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.

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