ADD and the Art of Putting It Away BEFORE it’s Finished

This is a discipline that I’ve only recently started to adopt. I really wish I’d come up with it earlier.

I have been in the habit of leaving a project out until I finish it, in no small part because if it’s put away I fear it will just disappear and never get done. The problem here is that being ADD, another project comes along and the first project gets deferred indefinitely. Then another project defers the second, then… then there’s a great pile of unfinished projects and the one you suddenly actually need to finish is somewhere in the middle of all that and your workspace is a disaster area. More than likely all your workspaces have merged into a huge, oppressive, unmanageable, crushing mess.

Now I try to put unfinished projects away as soon as I stop working on them, even if my best intention is to pick up where I left off the next day. In no small part, this has been enabled by my clear bin storage system, which prevents a project in storage from seemingly ceasing to exist because it’s no longer visible. Sometimes I’ll put the project into a clear container but leave the container on my workbench, so if I do start on it the next day, it’s right there. When the Next Thing else comes up, I can take that project container, drop a label on it with painter’s tape, and put it on a shelf. It’s organized; everything I need for the project is there in one place.

Part of my brain still rebels. The ADD me (who still thinks he can get everything done at superhuman speed) says “No way, we will get this done tomorrow! Really! Just leave it! Why are you wasting 10 precious minutes on this?” But the older, wiser me knows that the time/effort of putting it away and bringing it back out is far less than the stress of dealing with the mess when it doesn’t get finished the next day.

CBGOS, My Clear Bin Granular Organizing System

CBGOS, My Clear Bin Granular Organizing System

One of the problems with being ADD is the “If you can’t see it, it ceases to exist” phenomenon. For me, this is one reason why my desk is stacked high with piles of stuff and projects are scattered across every flat surface in my space. The mess can be oppressive, but it winds up being preferable to a void feeling I get, a sense of emptiness when everything is neatly organized and put away and out of sight. If that statement sounds completely weird to you, then you probably don’t experience ADD the way I do and the rest of this article will make no sense either.

But there comes a breaking point, where the sheer weight of the mess makes a space unworkable. The usual fix to this is to get a big box, shove all the crap projects into it and then weeks or months later wonder where “that thing I had on my desk” went, followed by the dreaded rummaging through the box(es) of stuff that used to on the desk.

I’m focusing on my desk here, but this problem isn’t just confined to desks, it’s all-encompassing. Papers, clothes, tools, cleaning supplies, stuff. I can usually spot an ADD family two seconds after entering their personal space.

There’s an organizational sweet spot, somewhere between “this place is unworkable” and “a clear desk is the sign of an empty mind”, and I’ve developed a system for getting (and staying) closer to it. My Clear Bin Granular Organizing System is based around a set of clear bins in multiple sizes, starting with “huge” (with a volume of 40 litres) all the way down to tiny, at a volume of 100 ml. Most of these I get from IKEA (at least down to the 5 l size, from there it’s more haphazard).

A problem I had was a tendency to be either disorganized or (attempt to) be hyper-organized. Naturally the hyper-organized attempts failed because something more interesting always comes up before the process is complete. One day, facing a “dump it into a box and start over” crisis, it dawned on me that just a little sorting during the purge could help immensely, so I got two large clear boxes and a couple of smaller ones. Things related to an identifiable project went into their own box. Into one large box I put “papers” (including unread books, newspapers, etc.); into the other “Electricity and electronics”. Now I had a clear desk, half a dozen boxes, was marginally more organized, and if I wanted to be done with it and move to the next thing, it was obviously already better than the one big mystery box.

Then I took that electricity and electronics box and went around the house, collecting all the stray stuff in that category. It wasn’t long before the box was overflowing, and that’s my Eureka moment. The box contained power cords, power bars, chargers, cables, calculators, a tablet, bits of computer hardware, lights… I broke it down into a large box for power bars and electrical cords, a smaller box for cables, and a smaller box for the tablet, calculators, and tools. Anything not in those categories stayed in the big box. Then I went back to the cable box and broke it down into smaller boxes: one for Ethernet, one for USB, one for everything else.

And then that’s when it became a system! I returned to the big box of papers and sorted them into stuff that needed to be filed, stuff to trash (still a bin, but not clear), things to read, and things that should be acted upon.

There it was, all the stuff on my desk (and more), no longer on my desk, but also both visible and much more organized than ever before. No Big Box of Doom, either!

Here’s the system in a nutshell:

  • Assessment: look for natural divisions in the stuff that needs to be organized. The key here is that the divisions can be huge, like paper or not paper; or small like a pile of business cards to sort through.
  • Get the smallest possible box that will contain each of the divisions of stuff. Use Painter’s tape to label each box with the intended contents. The advantage of painter’s tape is as you reassign boxes, you just peel it off and write out a new label. [This can also avoid the rabbit hole of spending a day deciding on how to create the Best Labels Ever.]
  • Put the stuff into the assigned boxes. Resist the urge to sort each category, just get it done!

You can stop right now, knowing that you’re already better off than tossing everything into a box and sticking it into a corner. That’s the key point of this system: it can be “perfect” but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a tool for incremental improvement. Best of all, you never have to start over. Now can carry the system into other parts of your space. As you go, follow these steps.

  • If a box overflows, assess the box for sub-categories. If they exist, break the stuff into multiple boxes, updating the labels if required. One of mine was “Hooks, pads, adhesives” that first got the adhesive part broken out, then adhesives wound up splitting into one for tape and one for glues.
  • If you discover that you have two boxes with the same label, merge them or sort them into sub-categories.
  • If a box winds up mostly empty, downsize it.

Best of all, because the boxes are clear, none of it ceases to exist. It’s all there, visible but with at least a minimal level of organization.

This system isn’t going to solve every problem. I’m not trying to pretend to be Marie Kondo here. I still have an ongoing battle with OFSD, but at the same time I can find a LOT of stuff that I couldn’t find before, and I haven’t thrown everything into a Box of Doom for almost a decade, either.