Hacking Your Executive Function: It’s Tech Time

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Ok, so last post we talked about ways that you can stay organized if your preference is to use pen and paper: planners, notebooks, etc. That doesn’t work for everyone though. Maybe it just takes too long, maybe you hate hand writing, maybe you always forget to bring it with you. Whatever the reason, some people just don’t find planners effective. Lucky for us, we’re living in a time with TONS of productivity apps, websites, and supports. Today I’ll talk about some of the different types of options, what to think about when you’re picking one, and ways to optimize your technological organization.

Let’s start with the very basics: apps whose job it is to manage your habits, to do lists, and projects. There are SO MANY OPTIONS here, so similar to planners you’ll want to think about what it is you’re looking for. Do you prefer something that’s text based? Some systems are more visual. Do you want to be able to share with other people? Are you primarily interested in to do lists, or do you want to be able to manage large projects and workflows? What kinds of reminders do you want? Do you want rewards? A good place to start when choosing an app is to browse some of the lists that are out there and see what sticks out to you.

A few options that I’d like to highlight: Habitica was my app of choice for a long time (I only stopped using it because it was having a lot of issues with glitches which have since been fixed). There are a few elements of Habitica that I think are important.

1. It gamifies your life. In Habitica you play as an RPG character. You earn points by completing tasks, with extra bonuses for doing habits many days in a row. With the points you earn you can buy rewards (which you choose yourself) or by in-game things like new outfits and steeds. You can even choose “quests” that you complete with a certain number of tasks completed.

2. It’s social. This was one of my favorite parts. You can join a party with your friends, complete quests together, encourage each other, share rewards. You get the benefits of sharing a goal with someone else (the accountability, the support) while also having other built in motivations.

Another option I want to highlight is ToDoist, which gives you a LOT of data about your productivity (when you’re most productive, when you put things off, etc.) as well as a great deal of customization for how to view, prioritize, and share your tasks. There are also pre-created templates that you can use if you struggle to break a project into its pieces.

Finally I’d mention Evernote. The big benefit of Evernote is how open it is: you can add almost anything to it. Links, recipes, sketches, video, text, audio recording. If you prefer a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” approach, or you’re working on projects that are creative and variable, Evernote gives you the flexibility to include a lot of different things.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of some of the things apps can offer, and what types of things to look for. Maybe you’re interested in motivation (there are tons of apps like this, including everything from Zombies! Run!, an exercise app, to StickK, which donates to a charity you hate if you don’t follow through on your goals), maybe you’re interested in organization (there are so many project management softwares that can help you visualize your process) or maybe you’re interested in keeping literally everything in the same place.

Once you’ve chosen a system there are quite a few things you can do that will optimize that system. Many apps or websites have the option to create templates so that if you have similar projects or tasks you can copy them instead of starting with nothing. Almost every option out there has the possibility of recurring appointments so that you can enter it once and then forget it. You may also want to explore the options that any given system has for alarms and reminders. In some cases you can see all the things you have scheduled for the day in one screen. But you may want an out loud alarm 15 minutes before an important meeting. Maybe you just want a reminder to pop up on your computer screen.

Whether all of these features are within one system or you use a couple of different systems, it’s good to set up some reminders. I use my basic phone alarm for important reminders, and my e-mail for work meetings. In general I wouldn’t recommend hodge podging a thousand different apps and programs together for what you want, but it’s really normal and reasonable to have 3-5 different apps that work on different things.

I also highly recommend that when you start using a system you take time to optimize it. One obvious example is e-mail. It’s incredibly easy for e-mails to get lost. I personally leave e-mails marked “unread” until I have responded to them. Once a week I go through my inbox and file or delete everything that is not still “open” (waiting on a response or will be necessary for an upcoming project). Your system might be different but you should think ahead about how you’d like to set things up. Even systems with a lot of structure like Habitica give you the option to decide if you’re going to create positive habits (I need to do this every day) or negative habits (I’d like to refrain from doing this every day) and you can decide how to frame many of your to dos.

