Minimalism and ADHD

I was born with ADHD, and like anyone diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder, I ignored it and tried to pretend like I was just like everybody else throughout my childhood and young adulthood. For those who are curious, ignoring it doesn’t work. Putting your self-esteem and success on the backburner to pretend to feel like everyone else just slows you down. It wasn’t until I started college that I started seriously considering how ADHD affected my life, and it wasn’t until the last three years of college that I started focusing on ways to make my life with ADHD easier.

One of the most life-changing things that helped me was watching Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things.

What is minimalism?

Photo credit: Joshua Fields Millburn

Most people know minimalism is about removing clutter from your life and stopping compulsory consumption – but that’s just its hook. Minimalism is really about being intentional with everything and everyone that comes into your life. ADHD Boss wrote about minimalism and killing mental clutter. They were torn on minimalism because they owned nice clothes, electronics, shoes, hardcover books, and kitchen appliances that added real value to their life, and they thought that minimalism meant giving these things away. Minimalism does not mean getting rid of everything you own. It does not mean living in frugality or living like a monk.

Minimalism is about keeping what’s important to you and removing what’s extraneous.

There is no formula for minimalism carved in stone somewhere and it is ultimately up to the individual to define what’s right for them. There are many different facets of minimalism such as digital minimalism, relationship minimalism, and health & diet minimalism. Each involves intentionality toward all aspects of life. Minimalism can apply to life through self-development, personal finance, time management, goal-setting, and almost anything you can think of.

What is ADHD?

Photo credit: TEDxBratislava

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Jessica McCabe says in her TED Talk and on her YouTube channel, is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. She makes the important remark that the word “deficit” is the unfortunate misnomer. We don’t have a deficit of attention – people with ADHD can still pay attention. We just have difficulty regulating our attention.

If you talk to me you’ll notice that I look you directly in the eye. The difference between me and someone with a neurotypical brain is that I’m actively making myself look you in the eye. For neurotypical brains, maintaining that attention is much easier and energy efficient. People with ADHD brains require a lot of stimulation in order to have sustained, meaningful focus. We also struggle with short-term memory and maintaining effort toward long-term goals.

Minimalism helps me manage ADHD every day.

How does minimalism help with ADHD?

Photo credit: Matt D’Avella

Minimalism Frees Up Time

At first, minimalism might seem like it removes needed stimulation to achieve focus for ADHD brains. For me, it has eliminated distractions so that I can give more of my attention to the things that matter.

The Minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus say,

“When you say ‘No’ to something, you’re saying ‘Yes’ to something else.”

We make these kinds of decisions hundreds of times a day, every single day. Throughout life, we can unknowingly bargain away our time. Losing track of time and overcommitting to unessential projects happens tenfold for people with ADHD as we can lose hours of our day focusing on random things. All of us choose, constantly and simultaneously, to spend our time on things that are good for us and on things that are not so good for us. For people with ADHD, it’s more like our brain chooses for us.

For 24 years, video games were a huge part of my life.  Growing up, I used video games as a form of escapism. Sitting down at the computer or PS4 offers hours of stimulation and can absorb an “ADHDer”, as McCabe calls us. Throughout high school and early years of college, I didn’t have to engage with my boring homework or my low self esteem because I could dive into a video game and live vicariously as a successful super hero.

As I got more serious about my studies and started thinking more about what I was going to do with my life, I sold all of my video games and my consoles to my friends. By removing video games from my life, I opened that time up for reading and writing. Giving up video games naturally contributed to the habit of studying and preparing for exams.

It’s important that you replace what you remove from your life with something that gives you at least as much joy. I graduated college with the best grades I’ve ever had while still making the inevitable blunders that come with having an ADHD brain, and I started enjoying reading more. I don’t think it would have been possible to achieve the grades I did had I continued playing games.

With less stuff, you have less things to take care of and you can focus your time and energy on what matters.

Minimalism Organizes Our Environments


Catherine Elizabeth Gordon writes in her article “How Minimalist Environments Can Help People With ADHD”, “[Children and adults with ADHD] may […] have more trouble doing ‘boring’ tasks such as tidying up, which is why it is important that the areas they live in are well organized.”

Minimalism declutters our environments and keeps things tidy and organized so that we can find the things we need to use and the information we need to remember. Losing things can be a common occurrence for people with ADHD. Having less stuff to take care of makes keeping track of your things easier.

