How Executive Functioning Impacts Tidiness
Summary: Have you ever wondered why keeping a tidy living space is so hard? This article explains key components about why your neurodivergent brain struggles to keep your living space tidy and the methodology and support to build a neurodivergent-friendly daily tidyness habit. This article has a companion post, Building a Tidying Habit: The Graph Paper Method, which describes a method you can start today.
Yes, it often appears that there’s been a struggle in my home. My whole life I have struggled to keep my spaces neat and organized. Whether I was busy, burnt out, depressed, or just, you know, eight, I have struggled with the motivation, focus, and planning required to keep things tidy.
Prior to my ADHD diagnosis, I thought my messiness was just a deep-seated character flaw. But with diagnosis came clarity, self-compassion, and the understanding that the clutter and untidiness are an outward manifestation of my executive functioning struggles.
When I think back to how I struggled as a girl with undiagnosed ADHD, I have so much compassion for that little kid. I can see how all of it fits into my neurodivergent brain. Rarely would I play with just one set of toys in a play session, but I would pull out a lot of different activities in one afternoon, navigating between the activities when I got bored. The advice to “put my toys away when I was done” didn’t compute because I was never done. That activity was just on hold while something else sparked my imagination. By the end of a play session, it looked like a chaos monster had entered the room.
Spoiler alert: the chaos monster lived in the room. It is me. I am the chaos monster who whirls through the room, leaving destruction and unfinished projects in her wake.
In addition to the chaos of my play habits, tidying took executive functioning skills that I just didn’t have, doubly so if I was trying to clean because I was in trouble. Motivation is a perpetual struggle for people with executive dysfunction, and what kid is especially motivated for the chore of tidying? And lastly, tidying my room was a minefield of distractions. How could I put away the book on the floor when that book screamed, “Read me!”?
Meanwhile, because of my autism and love for sorting and order, if you took me to a hardware store, I would tidy the endcaps. I'm sure it was maddening to observe this dichotomy.
All of this is to say that the Graph Paper method I propose has succeeded for me, an ADHD, autistic adult who is not naturally equipped with the skills to keep a tidy home. This method is battle tested. Has it worked forever? No. But I’m increasingly embracing that my battle with order and chaos will be life-long – I have begun to accept, without judgment, that I have neat phases and messy phases, which are a pretty good barometer of my overall mental health, not a reflection of my character. The messy phases are a sign that I need more self-care and more support.
The Graph Paper Method's goal is NOT to tidy your house as quickly as possible (that’s why we invite guests over, after all) but to build a relatively sustainable, neurodivergent-friendly habit. You can read the method itself now or later if you like. The rest of this post gives background on habit formation, the neurodivergent brain, and how to proceed applying this method while healing any internal damage you've sustained by living a cluttered life.
On Habit Building
Creating habits can be difficult regardless of whether you are neurodivergent or neurotypical. New habits require change, and all our brains like what’s easy and already familiar (i.e. our old behavior). So it takes planning, intention, and repetition to establish a new way of doing things. In other words, it takes some work and a little understanding of how to program new habits into our brains.
Every habit needs three components: a cue, an action, and a reward. The cue is what reminds us to do the action, and the reward is what lights up our dopamine receptors so that we want to keep repeating the habit, day after day after day1.
Cues need to be reliable occurrences, guaranteed to pop up so that the habit doesn’t rely on us remembering to do it. Established routines are great cues, or you could use alarms on your phone. But you will need a reminder. Possibly several. Post notes where you will see them frequently so that this new habit is well advertised. Set calendar reminders so this new habit is top of mind. Whatever it takes.
Our action is this new habit of tidying. Since tidying can be hard for the neurodivergent and making habits stick can be hard for everyone, we’ll lower the barriers to tidying so that it’s easy to be successful, every single day. That means that we’ll start very small, with a time commitment that feels comfortable and achievable every single day, even on our busiest, tiredest of days. Consistency is how we make this habit stick. Our method will use some scaffolding to support our executive functioning when it comes to this tidiness habit so we can make tracking and seeing our progress much easier.
And, lastly, there’s the rewards. Our hungry little brains LOVE rewards. We love the dump of brain chemicals that get delivered with rewards, and we love the idea that we’ve earned a prize. The prize is what keeps us coming back for more. For some habits, we might not need any external, additional reward. But if you’re reading this, it’s probably because tidying has been a challenge, and so we’ll need to make that reward extra sparkley. We are conditioning ourselves to love whatever new habit it is we’re adopting, and for tidying, that is going to take A LOT of bribery.
For neurotypical people, a reward at the end of the task might be sufficient to make a new habit stick. But people with ADHD can struggle with task initiation and autistic people can struggle with transitioning from one task to another. So rewarding ourselves for starting is a critical additional component. This also safeguards us from the familiar problems many of us have with delayed rewards: either talking ourselves out of even wanting the reward if it means that we have to do the task or decided that, heck, we make the rules and can reward ourselves without doing the task.
