Strategies to Help Your Clients Organize Their Lives (Or Your Own)

How to Create a Personalized Organization Plan by ADHD Specialist Dr. Craig Surman


ADHD or Attention Defecit Hyperactive Disorder, an inability to focus the mind, affects 4% of the population, though only 1 in 10 adults is actually diagnosed. Harvard-trained Psychiatrist Dr. Craig Surman specializes in adult ADHD research at Massachusetts General Hospital, helping patients create strategies to cope with and simplify the overwhelm and disorganization in their lives.

You don’t need ADHD to benefit: Whether it’s a client struggling to adjust to additional tasks created by new mobility limitations (a recent patient has cerebral palsy, for instance) — or simply trying to keep the daily chaos under control, here’s how to address molehills before they become mountains.

For full-blown ADHD, which makes it impossible to focus, medication may be necessary before any organizational strategies can be implemented. But medication will not solve disorganization, Dr. Surman warns: “For things like sense of time, priorities, judgment, making choices, and the question of 'What do I do when?' — you need a strategy."

Dr. Surman has written two books, one clinical: ADHD in Adults: A Practical Guide to Evaluation and Management and one for the general public, FAST MINDS: How To Thrive If You Have ADHD (Or Think You Might).

He says, “There's a whole spectrum of problems with focus, physical restlessness, impulsivity, and related symptoms. Not everyone is disorganized or hyperactive; some people just have difficulty focusing.” He cautions that ADHD can only be diagnosed during a clinician visit, although ASRS offers a free preliminary online screening test.

Each individual has her own problem areas, but also coping techniques that have worked in the past. Dr. Surman advocates a personalized plan rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. To create the best plan for you, answer these questions:

  1. Is there a “scene of the crime”? If there is a huge stack of papers on the table, ask yourself, what is in there? When can I intervene and step in to stay on top of it — by sorting the mail once a week, or maybe daily, as soon as it arrives? The first step is always to take a step back and figure out, when is the critical moment where I can act differently to break this pattern?
  2. Is there something that I can outsource to someone else? Not everyone can hire a cleaner/organizer or a finance specialist, but other people can often be a great help if that's a possibility. You could be a major asset to your client in this regard. Another great tool is our smartphones and calendar/planner, notebook, and alarm/notification functions — use them as tools rather than distractions!
  3. What's in my head that doesn't need to be? Have one specific place where you can jot down thoughts that pop up: a notebook, smartphone, or planner. Then, set a planning time where you sit down and go over your list and allocate time to perform the specific tasks.
  4. When working with people who are scattered or disorganized, it can be easy to feel impatient or be frustrated by them, but Dr. Surman notes that these individuals are not lazy or willfully causing a problem in most cases. Educating yourself to appreciate the true nature of the problem will be beneficial in collaborating together to find solutions.

    Remember that someone who has had lifelong organizational issues is different from someone newly injured/immobilized and who may be facing emotional overwhelm or frustrations when struggling to adapt. Each individual is unique.

    There are also many online and in-person support groups and other resources available on the CHADD website. Dr. Craig Surman’s website is