Ok that’s a lot of info about how to find and create a technological system that can support your executive function. But I also mentioned that you’ll probably need to use some supplemental systems as well. This will in part depend on what you want (are you concerned about mental health tracking? There are a lot of specific apps for that) but there are a few things that are generally helpful to talk about.

If you’re interested in tracking your time, there are lots of different types of options out there. Timewinder gives you timers so that you can (for example) stand and sit at work for the optimal intervals. Hours shows you where you’ve spent your time on the web. There’s even a time tracking cube! You set each side to a task and turn it so that the relevant side is up while you’re working on that task. At the end of the day the app tells you how long you spent on each task.

Another realm is optimization. The best example of this that I’ve seen is called “If This Then This”. You can create relationships between the different apps on your phone so that tasks are automated (for example you could set it so that when Google maps detects that you’re at work it will mark it in a timesheet app). I find this one a bit ambitious for my tastes but if you like coding and logic I’ve heard it’s fantastic.

You can also use apps to support a lot of other executive functioning by changing the format you’re using. Most of our lives are based around text. If that’s not your jam, you’re pretty fucked a lot of the time. But you can use an iPad or tablet to doodle your notes if you prefer that to writing, then save to Evernote. Or you can create a video schedule or picture schedule through an app and use that instead of a written schedule. There are digital time timers to help you visualize your time. Maybe you’re aural not visual: you can record notes or conversations (please make sure you ask people before recording them) and listen back later (these can also be kept in some organizational apps). You can automate verbal reminders. The beauty of technology is how customizable it is.

What apps and tech have you used to improve your executive functioning?

Hacking Your Executive Function: Let’s Talk About Planners

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You guys. It’s here. It’s finally time. I get to talk about one of my favorite accessibility devices in all the land: the planner. This is where you get to take a TON of the skills we’ve already talked about and keep them nice and neat and organized. I will make a note here: physical planners aren’t for everyone. I’ll also be doing some posts this week about apps and other options for keeping yourself organized. I do however strongly recommend having SOMETHING that is your major organizational tool so that you can keep important things in one place. This is just one of the available ways to do it. So for now, let’s chat about planners (YES). I’m also going to drop some pictures of my planners in here for your joy and delight.

If you think that keeping a planner might be the right choice for you, it’s a good idea to stop and think a little bit before you buy something or create something. There are endless ways to organize yourself, and each one suits different people. The most important question to ask yourself when picking out a planner is “will I use it?”

I generally work to make my planner fun and engaging in some way so that I will keep up with it. I have colorful pens, I learned how to do hand lettering so that I feel like I’m engaging with it in new ways, I designed my own layouts to match my needs, I use stickers. Some people like to do stamps, or they add quotes and doodles. Maybe you want to color code things or use sticky notes. The sky is the limit! But maybe you don’t care about any of that and you just want it to be as easy as possible: grab a notebook and keep a basic to do list and calendar. It’s unlikely that you’ll find something with literally every feature you could want that will by itself MAKE you into an organized person. But you can pick something that’s more suited to you and your lifestyle.

Things to consider:
How big do you want your planner to be? Many people like to keep it small enough to put in a purse. I have a big honking beast so I can keep absolutely everything in one place.
Do you want to organize yourself by day, week, or month?
Do you want something pre-printed, something you write out yourself, or a mix of the two?
Do you like to organize your days by time (so having a schedule written out) or by task list/events? Or perhaps something even less specific than that?
Do you want space to free write or journal?
In addition to your day to day task lists, do you want to keep track of other things like cleaning schedule, workouts, meal planning, etc.?
Do you want to plan each day as it happens or have space set up to write tasks that will happen in the future (I will recommend having a place to write future tasks so that you can make long term appointments)?

That might seem like a lot to think about before you even start, but it can help guide you towards what you want. Maybe you look at it and you’re like “fuck all that it’s too complicated”. That tells you something. Or maybe you get excited by the list. There’s a wild world of planners out there my friend and you can join some Facebook groups that will feed that excitement.

If you’re interested in checking out some different options, I’d suggest taking a look at Bullet Journaling, Happy Planner, Passion Planner, Erin Condren, or else just taking a trip to your local office supply store and browsing for a while. Pay attention to how much you use any given planner, and try to figure out what makes things work or not work for you so that you can get one you’ll actually open up and write in.

