Hacking Your Executive Function: Initiate Initiation Sequence

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As I consider the order in which I have placed these different sections, it hits me that maybe I should have started with initiation since it’s very literally the beginning. However beginning a task is actually fairly complicated, and pulls from skills that we learned in emotion regulation and inhibition, so while it might seem like an obvious place to start we’re actually going to be building on past skills. This post will be an overview of the types of things that can get in the way of starting a new task, and some of the kinds of tools you can use to get started when it seems impossible.

In the sense that we’re using the word initiation, we’ll be talking about beginning something new, whether that’s starting a new project, getting out of bed to begin something, or getting to work and beginning your day. Many of us think about initiation in terms of motivation: if I were just motivated I would be able to go clean the house or start this paper or make myself dinner. We think that there is some kind of internal willpower that fuels our ability to get up and start something. What might surprise us all is that the way we set up our environment and our day, how we manage our emotions, and how we build in motivation to the task is what actually allows us to get moving.

The first thing I’d note that makes it harder for us to start a task is that we don’t know how. We might understand the end goal, but we don’t necessarily understand where to start, or we feel overwhelmed because it feels as if we need to complete all of it. You may also need help with actually understanding what you need to accomplish, with knowing where all the materials are, and with understanding the process. So the first skill we’ll look at is breaking a larger task down into smaller tasks so that you know how to start, and what singular thing to work on, as well as getting any questions you have answered.

Once we have an idea of what we actually need to do, we should start looking at how we’re feeling about it. Many times we blame ourselves for being lazy or unmotivated when what is really stopping us from beginning a task is anxiety or fear. Finding out what is actually stopping you is the next important step: oftentimes it’s a fear of failure or anxiety about looking incompetent. If you can identify the emotions around the task, you can take those on with your emotion regulation skills, and you’ll find that it becomes easier to actually begin the task.

You may also be getting sidelined by distractions. Especially for tasks that aren’t entirely pleasant it’s easy to find other things you would rather be doing. This is where our inhibition skills come into play, especially those skills that involve creating a space with fewer distractions. You can also use those skills to try to spice up the task you’re not entirely interested in. Why DO you want to complete that task? You’re not doing it for no reason. Hold on to the motivation, even if it’s less immediate (you’re writing the paper to graduate from college and get a good job), and try to introduce a more immediate motivation, whether that’s by promising yourself a reward or by incorporating something fun, like seeing how many weird synonyms for a word you can insert into your research paper.

There’s also an element of organization that plays into initiation. Sometimes you need to trick your brain a little bit. I like to create fake deadlines for myself to ensure I’ll work on each step of a project in time and get started on it before it’s late. I also like to track habits and goals so that I can see how I’m progressing. Thinking about putting that checkmark in my planner is a great motivator for beginning a project, and looking at a habit tracker fill up with days that I’ve been successful feels fantastic. It can also help me notice which days I am not successful at doing specific tasks so that I can see what other things were happening on those days. Knowing what you need to get done, when it needs to be done by, and what you’ve already accomplished goes a long way towards helping you start the tasks that need to get done.

This was obviously just a quick and dirty overview of what we’re going to be diving into in more detail in the coming days. Buckle up! We’re initiating the initiation sequence.

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