Organization Strategies for Neurodivergents

Help overcoming executive functioning challenges and inertia


I’m standing in the middle of my home office. The surface of my desk is covered with papers, sticky notes, and dirty coffee mugs. I take a few steps towards it, then stop. I try to think about where to start. I move a little closer.

I move a few papers around on the desk and pick up one that looks important. It’s a paper from my son’s school, outlining important information for their upcoming ski trip. I have to keep that on my desk where I can see it. If I file it away, I’ll forget it exists, and then we’ll forget to get things ready when the time comes.

I sigh, setting it off to the side, and shuffle a few more papers around.

I want to file away some of this mess into my filing cabinet, but I’m out of file folders. I don’t want to buy more file folders, because I know I can go through the cabinet and shred or recycle things I no longer need. But I don’t have the time or energy to spend on that big chore right now, I just want my desk to be tidy.

Another sigh, more pushing papers around.

I settle for stacking the papers in neat piles, with the most important documents on top, realizing there’s a bill that needs to be paid soon. I don’t want to forget, so I sit down at my computer and do some online banking.

This quickly diverts to other things, and before I know it, I’m writing an article about organization while surrounded by disorganization.

The irony, amiright?

No, that’s not a typo — Bart Simpson created by Matt Groening — (image created by author)

Sound familiar?

Before you think I’m not fit to give advice about organization, the scenario above happens much less frequently than it used to. For the most part, I have developed strategies that work for me, and do tend to keep my office fairly tidy.

15 years ago, long before I learned I have ADHD, my house had a large number of “doom piles”.

They hid in the corners of rooms or collected on surfaces: piles of things like paperwork, laundry, or stalled research projects — I didn’t want to put everything away, lest I suddenly have the urge to resume the half-completed article left sitting in my drafts.

I won’t pretend I don’t have a Seinfeld Lego set gathering dust, despite being so close to completion.

Created by author

Yes, that is actual dust on my lego set because I bought it for myself for Christmas — in December 2021.

Breaking things down

Something many of us struggle with is breaking big tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps. Previously I’ve mentioned how much checklists help me overcome autistic inertia and ADHD paralysis.

But not just any checklists, they have to be special. Not only do they have to be visible and eye-catching, they have to be specific. Very specific. A to-do list which has “clean office” as an item is not very helpful. Instead, it needs a breakdown of each task involved in cleaning one’s office.

Created by author

Keep it simple

If you’re wondering why I’m so fond of checklists, it’s because they actually work when used to break things down into manageable tasks. It’s also because they’re essentially free to try, so if they don’t work for you, there’s little risk.

A lot of us with executive functioning (EF) issues have spent significant amounts of money on expensive and complex organization systems which end up adding to the clutter, and to the pressure of feeing one has to use this amazing new system.

If a system takes more energy to get set up and to put into practice than it does to carry out the actual chore, then it’s no system at all, it’s a marketing gimmick.

It doesn’t help to pressure ourselves into trying to do things the neurotypical (NT) way because that’s not how our brains work. If a filing cabinet doesn’t work — because out of sight out of mind — then use the older style of inboxes, or banker’s boxes with the lid off for filing.

For important notices and bills, use a bulletin board (or cork board) so they remain in view. I found it useful to use a wall calendar rather than a day planner, because I would write in my agenda, and then forget to consult it (that whole out of sight, out of mind thing again).

Similarly, our brains habituate to electronic reminders extremely quickly. I can snooze a pop-up reminder on my phone or laptop 100 times without being fully aware I’m doing it. It becomes so automatic to click “remind me later” or snooze every time one pops up, they lose all meaning.

Instead I prefer whiteboards and sticky notes because I can change them regularly, changing the ink or paper colours, so the novelty is more likely to draw my attention.

Created by author

A place for everything, and…

I hate this old expression, “a place for everything, and everything in its place”, but it’s accurate. It honestly helps if everything has a home, somewhere it can always be placed when it’s time to put it away.

This sounds obvious, but it’s not as easy as it may initially seem. In our kitchen we have cupboards. Each cupboard holds specific items, whether they be plates, glasses, or bowls. The dishes tend to go back in the same place, more or less, every time.

Much of the rest of the house is a different story.

We have many bookshelves, but when we take a book off to read, we rarely return it to the same place (often that place has since been taken up by another book).

My office has a desk with drawers, a filing cabinet, and shelves — but because the items coming in and out of the office change so frequently (different types of paperwork, books, research I’m working on), there’s much less consistency.

As I pile things on my desk and in other locations, the accrual of “stuff” becomes greater than the number of places that stuff can go. In other words, I have too much junk and not enough space for it.

That’s when it’s time to declutter, purge, and create room — ugh.

Be realistic and give yourself a break

If you really struggle with the purging and decluttering part of the process (like I used to), consider asking a friend to help. You can offer to return the favour by helping them with something you’re good at. Sometimes even having moral support, or body doubling, can be enough to get us started.

When the room looks really good, take a picture and save it. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin, refer to that picture as a reminder of how the finished product looks, and as inspiration.

For many of us clutter is a huge stressor, yet due to EF challenges, tackling that clutter can be incredibly difficult. It’s kind of a cruel irony.

Lastly, try not to be too hard on yourself. Adding to the pressure will only make it more difficult to push past the mental barrier; especially if you’re prone to anxiety, perfectionism, or demand avoidance.

Instead, figure out when your motivation and energy levels tend to be at their best, and schedule some time to tidy and organize during those more productive periods. Try to maintain as much as possible, doing just a little bit at a time, to avoid things piling up and becoming overwhelming.

If things do become overwhelming, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

“I don’t know who created the goal of being independent, but i’m almost certain they had help.”

— Meghan Ashburn

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

Related Articles

When Autistic Inertia Impedes
ADHD Paralysis Explained
Strategies for Managing Executive Functioning Challenges for Adults

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For parents & caregivers

Helping Our Kids Get (a little) More Organized

Executive Functions for Parents And Kids

Strategies for Managing Executive Functioning Challenges for Kids


Ashburn, M., & Edwards, J. (2023). I Will Die On This Hill: Autistic adults, autism parents, and the children who deserve a better world. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Price, D. (2021). Laziness Does Not Exist. Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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