I Have ADHD and Struggle with Chores — Here Are the 9 Tricks That Actually Work

published May 9, 2024
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6 Cleaning habits for someone with ADHD
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

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I’ve never been particularly good at keeping my space clean. As a teenager, my room was always messy — clothes everywhere, posters half hanging off the walls, and collections of everything from gel pens to nail polish filling every corner of my small room. In college, I was the dreaded messy roommate.

Content warning: The content in this story discusses mental health disorder(s). If this content isn’t for you, we understand. But if you are struggling or experiencing any mental health concerns, please take a look at our resources section below and seek help from a professional healthcare provider.

It was a huge relief when I discovered my then-boyfriend (and now husband) was pretty content with my standard of living. Of course, he asked me to be better about picking up after myself, but it was manageable. We lived together for a couple of years while in college, but didn’t move into our own place until a couple of years later in 2021.

At first, cleanliness wasn’t a major issue. But as we started to settle back into our routines, I found that my ability to keep my home clean only got worse. Our conversations as a couple around chores went from weekly conversations to daily disagreements. I knew I was the problem, but I didn’t understand why things that seemingly shouldn’t be hard, such as putting dishes in the dishwasher, felt impossible. I was constantly overwhelmed by this and knew it was putting stress on my relationship and mental health. So I decided to seek professional help.

After some therapy and a couple of sessions with a psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with ADHD. “ADHD is a disorder of executive functioning, where there’s major struggles with the planning, initiation, organization, and following through with tasks,” explains Vania Manipod, a board-certified psychiatrist, professor, and content creator. “This is especially true when it comes to cleaning, as the thought of the many tasks associated with cleaning and organization can feel extremely overwhelming.”

Like many neurodivergent people, particularly those diagnosed later in life, my diagnosis brought with it complex feelings of relief, peace, sadness, and frustration. So many things, about my particular tendencies and way of thinking and acting, clicked into place. At the same time, I was mourning a life I could have lived understanding myself and my brain better — if I had been kinder and more patient with myself, and more generous with the accommodations I needed, or could have asked for. 

One of the most helpful parts of my diagnosis and therapy was learning about all the tried-and-true cleaning strategies already out in the world, particularly those designed to help people with ADHD-specific challenges. These nine strategies, techniques, and approaches have truly worked for me, and many of them have expert recommendations (and psychological reasoning) to back them up.

Use a chore chart to track, plan, and communicate.

My psychiatrist recommended this chore chart, which has been very useful when it comes to tracking and planning our regular or weekly chores. It’s also been a really helpful communication tool for me and my husband, as we can each see (and celebrate) the work the other has done around the house that may have otherwise gone unnoticed or unrecognized.

Because I have a hybrid work schedule and my husband works from home, I always knew that he took on more than I did regarding our daily chores and tidying. Utilizing the chart helped me to physically see just how much he did daily — it was a huge “aha” moment for me and in my appreciation for just how much he took on in an area I was lacking.

The chore chart also helps me plan out my week and my time, much like how I’d approach a project at work. I can visualize when things need to happen and by what point in time. For instance, if I see the bathroom hasn’t been cleaned since last week, I can proactively decide when I can make that happen, and be sure I save the energy to do so.

Get organized by putting pen to paper.

“There is research suggesting that using handwritten notes for at least part of the process may enhance effectiveness by involving the body in the cognitive process,” explains Grant Brenner, a board-certified physician-psychiatrist, author, and speaker. If you have trouble sticking to a plan or thinking through everything that you want to get done, it may be helpful to use good old-fashioned pen and paper. “This helps with planning and overall executive function by getting information down on paper,” he shares, “rather than trying to keep it all in one’s head.”

I’ve always been a physical to-do list maker and note-taker, which, in hindsight, is probably how I’ve learned how to work with my ADHD. If I’m ever planning a deep cleaning or errand-heavy day, I’ll start the morning with a caffeinated beverage, a pen, and paper — just like Brenner’s suggestion. It’s a great way to visualize what you need to get done and strategize on how best to approach your tasks one at a time. 

Focus on small, achievable goals.

The idea of cleaning your entire home can feel overwhelming to most people, so Manipod recommends breaking down one or a few big goals into smaller, more realistic ones. “Start with one small section of your home and stick with it before moving on to the next section,” she explains. “And remember to give yourself a brief break in between as a reward before moving on.”

Staying focused is one of the hardest parts of cleaning and organizing for me. I frequently find that I get distracted by something else, start that, and end up with a couple of unfinished tasks. I’ve been incorporating Manipod’s advice of building in breaks and rewards for finishing specific tasks, whether it’s a snack I love or watching a short episode of a TV show. And while it can make the cleaning process take a bit longer, I’ve found that it helped me stay on track for longer, and eventually get done what I intend to get done. 

