Hacking Your Executive Function Masterpost

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Now that I’ve finished all of the content for my Hacking Your Executive Function series, I want to make sure that there’s a relatively easy way to find everything, since scrolling back through 50 odd posts doesn’t sound super fun. To help you all with that, I’m going to link every post organized by topic here. Hope you enjoy!

Emotion Regulation

  1. Emotion Regulation Definitions and Basics
  2. Emotion Regulation Skills From DBT
  3. The Logic of Emotion Regulation
  4. Emotion Regulation and Self-Care
  5. Emotion Regulation From the Outside

Inhibition

  1. What the Heck is Inhibition
  2. Ignoring Distractions and Controlling Attention
  3. Resisting Temptations
  4. Using Mindfulness to Increase Inhibition
  5. Using Momentum to Manage Inhibition

Transitions

  1. Transitions
  2. Ending a Task
  3. Starting a Fresh Task During Transition
  4. Transitions That Aren’t Tasks
  5. Unexpected Transitions

Working Memory

  1. Working Memory
  2. External Reminders
  3. Ritual, Repetition, and Routine for Working Memory
  4. Sensory Memory
  5. Memory Tricks

Initiation

  1. Initiate Initiation Sequence
  2. Breaking Down Large Tasks
  3. Use These Weird Initiation Tricks: Doctors Hate Them!
  4. Don’t Let Anxiety Get in the Way
  5. Use Behaviorism

Organization and Planning

  1. Let’s Talk About Planners
    2. It’s Tech Time
    3. Organizing Physical Spaces
    4. Time Management
    5. Rewards and Reinforcements

Self-Monitoring

  1. Practice Your Self Monitoring
    2. Using Goals to Monitor Your Progress
    3. Identifying Your Strengths and Weaknesses
    4. Noticing Your Own Emotions
    5. Supported Self-Monitoring

Hacking Your Executive Function: Supported Self-Monitoring

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Welcome to the end my friends. I’ve been so happy to work through all the skills that I know in executive functioning (and a few I’ve grabbed from other folks) with you all. I hope you found the series as helpful and interesting as I did, because writing it gave me quite a few ideas. But here we are at The Final Post of Hacking Your Executive Function. To finish up we’re going to end on an area that always makes me happy: letting other people support you. In this case we’re going to talk about marrying self-monitoring with a support system that can help you be self-aware.

It might seem a bit counterintuitive that other people can help you be self-aware, since it’s a skill that’s self-initiated and self-directed, but I like to use other people to help me tune my perceptions to reality, as well as to help me practice. I also know that sometimes I don’t have the ability to be as self-aware as I would like, and in those cases I think it’s a-ok to ask someone else to step up and be aware for you.

Let’s break down those functions.

The first way that I like to get support in my self-monitoring is by comparing my own perceptions to other people’s perceptions. I find that it’s not uncommon that I think I’m coming across one way, but other people are perceiving me a different way. It’s important to me to know that. There are a few people that I trust deeply (my husband, a few friends who understand being on the spectrum, etc.) who I check in with when I’m uncertain about something. I might say “Hey, I thought I was being friendly but people didn’t react to me like that. Any ideas what’s up with that?”

I also will sometimes use explicit verbal communication when I’m having difficulty with my self-monitoring. So sometimes at work or with a friend I might say “Hey I think I came across as irritated or sarcastic, but I want you to know that I’m being completely sincere, I’m just anxious about x unrelated thing. Are we on the same page?”

I can also use other people’s perceptions to help me check reality. I might think that I’m being really quiet, but it turns out I’m using a loud voice. I can ask a trusted friend to let me know if I’m getting super loud. In a completely different direction, my anxiety often means that I have really bad self-perception. I think I’m awful at literally everything. This is in some ways a failure of executive function (I literally cannot tell if I’m being accurate in my perception of how I look or if I’m talented). So I check in with my friends. I ask them to remind me on the regs that I’m awesome. I ask them to point out specific things they think I’m good at. It helps me recalibrate.

