One of the things that neurodivergent folks find challenging is getting, and staying organized. This is due to differences in something called ‘executive functioning’.
What is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning refers to the group of cognitive skills that allow us to plan, organize, begin tasks, stay regulated and complete goal directed behavior. These particular set of skills are often impacted in our neurodivergent folks - which can make getting and staying organized really, really hard.
Some of these skills include:
Working Memory: the ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind for short amounts of time. Constantly find yourself walking into another room and not knowing why you are there? That’s your working memory deciding it doesn’t want to play ball today.
Cognitive Flexibility: the ability to switch between different tasks and perspectives. Find it impossible to shift between different tasks and keep track of where things are? That’s probably down to cognitive flexibility.
Inhibitory Control: the ability to suppress impulses in order to stay focussed on tasks. Particularly for our ADHD friends, this one can really get in the way of getting things done.
Task Initiation: the ability to start a task without prompting or reminders. Just don’t know where to start? This is probably your guy.
Emotional Regulation: the ability to manage emotions and responses to emotions. This can look like catastrophic thinking, or rage and pretty much everything in-between. It can be hard to get things done when you feel like the world is actually ending.
Time Management: the ability to use time effectively and efficiently. Do you get completely lost in an activity and lose all sense of time, finding yourself many hours later still engrossed with no time left to do all of the other things? Time blindness is a really big barrier for many ND folks.
All people can struggle with elements of executive functioning but for neurodivergent people they can be totally debilitating and impact school, relationships, careers, managing a home, planning a trip - the list is endless.
DISCLAIMER: The information and strategies described in this article are from my own personal experience as a neurodivergent person. These strategies will not work for every neurodivergent person as we are all wonderfully unique.
Growing up as a non-diagnosed AuADHD woman meant that I developed an array of strategies to help support me with executive functioning. I don’t see my challenges with executive functioning as something I need to ‘get better at’ or improve - I feel this attitude is akin to telling someone with a broken foot that it will be cured by walking it off.
Executive functioning is something that I struggle with, and I can acknowledge that without seeing it as a deficit or a skill that must be learned to be able to succeed in the world. I have managed to move to the other side of the world, start a business, work, exercise and take care of my home without putting the pressure on myself to be good at things I am not. I’d be confident to argue that the reason I have managed to achieve is because of this.
It’s like what people often say in business and leadership - if you are not good at something, get someone who is to do it better than you. Delegate the mundane unenjoyable tasks so that you can focus on what is important to you!
This article will help to give you some ideas, however I would encourage you to find your own strategies that help you to minimize your executive function load and allow you to focus on your strengths instead.
1. Tidy space - tidy brain
No-one likes cleaning, but a disorganized and cluttered space is a visual representation of your glorious spicy brain when trying to activate your executive functioning skills. It is also just a hazard. I am speaking from experience here, there isn’t a shoe I haven’t tripped over or a cupboard door I haven’t banged my head on.
I know it seems too simple but having a tidy space can really help you to focus on the one thing you are trying to do, as opposed to forcing your brain to process through all that clutter and the millions of potential brain train distractions that will take you far from where you are trying to be.
2. Get your environment to do the work for you (or at least help)
What do I mean by this? Be logical and strategic in how to organize your space. I am talking, put your tea and coffee in the cupboard closest to the kettle. This makes putting things away after you have used them a heck of a lot easier. Put items in spots that prompt you to use them or do the thing. I will often put my dog's lead on top of the bin to remind me that it needs to be emptied. I know I will grab his lead before I go out - I don’t know if I will remember to take the bin out. While these strategies are by no means fool proof - they definitely help to minimize the occurrences of forgetting.
3. Establish a process.
Our brains like processes, they are like a safety blanket of this then that and provide comfort in knowing you are far less likely to miss a step if you follow the process. Find processes in tasks you struggle with - write them down and use them as guides to support you. This helps to take the question of where to start out of the equation, for example when I am cleaning my house I have a process of dishes, kitchen, wipe down all surfaces, etc etc. This makes everything much more manageable.
4. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses
We live in a culture where weaknesses are seen as inherently bad things that should be fixed - but you can’t be good at everything and striving for this will leave you feeling like a failure. Be deliberate about identifying your weaknesses and use your strengths to put supports in place that will help you succeed.
5. Use your email calendar
Schedule, schedule, schedule. Everything, immediately. When I am making an appointment or plans with friends I immediately put this into my google calendar - which is linked to my mobile and gives me alerts when I have something on. This helps to remember appointments, reduce double (or triple) booking myself, makes sure I have enough time to get all of the things done before I over commit - and gives me a really great visual of my week so I can immediately see when I will need to rest and recover from busy periods.
6. To do lists
Sunday evenings are typically my ‘freak out about all of the things and have an existential crisis’ time. To reduce my anxiety, avoid a meltdown and get myself organized for the week ahead I write a to do list - one of each of my roles so I know everything is covered. After I have written these down on paper, I transfer them to my whiteboard that sits above my desk. There is something in the dopamine hit that you get when you physically rub off a completed task that I like. Sometimes, I will also put these into my calendar. Scheduling off days / times to do certain tasks.
7. Body double
Body doubling can be extremely helpful for some neurodivergent people. It refers to the presence of another person who can help to keep you focussed on the task at hand. The body double does not necessarily need to interact with the person, but simply being present in the same space can help to offer structure and motivation to stay on track.
8. Do not over do it
This one is particularly important for our AuADHD & ADHD friends. Our all or nothing mentality can lead us to setting goals that are too ambitious, leaving us feeling like a failure because we didn’t learn to walk before we tried to run. Small, achievable goals will give you regular wins, and those ever craved dopamine hits will help motivate you to build upon them little by little.
9. Take breaks
Please, please, take breaks! One of the beautiful things about being a little more organized is that it allows you time for guilt-free breaks so that you can recover from all of the things. It doesn't matter what you are trying to do, whether it is work or university or school - if you do not take breaks you will become overwhelmed. Use that newly found (& updated :D ) calendar to schedule in some breaks. While you are there it is not a bad idea to pop in some reminders to eat too (thanks terrible interoception :D)
10. Celebrate wins
Whatever this looks like for you, buy a new game, eat an ice-cream, jump up and down. Whatever feels good for you! This stuff is hard, give yourself some serious cred for every little win. I’m talking, consistently remembering to put your shoes in the shoe basket instead of strewn across the floor is a cause for celebration (that’s one of mine!)
If you are finding it difficult to get organized, try some of these strategies and develop your own!
Be kind to yourself if you get it wrong the first few times, you can’t expect yourself to acquire a set of skills that take people years to build, overnight.
If you would ever like support to get organized, reach out to the FutureTech team for a chat 🙂