Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Tackling Big Jobs With a Short Attention Span

An artist in her late 50s is planning to sell her modest three-story house in Minneapolis so she can retire to a small condo near Phoenix. But prepping her place for sale seems like an overwhelming project.

Though tremendously creative, the artist suffers from a problem with "executive function." This means she finds it very difficult to initiate, plan and pursue projects in a methodical, step-by-step manner.

Linda S. Anderson, the owner of organizational firm Getting Clear, doesn't know the artist in this true story. But she's coached many adults who are equally perplexed when facing a major multi-step project.

Poor executive function is an issue for many who've suffered brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. It's also nearly a universal problem among people with attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD).

As an ADD coach, Anderson has worked with a number of adults with impaired executive function who are facing the challenge of planning and executing a home sale. The "to do list" is long for homeowners who want (or need) to sell.

Choosing the right listing agent is just the first step. Sellers must also decide how much to ask for the home and complete the often-demanding process of de-cluttering the place and ensuring it's in good repair. In addition, there's the move itself.

A well-trained organizational coach can help people tackling a big project to create an overall plan and then break the plan into a sequence of small and manageable pieces. But for those who can't afford to hire a professional in the field, Anderson says the right relative can also be very helpful.

"Just pick a family member who won't nag or criticize you. Find a relative who will sit in the seat next to you to help develop your plan. Also, ask them to check in with you periodically to stay on track and adjust your timeline," Anderson says.

Here are a few pointers:

-- Seek out the support you need to move forward.

Elisa Adams, a professional organizer who's worked with many home sellers, says people with ADD should be careful whom they ask for help.

"The last thing you want is someone who is critical or judgmental," says Adams, who's affiliated with the National Association of Professional Organizers (

By visiting this association's website, you can search for organizers in your area who are skilled in assisting clients with executive function issues. Another way to locate a coach is through the online ADD consulting firm of Terry Matlen, a Michigan-based therapist who focuses on female clients (

Other places to search for help? Matlen, the author of "The Queen of Distraction: How Women With ADHD Can Conquer Chaos, Find Focus, and Get More Done," suggests you post an ad to hire someone who is naturally organized. This person could help you both create a game plan and provide hands-on assistance with the process of de-cluttering your property and pre-packing for your move.

-- Capitalize on your strengths.

Anderson has developed several time- and attention-management techniques that often work for people with organizational issues as they face the tasks involved in a lengthy project.

Even after the project is broken down into small pieces, people with impaired executive function must beware of time-consuming digressions, such as phones and email, which should be shut off during projects.

Anderson suggests you take frequent breaks during a laborious task, such as a painting job. To help avoid burnout, use a kitchen timer and give yourself a brief break when it goes off.

"To keep on track, you need to pat yourself on the back every time you make progress toward your goal. Also, give yourself rewards along the way," she says.

-- Find ways to jump-start your work on an "off day."

Despite the best of plans, people with organizational issues sometimes have trouble gaining the momentum to launch into a new task, Anderson says.

If you find yourself in this situation, she recommends you consider starting your day with aerobic exercise -- such as a fast-paced walk through your neighborhood.

"This helps stimulate the brain into action, as does the use of rhythmic music," Anderson says.

If you're working alone and find yourself unable to concentrate, consider asking a friend or neighbor to step in, at least until you can get your work started.

"Many people need to connect and reconnect with other people throughout a big project," Anderson says.

-- Make sure you allow ample time for any multi-step project.

In setting a schedule for the tasks involved in your housing transition, Anderson advises that you set rational, reasonable deadlines and not try to fit too much into any given day.

Besides the customary to-do list, one tool Anderson likes is an accompanying "not to do list." By reducing the expectations you set for yourself, you could also reduce your anxiety level and accomplish more.

Even those who are normally very focused can find a housing transition overwhelming. This is especially so if they've lived in the same home for a long time and are downsizing to a smaller place.

"Don't think you're alone in your struggle to complete a major project like a house sale. Our society is full of compelling distractions and folks are busy. So, remember there are many people with strong executive function skills who still find it challenging to manage a big housing transition," Anderson says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at