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How I Finally Got My S*** Sort-of Together in Spite of my ADHD, Anxiety Disorder, and PTSD

by Oleander Ponders about a year ago in selfcare

And how you can, too.

How I Finally Got My S*** Sort-of Together in Spite of my ADHD, Anxiety Disorder, and PTSD
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

By all accounts, I should be organized:

I am a 50 year old woman.

I raised four children.

I earned an advanced degree.

I have a responsible and demanding job.

But I have struggled my entire life. Why? I live with ADHD, PTSD, and Generalized Anxiety disorder with panic attacks. Organization is a challenge for me because I don’t think the same way a neurotypical person thinks.

In spite of these challenges, I have developed workarounds, ways to use my unique way of thinking to set up systems that aid me in keeping my life running smoothly. Do they keep me organized in the traditional understanding of the word? No, not even a little bit. Do they keep me from having to wear dirty underwear three days in a row because I forgot to do the laundry again? Yes. And for me, this is success!

While I don’t have all my s*** together, I do have some strategies I would like to share for other unique minds. My systems likely won’t work for you because I have tailored them to my own strengths and weaknesses, but I hope that some of the processes I used to design mine will resonate with you and help you set up your own.

After experiencing failure after failure trying to follow conventional advice, I decided it was time to take a new approach. The first step was to identify my particular challenges. I knew this could be triggering, so I approached the process with the mindset that this is the ultimate in self-care. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses so your list will look different from mine, but to help you visualize the process, my challenges are:

1. A tendency to become overwhelmed easily. I can look at a dirty room and literally not know how to clean it. I struggle with prioritizing tasks and see them all as equally important. This is especially difficult for me when the tasks are interdependent. For example, I haven’t taken the donations to the Goodwill, but I can’t take the donations until I clean out the car, but I can’t clean out the car until I have a place to put the junk I have stored in the trunk, but I will need to store some of that stuff in my closet which has no room because it is packed boxes that need to be taken to the Goodwill.

2. My anxiety leads to exhaustion. A panic attack can lay me out for the rest of the day, and maybe the next day too as my body deals with the aftereffects of a prolonged adrenaline release. But even without a panic attack, generalized anxiety is draining. For anyone who hasn’t faced this particular struggle, think about how it feels to worry incessantly about a huge issue in your life. Can’t pay the rent? Final exams coming up? Sick kids? Yeah, I feel like that even when there is nothing stressing me out. The fatigue that accompanies anxiety is real, and makes routine tasks all the more daunting. If I’m too tired to take a shower, how am I going to make myself get the car inspected?

3. I move slooooooowly. My mind runs at breakneck speed, but I am seriously clumsy. Like drop-a-soldering-iron-on-my-other-arm clumsy. Jam-my-fingers-reaching-for-the-stapler clumsy. Break-a-dish-by-accidentally-slamming-it-down-when-I-was-just-trying-to put-it-down-like-a-normal-person clumsy. I have learned to adapt to this by moving at about 70% speed, which can be frustrating when I am trying to be productive.

4. My perception of time is skewed and I misjudge the time needed for specific tasks. I am often surprised to find that the dreaded task I didn’t have time for actually took a fraction of the time I expected it to take. This happens with large and small tasks. I have to keep reminding myself that sorting the mail takes seconds. Cleaning the bathroom doesn’t take an hour, it takes 10 minutes. I put off power-washing my house for years because I expected it to take a couple days. When I finally did it, I was done by mid-afternoon the first day.

5. I can become so focused on something that I literally forget to stop doing it. Even hunger doesn’t register until my blood sugar has dropped to the point that I’m shaking. I can forget to stop gardening until my sunblock wears off and I am lobster-red and dehydrated. When I do try to move from one task to another, my brain puts up a fight and I need to get a cup of tea to give myself time to change gears (on a side note, I used to have a snack during this break time; when I switched to herbal tea, I lost 10 pounds without making any other changes).

6. I am extremely forgetful. I forget appointments. I forget to shop for groceries. I forget to brush my hair or put on make-up. One time I forgot to go on vacation and showed up at work Monday morning as usual. This particular trait also makes it really hard to establish routines--I can do Yoga three times a week for a month, then just forget it exists for the next month.

So now that I knew the issues that were blocking my efforts to stay on track, it was time to figure out ways to mitigate them.

First, I knew I needed some way to keep schedules and important info at my fingertips. I’ve tried bullet journaling, prefab to-do lists, and executive planners to no avail. I had to start from scratch and come up with a system based on me and my own quirks. It had to be simple and it had to include all areas of my life so I wouldn’t have to try to remember where I stored information. Much trial-and-error led me to a basic five-subject notebook, page tabs, 4x6 inch lined sticky notes, and a pack of index cards.

I will explain my system and you can feel free to use it as-is if it works for you (with subjects relevant to you, of course), but don’t feel like you failed if it didn’t. Modify it, or even scrap it entirely and design something that takes you and your priorities into account. For example, writing things down helps me remember it later, but you may prefer to use a tablet or your phone.