Once you’ve chosen a planner (and don’t be afraid to try out different ones, then decide they’re not for you. You’re not married to a planner just because you bought it), my first rule of plannerdom is to always have mine with me. I can’t use it if I don’t have it. Whenever possible I like to have mine open as well. Even if I’m not using it actively, I always have my planner open on my desk at work, next to me on the table at home, or at the very least quickly available in a bag. The more you do this the more natural it gets, so even if it seems like overkill at first go with it.

Ok, you’ve got your planner, you’ve got it with you, what now? Write. Down. EVERYTHING. Especially if you’re just starting out, I suggest going overboard with how much you write down. Over time you’ll start to figure out what you can remember on your own and what really needs to go in the planner, but until then it’s best to use this memory aid to its fullest extent. Write down tasks, write down events, write down notes, write down birthdays, write down holidays. Put it ALL in there.

That might sound overwhelming. How do you do that? I like to set aside time to plan. Personally I take about 10-20 minutes each morning when I get in to work to plan out my day. I look at what tasks I did yesterday and what didn’t get completed, I look at my long term calendar and add anything from there, and I note any other tasks I’ve thought of or need to do. If I get new tasks during the day (if I have a meeting or get an email) I just drop them right into the list. If I plan a new event, I stick it in on the date that’s appropriate.

The other element of this planning ahead is that if I get a large project that I know will take multiple steps and sessions, I set aside 20-30 minutes to break it in to component parts and then write down each of those steps in the appropriate place. I personally like to give myself a very specific piece of the large project to do each day so that it’s easier to tackle. You can read more about this here. Then I get prompted to start on each of the things and I have built in due dates. I will also take time to plan ahead like this if I set up a recurring task: let’s say I set up a recurring therapy appointment that happens every Wednesday. I’ll go through my planner after making that appointment and write down therapy on every Wednesday through the end of the year.

In a similar vein, I also try to schedule certain tasks at the same or similar times each week. This makes it easier to write it down, and it makes it easier to remember to do it. So for example I try to do my cleaning each week on Friday afternoon, and I’ll always write that in my planner. If I was into meal planning, I might do that every Sunday. That kind of consistency simplifies everything. Just remember that consistency is not binding: you can generally do things on the same day, but still feel comfortable moving it if something else comes up.

A final element I like to include in my planners is deadlines. I write a task both on the deadline and on the days that I’m doing it. However I’m a big fan of trickery, so I arbitrarily assign myself deadlines before the thing is actually due. That helps keep me moving and get things done faster.

If you’re like me, you also tend to lose things and forget things EVERYWHERE. My solution for this was to get a planner that has a cover with pockets. I can include all of my materials in a single place and I don’t lose stuff. I also include stencils and stickers in there so I can plan on the go and keep my weeks organized and relatively clean. I’ve also got tons of fun accessories on there so that I feel happy when I open it and want to keep using it. If you’re not into carting a bunch of extra stuff with you everywhere and want a minimalistic and small journal, I’d suggest having somewhere at home that you can use as your materials and paper repository to keep it all together.

All of this is a LOT of information. Take a deep breath. I also like to use my planner for self-care, and seeing in front of you all that you’re trying to work on can be a good reminder. Make sure you write down that you are going to take care of yourself. Block out time to relax. Write “take a damn bath” in your to do list. Be willing to cross out an entire afternoon and take a nap instead. I like to use my planner as a way to give equal weight to my own needs as I do to everyone else’s. I also highly recommend noting your accomplishments as well as your to dos, whether that’s by looking back through everything you checked off last week or writing down one thing you’re proud of each day.

The planner is a TOOL. It’s not an obligation. If it’s stressing you out or feels like one more thing that you NEED to get done, put it away. It’s here to serve you, not the other way around.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Use Behaviorism!

