How to Get Organized If You Struggle with Object Permanence

published Oct 7, 2023
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person reaching into a drawer thats semi organized, left hand side is an entrance key hanger
Credit: Photos: Shutterstock and Joe Lingeman; Design: Apartment Therapy

I’ve been professionally organizing for a long time now. A few years ago, before my own ADHD diagnosis, I was working with a client who wanted me to organize her things so she could see them all. It made sense, as she admitted to frequently leaving the house and forgetting something critical. The problem, however, was that she had a lot of things in a very small space. So no matter how neatly I tried to arrange stuff, her place looked perpetually cluttered.

After finding out that I had ADHD, I began to study and better understand the struggles that accompany it, including object permanence, or the knowing that an object exists even when it’s not visible. This was what my client was trying to combat when she asked me not to store her things “away.”

If this sounds like you, here’s what ADHD experts had to say to help shed some light on the subject and allow you (or someone you know) to stay better organized.

What is object permanence in relation to ADHD?

“Object permanence is a cognitive skill that develops naturally during early childhood,” says Janina Maschke, an ADHD coach and psychologist. “In the context of ADHD, it can be defined as the difficulty in retaining and recalling the presence and location of objects or information when [they’re] not immediately visible.”

This can easily cause frustration, and, as ADHD coach Brooke Schnittman points out, “attribute to rotten food, lost keys and phones, or buying the same outfit multiple times.” Schnittman adds that executive dysfunction sustained attention difficulties, memory issues, and the tendency to be impulsive all contribute to the problem with object permanence.

For example, per Maschke, “Working memory involves the capacity to remember and manipulate information in the short term,” so if you toss something into a drawer rather than leave it out on the counter, chances are that you’ll forget where it is by the time you need it next. 

Why do people with ADHD struggle to stay organized?

“Individuals with ADHD often have difficulties in the area of activation,” says Schnittman. “It can be overwhelming to know where to start, how to break each step down, and to sustain attention, focus, emotions, and working memory when going through each step of organizing.” 

A common scenario for people who have ADHD is not being able to find an item so they “tear the house apart.” Not only do they often still come up empty-handed, but they also don’t usually have the patience to clean up the mess made during the search, which results in even more clutter.

Now, this is when being a minimalist comes in handy and I encourage you to pare down your things as much as possible. Aside from preventing decision fatigue, minimalism also means having fewer things to look through or tidy up. I find that this helps with impatience and lack of attention because the task of locating what I need (even if it’s stored away) and putting it back is a short and undemanding one.

“Excessive visual stimuli in the environment can create distractions and overwhelm, making it harder for individuals with ADHD to stay organized,” adds Schnittman. Essentially, visual clutter — even if it’s tidy to some degree — isn’t good for those with ADHD.

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

How can people with ADHD stay organized despite object permanence?

I’ve come up with systems and strategies to remember my things even before I knew I had ADHD. The number-one thing I did was to create landing zones (or launch pads, as Schnittman calls them) for the essentials. 

A key hook and mail sorter hang on the wall directly next to my front door so I can’t forget them on my way out. I purchased a three-in-one charging dock that never moves from its spot on my kitchen island. What I’ve been doing is exactly what Maschke suggests and that’s to “designate spaces to certain items,” so you know where they are at all times.

Both she and Schnittman suggest organizing things into clear bins with labels. This is ingenious because it keeps your things contained and sorted while also being easy to identify. But, what about the non-physical “stuff?” Here are some tips worth stealing from the experts.

Maschke recommends the following:

  • Using a whiteboard, bulletin board, or digital calendar.
  • Setting up automatic payments as much as you can.
  • Utilizing digital tools like calendar apps, task managers, or reminders on your phone.

Schnittman suggests the following:

  • Designating a specific time/day to add meetings to your calendar, respond to texts, and pay bills.
  • Practicing body doubling with another person for accountability.
  • Scheduling your next appointment before leaving the doctor’s office or hair salon.

Does object permanence affect those without ADHD?

I was surprised to learn that, despite how prevalent and universal the issue seems to be, it’s not technically acknowledged by the medical community. “Object permanence is not an officially recognized medical condition or symptom in ADHD, and individuals with ADHD cannot receive a diagnosis specifically for object permanence issues,” shares Maschke.

What was equally interesting to discover is that it can affect adults without ADHD. “Individuals with brain injuries, neurodegenerative diseases, psychiatric disorders, and cognitive impairments can lead to difficulties with object permanence later in life,” according to Schnittman.

If object permanence affects you directly, being aware of it is the first step to overcoming complications. And if it’s something that a loved one struggles with, it’s important to be understanding and patient with them. Either way, you can minimize the negative effects of object permanence for you and others in the house by returning things to the same spot daily, using visual reminders or cues like labels, and taking advantage of technology such as a shared digital family calendar or reminder app.