Each “subject” is an area of my life: HOME, WORK, GARDEN, WRITE, and MISC PROJECTS. Some pages are running lists of tasks to do, some are detailed plans for a larger task. I used to make a table of contents on each divider, but I found that I wasn’t keeping up with numbering pages and updating my table of contents, and when I tore pages out the order got messed up. Now I use page tabs to mark them, which works much better for me. For example, under MISC. PROJECT I have a tab marked “Em’s Quilt” for the page I drafted the pattern for a quilt I am making for my daughter. In the GARDEN section I have a page marked “Start Dates,” with a list of the dates I need to start different seeds. In WRITE I have “Ideas,” “Inspirational Quotes,” and “Deadlines”for projects I am working on.

Every morning I glance through the pages that have deadlines, the running lists, my work schedule, and I check yesterday’s list for unfinished tasks, then make a to-do list on one of the sticky notes and stick it on the cover of the notebook.

The next part gets a little embarrassing. Remember when I mentioned that my forgetfulness makes it hard to establish routines? I overcome that by leaving index cards in strategic locations.

I have two cards in my top bathroom drawer, one for morning and one for night. My morning list is Micellar water, vit c, moisturize, brush teeth, leave-in conditioner. My evening list is take off make-up, bath, brush teeth, differin, moisturize, meds. Otherwise I am likely to go to work with morning breath or get in the tub with my mascara still on (which then melts and gets in my eyes...ouch!). Taped to the inside of a kitchen cabinet I have a card that says breakfast, pack lunch, settle dinner, feed dogs. In my closet I have one that says pack work bag, makeup, dress, accessorize, shoes. Yes, it’s over-cautious. But it keeps me from getting so distracted that I wear slippers to work (yes, that has actually happened).

Second, I identified the bare minimum of housework that needed to be done to keep my life running smoothly. I skipped the things I thought I should do and stripped it down to what I have to do. I’m not fussy about my house, so for me that included only two items. First, the kitchen needs to be clean because I am way more likely to cook a healthy meal instead of pick up fast food if I'm not dealing with last night's dishes. Second, the laundry needs to be done. Nothing throws my day off from the start than having to work hard to find something nice to wear. Other chores get done when they get done, usually in little stretches of down-time. Big chores are on a running list in my notebook.

Once I decided what was important to me, I re-evaluated the way I did those vital tasks and used logic to create workarounds rather than trying to do what I’ve always done before. We usually eat in front of the TV, so instead of keeping the dishes in the cabinet closest to the dining room (which is actually used as a home office) I moved them to a cabinet between the stove and refrigerator. Sometimes I get distracted and forget to fold the laundry, so I started keeping a huge storage tub in my laundry room to keep a few loads worth of clean laundry. Now I don’t put off starting a new load because there's a load in the dryer that I'm not prepared to deal with at the moment.

Third, I started using rewards to motivate myself to achieve goals. No matter how important a goal is, I have a tendency to just forget when I am focused on something else. Turns out I am way more likely to wash my car if I know I will pick up a big goopy coffee once I’m done. I’m more likely to finish cleaning the house if I know I will take a two hour bath with scented candles and a good book afterwards. It really does work, especially if I take the time to break big goals into a series of small goals. My goal of establishing a new flowerbed is broken into “start seeds indoors,” “lay cardboard,” “lay mulch,” “rocks for edging,” and “transplant.” Five smaller goals are much less daunting than one big one, the feeling of accomplishment motivates me to tackle the next goal, and I get four rewards instead of just one (heck yeah!).

I also use rewards to get through tasks that I dread doing, a sort of carrot-and-stick approach. Knowing I can have a cup of tea and 30 minutes of aimless internet surfing as soon as I finish grading papers can be the difference between staying on top of grading or having a semester’s worth of unfinished drudge work to complete in one Spring weekend.

Finally, the backbone of the entire process, I’ve learned to be kind to myself when I fall short. I know that some things will go undone, maybe permanently, and I’m okay with that.

I evaluate every task critically and do what matters and let go of what is less important. Do I really need to vacuum every day? Will the world end if I don’t get my dahlias planted this week? I have had to learn to save my limited time and energy for the things that have significance in my life. My dahlias are that important to me, so they will get planted. The dog hair on the carpet matters less, so it will get vacuumed when I get around to it.

When I feel bad about my lack of progress I use positive self talk, encouraging myself like I would one of my kids if they were struggling. I would never say “You’re such a loser, you’re lazy and worthless” to my children, and I decided it was unacceptable to say it to myself. Instead I would encourage them to focus on their successes. Now my self talk sounds more like “So the carpet isn’t clean...think about how gorgeous your garden will be! You worked so hard, and you should be proud.” Maybe it sounds a little hokey, but it works--I have learned that nothing can stop progress in its tracks like self-judgement and nothing drives future success more than feeling like I have already succeeded in something.

On days that my systems hold, I celebrate. On days that I forget to use my index card list and end up at work without my lunch, I laugh it off and eat the almonds and raisins I keep in my desk drawer for just such "oopsies." If you take nothing else away from this article, please remember this: Focus on, reward, and celebrate your successes, even the little ones, and allow yourself to grow rather than expect to jump into huge changes.


About the author

Oleander Ponders

MA in English and Writing

BS in Social Work

Former Managing Editor of the Twisted Vine Literary and Fine Arts Journal

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