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A note before we jump in to today’s post: many people within the neurodivergent community have some squicky feelings about behaviorism and for good reason. Applied behavioral analysis has a nasty past of abuse and a not so great current track record either. What I will say is that behaviorism works to change behaviors: humans are a kind of animal and when we get reinforcements we’re more likely to do a thing. In this case I suggest using behaviorism to reinforce yourself so that you can achieve your own goals. No use of behaviorism should ever force someone to behave a way that’s uncomfortable, traumatic, or painful for them, or not in line with what they want for their life. Behaviorism should also recognize that we can communicate with humans, rather than seeing us simply as input and output machines.

Onwards!

We’re going to talk about the basic principles of behaviorism today and how you can use them to encourage yourself to begin a task. These are going to be long term strategies that you can build up over time to make it easier to initiate tasks in general. These are things that I recommend should be SELF motivated or only done with the explicit understanding and consent of the person they’re done to/with.

We’re all probably fairly familiar with Pavlov’s dogs: if you ring a bell then feed a dog over and over, eventually the dog will hear the bell and start to have automatic responses like drooling.

Turns out human brains work in a relatively similar fashion. When two stimuli are consistently paired together, we learn to expect them together. You can use that fact to make something more or less appealing. A reinforcement is something that makes you want to do the task more. It can be either positive (you add something) or negative (you take something away). A positive reinforcement would be if your mom gave you a cookie every time you cleaned your room. A negative reinforcement (and this is where it might be lightly confusing) is when you hit your alarm clock in the morning and the irritating noise goes away. If you want to encourage a specific behavior, you can use a reinforcer to make it seem nicer to a person’s brain.

You can also use punishment, which is when you make a task less appealing. Positive punishment is adding something (discomfort, pain, etc) and negative reinforcement is taking away something that a person wants (withholding a toy). I do not ever suggest using punishment because it’s cruel and also it doesn’t work very well. Causing pain or distress is never worth it just to change a behavior, don’t do it.

So how do we use these elements to make tasks easier? The most obvious answer is to build in rewards. Do you hate making phone calls? Build yourself a sweet little routine that makes it easier: maybe you do your phone calls wearing your comfiest clothes with a cup of delicious tea, and each time you successfully make a call you eat a bite of chocolate. Now you’ll associate phones with all these other delightful things, and over time you may find that your negative feelings about doing the task will lessen.

I also want to encourage you to focus on natural consequences of your actions, especially negative reinforcers (when you remove something stressful or unpleasant). When I clean my house, it’s easy for me to only think about how unpleasant that task is. But it’s also really stressful and awful to live in a house that has dirty dishes and trash everywhere, to not have any clean clothes, to have messy litter boxes. Taking the time to notice and appreciate that my house is clean when I’ve finished helps to reinforce that it’s worth it. ENJOY your successes. The more I’ve noticed that I appreciate living in a clean house, the more motivated I am to continue cleaning. One thing that always motivates me in a major way is that accomplishing things reduces my anxiety. That’s a MAJOR reinforcer. Think about how getting the task done will affect you positively, or affect your emotions.

Another thing to consider is what’s happening before you try to start a project. There are two major elements to this: one is what you might call “setting events”. These are the things that contribute to your mood and state of mind leading up to something. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep last night, and they were out of coffee at work this morning. The second element is the antecedent, or what happened directly before a behavior. So maybe your alarm went off and you knew it was time to start a project, so you went to go do it. Or perhaps it’s that you spent three hours playing video games avoiding the project and after staring at your to do list for the 27th time you finally started.

If you want to make it easier to start things, you’ll want to make these leads up as positive as possible. We’ve talked already about taking care of your basic needs in emotion regulation. But you’ll also want to notice your mood and circumstances before you start a hard project. If I went to bed late last night, you better believe that I’m only trying to do easy projects today. If I had a stressful encounter this morning, I might wait until I’ve eaten some chocolate and calmed my nerves appropriately before I try to write a particularly challenging piece. In fact I might even wait a day or two if the piece is likely to be emotional. If you know that you have a hard time starting a particular type of task, it can be helpful to take a moment before you try to start it to make note of your mood and state. I might even track these moods over time so that I can notice when it’s more or less effective to try to work on different types of projects.