Decluttering is a great way to reduce distractions in an environment and takes away the stress of having to manage things that aren’t essential to our daily life. There are countless articles on how to declutter like Joshua Becker’s 10 Creative Decluttering Tips.

Minimalism Counters “Decision Fatigue”


Decision fatigue, according to John Tierney’s article in The New York Times Magazine, offers an explanation for why we snap at our loved ones, eat food that’s bad for us on a whim, and why we give up and let the bro at Men’s Warehouse upsell us on ties. No matter how level-headed we are, we can’t make decisions one right after another without paying some kind of price on our mental health for them. It costs willpower (of which we have a limited supply) to measure decisions and to try and make the right one over and over.

Eventually, our willpower runs low and we need to recharge. Someone with ADHD can become exhausted by the options that their brain gives them, and so willpower and energy that could go toward good decisions and goals starts out low. After reducing clutter with minimalism, daily life is systematized and streamlined so that the bulk of decisions made are automatic. Instead of exhausting us, our choices can be used to build positive momentum throughout the day. The less time you spend on things that unnecessarily demand your attention, the more time you will have to think about important decisions.

For example, you can cut down on the number of decisions you have to make in a day by making a wardrobe change. Project 333 is an internet challenge where people wear 33 items for 3 months. The secret to this is that no one really notices that you’re wearing some of the same things.

As an extreme example, I wanted to travel light to France. I sold and donated most of my clothes. I now own two pairs of pants, 8 t-shirts, and one button-down shirt when I’m feeling fancy. Now I don’t have to make the stressful choice of what outfit to wear everyday. I look the same every single day and I love it. Wearing the same thing reduced the stress of having to choose between different options. I save time and energy from deciding how I should look when no one cares what I look like anyway. All that really matters is that I enjoy the way I look.

Minimalism Reduces Time Spent On-Screen


How much of our lives will be spent looking at screens? It can sometimes feel impossible to live life without looking at a screen. How will we know where to go? How will we plan our schedule? How can we wake ourselves up at the right time?

Electronics are powerful tools that make access to information convenient, but the onslaught of promotional emails and notifications and likes and messages eats up little pieces of time and can make our lives stressful and our time wasted.

To remedy this, I experiment with making challenging but fun rules for myself.

Here are a few things I do. I only recommend trying one or two of these for at least a week. You can do anything for a week.

  1. Delete facebook. I occasionally still use this through the browser. I usually don’t have a predetermined reason for logging on to facebook. I generally have a knee-jerk and go for the dopamine hit. By deleting facebook I added a little barrier of having to type in the URL instead of a screen tap. This may not seem like much but it works more often than when I’m relying on only my will to not tap the button.
  2. Delete Snapchat. After donating my video games, Snapchat became a kind of  addicting video game. I liked to spam funny videos on my story. I decided it wasn’t  a great use of time. (But more importantly I could do the same thing on Instagram.)
  3. “Minimalize” the phone completely. I’ve removed apps from my phone that do not contribute to work, travel, communication, organization, or health in some way. I’ve also thrown all my apps into a single folder and moved the folder off the home screen so there’s an added barrier of a swipe and a tap to get to my apps. Now when I unlock my phone the home screen is clean and empty instead of all of those tempting icons and notification flags. I keep three apps on my dock: the blog, email, and Spotify.
  4. Turn off notifications for everything except email and messages. This was a no-brainer because there are tons of apps that have notifications that just aren’t important and can be really distracting, especially for someone with ADHD. Reminders, calendar events, and facebook events should still pop up if they’re important.
  5. Unsubscribe to all promotional emails immediately as they appear. If I like a product or service, I will sing its praises and advertise for it my damn self. I will not be advertised to. I understand this could be more difficult for people with ADHD who also love shopping, so you can just unsubscribe from the products that you know you’re not going to buy again.
  6. Use WasteNoTime, a browser extension that prevents you from logging on to distracting websites. Sometimes I’ll catch myself logging on to YouTube to watch addicting self-development videos during work hours. WasteNoTime has an extreme “nuclear” option. Once you click the button, you have to wait until the work period is over to log on to fun sites and you can’t change the settings.
  7. Don’t look at your phone for anything except the timer until lunch. The timer is used to work for 20 minute stints with 5 minute breaks in between. Do this four times, then take a 30 minute break. (This is known as the Pomodoro Technique). Before you let in the world of emails and messages and beeps and dings, you can get some work done using this trick.

What tricks help you stay on task?

One thought on “Minimalism and ADHD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s