Improving Organizational Skills for Persons with ADHD

By John Shin, MD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) occurs in up to 5% of all adults and about 9.5% of children and adolescents. It is estimated that the prevalence is higher than those statistics.  A person with ADHD has significant impairments in their personal, occupational, academic, and family life. ADHD medications can help someone feel settled, less impulsive and be more attentive. For most persons with ADHD, organizational skills are a major deficit. However, organizational skills cannot be mysteriously improved with medication. There are things that can be done to improve organizational skills.

Making lists can be a very effective organizational strategy.  First, make a list of things to be done. Second, prioritize your list. Third, delegate if possible. Fourth, delay if needed. Fifth, accept your choices.

Make a list of chores or activities you may want or need to do that day. Then, pick the two or three items which absolutely must be done that day.  If a task needs to be done and you cannot perform the task try to delegate to a family member, friend, or co-worker who can assist. It is important to remember, however, that they may not do it to your standard, but if it is “good enough” than it is more than acceptable! Things on the list that do not need to be done that day can be delayed to another day. Finally, create acceptance for yourself that you did what had to be done that day and what could be done and that is good enough. It is sometimes better to write down these five tactics for managing a list whenever you make lists until it has become an effective habit.

A tendency to procrastinate is another common problem interfering with organization for with persons with ADHD. Procrastination tends to mostly occur related to things that are unpleasant or deemed to be hard. One tip to remember is that rewarding yourself for accomplishing something right away can reduce procrastination. For example, list the unpleasant chore you have to do, such as doing your taxes. Pick a reward that is meaningful to you. Consider perhaps a coffee, book or whatever you might appreciate.  Food items are not typically recommended items as rewards because of possible health consequences, but choosing something else meaningful to you can be helpful.  Set up a time early in the morning, get it done and then right after accomplishing the task, reward yourself! Over time, just the satisfaction of getting an unpleasant task done in a timely fashion may be incentive enough for you and procrastination can be avoided.

Knowing where to start with a project and how to begin to get it done in a timely fashion can be a very difficult concept for persons with ADHD and can impact organizing and time management. “Backward planning” may be a way to overcome this. That is, identify the end date you need to accomplish the task. Give yourself at least one day before the end date as a cushion for unexpected problems which may arise. Identify the steps you must do to accomplish your project and then list the order in which it needs be done, using the previous tips about list making as a guide. Then identify the materials and/or people you need to accomplish this task. Until you have more experience, it is helpful to double or triple the time estimate needed to perform each step in your project! The more you practice, your time management and organization for your projects will improve.

In summary, learning and practicing organization skills to accomplish tasks and get things done in a timely way can help a person with ADHD get full benefits from treatment. Treatment for ADHD, including both medications and therapy can be very helpful overall and especially combined with improving organizational skills.