On the other hand, there are some areas where my self-monitoring isn’t very good right now but I think I could improve it in the future. In those cases I’d rather try and ask someone to help me practice. Perhaps I’ll work on a project and then show it to a friend and ask for feedback (e.g. I think this paper is a little unfocused but that the thesis is very strong. What do you think? How could I make it better?).

For something less concrete I may just ask someone to check in with me regularly while I’m working on a skill. For example, I have a hard time realizing when I’m talking about things that are too personal or embarrassing involving my husband. He pointed it out to me, and I tried to be more aware of it, but it wasn’t sticking very well. Not super consciously, I started debriefing with him after we were out together to check in about what fit within his comfort level and what didn’t so that I could understand what I was doing. If I told a story involving him, I’d ask later if it was ok. Over time, it became second nature not to violate his boundaries without thinking.

Finally, there are some circumstances where I might just ask someone else to be my self-monitoring for me. This is something that I’ll use in particular circumstances where I don’t have the spoons myself, or where a situation is particularly challenging. For example, if I’m going somewhere in which the social expectations are particularly challenging or specific, I would ask the person I was attending with to give me a nudge or a signal if I do something outside of the social norm. Typically I don’t care, but at an important place (let’s say a relative’s wedding) I might want to behave more neurotypically for the sake of ease and politeness. Having another set of eyes on you to let you know if you’re using the wrong dang fork or breaking some other silly expectation can be really helpful.

As always, that’s a tool to use as you see fit! If anyone else says that they want to fix a behavior for you or tell you when you’re behaving a way they don’t like, screw them. You get to choose if you want to be flappy or make eye contact or script or whatever.

And that’s all from me. Thanks for coming on this weird journey with me folks!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Noticing Your Own Emotions

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At the end of the last post, I dipped gently into the waters of emotional self-monitoring and regulation, which we’ve talked about in depth during the emotion regulation section, but which we’re going to talk about here in regards to “behaviors” and self-awareness. I’m going to spend a full post on this because for us neurodivergent folk, acting in ways that don’t make sense to neurotypicals can cause serious issues, if not put us in danger. Being self-aware of how your emotions are affecting your behavior and how to get what you need in a neurotypical society is a pretty important coping strategy in my experience.

In addition, I also find that it becomes much easier to engage overall emotion regulation tactics if you’re aware of your own behavior and emotions, and in turn that helps you become aware of the progress you’re making on tasks or productivity. It’s all linked.

So what am I talking about when I mention the self-awareness of behaviors and emotions?

Some people would see emotions and behaviors as very separate forms of awareness, but they seem quite linked to me. Let’s start with behavior and then talk about how it relates to emotions. Because people with executive dysfunction or neurodivergence tend to have unmet needs (thanks living in a world that’s not built for us), we are more likely to do things to get our needs met. We might fidget or stim. We might meltdown. We might yell or become aggressive. In my personal experience, these actions tend to be less conscious than some other behaviors. I’m not always aware that I’m stimming, it just happens, as opposed to something like cooking where I have to decide to do it and consciously follow the steps.

Every person has some behaviors that they do unconsciously or semi-consciously. Where it becomes a problem is when those behaviors a. hurt you or someone else or b. get in the way of you accessing spaces and getting your needs met or c. are illegal. I will also include a qualified “it’s socially inappropriate” because that really depends on the level of social appropriateness. Flapping or not making eye contact? That really isn’t a problem. Sticking your hand down your pants in public? Yeah, probably a problem. Screaming in church or laughing a funeral? Definitely up for some debate.

Executive functioning comes into play in that it helps us be aware of what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and how others are responding to it. The reason that emotions are important here is because behaviors don’t happen for no reason. We need to be aware of the motivations and needs that underly each behavior before we can really intentionally decide when and how we choose certain behaviors.

That was a lot of preamble. What can you actually do to become more self-aware of what your body is doing and improve your self-monitoring?

Unsurprisingly, I’m going to recommend making a schedule for yourself, because if a task isn’t regularly integrated into my life I immediately forget about it. Basically, I try to schedule in time during which I explicitly pay attention to what I’m doing and how I’m feeling. Those can be break times so that you can reset or it might just be an alarm that goes off while you’re at work so that you pause for 30 seconds and take stock.

That kind of noticing is the beginning of mindfulness. As I’ve mentioned before, mindfulness is just being aware of what’s happening right now and staying present in the moment. It’s the opposite of imagining the future or replaying the past. The more aware you are of the now, the easier it will be to notice what you’re doing and how to respond.

When I schedule in breaks I like to use a mindfulness practice to check in with myself. I might try progressive muscle relaxation or a five senses activity. If you specifically want to check in on a particular behavior or emotion, you might jot down a couple of questions to ask yourself each time you have these short breaks. Let’s use me for an example! This is a technique that I really should be using because I want to stop picking at my fingers as much. It’s a fairly stimmy behavior, but it hurts and I do it to the extent that my fingers bleed so I’d prefer to stop. If I set three alarms throughout the day to check in and see if I am picking at my fingers or have been picking at my fingers, I’m likely to stop doing it so unconsciously.

The second element of these mindfulness breaks is to note your emotions. I know that I finger pick more when I’m anxious, however if I wasn’t sure what emotions were connected with the behavior I would have a harder time knowing why I do it. Once I understand why I have an easier time of replacing it with something that works for me (I try to use fidgets instead of my fingers) or to use my emotion regulation skills before I hit the level of anxiety that leads to finger picking.

Regularly checking in on emotions also helps to increase your emotional awareness overall so that you can deal with emotions before they become a problem. Your emotions can also help let you know when a need isn’t getting met so you can decide what you want to do to meet it before your body starts meeting it without your consent. That might be too abstract. Let’s say you are someone who has meltdowns. The really big, unpleasant, awful ones.

You practice noticing your emotions for a few weeks and you start to get better at it. One day you start to notice that your anxiety and fear are going up over the course of the day. You notice that people are placing a lot of social demands on you and you need a break. You also notice that you’re starting to feel incredibly sensitive to sounds and that it’s making you angry. The awareness of what you’re feeling and why give you the opportunity to decide how to manage it. Maybe you find a way to be alone in a quiet space for half an hour. Maybe you get some deep pressure because that calms you. The idea is that you get to decide how to respond to keep yourself safe and continue your life uninterrupted.

This kind of awareness can also help with some of the more on the fence situations. Let’s say you are at a somber or quiet event (like a funeral) and you know that when you’re uncomfortable you tend to laugh. Knowing that will allow you to pay attention to how uncomfortable you’re growing at this particular event. Now is there anything inherently wrong with laughing because of discomfort? No. Is it possible that it would feel really disrespectful to some of the other people there? Yeah. Do you want to stop yourself from laughing at a funeral? Maybe. But knowing that it’s your tendency allows you to make the choice.

You can use many of the skills we talked about in emotion regulation to identify emotions and decide how to respond to them, but it’s important to note that being aware of your behavior and emotions (as well as the link between them) is an additional skill you can practice. Good luck friends!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Identifying Your Strengths and Weaknesses

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One of the elements of self-monitoring that I find challenging is determining what skills you can bring to the table, and how to apply them to the task at hand vs. what elements will be particularly challenging and how you can get support. I like to think of this as a two parter: one is determining the parts of the task that seem like they will be challenging and which will be easy. The other is reflecting on yourself and figuring out what you can do well vs. not so well.

Let’s start with assessing tasks. You may need to rely on someone else to begin with if you really struggle to know what you can and can’t do. If you’re looking at a project or task and aren’t sure about it, you can pull in a trusted friend and ask them whether they think it will be difficult or not. Offer your own reasons you think it might be hard or easy and ask them for feedback. Work together to develop a strategy that addresses the difficult element (this math problem will be challenging because it has many steps. We can work on that by clearly writing out each step and checking our work for each before we move on to the next). Afterwards you can reflect together on whether your predictions were right.

That might seem kiddish, but I do find it helpful to talk through things instead of getting stuck inside my own head. If you don’t like working with another person you can follow those steps on your own. If you’re struggling with the first step, you can think of tasks that are similar to the one you’re doing and whether those were hard or difficult. I do this a lot with my aerial practice. When I watch a new skill being demonstrated I try to connect it to something I already know. If it’s made up of pieces that I can already do, then I know I’ll be able to do the new thing. If it includes an element that I know I struggle with, I know I’ll have to focus specifically on that area.

It’s easy to use these types of exercises to focus on what will be hard or what you’re worried about. I want to encourage you to remember that part of assessing your own skills is knowing what you can do well. You’ll also want to try to identify the elements of a task that you know how to do. Have you done it before? Were you successful? Have you completed something similar? What skills did you use?

Sure, we can learn from failure, but we can also learn from success. It teaches us what works. It teaches us what we’re capable of. It can also help you to understand how to approach a task. Let’s say in the past you had written academic reports. Now in adulthood you’re being asked to write a short description of a project you’re working on. They may not be exactly the same, but you’ll understand that you start with brainstorming, then you create an outline, then you draft the story. I always try to start a project by comparing it to something I’ve done successfully in the past, then drawing out the elements I understand so that I can approach something new with skills that are comfortable and familiar.

In addition to paying attention to the task itself you also want to notice what you bring to the table for any given problem. I find it pretty challenging to know what I’m actually good at (thanks depression for lying and saying it’s nothing), so I often ask others to reflect back to me what they see me doing well, and I try to carefully note when I see myself do something successfully. I might literally take notes on it, like a self-review. For me personally, I’ll note that I’m good at writing, I’m good at organizing, I’m good at completing tasks quickly, but I’m not great at details and I’m pretty bad at reviewing my own work. Other people think they’re great at everything and might need reminders of the places they struggle.

You can put your own strengths and weaknesses together with what will be challenging or easy about the task and notice the places that you might need some help. I also think that it’s important to recognize that accurately assessing your own strengths and weaknesses as well as the challenges of a particular task doesn’t just apply to things like work or school.

It’s really common for providers or caregivers to talk about self-monitoring in regards to “socially inappropriate” behavior. So a provider might say that a person with low self-monitoring just doesn’t notice when they’re doing something inappropriate, and that’s why we need to increase their self-monitoring abilities (so that they stop stimming or start making eye contact or whatever).

I’m not super into that. I think a lot of the behaviors that providers want to extinguish are a-ok. However, I do think that it can be helpful to be self-aware because there are circumstances in which you might want to choose not to do them or choose to do them less (I change my behavior pretty drastically during a job interview for example).

Strengths and weaknesses or goal-setting aren’t really frameworks that make sense for things like stimming. Instead, I prefer to think of them in terms of needs. Many, many people have a hard time identifying what they need in a given moment, and for those of us whose needs are out of the ordinary, it can be even more challenging. In addition to noting strengths and weaknesses, I try to take time to be aware of my body and what it’s communicating to me (I’ve mentioned mindfulness in other areas of this series, but you may prefer something else), as well as noting basic needs like sleep, hunger, or social comfort.

If you can identify the need that a particular behavior is satisfying, then you can make decisions about how you would like to satisfy that need, whether it’s bringing a very small fidget to a job interview so that you can stim quietly under the table, or being loud and proud about your hand-flapping in public. This can also be helpful for dealing with behaviors like self-injury.

You can also use the strengths/weaknesses lens to think about how you want to approach “socially inappropriate” behaviors. For example, I know that I’m pretty great at sitting still and focusing, but I am balls at small talk. I also know that it takes a lot less out of me to sit quietly in the corner than it does to try to be polite and friendly. So when I need to mask or when I want to be unobtrusive, I use my quiet, camouflaging skills rather than trying to interact with other people. Masking is a personal choice, but if you decide you’d like to do it, there are easier and harder ways to do it. Pick the ones that work for you.

I always prefer to use as many strengths as possible and circumvent my weaknesses. Instead of trying to force myself to do something I struggle with, why not find an alternative way that uses my skills? The more you pay attention to what you’re good at, the more you’ll find your own methods of success that actually work for you.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Using Goals to Monitor Your Progress

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Ok, so let’s say that you’ve been trying to practice self-monitoring and you’re still struggling with it. It’s hard for you to figure out what you need to monitor and what you don’t, how often to check in with yourself, or what you need to be achieving (much less whether you’ve actually achieved it).

This is where it can be incredibly helpful to write some concrete goals. And I do literally mean write: keep them somewhere you can reference so that you don’t forget them and you know what it is that you’re supposed to be doing. There are LOTS of resources out there for how to write useful goals, but I’ll give you some quick overviews and also note how you can track your progress, because what’s the point in setting a goal if you don’t know whether or not you’ve completed it?

I also find that taking the time to write out a clear goal, whether it’s what you hope to accomplish in a project at work, an ongoing improvement in your writing, or the markers of success in a homework assignment, can help clarify what you need to look for in your own work and make it easier to determine how well you’re doing. It’s not uncommon that a boss or teacher is not thoroughly clear in what they’re looking for, so part of your job is to figure that out.

Before I start any project I try to identify what would indicate to me that it’s complete and successful. Completion is often the easiest place to start. What’s the goal? When I first began working I found that if a supervisor gave me a task I viewed the task as the important element rather than thinking about what the task was trying to accomplish. For example if my boss asked me to call a list of businesses to see if they would attend an event, I would see the the task as “call each of these businesses”. In reality, the task was to get attendance for an event. I was expected to continue following up through various methods until I had completed that task, but I didn’t know it.

Completion now is about deliverables: what have I achieved when I can say “finished”? You may need to work with a mentor or supervisor if you really struggle with this to clarify what the goal beyond the task is. Ideally you’ll find someone who is willing to work with you through questions that might seem obvious, like “would you like me to follow up in a week after I make these calls?” When you start you may have to ask THEM what they would like to see when you’re finished. Be specific: “the project is done” is not helpful. “I will have a list of names of the people who will attend and those who RSVPed no” is helpful.

Once I’ve discovered what “complete” means I do my best to discover what “successful” looks like. This is where things get a little more tricky. It’s helpful to me to think of it in terms of grading criteria. Does my boss want me to write this piece to be succinct, to include quotes or citations, to cover specific topics, or to do outside research? How can I tailor what I’m doing to achieve the goals? In the RSVP example, you’d want to brainstorm ways that you can get more people to attend.

This is where I like to really have a conversation with the person who is helping me set the task (or with a trusted friend or mentor if it’s a task I’m creating myself). I’ll try to jot down notes of what I THINK the criteria are and then run them past the other person to see if they sound reasonable and in line with what my boss wants. If it’s not what they want I try to ask questions: “You’re not interested in an interview with someone. Would you prefer this to be pulled from our stock language? Or would you like it to be more research heavy?”

If you think this will get lost for you, write it down!

I like to think of alllllll the things I just mentioned as the “setting goals” portion of the process. So the next part is achieving them. I can’t give you all the tools for that, since “getting things done” is a wide and varied series of tasks, but I can give you some suggestions that will help you organize progress and determine when you’re finished.

A lot of this we’ve talked about in planning and organization, so if you’re looking for ways to break down a task into easily digestible chunks, check out this post about using a planner. Using those same skills will help keep you on track for goals that circulate around long term projects. I also am a big fan of writing down the same task multiple times if it’s a habit that I’m trying to build. So for example I might know that I want to blog 30 minutes every day. I still write “blog” in my planner every single day. It reminds me and it keeps it in the forefront of my mind.

However the other tool that I use a lot in self-monitoring over the long term is tracking. For me, that includes weekly trackers that I write out by hand of habits I’d like to build, or sometimes monthly trackers to notice how often I’m doing a particular thing. There’s evidence that simply counting the amount of times you’re doing something can reduce the behavior if you’re trying to break a habit. If you want to reach goals around emotions or personal health, there are lots of forms and sheets you can use to collect data. I like to use DBT diary cards, because there are many formats available and they’re easy to print off, plus they allow you to record skills and a wide variety of emotions. Maybe you prefer to track emotions in an app. Tons of options there too!

The point is that paying attention to how often you’re doing something, the time you spend doing something, or the quality of your time doing something can give you a lot of information about how and whether you’re progressing. You’ll need to figure out what system works best for the goal you’re working on at any given time, but creating deadlines and subgoals, then tracking your progress is the best way to achieve goals and to know if you’re doing so successfully.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Practice Self Monitoring

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Friends we’re finally here: the final section of the Hacking Your Executive Function series. It’s been a long (and wild) ride, but I only have five more posts to make and then I’ll go into hibernation to turn this into a book. I’ve saved one of the most challenging skills for last because honestly I was intimidated by it, but I think we’ve all picked up some skills along the way. So here we are: self-monitoring.

Self-monitoring is one of the least intuitive elements of executive function in my opinion, but it’s also one that can cause many difficulties and be hardest to support. So we should probably be talking about it more. Self-monitoring is the ability to assess yourself: it means understanding external standards and seeing if you’ve met them. It’s knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s the ability to make your own corrections by noticing when things are going wrong and figuring out solutions. If you have weak self-monitoring skills you might find yourself surprised when people respond negatively to you or when problems show up. It’s thinking you aced that paper and getting it back to find you got a D.

Self-monitoring combines a lot of different skills, which is why it can be incredibly challenging. It involves a lot of working memory (what were the expectations), comparison skills (how am I matching up to them), time management (how often and when should I be reviewing my work), planning and organization (how do I build editing and review time into my schedule), and emotion regulation skills (how can I troubleshoot if I get frustrated, where am I emotionally, etc.). We’ve worked on a lot of those skills separately so a big part of self-monitoring is putting systems in place that help to organize all of those skills as a comprehensive unit.

One of the things that’s particularly challenging about self-monitoring is that there aren’t very many suggestions for making it easier except to practice. However there ARE some ways that you can intentionally practice using self-monitoring that will hopefully guide you and remind you.

The first tool I use to practice self-monitoring is checklists. If I have a particular type of project or activity that needs to meet certain milestones, I like to write them down and have them handy to double check after I’ve finished the project. For example each month at work I have to create a calendar for the next month. I have a small sheet of paper taped on the wall next to my desk that lists out all of the places on our website that I should look for events. If I have writing tasks I try to create an editing list ahead of time so that when I’m actually doing the editing I can simply go down the list and check off each idea (do I have consistent spacing, are my transitions good, spelling and grammar double check, do I have the appropriate amount of citations or quotes, etc.).

That visual reminder can also be helpful if you have a hard time noticing when your behavior doesn’t match the situation you’re in. For example if I worked somewhere that it was inappropriate to swear (and I am particularly prone to swearing) I might leave a little post it on my desk reminding myself not to swear. These don’t have to be obtrusive, and I mostly recommend using them for when YOU feel you’re not reading or remembering the social cues in the way that you’d like. If you’re having particular trouble with noticing what you should be doing or remembering what you should be doing, you can also ask a trusted friend or mentor to help you brainstorm a list of general guidelines.

If you’re having trouble telling whether you’ve reached expectations or not, that trusted friend can be a great resource. You might schedule a check in weekly with your boss to make sure that you’re on the same page. It can be helpful for you to guide your mentor in these meetings by bringing specific tasks or goals and asking how they think you’re doing. Over time, you can also imagine your work from their perspective and see if that helps you self-monitor.

The final element I like to use for self-monitoring practicing is a schedule/tracker. All of my projects at work get a review one day after I have completed them, and before I send them to my boss. If you’re really struggling with self-monitoring in a variety of ways (you have trouble noticing your emotions, behaviors, abilities etc.) you may want to have a very regular self check in on your calendar. Perhaps twice a day you spend five minutes trying to notice your emotions, writing down the things you’ve accomplished, and how well you think you did. You might also try to notice the things that got in the way of success. After practicing this regularly it will become more natural and you may not have to set it in your schedule.

A side note on scheduling: I ALWAYS make sure that I can wait at least a few hours before I look back over a task or piece and edit/review. I prefer to wait a full day. Immediately trying to edit and monitor your own work is really difficult. Give yourself more time.

And with that we’re into our final topic and heading towards the finish line! How do you manage self-monitoring?

Hacking Your Executive Function: Rewards and Reinforcements

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So now we’ve discussed a ton of different ways to add organization and planning into your life. All of that is well and good, but the challenge is often to actually implement these strategies. You try, and then forget a day or two and quickly it’s all over. So we’re going to jump back a ways and use some behaviorism to encourage ourselves to keep up the habits we’d like to build.

Here’s the basic idea: if you don’t include rewards and reinforcements in your organizational system it’s unlikely that you’re going to keep it up. Sometimes the rewards are natural: you get more done, you feel less anxiety, you don’t lose as many things. That’s obviously going to incentivize you to keep going! But those rewards don’t always happen as you’re planning and it can take some time using a system before they’ll start to show up. So you want to create some rewards and reinforcements that make your organizational systems feel good and worthwhile right away and that you associate immediately with the planning process.

The most important way that I like to build rewards into my organization and planning is to intentionally plan relaxation and fun into my schedule. When I am stressed out and don’t know what I’m doing I never feel that it’s appropriate to relax. So when I make a schedule I make sure that every day has adequate relaxation and every week has enough fun and entertainment. I can trust based on the schedule that I’ve written that I have enough time to complete my tasks AND spend the hour or two hours doing the fun thing I’ve scheduled. That allows me to enjoy those things without feeling stressed, which builds in some nice reinforcement for myself.

Secondarily I like to use my planning to remind myself of all the cool stuff that I’ve done and to buoy my spirits when I feel like I’m a worthless pile of poophead. I write down everything I do, even if sometimes it’s writing it down after I’ve finished just so I can check it off. It feels really good to look back at a productive day and see the things I’ve done. But this doesn’t just happen naturally. It’s easy for me to always be looking forward at what needs to happen instead of thinking about what I’ve successfully accomplished. When you get something done pause. Notice it. Feel good. It’s way too easy to ignore your own successes so be bold and tell yourself you’re awesome. Star things that felt like a big deal. Call them out.

There are a couple of other elements to creating your schedule that can be important reinforcers. The first one is pretty difficult because there are no hard and fast rules to it: sometimes you have to give yourself permission to change or ignore your schedule/plan. This might seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to learn to be better at following a plan, and if you tend not to look at or follow your plan, then this advice isn’t for you. But it can seem overwhelming to schedule if you don’t allow yourself the ability to adjust based on what’s happening around you. I plan for the best case scenario, but I know that if I start getting bad anxiety or traffic is particularly bad and I lose time, I will have to change my schedule. Remind yourself that things happen and you have to be willing to have a bit of flexibility. When you require yourself to ALWAYS follow the schedule, it can create a great deal of pressure and guilt that leave you unhappy when you’re thinking about or looking at your planner, and that diminishes its usefulness.

The last built in version of rewards that I like to focus on is the planning itself. For some of us, writing out our schedule feels really good. Other people hate it. If you are one of the latter, you’ll want to work to find ways to make it more enjoyable. Are you into stickers? There’s a whole exciting world of stickers for planning. Do you like drawing, doodling, or art? You can easily find inspiration for creating an artistic planner ALL over the internet. Do you like games? Habitica could be a good system for you. Do you hate planning with every fiber of your being but love lilgrabbies? Print a bunch of those sweet pictures and paste them in your planner. You can be really creative here but do your best to ensure that when you open your planner, you smile a little bit.

In addition to these ways of adjusting planning itself to feel better, you can also add external rewards. I like the Habitica system relatively well: different tasks are worth different amounts of points. Each time you complete a task you earn points. Then different rewards cost certain points, so you buy the rewards with your points. Your reward could be some chocolate, a pedicure, a nap, a couple hours of a Netflix binge, whatever feels good to you. Maybe you prefer things to be more simple: every time you finish x number of tasks you get a reward. Or perhaps it’s once you hit a goal: finish drafting your paper and you get a reward. Keep it simple enough that you’ll actually use it (Habitica does all the point tallying for you which is nice), and write it down so you don’t forget.

Another option is gratitude journaling. This is not my personal favorite, but many people enjoy it. Take some time each day in your planner, journal, notebook, online, wherever you do your planning and organization, to write down a thing or two that you’re grateful for that day: something that felt good, something that sparked your curiosity, something that reminded you of your values, etc. I specifically encourage doing it in the place you’re planning so that you associate the positive feelings of gratitude with the space you use for organization.

That’s how I keep up with my planning! What tricks do you have?