Mental Illness,ADHD and Cleaning – 5 Neurodivergent Strategies to Fight Executive Dysfunction

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Have you ever kicked yourself for being lazy?

For letting those dishes pile up into a cartoonish mountain? Or cussed yourself because you just can’t keep your house organized no matter what system you try? How about told yourself you’re worthless for being unable to stick to the trendy new cleaning routine?

I sure have.

But what if I told you you weren’t lazy?

What if I told you there might just be something different about your brain that makes it harder for you to do certain things?

Don’t believe me? Well let me blow your mind…

The Scientific Reason why ADHD and Cleaning Don’t Go Together Like PB&J

Cleaning can be hard for anyone.

But cleaning and ADHD can be an especially difficult combo. Throw in mental health issues, which commonly co-occur with processing differences, and you’ve got an almost impossible situation.

Why is that?

Because, according to a paper from Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, people with ADHD (and Depression) have brain differences that may make it difficult to maintain a cleanly space.

In the Radboud paper, it was found that of the seven important command centers of the brain, five of them were smaller in people who have ADHD.

Among those 5 centers are parts of the Basal Ganglia which have an effect on cognition, movement, and habitual actions. This means those with ADHD may have trouble performing more complicated habitual activities like consistently organizing.

In addition, the pre-fontal cortex of ADHD brains are also different. This is important because this part of our brain controls Executive Function.

Executive function is our ability to plan, organize, focus, make decisions, remember things, and regulate our emotions. ADHD brains tend to have a deficit in dopamine, the chemical that makes Executive Function work.

Because of this, folks with ADHD might have a harder time planning ahead, sticking to a routine, and avoiding impulsive actions (like getting stuck down a YouTube rabbit hole when you should be cleaning).

**Psst: Find out more about ADHD and Executive Function in our Visual Lesson!**

ADHD and Cleaning-You’re Not Lazy, Your Brain is Just Different

Now that you know there’s several scientific reasons why cleaning is harder for you it’s time to stop kicking yourself.

You are not broken, less than, or bad because you can’t keep up with a routine. You just operate on a different wavelength than others.

Now does that give you a pass from cleaning and organizing? I mean sure, it could. But we also know that having a clean and organized space is amazing for your mental health.

So instead of being ashamed or giving up, why not give some Neurodivergent specific cleaning strategies on for size?

ADHD and Cleaning – Neurodivergent Specific Cleaning Strategies

Cleaning and ADHD don’t have to be enemies. You can stay organized and have a clean space despite what your brain might be telling you.

You just need to find the right strategies that embrace your Neurodivergence and work with it instead of against it!

Strategy 1: Mirroring

Are you more motivated when you see someone else being productive? Then Mirroring or Body Doubling might be for you!

Strategies include:

  1. Having a cleaning buddy with you either in person or over Zoom
  2. Watching cleaning YouTube videos while you clean/organize
  3. Joining an accountability group like the Cleaning is Hard Group on Facebook to find accountability buddies (and other awesome strategies)

Strategy 2: Timer Apps

Those of us with ADHD tend to gravitate towards extremes. Either we’re hyper focused on something, losing track of time down a rabbit hole or we can’t focus at all, rapidly switching from one task to another.

And then of course there’s the dreaded ADHD paralysis mode where you want to be productive but overthinking and executive function issues shut you down completely.

Never fear, an app like Tiimo or even your phone’s timer app can help with all three of these states.

Setting a loud obnoxious alarm can help you break out of hyper-focus mode.

On the flip side, having structured time blocks set up for your activities can help you from bouncing from one to the other.

And when it comes to ADHD paralysis, you can set a five minute timer to get yourself started on the task you’re dreading. This strategy is a favorite because you can do anything for five minutes, which is long enough to trick your brain back into productivity. This is how I get through my work day when a task is overwhelming or boring. I also take frequent breaks to preserve my mental energy and timers are a great help with that.