The other element is to create useful antecedents. If you’re sitting around and have three hours before you need to sleep, and you need to spend one of those hours cleaning, how do you know when to start? Well in all likelihood you’ll end up not cleaning because you’ll start doing something else, lose track of time/become absorbed/keep putting it off, and run out of time. The trick? Insert some external antecedent that prompts you. Reminders! Alarms are a great way if you don’t have other folks around. They work especially well if you respond to them every dang time (or if you respond to them by getting up and eating a cookie THEN doing your thing, because then you’re reinforcing yourself).

You can also have a trusted support person give you reminders. I particularly like this one because you can’t make the other person shut up by clicking an “off” button, and sometimes they’ll even help you for the beginning of the task to get you started. I also find that making a date with someone else to do a project makes me a million times more likely to do it, even if all they do is sit with me and hold me accountable.

The trick with creating an antecedent is to find one that inspires you to DO. It might be easy to think you should guilt yourself into doing things (this is how we tend to talk to ourselves), but guilt isn’t an emotion that spurs action. Instead, thinking of something that will remind you of your goals, make you feel accomplished or capable, or let you know that you’re supported. Those kinds of reminders will be more likely to get you started.

Do you have any final initiation tips?

I’d also like to note that if there’s any element of behaviorism that I’ve represented positively here that you have concerns about, please let me know! I know that many autistics have strong negative feelings against using any behavioral principles. I would rather understand that humans are wired to respond to them, and use those powers for good. I welcome discussion!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Don’t Let Anxiety Get In the Way

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One of the most common things that comes up when I talk to folks about beginning their to do lists is that they have a LOT of emotions wrapped up in getting things done. Whether it’s anxiety about not being able to do things well enough, fear that they’ll do it wrong or let someone down, or guilt that they haven’t gotten to the task list yet. This is one of those places where emotion regulation can be incredibly helpful in managing the rest of your executive functioning, but the emotions around getting started are so big and so specific that I’m going to spend some time focused on how you can manage those emotions particularly.

We’ve already gone in depth on breaking down a large task into smaller pieces, but I’m going to return to that here because one of the emotions that can cause you to freeze up when you need to start something is the panic/overwhelmed feeling that it’s too much. If you’re one of those people who looks at a project and immediately feels the intensity of every step of that project, I highly suggest being kind of arbitrary in where you start. Sure, if you’ve got the time and the energy you can map it out, but it might be easier to pick one piece of it, any piece, that is easiest or closest to you, and focus exclusively on that.

For example when I started writing this series I didn’t really think about the order particularly well. I knew I just needed to get started. So I started writing about emotion regulation, because I feel very comfortable with it. I didn’t think about the other topics at all. I just looked at the one that felt the most comfortable, until I had finished that and could move on to the next one. This is a little bit like an extended exercise in mindfulness. When your brain starts to think about the scope of the project or drift to other areas, you might make a note, but then return to what you were doing before. Or you can just remind yourself that you’re not working on that right now, and bring yourself back to the topic at hand.

One helpful way to do this is to schedule in regular breaks so that your focus doesn’t get worn down. You can also use sensory techniques to ground yourself: if you start to get distracted or overwhelmed, pay attention to your breath, do a body scan, or notice what the seat underneath you feels like. One game that I like to play when I feel panicky is to pick a color and name each thing in the room that is that color. It helps to remind my stupidbrain that nothing is actually dangerous in my environment. That way you can reengage logic to refocus.

The next major issue that I see people run into is perfectionism: I can’t start because what if I do it wrong? This one is a classic when we’re talking about writing things: people will stare at the blank page and refuse to put down a single sentence if it’s not just right. This is not one of my personal issues, since my tendency is to just do MORE if I’m concerned about perfectionism, but there are lots of good resources out there.

First, remind yourself that you can always go back and make changes. One method that I use is having a system to note where I’d like to change something. When I’m writing I’ll highlight sentences or passages that I know I’m not a fan of, but I won’t let myself fix them the first time around. It helps me to feel better knowing that it won’t stay that way, but I can still move on and get the general shape of what I want to write. You can practice this by banning your delete button: everything you write stays on the page for this draft.

