Being Organised is Not About Willpower


I want to share with you a book that has had a very big impact on me in the past few months. Its changed the way I see myself and others. Hopefully its made me kinder, more patient, and more understanding towards all of us. Its taught me that being organised is not as simple as applying willpower to the situation. The book is called Attention  Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults by Thomas E Brown.

I have to admit, I only read this book because it was required reading for the Specialist Certificate in Chronic Disorganization. I didn’t think ADHD had anything to do with me and I wasn’t all that interested in the topic. What caught my attention was the explanation of the role of the executive functions of the brain in allowing us to manage essential everyday activities.

As the book describes them, executive functions are an aspect of the brain that  help with the following:
1. Organising, prioritising and getting started
2. Focusing, sustaining and shifting attention
3. Regulating alertness, sustaining effort and determining processing speed
4. Managing frustration and modulating emotions
5. Utilising working memory and accessing recall
6. Monitoring and self-regulating action.

As you might suspect from looking down this list, it can be hard to get things done when you have difficulties with this “management system of the mind” as in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Significantly these functions mostly occur automatically, outside of our awareness. This means it can be difficult to know when a problem is occurring, or to take action despite our best intentions. Thomas E Brown makes it very clear that “despite appearances, the core problem in ADHD is not lack of willpower” but a has its source in the chemistry of the brain.

Understanding executive functions is helpful, because we all rely on them every day. Factors such as depression, menopause, ageing, stress and fatigue can also impact on the effective operation of executive functions. When the brain does not have enough stimulation or is overloaded it can be difficult to do things like:

– Feel motivated to start something
– Stop doing things that you are already doing
– Deciding what to do first
– Paying attention to what you are doing
– Resisting distractions
– Keeping your energy up
– Getting out of bed and staying awake and alert
– Keeping track of a lot of things at once
– Coping with frustrations and unexpected challenges
– Being aware of where you are and what you are doing

In practice this might mean you get stuck on deciding which room to organise, or if you have chosen a room, you just can’t seem to get started on doing it. You might start on one project with good intentions, but end up distracted and doing other things that weren’t in your plan. You might want to sort some memorabilia, but the emotions that come up are just too overwhelming. Or the number of projects you want to complete might be far greater than the energy you can muster in your rare spare moments. If this situation goes on for a long time, a backlog of incomplete projects can build up, which can be discouraging. This doesn’t mean you are lazy, unmotivated or not trying hard enough. It may mean that you could use some help in the form of organising strategies or practical assistance.

If you are struggling due to problems with executive functions, chances are you feel like you are working overtime to get the basics done, and extra projects seem like an impossible dream. You may be down on yourself because you aren’t meeting your own goals, or feel judged or misunderstood by others. The reality is, being organised can be a complex business, and its not as simple as just putting your mind to it. Understanding, patience and respect are essential ingredients to improving the situation. Its much easier to come up with useful strategies when self blame and criticism are out of the equation.

Its important to be organised enough to get things done and enjoy your living space in comfort, but at the end of the day, its your happiness thats most important, not how tidy your cupboards are.

The links to the book are affiliate links with Australian online store Booktopia.  A small percentage of the purchase price is paid to Live Light if you buy the book through this link.


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