The Challenges of Cleaning Out Books With ADHD
I’m in the midst of that once-in-a-decade task: paring down my collection of books to be more in line with the amount of shelf space I actually have available.
Generally, I’m a believer that minimalism can help with ADHD-related organizational problems. The less stuff you have to organize, the less it matters if you’re good at organizing stuff!
But with books it’s a different story.
Getting rid of a sweater I don’t wear anymore? No problem. Someone else probably has more use for it than I do.
Getting rid of a book I haven’t read lately, though? A book contains so much more than a sweater – ideas, knowledge, a whole separate world.
Having as few books as possible has never seemed like a worthwhile goal to me. Isn’t that just restricting the number of ideas you have at your fingertips, and therefore your worldview? So when it comes to books, I’m a hard no on Marie Kondo’s infamous decluttering method.
Still, when books start to spill onto surfaces where they’re not wanted, you do have to confront the limitations of physical space. That’s where I am right now, trying to make my small library a little more lean and mean.
Overall, the books I’m going through fall into two main categories: books I have read and books I haven’t.
It’s the books I haven’t read where ADHD really starts to shine.
For me, one way the ADHD tendency of starting but never finishing projects expresses itself is by buying books and never reading them – or buying books and reading only the first chapter or so.
I’ve made progress on this habit in recent years by strictly limiting myself to only reading one book at a time, but the number of books I’ve been uncovering with bookmarks tucked 20 or 30 pages in is much higher than I’d like.
The thing about books I haven’t yet read is that when it comes to decluttering, they’re hard to get rid of. Why admit that I’m probably never going to read that book I bought five years ago when I could hang onto the feeling that one day I’ll get around to it…
What makes this even more complicated is that the belief these unread books will one day be read isn’t purely a rationalization covering for my ADHD-related procrastination – although that’s a big part of it. In fact, I have on occasion had books that sat unread for years that I was finally inspired to pick up one day, much to my benefit.
For that matter, the same can be said of books I did read, then left sitting for years, then came back to again. An interesting property of books is that as you grow, they can become irrelevant to your life, then become relevant again.
I’m back to talking about reasons for not decluttering books again. Still, decluttering books is what I’m doing, or trying to do. And despite appearances so far, I have made some progress in finding a method for doing it.
I’ve found that if I take the time to read a few random excerpts from a book, I can often get a pretty good sense of whether having that book is likely to add something to my life in the future. If I’m surprised to find myself getting hooked in by a long-untouched book taken off my shelf, that book might be a keeper.
Taking the time to make a deliberate assessment of what each book has to offer helps with truly winnowing down to a selection that is meaningful. It also helps avoid the maximalist extreme of clinging to all books and the minimalist extreme of a mass literary cull.
Of course, the drawback to this approach is that it takes time. And, especially when you have ADHD, it has high potential for distraction from the task at hand. It can easily devolve into reading random books from your shelf without making any progress on actually cleaning out.
When you have ADHD and its associated organizational challenges, you have to come up with a deliberate philosophy for how to handle the accumulation of books and other household stuff – a strategy that fits with your life and your symptoms.
For some, maybe that’s going all-in on minimalism. For others, it could be simply buying an additional bookshelf and letting a library bloom. For me, it’s somewhere in between. What’s key is to be intentional in how you select which possessions to keep, and to realize that your ideal ratio of how much you keep to how much to let go might not be the same as someone else’s.