Hacking Your Executive Function: Organizing Physical Spaces

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The past couple of posts have focused on organizing and planning for projects, tasks, and thoughts. That’s an important place to start when you want to get your executive functioning under control, but one area that I see frustrates people over and over is physical spaces: how do I keep my stuff organized and clean? How do I manage my household? What can I do to make this easier for myself?

Once again this is an area where different people have different preferences and needs, so focus on finding something that feels comfortable and useful to you rather than making yourself fit into a system that doesn’t come naturally. It might seem odd as a place to look for executive functioning hacks, but I’ve found that Pinterest, mom blogs, and other “household” hack websites are actually incredibly useful in finding suggestions. Even if you don’t use exactly the method that they do, it’s good for inspiration.

There are however a few general suggestions that will apply to everyone. The first is to simplify as much as possible. I know that some autistics tend towards “have nothing that I do not need” and some autistics tend towards “I am a magpie give me every shiny thing”, however thinking carefully about what you’re actually going to use or care about in the long term is useful for everyone. Why? The less stuff you have the less stuff you need to organize. It’s harder to lose two shirts than it is to lose your favorite shirt in a pile of 30.

There are tons of different ways to approach downsizing. You can Konmari it, you can get rid of everything you haven’t used in the last year, you can work on one room at a time. But no matter what works for you, be honest with yourself about what will improve your life if you keep it and what will improve your life if you don’t. This is a big step that takes a lot of executive function, and you don’t have to do it all at once. I try to reserve some time at least once a year to go through my clothes and clean out things that don’t fit or have holes or that I don’t wear. At a different time in the year I might go through my books and decide to get rid of some. You can break this down (using the skills we’ve already learned) into smaller projects that happen completely independently of each other.

Once you’ve cut down the sheer amount of stuff you need to organize there are some principles you can use to organize in a useful and easy to understand way. My biggest rule is that all of my things should have a place where they are supposed to be. They don’t always end up in that place, but at least I know where they should go. This also means that when I DO need to clean or organize I don’t have to use a lot of brain power to figure out how I want to put things away, I already know.

Some subelements of this: it can be incredibly helpful to purchase a lot of bins/bags/baskets or other containers so that you can put things AWAY. This also helps you to put similar things together. I have a bin that is all of my journaling supplies. I have another that is all of our extra technology. It’s much easier to stick things into a closet or on a shelf when they’re inside a box, plus it’s easier to find things later. It can also be great to add a label so that you know what’s inside.

I personally prefer to have all of my clutter hidden. I don’t want to see all my shit. So I put them in opaque boxes or put my boxes away in a closet. If you find that more confusing and prefer to see what you have, clear bins can be a lifesaver. That way you know exactly what’s in there, but it’s still contained and organized.

One thing that I want to call out specifically: have a space for things that need to be done. Most often for me this is mail, but it’s also where I keep all of my tax stuff until it’s ready to be done, or my paychecks when they need to be cashed, or other generic “to do” things. I like this to be somewhere visible, and somewhere that it’s going to be annoying and in my way until I complete the task (I put them on my desk. On top of the keyboard. Like an irritating cat). DO NOT let these things sit in an untended corner of your kitchen counter or they will be unearthed in three years when the bills are past due.

If you’re not sure how to put things away, here are some options to consider: peg boards can be a great way to organize oddly shaped and otherwise bulky objects. They’re especially good for craft spaces or garages. Also consider places that you aren’t using: headboards and footboards can have shelving, which is really useful. Corners are a great place to add a tailored shelving unit. I’m a big fan of chests or tables that open and have space inside so that you can hide shit away.

You may also want to use some of your objects as decor. Maybe you get a nice jewelry organizer that hangs on the wall so that your jewelry becomes artwork. If you’ve got a lot of hats you can display those. Especially if you prefer to be able to see your possessions, think about ways that you can have them out without just throwing them in a pile on a shelf or on the floor.

Finally, I would suggest using your physical space to include visual reminders as you need them. If you need to see your week written out, there are great white boards you can buy that go on the fridge. I like to have a corkboard so I can add relevant and important things to it and see them easily. If you require additional support with something like remembering what order to do your morning routine, you can post a picture schedule on the inside of a cupboard or next to your mirror.

Of course in addition to all these general suggestions there are tons of hacks for making organization easier: you can roll your t-shirts or socks instead of folding them. You can add racks into cupboards or under sinks to get additional space. If you have a hard time putting together outfits you can organize your clothes by color to make it easy to grab complementary or matching clothes. There’s tons of ideas out there, and that’s where I suggest checking out Pinterest or similar websites. Good luck my friends!

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