Hacking Your Executive Function: Using Mindfulness to Increase Inhibition

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One of the most common experiences in my life is that I’ll see something I want to do, start doing it, and then halfway through realize “this was a horrible idea”. Unless I’m aware that I need to use my inhibition skills, they tend to go out the window. One of the toughest parts of ignoring distractions or resisting temptations is having the awareness to notice that you need to. That’s where we’re going to focus today, and let me tell you: this is a job for mindfulness!

Mindfulness is being aware and present in the moment that you are living. There are a lot of practices and theories that you can use to do mindfulness (which you can find in books, through therapists, self-help programs), but at its heart it’s basically thinking about the here and now instead of the past or the future. If you’re aware and thoughtful in the moment it’s much easier to notice if you’re being distracted or pulled to do something that will feel bad later, so improving your ability to be mindful, having tricks for getting mindful, and making a little bit of space to think critically about your decisions in the moment can improve your ability to do all the inhibition things.

Probably the easiest way to improve your ability to be mindful during in the moment situations is to practice mindfulness on a schedule. And yes, I do mean practice: set aside some time, maybe 10-15 minutes per day to try a mindfulness exercise.This doesn’t have to be a lot of time that you dedicate as long as it’s consistent. There are lots of actual THINGS you can do as part of mindfulness. You can eat a meal and try to focus on each physical sensation as you do so. You can do a body scan. You can try to complete a simple task like washing the dishes or driving home without letting your attention wander.

Each time you do this, you’ll get better at redirecting your mind back to the present moment. That means that when you’re in a situation where you need to make a quick decision or engage those inhibition skills, you won’t have to work as hard to bring all your attention to the situation. You can use your skills more easily when you’re focused and centered.

I’d also suggest having a way to bring mindfulness into play in the moment. When you notice an urge to do something, try to take at least five minutes to think about it before you simply go ahead and follow through on the impulse. In some cases I like to get myself away from the temptation for a while before making the decision, so if I want to buy something I might go home and wait a day to see if I really want it. When something you want is right in your face it’s much harder to engage the rational, thoughtful part of your mind. Stepping away can give you the time and space you need to consider all the elements of the situation.

There are also some pieces of hardware out there that you can program to help you be aware of certain habits. Often it’s a wristband that will beep or vibrate to alert you to a certain motion. That can help you make space for mindfulness. A less high tech option is to try simply tracking something you’d like to do less of. Make a tally mark each time you do it during the day. Many people are surprised that this alone diminishes how much they do it.

Sometimes it can be surprising how challenging it is to notice that you’re feeling an impulse before you act on it. This is a great place to ask for help if you’re working on a particular challenge like finger picking or mindless snacking. I like to enlist one trusted person who is around me fairly often who is willing to just let me know when they notice me doing my target behavior. It’s generally good to agree on how you’d like them to alert you so that you don’t get frustrated and upset. Awareness goes a long way towards change.

Once you’ve engaged that mindfulness and your awareness of the present situation, a good way to deal with inhibition is to think about your long term goal. I might notice that I’m opening up Facebook instead of working on this blog post. When I notice I can remind myself that I want to work on this post today because it’s one small step of a much bigger project, and the more consistent I am, the less stressful it will be overall. I can remind myself that I think this project will help other people (and myself), and the end product is something I’m super excited about. Imagining each of those motivations in detail can help make it real enough to stave off the realness of the in the moment distraction.

A final option for mindfulness is engaging your body. For many of us on the spectrum, that means fidgeting or stimming. I personally find it helpful to try to be aware of my stims so that I can notice what they’re doing for me and if they can tell me anything about the situation. Get used to stopping every once in a while and doing a quick body scan. You might notice that your leg is bouncing or you’re chewing your lips, or you’re tooth grinding. Figuring out what’s going on with those physical signals can help you cue in to the present moment: your emotions, your wants, and your needs. Finding fidgets that work well for you can help a lot with getting you focused and in the moment as well.

The most common way we get distracted or give in to our temptations is by being a little bit mindless. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. We all need time when we’re not engaging completely or when we let our minds wander, or when we just chill out. But when we need to focus on one thing specifically, or make hard decisions, it’s good to have practiced your mindfulness so you know how to pay attention to your emotions, your values, and your rational mind to make the best decision.

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