ADHD Friendly Organization Strategies for Back to School

Every year I thought this would be my year to be organized. This is what finally helped.

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Aug 31, 2022

Tiimo member

August 31, 2022
Maaya Hitomi
Maaya Hitomi is an ADHD Coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind Structured Success @StructuredSucc

SUMMARY

  • Organization is possible for people with ADHD, but only if it’s ADHD-friendly.
  • “Write it down,” as non-ADHD folks always tell us, does work, if we make it clear, fast, and easy to write it down and find it again.
  • ADHD-friendly strategies should have as few barriers to using the system as possible (i.e. multi-step systems are likely to be a problem).
  • Keep information visual and visible to make it more likely we’ll find it again.
  • Needing novelty is normal for ADHDers. Changing up our systems when they stop working is key to keeping them working.

“This year will be the year I get organized” is literally something I told myself every single year of high school and/or university. Every year, I’d start with the best of intentions; I’d buy a bunch of notebooks, or file folders, or colour-coded sticky notes and I’d come up with the system that would finally turn me into an organized student. And every year, the system would fall apart and I’d be left feeling like I was getting through school by the skin of my teeth. This, I’d wager, is a relatable experience for many people with ADHD.

Students with ADHD recognize that organization is a weakness common to many of us. We understand the value of organization. We can even fully intend to get and stay organized, but we just can’t seem to make it happen in a sustainable way. To make matters worse, our well-meaning neurotypical teachers, parents, or tutors often offer advice that doesn't work for people with ADHD. Receiving, trying, and failing at this advice only further reinforces our worst fears about ourselves and our organizational abilities.

Because ADHD’ers have different needs, our approach to organization needs to be somewhat different too. So, below are some tips that have helped my ADHD brain stay organized and I hope will help yours as well.

Before anything else, don’t assume you’ll remember.

For many, ADHD comes with significant struggles with short-term or working memory. In some cases, this means we can’t hold as many pieces of information in our mind at the same time. More often, these struggles mean it’s far easier for the information in our short-term memory to disappear entirely. Whether this happens as a result of walking through a doorway, changing devices or apps, or just because of distraction, this means short-term memory for people with ADHD is incredibly slippery.

Since our short-term memory can be so slippery, we can’t assume we’re going to remember just about anything. This includes important information, like due dates, assignments, and appointments, but also instructions for in-class activities, lecture notes, or even the question we just raised our hand to ask.

Instead of relying on my memory then, I know that I need a system to capture the information so it’s going to be there when I need it.

As much as learning to write everything down is a behavioural change, it also has implications for any system we use to organize ourselves. If we’re constantly trying to grasp slippery thoughts, notes, and information, our system needs to be readily available and incredibly fast and easy to use. For me, this led me to rely on digital note taking tools (such as OneNote, Notion, or Evernote), but what will work best for you may vary. Some folks find paper and pen, or a single notebook, a better fit for them. Ultimately however, there needs to be as few barriers to accessing and using the system as possible to offer us the best chances for actually using it.

The more steps it takes, the less sustainable it is.

If one thing set me up for failure every year I tried to get organized for school, it was the complexity of my approach to organization. I’d have different notebooks for different subjects, each with different sections for assignments, homework, etc. I’d have multiple handwritten calendars I swore I was going to update throughout the semester or complex note taking systems I swore I’d remember. I was wrong.

Even when I did remember how to use the complex systems I set up, I’d slowly watch them fall into disuse and disrepair throughout the semester. In the beginning, novelty made it interesting, but as the novelty faded, so did my energy for using the system. In the end, I’d usually end up forgetting about the system entirely or, worse, abandoning it with a crushing sense of failure and shame.

Don’t make the same mistake I did: make organization as simple as possible. What exactly this means is going to be different based on your specific needs, but in general:

  1. Reduce the number of steps. Make adding information, finding information, and sorting information as straightforward as possible. If you have to pre-select or pre-pack specific notebooks, for example, that could become a barrier over time.

  2. Reduce the number of decisions. Every decision takes mental energy, and this is especially true for people with ADHD. If you regularly need to decide how to capture specific information, for example, using the system is going to feel tiring.

  3. Keep it available and accessible. The same way adding one extra click or tap dramatically decreases the number of people who use a digital technology, having just one extra step (even if that’s just getting it out of your backpack) reduces the likelihood you’ll do it and increases the likelihood you’ll convince yourself that you’ll remember it this one time.

Keep it visible (and visual) to prevent out of sight, out of mind

For many ADHD’ers, keeping objects and information visible is incredibly important to remembering them. If I take a note about something I want to remember, but I place it where I can’t see it or won’t randomly stumble across it, I might as well have not written the note in the first place. What this means for how I keep myself organized is that notes I take have to remain visible or become visible again at some later point.

Unfortunately, keeping notes visible is a harder task than it first seems. If every note remains visible all the time, eventually I stop seeing individual notes and start seeing them as an overwhelming pile. Striking the balance between keeping information visible and not being overwhelmed by clutter is difficult but important. Exactly how to strike this balance will be different for different people, but some ways that have helped me include:

  1. Setting reminders so information becomes visible again. This is particularly useful for information that has a timeline attached to it, such as assignment due dates or exam notes, and can involve calendar apps (such as Tiimo), phone reminders, or external accountabilities (such as reminders from friends and family).

  2. Building exploration into my approach to organization. Either by building a routine to look through information or by occasionally just looking through my notes for the sake of looking through them, exploring what information I have reminds me that it exists and helps crystalize it into long-term memory.

  3. Make information visually distinct and engaging. Because objects or information that are very similar become clutter faster than dissimilar ones, making information visually distinct and engaging can shift the balance and allow me to have more visible without being overwhelmed.

Needing novelty is normal for ADHD'ers

At the start of a new school year, it’s easy to dream up the perfect system that will always keep us organized, but no matter how thoroughly or deliberately I plan it, it always gets boring over time. Because ADHD’ers often need novelty to motivate action, this boredom quickly becomes a major barrier that prevents us from being more organized. Instead of treating it as a problem, embracing our need for novelty makes organization more sustainable throughout our time in academics.

Changing how we organize information, notes, and assignments isn’t a sign of failure. Rather, being flexible and seeking out novel ways to organize the same material (in a way that works for our brains) is important to getting and staying organized. Over time, I’ve learned what this creeping sense of boredom feels like, and now when I start to notice that feeling, I set time aside to change my approach to organization or my way of taking notes. If this self-awareness is still difficult for you, noticing when you start avoiding your organization systems or having a pre-scheduled check-in can help you notice when boredom is becoming a barrier and encourage you to shake things up.



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Ultimately, there is no one perfect method for organizing information and notes, and this is especially true for groups of people as diverse as ADHD’ers. However, organization is only helpful if we can use it. If our approach to organization isn’t as ADHD-friendly as possible, chances are that we aren’t going to be able to use it sustainability. Instead of fighting your brain, make your approach to organization as friendly to your brain as possible. This will make it more likely you’ll be able to do it.

Maaya Hitomi is the ADHD Coach and Academic Strategist behind Structured Success, where they work with ADHD, autistic, and otherwise neurodivergent clients to develop strategies for better coping. They have their Master’s and undergraduate degrees in Psychology, and 4 years experience as an ADHD Coach. More importantly, they’re (probably) autistic, and definitely ADHD and dyslexic, and rely on their structures and strategies to support their own success. Connect with them & get in the conversation on organizational strategies on Twitter!

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