2. Hoogman M, Muetzel R, Guimaraes JP, et al. Brain imaging of the cortex in ADHD: a coordinated analysis of large-scale clinical and population-based samplesAJP. 2019;176(7):531-542.

By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.