On Executive Functioning: Why Tidying is Hard
Executive functioning refers to a group of skills handled by the pre-frontal cortex portion of our brains. Many, many neurodivergent people struggle with the skills as well as kids who haven't developmentally grown into these skills yet. The table below lists executive functioning skills2 and how struggles with those skills might manifest when one is trying to tidy.
Executive Functioning Skill
|Example impact on tidying a messy room|
|Planning and prioritizing||Gets stuck at: Where should I start picking up?|
|Organization of materials||Difficulty deciding/maintaining specific places for storage of belongings.|
|Time Management||Struggles to realistically estimate how long it will take and start with enough time to finish.|
|Working memory||What was I working on before I picked up this shiny thing?|
|Self-Monitoring and metacognition||Accidentally spends a lot of time on minute, detailed work (e.g. organization of bookshelf) instead of overall tidying.|
|Inhibition and impulse control||Look at this cool thing I unearthed! falls into rabbit hole|
|Emotional control||Difficulty managing frustration and shame.|
|Sustained attention||Struggles to keep tidying when it is boring.|
|Task Initiation||Very hard to start tidying. So hard.|
|Flexibility||Struggles to accept partner’s methods for tidying.|
|Goal-Directed persistence||Makes progress on tidying in short-term but struggles to maintain efforts in long-term.|
|Stress tolerance||Melts down during cleaning because it seems hopeless|
I'm just going to pause for a moment while you absorb the emotional impact of that heap of struggles. I sourced the list of executive functioning skills from a course I took, but the examples are high-quality, artisanal struggles from a lifetime of living with a neurodivergent brain. It is impossible for me to review that table without a flood of memories and echoes of criticism (that'd be the cPTSD talking). As you read that list, you may feel grief for agony endured or a flare of rage at having been expected to do the impossible without instruction, support, or scaffolding. And if that's the first time you've seen a list of executive functioning skills and are seeing your past through a whole new set of hindsight goggles, give yourself a moment. It's a lot to take in.
Right. Back to the explanation.
There are SO many moving parts involved with tidying and so many points where our executive function struggles trip us up. As with all spectrums that we encounter in neurodivergence, you may struggle with some of these skills and excel at others. You may find that even some strengths have vanished completely when you’re stressed, tired, preoccupied, or under emotional duress. And, hoo boy, it can be very distressing to have your strengths vanish if you don’t understand the role your amygdala plays in this.
Our amygdala is one of the oldest parts of our brain, dedicated to guaranteeing survival and sensing fear. It is the center of our infamous fight or flight response (or more completely, flight/fight/freeze/fawn response). When we experience strong emotions and our amygdalas take over, our prefrontal cortex gets inhibited. As I remind my clients, if we are running away from a Grizzly bear, our brain knows we need to be focused on the bear, not developing and executing a project plan, so our amygdala takes over. It’s a feature, not a bug. Humans who did not outrun the bear did not procreate, so our evolutionary history has favored this little almond-sized nugget of instinct. Of course, we rarely have interactions with Grizzly bears in our modern lives. But our amygdala can’t tell the difference between fear from a Grizzly bear and the fear that we’ve lost our keys (again. today.).
If we look at the task of tidying and cleaning through the lens of skills that make up executive functioning, it becomes clear that setting expectations for us to clean or tidy without significant support is a recipe of failure and crushing defeat. We need alternate systems and processes for tidying compared to neurotypicals. The same is true for those of us whose parents were absent and unable or unwilling to teach them how to be tidy in developmentally appropriate ways when we were young. Generally, and especially if we were late diagnosed, we may not have received adequate support and instruction as children. Specifically we may not have been taught how to tidy in ways that supported our neurodivergence or tidying may not have been taught at all. We may have been punished for not being able to perform this task which was far more complex and difficult for us than the adults in our lives realized. Tidying requires every single one of those executive functioning skills.
Side note: If you are a partner, parent, or friend of someone with executive dysfunction, please recognize that even encouragement often sounds like pressure and expectations. And pressure and expectations will often backfire because they activate our amygdalas. We are not messy because we are lazy, inherently disorganized, vengeful, or stubborn. Being neat is a difficult skill for us. Hopefully this article has conveyed to you the complexity of the problem we face in trying to bring order to this external chaos.
But there IS hope. Scaffolding and support can help us learn and adopt strategies that feel good and are (relatively) enjoyable to maintain.
On trauma and shame
Many, many neurodiverse people have experienced trauma related to their weirdness, including both their unusual strengths and skills and their atypical weaknesses. When I talk to people who struggle with tidiness, I hear echoes of judgments, bullying, and criticisms that they’ve accumulated over the years – echoes they repeat to themselves, perpetuating and compounding the initial shame.
Shame feels terrible and gross. It’s a punishment, and punishments create avoidant behavior. Why does shame lead to avoidant behavior? It activates our amygdala, first of all. Are we going to be punished for what we haven't done? Are we already being punished? Then run away. It's a classic flight response.