I also like to allow myself filler when I need to. If I’m writing or drawing, and I know there’s an element that will be there in the final piece but I don’t feel ready to work on it yet, I’ll just make a note: “add citation here” or “argument two here”. It feels weird at first, but the more you practice using these halfway techniques, the easier it feels to start because even if you get stuck you can just skip the hard bits.

I’m using a lot of writing examples here, but all of life can be thought of as drafts, and each time you work on a task you can improve it with a second go around. Sure, maybe I’ll look at my dirty house and be overwhelmed that it will never be perfect. But I can give it a sweeping and that will be my first draft. It will be something. Tomorrow I can “edit” it by putting away all the clutter. There is rarely a task that you can’t come back to and make improvements on. A few general tips: don’t compare yourself, whether to past you, other people, or some imagined perfect you. Avoid all or nothing language. Practice doing something halfway. See if anyone cares.

When you’re not overwhelmed or being a perfectionist, sometimes it’s just plain old low self-esteem that’s the culprit: if you’ve made mistakes in the past or worry that you don’t do enough, it can seem pointless to start on things now. “I’ll just screw it up, why should I bother?” “I’m so bad at this I don’t want to do it,” or even “I haven’t done it yet so I’ve already screwed up.” Guilt and low self-esteem suck and can be 100% crippling.

If this is something that hits you on the regular, I highly recommend taking some time every day to write down what you have accomplished. I know you’re going to want to be a sassafras and discount 90% of what you do, but be honest with yourself. If you need to, check in with a trusted friend or partner who can remind you of all the things you do. When you’re feeling like a guilty failure, look at that list. It’s facts and you can’t argue with it.

You can use some of the techniques I mentioned above to ground yourself when you start to get swamped by feeling like a failure. But I also encourage you to be realistic about your past failures: did they truly have the big impact that you think they did? How many other people actually remember that failure (I suspect you might be the only one). Think of the times you see yourself as a “failure” in context with all the other things you do: what percentage of your life are you making mistakes? It’s probably within the realm of very normal. If you find that this makes you feel much worse, you might want to check in with someone who loves you, who can help you be realistic about when you make mistakes and when you are successful.

Finally, I’d remind you that past mistakes do not dictate the future. I’ve made a whole buttload of mistakes in my life, but usually once I make one I learn from it. Then I can make new ones! If you are really concerned that a project is our of your reach, it’s a good time to ask for help and see what supports you can put in place. Mistakes feel like shit, but they’re an opportunity to improve. I admire few people more than those who notice when they’ve screwed up, ask for feedback, and make improvements.

Good luck with all your feelings around initiation! You’ve got this.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Use These Weird Initiation Tricks, Doctors Hate Them!

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It’s been a minute you guys. I apologize, the holidays got to me and I took a big old break and I feel much better for it. With that, I’m heading in to our final topics with some excitement, and also looking forward to finishing up this series.

So you might remember that quite a while ago we covered the topic of taking a big task and breaking it into smaller tasks to increase the likelihood that you’ll start to work on the task. Sometimes that’s not quite enough. I know that even if I’ve got a concrete place to start, sometimes I have too much fatigue or anxiety to begin my task. If you’re in the boat where you’ve done a lot of the upfront work to make a task manageable but you’re still struggling to get up and go, here are some tricks you can try that might make it easier.

If a particular task is sounding daunting to you, there are a few ways you can work around that. The first one I picked up on Tumblr, and the creator called it “junebugging”. Go to the area in which you need to be working (so if you needed to do dishes you would go to the kitchen) and putz. Put something away. Pour yourself a glass of water. Just walk around. Metaphorically “bump into” things in the space you need to work on. You’ll be surprised at how often you find yourself picking up the project you meant to do in the first place. The trick is that you don’t tell yourself you’re about to go work.

Location is a big part of getting started on something. Whether it’s moving to the area you want to work in or creating a space that is specifically for work, getting up and going somewhere new can help you break the “I don’t want to start” cycle.

