top of page

Cleaning With ADHD: 3 Lessons We Learned From the Book How to Keep House While Drowning

Updated: Jan 10

✎ Written by: Denisa Cerna

✓ Fact-checked by: Kaija Sander, Ph.D.


If you have ADHD and struggle with house chores, the first thing you should know is that you are not lazy. Your brain simply works differently.


The reason you may experience difficulty when it comes to cleaning is that ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is linked to executive dysfunction, which includes task initiation, attention, planning, and organization.


So, if you ever lose focus while washing the dishes, switch between too many house chores at once, or find it challenging to start cleaning in the first place, remember that this is a manageable symptom of ADHD, not a character flaw.


As licensed professional therapist and best-selling author of How to Keep House While Drowning, KC Davis, says: “You are not a failure. You just need nonjudgmental and compassionate help.”


Davis’s USA Today bestseller is a short and practical guide that’s packed with helpful tips aimed at not only people with ADHD but also anyone who is struggling with their mental well-being. 


Her approach is quite revolutionary because it offers a unique perspective on cleaning that differs from the cookie-cutter advice we sometimes hear (such as “Clean as you go” or “Declutter everything”).


Here are the 3 major lessons we learned from How to Keep House While Drowning:

Lesson 1: Alter Your Approach to House Chores

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of cleaning itself, one of the most important things Davis stresses in How to Keep House While Drowning is that we’ve got house chores all wrong.

According to Davis, many of us approach cleaning from a place of shame, not self-compassion. For example, we tend to assign cleanliness moral qualities – if you don’t clean, you’re “messy” or “lazy” – but when we recognize that cleaning isn’t a moral obligation, we can view it through the lens of functionality. 

In other words, the purpose of cleaning the house isn’t to feel like a “good person”. It’s to ensure that your home is a functional space that looks after you.

Here’s what you can do to implement these mindset shifts:

  • Think and speak of house chores as care tasks. While chores carry the meaning of obligation, care tasks are all about looking after yourself. For example, you can put up a cleaning schedule with “care tasks” written on top or you can introduce the word to your family and friends so that cleaning gains positive connotations in your inner support circle.

  • Learn more about the link between ADHD and executive dysfunction. Recognizing that you struggle with task initiation, emotional overwhelm, and attention may help you integrate the thought that you are not lazy. What’s more, this shift promotes a positive self-image, reduces shame, and can encourage you to seek effective strategies and support tailored to your needs.

  • When you judge and speak harshly to yourself, remember KC Davis’s words: “You do not exist to serve your space. Your space exists to serve you.” This could remind you of what truly matters – the functionality, rather than morality, of your home (for example, an unmade bed is functional because you can sleep in it, which means that it looks after you even if the duvet isn’t tucked in throughout the day).

Lesson 2: Learn Functionality Basics

You may think that it’s important to care for your home, but Davis disagrees. She explains:

“Your home is an inanimate object—it’s building materials and paint. It might need maintenance, but it doesn’t deserve to be cared for. You are a person. You deserve to be cared for.”

In order to ensure that your home cares for you, not the other way around, we want to focus on function:

  • Think of the state of your household in cycles. This is crucial because cleaning in and of itself is an endless task. There is always more to do, and the lack of a sense of finality can feel incredibly overwhelming. When you view care tasks as part of a functional cycle, though, you’re better able to create a routine and get your cleaning done. What’s more, a functional cycle has a clear goal – to reset your space and to look after you and your family. 

Davis, for instance, has a list of care tasks she calls her “closing duties” (it reminds her of late-night bartenders setting up a clean space for the morning shift) that are done at the end of the day’s 24-hour functional cycle. You can create your own list that contains care tasks ranging from the most important ones (putting the trash in the bin and the dishes in the sink) to the ones that aren’t as crucial (organizing the pillows on the sofa).

That way, you can clean based on how much energy or emotional capacity you have left. However, keep in mind that you don’t need to clean all rooms every single day. As Davis says, “Not everything has to be clean at the same time.”


  • Break down the function of your home into three layers. You can do so by picturing a cupcake:


The bottom layer: Keeping your body and space safe and healthy (universal)

Example: Changing your sheets is hygienic because it gets rid of sweat, dust, and dead skin cells, which keeps you safe and healthy.


The icing: Increasing your comfort (individual)

Example: Changing your sheets increases comfort because it allows you to remove crumbs, fluff, or anything else that may get in the way of a good night’s sleep. However, it’s up to each person to decide what’s comfortable for them and what isn’t.


The cherry on top: Increasing your happiness (individual)

Example: Changing your sheets might bring you joy if you love the feeling of sleeping under fresh linen. Similarly, making your bed every morning could improve your mood and help you get into a productive mindset. If you don’t feel that making your bed each day increases your happiness, however, you are not obligated to do it. Unlike changing the sheets, making the bed is purely about individual happiness.

