Hacking Your Executive Function: Unexpected Transitions

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Most of what we’ve talked about up to this point are when you can plan ahead for a transition. You know it will be coming, you have an idea of what your day will hold, and you can give yourself extra time or use skills to make the transition easier. But sometimes we have to unexpectedly go from one thing to another. Maybe we get interrupted from a project during the day and we have to immediately move to a more pressing task. Maybe you’re out with friends and they decide to change plans. Maybe an emergency comes up. We all have times where our plans get derailed and we have to quickly switch to something new.

One thing you can do is practice your flexibility. This is the part you CAN do ahead of time so that those skills are strong and ready to be used at a moment’s notice. If you can set aside a day where you’ve got time and emotional reserves (ok this might be a ridiculous dream), try switching between different tasks and noticing how you feel, what makes it easier, etc. I recommend starting this out with things you like so that you’re not trying to really accomplish stuff and you don’t have to worry about the anxiety around the task itself, just around the transition. Maybe you pick two tasks and set an alarm for every hour, then move back and forth between them.

Once you start to feel more comfortable switching between tasks you like, you can try to introduce more challenging tasks, or have someone else give you an unexpected task. You can also use a friend to help you practice creating a new plan or expectation in the moment, which is another way to prep ahead of time. Maybe you want to test out having a day or have a day or an hour where you don’t decide ahead of time what you’re going to do. You can practice deciding what to do and how to do it on the fly. To get advanced, set aside the time then have a friend suggest the activity so you can figure out how to accomplish it unexpectedly.

Again, these in advance skills are things that I would only recommend practicing if you have the time and feel emotionally stable when you want to practice them. I’d also suggest having a plan B in place for if you start to melt down or feel overwhelmed so that you can do some self care if you start to struggle with the transitions. However the more you practice these things, the easier it will get to do them in the wild when unexpected transitions appear. You may have to start by practicing in a very intentional way (you get an unexpected transition, you stop and write down what you’re planning to do and how you’re going to do it, you do emotion regulation techniques, then you begin the next task), but I have found that the more I do it the less I have to consciously work through a transition.

There are also some things you can do in specific situations that will help you. I generally try to overplan, meaning have a couple of different options for any plan that I create. It’s like a choose your own adventure book! I’ll have my first plan, which is what I would like to happen. But if I know it’s possible that something might go down differently I’ll have an alternate version of my plan to accommodate. I try not to go overboard with this though because once you start hitting four or five different versions of the same plan it tends to cause more anxiety than it’s worth and eat up a LOT of your time. Be reasonable. Make contingency plans for things that are LIKELY to happen, not every possibility in the whole world. Practice recognizing that something may happen you haven’t planned for and then forcing yourself to stop planning.

Sometimes it also helps to create an order when it feels like things are out of control. The order doesn’t have to make sense: it can be totally arbitrary. If I get a bunch of new projects thrown at me unexpectedly I’ll write them all down and sometimes just pick one, any one, and say that I have to start there. Getting started is more important than prioritizing correctly. Another example would be if an unexpected emergency comes up. Let’s say your spouse gets a flat tire and calls to ask you to come help. I might give myself five minutes to jot down what the steps of that task would be, then give myself a clear reward afterwards. I can tell myself “first I will drive to pick them up, then I will help them change the tire, then I will stop for ice cream on the way home. I can finish my current task at x time.” Having a clear place to pick back up on what you thought you would do also helps alleviate the anxiety.

Last but not least I find it helpful when faced with an unexpected change to notice what’s actually upsetting me about the situation. Am I upset that I can’t do something I was planning on doing? How important was that thing? Do I actually want to do the new thing more? Am I frustrated that I can’t complete what I was in the middle of? I may have another time I can finish it, or I can remind myself that things aren’t all or nothing, it’s ok to do part of something then come back. Is it not knowing exactly what’s about to happen? I can ask more questions to determine what’s going on, or else just make some decisions for myself (this happens a lot in a social group when no one can decide where you’re going. I’ve taken to just saying what we’re doing because generally people will agree). I think we often get hung up on trying to figure out what’s “right” or makes the most sense when we’re trying to plan or put together a schedule, but it’s surprising how often just doing SOMETHING is more effective.

That’s all I’ve got for you on transitions! Drop any extra hints or tricks in the comments. Next up? Working memory.

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