Strategy 3: Gamification

ADHD brains are impulsive, looking for quick rewards and stimulation because of the dopamine deficit. If a task is complex, takes a long time, or is boring our brains might just go on strike.

That doesn’t mean we can’t tackle complicated challenges though. It just means we need a different strategy.

One of my favorite strategies is gamification. Gamification turns mundane tasks into a fun adventure with a reward at the end of them. Kind of like when you were a kid and received an allowance for doing chores.

This strategy lights up our brain’s reward centers and makes us much more likely to complete them now and in the future.

There are many apps out there that gamify cleaning and organization. Right now I’m using Sweepy but there are many others out there (check out this list). Apps that tell a story, reward you consistently, and keep things from getting repetitive are the best in my opinion.

Strategy 4: Break it Up!

Breaking tasks down into manageable chunks is a great strategy to fight overwhelm and its annoying side-kick, procrastination. Like a snowball, this method helps you accomplish smaller, easier tasks that build up to a big task. Before you know it, the whole thing will be done and you’ll have no idea why you were overwhelmed in the first place (which is okay, we’ve all been there).

Here’s a few ways you can do that:

  1. Do micro-chores! These are small, achievable chores like picking up laundry off the floor or doing a cup check. They help you feel accomplished but don’t drain your energy.
  2. Break the task down on paper to its teeniest tiniest parts and do those before tackling the bigger parts.
  3. Pick a random number, work for that amount of time then take a break. Repeat.
  4. Take lots of breaks and remember to reward yourself with something your brain loves(but remember to set a timer so you don’t get hyper-focused)!

Strategy 5: Make your space clutter resistant

The best defense against clutter is a good offense. And that’s what this strategy is all about!

Make it so hard for clutter to accumulate that you eventually don’t even have to worry about it!

Identifying clutter magnets is the first step in this process. These spaces fill up with random stuff very quickly and can easily make you feel hopelessly overwhelmed. These problem spots are typically:

  1. Large empty spaces like closets and empty rooms
  2. Shelves, nightstands and countertops
  3. Cabinets
  4. Fridge
  5. Coffee table/dining room table
  6. Garage/Sheds

Next step is to give those spaces a plan and a purpose.

  1. Use labelled bins and containers to help you organize spaces you typically just plop stuff down (like an entryway table or nightstand)
  2. Have door hooks and cubbies near your front door. Again, label them.
  3. Put a whiteboard on the outside of the fridge and write down what’s in there currently
  4. Make specific regions in your fridge for specific types of food. Bonus if you name them something fun.
  5. Use colorful labelled folders to organize paperwork and store them in a see through container (so you don’t forget about them)

I want to point out that these are strategies that work for my mind, they’re just ideas to get you started! The beauty of neurodiversity is that we’re all SO different! No two ADHDers are the same. So the crucial thing to remember with this strategy is to develop clutter fighting tactics that work for you and your household. If you’ve got a good tactic please feel free to share it with us here or on MSB’s Facebook page!

Wrap Up – The Most Important ADHD and Cleaning Strategy of All!

That’s right, the most important strategy for ADHD and Cleaning is to accept that it’s okay not to be perfect. While it’s great if you can be super cleanly and organized, please don’t stress yourself if you can’t.

Not everyone needs to be Marie Kondo, we just need to be able to make an environment that suits our mental wellness. And it’s okay if yours is a little messy or lived in.

So keep searching for strategies that work for you. If one doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s all just trial and error to find what works best. You got this!

Much Love,


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5 thoughts on “Mental Illness,ADHD and Cleaning – 5 Neurodivergent Strategies to Fight Executive Dysfunction”

  1. Andrea Arceneaux

    This post was so helpful. I struggle in the cleaning and organization area, so the strategies you shared will help me come up with an action plan tailored to my needs.

  2. Pingback: How to Create a Safe Space That's Great for Your Mental Health - MSB My Soul Balm

  3. Thank you for an interesting article and for the app Sweepy. Have been meaning to create a chore schedule, this is so much better. Be safe and be well.

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