My dog is like the avatar of attention deficit. When I started running with him, it occurred to me that he was trying to write me a message in cursive, and it would take a time-lapse camera to read it. First he was racing off ahead. Then he would smell something, stop, and fall behind. He would run side to side in a sine wave that must have added at least 50% to his distance over mine. I want to get him a collar with a pedometer and see how many steps he takes. Over time, though, (and I’m talking about three years and hundreds of miles), he learned to stay with me. He ignores other people and animals. He pulls to the side of the trail and sits when bicyclists ride by. When he sees other enticingly small dogs that he really wants to meet, he speeds up, as though getting the temptation out of the way. He also speeds up for hill climbs. It’s amazing how much he can do for a 20-pound terrier. He has his own agenda: perimeter checks throughout the day and plenty of naps. I’ve learned a lot from him about managing my own wandering mind.
I was born too early for a diagnosis of ADHD, although I’m sure I would have been labeled that way. I had to retake a standardized test in second grade because I started coloring, forgot to finish, and got the score of… probably a pet rock. They tested my vision and hearing and made me retake the test with a proctor staring at me. I spent the next 25 years constantly losing my keys, gloves, scarves, hats, umbrellas, day planners, wallets, ATM cards, bills, and library books. I locked myself out of my apartment twice in the same day, after climbing in the window, only to find after the second time that I’d left a burner on high until it was red-hot and the apartment was heated to 85F. I used to lock myself out of my car so often that the guys in the shop made me my own slim jim. I’m the poster child for chronic disorganization. That’s why it’s so important to me to keep my house clean and organized. I’ve found it’s the only way I can think straight and get anything done.
There is a lot of skepticism, nay cynicism, toward the idea of keeping things tidy. I’ve seen umpteen pillows, samplers, and refrigerator magnets trumpeting slogans such as “dull women keep immaculate houses” and “excuse the mess, but we live here.” I would prefer to see something more along the lines of “ROBOTS keep immaculate houses” or “Welcome Friends.”
Yeah, I make my bed. Because I’m neurotic and have nothing better to do? No, because it only takes 45 freaking seconds. I’ve read through several anti-housework discussion threads in which multiple people spent longer than that describing why they don’t make their beds. I make my bed while I’m not even fully awake. For the rest of the day, I can glance in my bedroom and know it’s checked off. There are no books or journals or pens or phones or charging cables or socks or whatever lurking in the covers. This is important because I’ve had so many dozens of “where is my Bluetooth?” episodes. I used to hang out in bed quite a lot as an invalid, and I now hate that feeling. Two-thirds of the time, my bed is just this flat surface, fluffily waiting for me to get in and do fun, healthy, free things with my husband, such as sleeping or making up alternate song lyrics.
I keep my dining table clear, because we eat at least three meals a day there. I’ve eaten thousands of meals while hunched over a coffee table, and it is really inconvenient! I eat at the table because there’s somewhere to put my glass and my fork and my plate and the salt and all that stuff. I can eat without spilling in my lap and having to change my pants. I can eat without my dog snarfing anything. Afterward, it takes another 45 seconds to wipe down the table. For about 22 hours a day, my dining table stands ready for any purpose. I shoot many of my illustrations there. Sometimes I set up my laptop and write there. If I use my sewing machine, that’s where I set it up, and where I cut fabric. I can’t think of a single good reason to leave stuff on my dining table when I’m not using it; it would interfere with my work, my art, and my hobbies, as well as my relationship. The table is one more blank slate, like my bed, that I can mentally check off with a single glance.
I keep my kitchen counters clear for similar reasons. We take turns cooking. We cut up a lot of melons there. I open packages on my counter. We slice the dog’s pills there. The kitchen counters are clear about the same 22 hours a day, reliably available when they are needed. It’s another area that does not drag at my mental bandwidth.
Sometimes I leave stuff out on my desk. That’s a sign that I need to deal with it. We’re mostly paperless, though, meaning we pay bills and manage our finances electronically. I am usually at Inbox Zero. We also schedule appointments that way and share a digital calendar. There are very few papers we need to track in a physical manner. We don’t have a paper calendar and we almost never need to use checks or postage stamps anymore. I have dozens of reminders set up in my phone, from my chore rotation to reserving a table for our wedding anniversary, so between reminders, my mind is free. Whenever possible, let an artificial brain track those details.
I don’t keep a to-do list. There are two types of tasks: recurring and non-recurring. I don’t use a list for the recurring tasks. I either do them on autopilot, like showering, or put them on my schedule, like checking our go-bags twice a month. For one-shot tasks, if it can be done in 5 minutes, I just do it immediately. Most things can be done over the web or via email, so there’s no reason to wait. If I have a lot going on, I aim to do three things a day. One day a week (Tuesdays) I have a Power Hour, when I push through any nagging administrative calls or letters. I don’t accumulate project supplies that I think Future Self will want; I only plan to make something if I know I’m going to start as soon as I get the materials in the door. I’ve worked hard to close the books on Past Self and her issues; now I work hard to give Future Self the gift of peace of mind.
The key to regaining mental bandwidth is to live in the now as much as possible. We are trying to induce a flow state. Stress, clutter, sleep deprivation, multi-tasking, interruptions, and distractions interfere with this flow state. Many of us only feel it when we are reading, staring at a screen, or playing a video game, which is why these activities are so attractive. In my experience, exercise and creative effort are superior ways to fuel the flow state; once you learn how to induce it, nothing else satisfies. I keep things tidy and organized because it’s faster, easier, and preserves vital workspace for the things I want to do. It also means I’m surrounded by “done” and have no need to concentrate on anything other than real work. The only way to find out what it’s like is to try the experiment. Clear the slates, jettison the clutter, set some boundaries, and see what happens.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.