The worse you personally feel about the untidiness in your home, the more likely you are to stay paralyzed about how to tackle it. So in addition to providing lots of positive reinforcement, we need to actively resolve the shame. We need to provide our internal selves with supportive, positive reinforcement. We need to heal.
In addition to our external messiness, most of us have some pretty hefty internalized shame and self-criticism. It is a cesspool in there (in the shame pit, not in your living room). But we have the opportunity to disrupt that here. Every day when you perform this tidiness habit, it’s a chance to intentionally change your internal dialog. Your inner dialog might try to “help” by turning a critical eye towards what you haven’t done yet. Encourage your inner dialog to get curious about this new way that you’re learning. This way has support and structure that was missing in the old way that you tidied. YOU aren’t a failure. The old tidying system was, but that system is not you.
Personally, my ability to get overwhelmed is on a hair trigger. I struggle to figure out where to start, and in assessing where I COULD start, I really notice how messy things are, which kicks off the shame spiral. I feel defeated before I even start. This whole process HURTS. It is self-punishment, and it’s critical to break this cycle that, of course, gets in the way of tidying, but more importantly, is a miserable way to live.
In addition to feeling miserable, once we’re overwhelmed, our access to our executive functioning withers. The Graph Paper Method takes care of some of the executive functioning for you by keeping track of what you’ve done already – even if it got untidy again as you went about your day. Each day you don’t need to pick where to START; you only need to pick one very small area to actually tidy. Since we’re chipping away day after day, it really doesn’t matter what you pick. You’ll hit all the areas eventually. So just pick what is easiest, either by the volume of objects on the surface or the ease of putting those objects away.
If a surface is cluttered enough to kick off overwhelm, then divide that surface into portions that are not overwhelming. Tidy half of it – or a quarter. This method is very much focused on long-term success, so each day you make the task as easy as possible so that you keep doing it each and every day. Yes, your home will get tidied much more gradually than if you rallied to try to clean everything all at once. But by rewarding yourself for small amounts of work each and every day and maintaining that tidiness, you can minimize the chance of clutter relapse.
Additionally, this method helps prevent overwhelm because the two-dimensional diagram a) visually simplifies the problem of tracking what you might work on b) keeps a record of your progress, eliminating the need for you to remember what surfaces you’re committed to maintaining and c) clearly indicates progress – something your jerk of a brain may forget because it wants to focus on what you haven’t tidied yet.
ADHD and Habit Building and Rewards
I cannot overstate how important it is to build satisfying rewards into the process for those of us with ADHD. We struggle with task initiation and motivation. Boring tasks are our arch nemesis. This method uses tiny, easily tackled, incremental change because we DO NOT WANT TO TIDY unless it is enjoyable.
This reward business is NOT about feeling as if you need to earn nice things to enjoy them. There’s no value judgment here. It is purely about habit formation. Rewards help make new habits sticky. For an easier habit, the glowing satisfaction of achieving the habit might be satisfying. But for tidying, we’ve got to pull out the big guns.
In addition to the role the rewards play in habit formation, we’re working to convince our brain that tidying isn’t the horrible, miserable punishment of our past. Good things happen in the long term when we tidy – fewer lost items, less tripping and slipping on our stuff, and a calm, organized space. But we’ve got to sell our brains on the idea in the short term so we can get to the long term. The reward is a campaign to show our reluctant little brains that this tidying lark is okay – and there’s no looming punishment.
Some people will want rewards that are consistent, repeatable, and dependable. Embrace the ritual and routine. Soak up the joy of your reward, but consider switching your reward if the shine ever begins wearing off. If you respond best to consistency and ritual, then consider two or three rewards that you change weekly, monthly, or as-needed.
Some people will benefit from rewards that are surprises with a tiny bit of mystery and suspense. Intermittent rewards will actually make the habit even stickier (think slot machines). Consider rolling a die after you tidy for an additional treat and rewarding yourself a prize based on your die roll:
- A piece of candy
- A song from your playlist of favorites
- Send a supportive, validating friend a snapshot of your progress graph or a selfie of you and your tidy area
- Sing yourself a ridiculous made-up song about the thing you just cleaned
- Put away one more thing. Roll again when you’re done.
- Nothing. No reward. Tidy again tomorrow for another chance!
As I tell my clients, ultimately, it isn't that our neurodivergent brains are broken or imperfect. We're no more flawed than any other person walking the planet. But we may not have learned or adapted systems that fit our glorious brains. What works for us will be different. While it might seem that it's taking significant effort to rewire your systems to better accommodate you, it is worth it. And going forward, if you have neurodivergent children in your life, you can help them learn strategies early that will suit them their whole lives.
You can read the companion article that describes the method itself. I’m saving some additional thoughts for a follow-up post, so if you have questions or comments, please drop them on social media or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll include them in my follow-up post.
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Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. Random House 2014. ↩
Soclof, Adina and Christie, Leo. Executive Functioning in Adults. Professional Development Resources. https://www.pdresources.org/course/index/3/1408/Executive-Functioning-in-Adults. Accessed 09-09-2022. ↩