  • Recognize the difference between an aesthetically pleasing space and a functional space. A cluttered countertop where everything has its place and is being used, is organized because it is functional. A countertop that is cluttered to the point of making your life difficult is a different story (but remember that even if you do have a non-functional countertop right now, it doesn’t make you lazy or messy). An aesthetically pleasing space is a cherry on top of our imaginary cupcake. It has little to do with safety, health, or comfort. As long as your house looks after you, it doesn’t need to look polished and perfect.

Lesson 3: ADHD Cleaning Hacks

It’s time to get our hands dirty. Let’s have a look at some of Davis’s tips when it comes to cleaning with ADHD and getting care tasks done:

ADHD Cleaning Hack #1: The Five Things Tidying Method

Mess is overwhelming because it comprises many different things with various characteristics, which makes it difficult to figure out where to start. 

Davis’s Five Things Tidying Method breaks every mess down into 5 categories:

  1. Trash

  2. Dishes

  3. Laundry

  4. Things that have a place and are not in their place

  5. Things that don’t have a place

You do not need to clean everything in one go. If you’re struggling, try to focus on health and safety first and foremost (trash and dishes). If you make it past this point, create piles in every room that separate your things into the three remaining categories. Then get through them at your own pace.

ADHD Cleaning Hack #2: The Task Initiation Hack

Task initiation – struggling to get started on a new task – can be difficult for many people with ADHD. No matter how long you stare at the dishes in the sink, you might still struggle to get up and actually do them. This is why Davis recommends that we create momentum to carry us through the transition between tasks. 

You can do so by putting on an upbeat song you really like. Start wiggling your toes, then move your legs and arms until you feel ready to stand up and move your whole body. As you’re beginning to dance, get closer to the sink. Now you’re already standing at the sink, so you might just as well do the dishes.

ADHD Cleaning Hack #3: The 5% Rule

Once you’re at the sink, there’s no guarantee you’ll wash all the dishes in one go. And that’s completely okay. Task initiation is often difficult because the amount of work awaiting us feels so overwhelming that we freeze up. 

In order to get the task started, try to lower your expectations. 5% is better than 0%. 

What if you wash just one or two dishes? That doesn’t seem so bad, right? Once your hands are in the water, there’s a high chance you’ll actually keep going and will get a lot more done than expected. If you don’t, that’s also great because you’ve managed 5% rather than 0%, which counts as a step forward.

ADHD Cleaning Hack #4: Built-In Wait Times

Another helpful way to combat task initiation struggles is to establish a finish line. If you know that you’re only going to be sweeping the floor for two minutes rather than half an hour, you’re more likely to pick up the broom. 

Turning care tasks into a game also helps. When you’re waiting for your kettle to boil, why don’t you try and see how many dishes you can get done? What about when you order takeout? Can you freshen up the bathroom before the driver gets here? 

The time limit makes it easier to view care tasks as manageable.

Conclusion

If there’s one thing we ought to take away from How to Keep House While Drowning, it’s the importance of self-compassion and functionality.

Not everyone is an expert at tidying. Not everyone strives to have an aesthetically pleasing space. We all excel and struggle in varying areas of life, and cleaning is no different. If you do find that your ADHD gets in the way of keeping a house, know that this doesn’t make you any less worthy of kindness and compassion.

While the cleaning hacks above can help you create more functionality within your home, the key mindset shifts serve to reconfigure your approach to cleaning so that your motivation comes from a place of kindness to yourself.

And if you ever feel ashamed, overwhelmed, or angry at yourself, remember – the dust on your windowsill doesn’t judge you. It just….is.

Your space serves you, not the other way around.

Myndlift provides a personalized expert-guided brain training program that can help you elevate your wellbeing by improving your sleep quality, focus, calm, and self-control over mood. Take this 10-second quiz to check if you’re eligible to kick-start your journey for better brain health.



 

About the author:

Denisa Cerna is a non-fiction and fiction writer who's passionate about psychology, mental health, and personal development. She's always on a quest to develop a better insight into the workings of the human mind, be it via reading psychology books or combing through research papers.


About the reviewer:

Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.


 

References:


Davis, KC. How to Keep a House While Drowning. S &S/Simon Element. 2022.


Martínez, L., Prada, E., Satler, C., Tavares, M. C., & Tomaz, C. (2016). Executive Dysfunctions: The Role in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity and Post-traumatic Stress Neuropsychiatric Disorders. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 206398.

Comments


The latest brain health news and tips, delivered to your inbox.

bottom of page