Managing the Mess: Creating Organizational Systems after an ADHD Diagnosis

UPDATED: May 10, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 26, 2023
Managing the Mess: Creating Organizational Systems after an ADHD Diagnosis

KC Davis struggled with being messy most of her life.

Even though she lacked systems for organizing her home, she found ways to function. However, things changed dramatically after she had her second child during the pandemic.

“My ability to shoot from the hip without systems didn’t work anymore,” says Davis, a licensed professional therapist and the author of How to Keep House While Drowning.

In an effort to learn how to tame the mess in her home, Davis researched organizational systems. The problem was that these systems were created for neurotypical people; at this point, she didn’t know she had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“I tried to implement systems for folding my underwear or using rainbow-colored bookcases and glass containers, but none of it was working,” she says. Her house was chaotic, and since it was during the pandemic, she “had nothing to do but sit around and think, Why is my house not working?”

Through a slow process of trial and error, a lot of self-reflection and an eventual ADHD diagnosis coincidentally inspired by her TikTok following, Davis began to figure out systems that worked for her.

When trying to get control of her house, Davis would always ask herself, “Where’s the bottleneck?” to determine why she was struggling with a particular task. For example, when she avoided doing laundry, she was able to identify her “bottleneck” as needing to fold it. So, she decided to cut out this step and put away clothes without folding. “And then, all of a sudden, I had a laundry process that works for me,” she says.

At the time, undiagnosed and unaware she had ADHD, she didn’t know this “bottleneck” was what is more commonly called executive dysfunction, which prevents people with ADHD from initiating or completing tasks.

As Davis began to experience some success, she decided to share her revelations on TikTok, simply from her “background as a therapist and a messy person,” she says. But soon, she had gathered a large following of people with ADHD. Her followers made comments like, “This is the only thing that’s ever made sense to me,” and, “This is the only thing that’s going to work for me as an ADHD person.”

Then, people asked her, “Do you have ADHD?” After hearing this question from many different followers, Davis consulted a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with ADHD at age 35.

When she received the diagnosis, she went through a grieving process. “I realized that, even though I’ve done OK in my life, I had to work so hard to overcome the shame,” Davis says. “I had to work so hard to have self-compassion.” She thought about how things might have been easier for her if she had received the diagnosis earlier in her life.

However, her diagnosis also enabled her to find ways to be more functional—a transformation process that had a snowball effect. As she tried new systems that worked, she realized that tasks were easier and her home was running more smoothly. Then, she would ask herself, “What else can I change? What else am I doing that I haven’t critically analyzed whether or not it’s working for me?”

“There wasn’t necessarily a turning point or a moment as much as there was just this momentum building of giving myself permission to change,” she says.

One aspect of organization that most people don’t consider is the emotional element.

“A lot of organizational tips out there don’t address the emotional reasons why we get stuck with our stuff,” Davis says. “When I started making videos and talking about being a messy person, showing pictures of my messy house, one of the most common comments I would get is, ‘It’s so nice to see someone else’s house that looks like mine, because I feel so ashamed of mine.’”

This led to one of the key concepts in her book: “Being messy is not a moral failing.” She explains that being messy is morally neutral and doesn’t have anything to do with your character or define you as a “bad person.” This concept is freeing for Davis and her followers and allows them to take the first step of being curious about why they are struggling.

“When being a messy person is morally charged, you think that the reason why you’re struggling is because you’re lazy, or you’re not a hard worker, or you’re irresponsible,” Davis says. Once you reframe being messy as morally neutral, she adds, it allows you to think, What I’m struggling with isn’t a character flaw, so I have permission to think outside the box, and I have permission to customize this the way that works for me.

Davis also advocates for reframing the word “chore” to “care task.” “Changing some of that language can lead to a really quick sort of release of feeling stuck,” she says, because people with ADHD might relate cleaning to a boring and challenging task that they may have been punished for not doing well when they were younger.

Instead of cleaning a room, she says “resetting a room” to remove negative associations with the task of cleaning and redefine a finite task that you can even make enjoyable by listening to music.

Davis created a “5 Things Tidying Method” to help people feel less overwhelmed about cleaning (or resetting) a room. “There are only five things in any room—trash, dishes, laundry, things with a place and things without a place,” Davis says.

Yuzu Sasaki Byrne, an organizing and productivity coach at NEATOPIA who specializes in ADHD, explains why Davis’ system is helpful for someone who has ADHD. “Seeing a mess overwhelms them to get started,” she explains. Breaking down the process helps people with ADHD create an interesting game of finding specific items.

“This method helps her to focus on the task at hand for picking up one category of items and decreases distractions,” Sasaki Byrne says. Because people with ADHD struggle with focusing, this helps them to overcome that challenge. “It also speeds up the process because she has less decision-making to do,” Sasaki Byrne adds.

Another Davis system is “closing duties.” She has a list of tasks that she does at night, such as loading the dishwasher and sweeping the floor, so that her morning is more functional. “I can commit to a ritual of once a day or once a week of going through and doing my list of tasks,” Davis says.

This works for people with ADHD because “creating a routine allows people to start a day with ease,” Sasaki Byrne says. “Our brains like routines, and routines help to remove guesswork or decision-making.”

Now that Davis has found functional systems that work for her, she is able to reflect on how this journey has improved her mental health. “Before, I was always reacting to my space, like, ‘I have no clean clothes,’ or, ‘I didn’t do the laundry,’ so it was really frustrating,” she says. She also experienced anxiety from always reacting to the disorganization.

Now, instead of reacting, Davis feels proactive, with functional systems in place. “I have a structured plan and a way that I approach my space where I feel like my house exists to serve me—I don’t exist to serve my house,” she says. “It feels amazing to have a space that functions. I am enjoying a type of space that I didn’t think I was capable of having.” 

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 Issue of SUCCESS magazine.