Try out body doubling.

This popular ADHD technique has been something I’ve unknowingly been doing for a lot of my life. I’ve found it helpful to get on a phone or FaceTime calls with someone I’ve been meaning to catch up with, which distracts my mind from the tedious task at hand and makes the time go by more quickly.

I also frequently invite my sister or my mom over, just to hang out while I tidy up. We’ll chat and they’ll just relax and watch TV while I keep my hand busy with chores. Then, as a built-in reward, we’ll go out to dinner once certain tasks are done or if I’ve been working on chores for a certain amount of time.

Limit yourself to a set amount of time.

People with ADHD thrive on pressure and external motivators, explains Manipod. “Time creates a sense of pressure, but also sets a realistic amount of time that someone with ADHD can devote to one task,” she explains. “Set a timer for 15, 20, or however many minutes feels realistic to commit to, and commit to that short burst of time knowing you’ll feel better about yourself for having accomplished a task in such a short amount of time.”

My husband and I have incorporated a “nightly speed clean,” as we call it, into our routine, where we set a timer for 20 minutes and tidy up as much as we can in that set amount of time. We focus on simple, easily achievable tasks like putting things back where they belong and wiping down surfaces, and are always shocked at how much we’re able to get done.

Additionally, to apply external pressure, we like to invite people over by a date or time we want the cleaning done. Not only have you set yourself a firm deadline, but you also have a fun reward to look forward to.

Make specific chores a part of your routine.

“Setting regular routines and sticking with them can help a great deal,” explains Brenner. “Using reminders to help keep to your routine, and enlisting others to help, can be useful,” he shares. “As long as the latter doesn’t feel like nagging.” One simple routine I’ve just gotten into the habit of is loading the dishwasher and running it every night before bed, as my husband unloads it in the morning. It may just be one small chore, but I love that I never have to actively think about it anymore.

Let the music play!

“Blast loud music that makes you pumped and motivated to clean,” shares Manipod. Not only does it naturally increase dopamine levels, she explains, which thereby increases focus and motivation, but it also “makes the task at hand more fun.” And I couldn’t agree more. 

While I’ll tell most people that I listen to K-pop girl groups or my curated women of rap playlist while I clean (which I do sometimes), the thing that gets me in the mood is a collection of Disney princess music, which of course includes “Happy Working Song” from Enchanted. There’s just something about it that makes me feel very “main character” while I’m working on household tasks like cleaning and tidying. 

Consider whether professional help would be beneficial.

“It’s important to seek help when the overwhelm or inability to clean your home is negatively impacting your ability to function and is causing problems in other areas of life,” shares Manipod. “For example, if the lack of cleanliness starts to affect someone’s health, self-esteem, relationship, or job, then it can be a sign that there’s more going on than just being a messy person,” she explains. “I always tell people that seeking professional support doesn’t necessarily always mean you have a disorder, but at least can help get clarity on what might be causing this issue.”

For me, the impetus to seek professional help came from the fact that keeping my space clean and organized was such a stressor that it had started to seep into other parts of my life. It affected my relationship and our communication, it made me feel less in control at work, and it made me question my abilities and self-worth. I had a feeling that there was an explanation for why something so seemingly simple was such a challenge for me. And ultimately, a professional diagnosis didn’t improve just this one aspect of my life, but all parts of it.

Practice self-compassion.

“It’s better to make significant progress over the course of a year than try too hard, place excessive demands on oneself, and give up in frustration after a month,” shares Brenner. “Thinking through what works for you, having self-compassion, and generally adopting an attitude of curious experimentation is essential for building long-term approaches that work and are sustainable,” he explains. 

Getting a formal ADHD diagnosis helped me immensely with this, as I finally understood that many of my shortcomings weren’t negative personality traits, but rather quirks of my brain I had to learn to work with as opposed to against. Now, I see endless opportunities to essentially “hack” my brain towards productive and sustainable habits, which I feel embodies the curious experimentation Brenner describes.

“In my experience working with patients, and also personally, I’ve observed how [the] cleanliness of a home fluctuates depending on the level of stressors people are going through in their lives,” explains Manipod. “I always remind them not to be so hard on themselves if they get behind on cleaning in order to prioritize other pressing things,” she shares.

Ultimately, life happens and it’s completely OK if your home isn’t clean all the time. In fact, it’s pretty unrealistic to expect that! You’ll get to your cleaning and tidying eventually, but trust that you know what you need to prioritize — especially if there are more pressing or important things going on in your day-to-day life. For me, so much of the pressure I feel when it comes to cleaning is self-imposed. I’m starting to learn, day by day, that a bit of grace goes a very long way when it comes to a healthier and more sustainable relationship with a clean home.

Mental Health Resources

If you (or someone you know) are struggling with mental health and need support, visit one of the following websites below or call any of their helplines: