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?

 

Hacking Your Executive Function: Time Management

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Organization can encompass quite a number of things, both literal and more abstract. The next organizational task we’re going to look at is time management, which can be a source of particular struggle for a lot of folks with executive function challenges, and is a bit different from other types of organization. There are quite a few levels to this, so we’re going to try to break it down from long term to short term.

The first and most important suggestion I can make is to be protective of your time. You do not need to do everything, you don’t need to say yes to everything, and one element of time management that is incredibly important is learning how much you can reasonably accomplish and what you need to delegate or simply say no to. If you are worried about completing tasks on time, this also means asking for help or seeing if someone around you can jump in and take something on for you. Those are all pretty challenging emotional tasks, but we discussed some of the ways to set boundaries and ask for help in the emotion regulation section. A final element of this communication piece of time management is that you need to be able and willing to tell people when they are affecting your time management.

So for example if I have a really packed day and I’m trying to finish a project, I need to learn how to tell my coworkers I can’t get pulled into anything. That might be a sign on my door, asking my boss to work remotely until I finish the big project, or creating a script I can use whenever someone interrupts me. This can also go for friends and family members, or for people who continue to ask you for time consuming help.

The other challenging element involved in protecting your time is knowing how much time tasks will take. If you’re not sure it can be hard to tell if your schedule is too full or too empty. This is where you might need to do some long term work to improve your executive function. Alas there is no easy list of how long every task in the world takes because we’re all different. So you’ll have to take some data about how long it takes YOU to accomplish your standard tasks. Yes, that means timing yourself doing a bunch of different things. Probably for a while. Making a spreadsheet or a list of how long each task takes you (and doing each type of task a couple of times) so you get an idea of your average times.

If you really struggle with estimating how long tasks will take you may want to create a place where you can actually keep these estimates in the long term so that you can refer to them when you’re creating schedules or planning out your time. Another element of this is that you may have a hard time generalizing your time estimates. So let’s say you know that sweeping the living room takes you 15 minutes, but you haven’t timed yourself sweeping the dining room and you feel totally uncertain of how long it will take. You can use other, similar tasks to make estimates.

I also like to take some data on how external factors affect my timing. So over time I have noticed that if I’ve had to do something stressful first thing in the morning, everything during my day will take 1.5 times as long (approximately). If I’m tired or hungry I know to add in some time to my estimates. Sometimes if my mood or physical well-being is bad enough I might estimate that it isn’t worth it to even try to complete a difficult task in that moment and save it for when it will take less time.

I always aim to overestimate the time I will need to spend on something, because it always feels good to get done “early” and have some time left over.

The next step in long term planning is to be aware of deadlines. When you have an external deadline make sure that it gets added to whatever you use for planning, whether that’s a notebook, an app, or something else. I also like to add reminders in a week or two weeks in advance so I remember to start working on it. You can also schedule in your own sub-deadlines ahead of time (for example if you have a larger project give yourself a deadline for step 1).

A few notes about scheduling: I always try to schedule myself some breaks or ensure that I’ve got at least an hour or two of down time each day. This will allow you to actually keep your schedule. It seems counterintuitive but the more you give yourself breaks and rest, the most you accomplish. Giving yourself a particular amount of time to rest also means you don’t “take a break” and never go back to the work. I like to use an alarm to remind myself when it’s time to head back to work.

The other thing to remember when you’re thinking about creating a schedule or a plan to improve your time management is that your schedule needs to be flexible. Things will come up when you don’t expect them to and you’ll have to move things around. I like to think of my schedule in blocks. I tend to use 1 hour blocks, but you can plan in the time interval that makes the most sense for you, even if that means planning down to 10 minutes. Once I’ve created my “blocks” (so I may have 1 hour of aerial, 2 hours to write my freelance work, and 4 hours of my day job) I can move them around as necessary.

If you find that process stressful or difficult you can use some of the skills around flexibility that we’ve talked about in prior posts, or practice writing a schedule, then changing one thing about it the day of. It takes time and practice to get good at organizing on the fly.

Ok now for the good stuff: deciding what you’re going to do when. Prioritization. The best tool I’ve seen for this so far is called an Eisenhower Matrix. Check it out:

Last but not least…DO NOT MULTITASK. It seems like it will help you accomplish more in a smaller amount of time but it’s just a big, dirty lie. You actually get less done and do the work you DO accomplish poorly because your brain has to transition quickly between so many things. It’s much more effective to pick one thing and focus all your energy on it until you’re done.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Organizing Physical Spaces

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The past couple of posts have focused on organizing and planning for projects, tasks, and thoughts. That’s an important place to start when you want to get your executive functioning under control, but one area that I see frustrates people over and over is physical spaces: how do I keep my stuff organized and clean? How do I manage my household? What can I do to make this easier for myself?

Once again this is an area where different people have different preferences and needs, so focus on finding something that feels comfortable and useful to you rather than making yourself fit into a system that doesn’t come naturally. It might seem odd as a place to look for executive functioning hacks, but I’ve found that Pinterest, mom blogs, and other “household” hack websites are actually incredibly useful in finding suggestions. Even if you don’t use exactly the method that they do, it’s good for inspiration.

There are however a few general suggestions that will apply to everyone. The first is to simplify as much as possible. I know that some autistics tend towards “have nothing that I do not need” and some autistics tend towards “I am a magpie give me every shiny thing”, however thinking carefully about what you’re actually going to use or care about in the long term is useful for everyone. Why? The less stuff you have the less stuff you need to organize. It’s harder to lose two shirts than it is to lose your favorite shirt in a pile of 30.

There are tons of different ways to approach downsizing. You can Konmari it, you can get rid of everything you haven’t used in the last year, you can work on one room at a time. But no matter what works for you, be honest with yourself about what will improve your life if you keep it and what will improve your life if you don’t. This is a big step that takes a lot of executive function, and you don’t have to do it all at once. I try to reserve some time at least once a year to go through my clothes and clean out things that don’t fit or have holes or that I don’t wear. At a different time in the year I might go through my books and decide to get rid of some. You can break this down (using the skills we’ve already learned) into smaller projects that happen completely independently of each other.

Once you’ve cut down the sheer amount of stuff you need to organize there are some principles you can use to organize in a useful and easy to understand way. My biggest rule is that all of my things should have a place where they are supposed to be. They don’t always end up in that place, but at least I know where they should go. This also means that when I DO need to clean or organize I don’t have to use a lot of brain power to figure out how I want to put things away, I already know.

Some subelements of this: it can be incredibly helpful to purchase a lot of bins/bags/baskets or other containers so that you can put things AWAY. This also helps you to put similar things together. I have a bin that is all of my journaling supplies. I have another that is all of our extra technology. It’s much easier to stick things into a closet or on a shelf when they’re inside a box, plus it’s easier to find things later. It can also be great to add a label so that you know what’s inside.

I personally prefer to have all of my clutter hidden. I don’t want to see all my shit. So I put them in opaque boxes or put my boxes away in a closet. If you find that more confusing and prefer to see what you have, clear bins can be a lifesaver. That way you know exactly what’s in there, but it’s still contained and organized.

One thing that I want to call out specifically: have a space for things that need to be done. Most often for me this is mail, but it’s also where I keep all of my tax stuff until it’s ready to be done, or my paychecks when they need to be cashed, or other generic “to do” things. I like this to be somewhere visible, and somewhere that it’s going to be annoying and in my way until I complete the task (I put them on my desk. On top of the keyboard. Like an irritating cat). DO NOT let these things sit in an untended corner of your kitchen counter or they will be unearthed in three years when the bills are past due.

If you’re not sure how to put things away, here are some options to consider: peg boards can be a great way to organize oddly shaped and otherwise bulky objects. They’re especially good for craft spaces or garages. Also consider places that you aren’t using: headboards and footboards can have shelving, which is really useful. Corners are a great place to add a tailored shelving unit. I’m a big fan of chests or tables that open and have space inside so that you can hide shit away.

You may also want to use some of your objects as decor. Maybe you get a nice jewelry organizer that hangs on the wall so that your jewelry becomes artwork. If you’ve got a lot of hats you can display those. Especially if you prefer to be able to see your possessions, think about ways that you can have them out without just throwing them in a pile on a shelf or on the floor.

Finally, I would suggest using your physical space to include visual reminders as you need them. If you need to see your week written out, there are great white boards you can buy that go on the fridge. I like to have a corkboard so I can add relevant and important things to it and see them easily. If you require additional support with something like remembering what order to do your morning routine, you can post a picture schedule on the inside of a cupboard or next to your mirror.

Of course in addition to all these general suggestions there are tons of hacks for making organization easier: you can roll your t-shirts or socks instead of folding them. You can add racks into cupboards or under sinks to get additional space. If you have a hard time putting together outfits you can organize your clothes by color to make it easy to grab complementary or matching clothes. There’s tons of ideas out there, and that’s where I suggest checking out Pinterest or similar websites. Good luck my friends!