In addition to location, the when is also important. If you’re really struggling to get started on projects, start with something that feels easy. Instead of jumping in to the paper that makes your brain melt, do some simple data entry or pick up your room to get things started. On the other hand, if you’re more fresh in the morning it can help a lot to start with the worst thing and just get it out of the way. Pay attention to when you feel most productive and when you think you’ll be effective at different tasks. Sometimes I’ll get an urge to work on a particular project: maybe it’s not due until next week and I’ve got something due this week. But I’ll still follow through on the desire to do something because I know I’ll finish it more quickly and be able to focus on the higher priority task once I’ve finished what I want to do.

The other element of when is to notice when you can focus. I cannot do work past about 5:00 in the evening. My brain does not want to focus, and it’s like pulling teeth to get anything done. I found a place where I can work from 8-4 and then be DONE. Not everyone has the luxury of working when they want to, but thinking about timing can be an important part of how you set up your life. If you CANNOT work first thing in the morning, don’t try to get up before work and do things. Wait until the evening.

If you know it’s time to get started and you can’t quite seem to get that final oomf, sometimes it can be helpful to pick an arbitrary time to get started. I do this almost every morning when I need to get out of bed and get my day started. I look at my phone and pick a time about 5 minutes in the future and say that at 8:31 I will get out of bed. Having a very specific time that I need to start helps. It can also be very useful to say “will” instead of should. Sometimes little semantic choices help us to frame things as inevitable rather than possibilities.

One final element to use in your arsenal against procrastination: visualization. I like to have visual timers or visual schedules to help myself see how much time I have left to complete my tasks. It can also be helpful to visualize yourself completing the task. Instead of imagining the bigness of the task, or feeling tired, visualizing can convince you that it’s possible. If that doesn’t help, you could imagine yourself as a fictional character that you admire: it’s not that I have a bunch of homework to do, it’s that I’m Hermione and I’m about to show how brilliant and competent Muggle born witches are, and even defeat Lord Voldemort. Sometimes making a simple, boring task into an exciting game does wonders for making it more exciting and more appealing.

These are great in the moment tactics that can help you get past the first hurdle of starting a task. Good luck initiators!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Breaking Down Large Tasks

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So we’ve taken a look at what might STOP you from beginning a task. But now we’re going to jump in to SOLUTIONS. Woohoo!!! Today’s post is all about taking a task that seems large or unmanageable and turning it into reasonably sized chunks that you can tackle with ease. It’s easy to tell someone “if a project seems really overwhelming, start by identifying each individual step”. But hey it turns out that converting one big project into many little tasks is hard so I’m going to give you the steps so you don’t have to figure it out yourself.

The first thing to do is to plan time for breaking a large task into smaller tasks. If you have a large project like a school paper, or even something like cleaning your whole house, allow yourself an hour that you set aside to write down or think through the steps. If you’re looking at something smaller like how to get everything into your backpack, take five minutes before you begin to plan.

In addition to setting aside time to plan, I’m also going to make a recommendation that sounds a little bit weird: half ass it. If you’re intimidated by the scope of a project, it feels too large, you don’t have the energy to do all of it, don’t plan to do all of it. Doing one dish is still better than doing no dishes, and by the time you’ve started running the water and broken out the dish soap you might feel up to doing one or two more dishes or maybe even the whole sink full. Don’t feel ashamed of working on a chunk that seems pointlessly small, because you’re still getting something done. Sometimes it’s not just putting all the steps in order, it’s also the scope that feels overwhelming and you might think that a particular task can’t be broken down further. It can be! start with the smallest increment possible and work up from there.

Ok, now let’s get into the meat and potatoes.

I’d suggest starting by looking at the project you have to complete and listing off all the different things that need to get done. You don’t necessarily need to put them in order yet, just start writing down everything you can think of that will need to happen before you say “it’s done”! For example if I’m writing a paper I might say I need to research, I need to write a draft, I need to edit, I need to print it or e-mail it.

If you’re having trouble coming up with these steps, you can think about the different phases you might need. For example in writing this book I had to have a phase of content creation, a phase of pencil drafts, a phase of digital drafts, and a phase of cleaning up those drafts. You might think about categories: if you’re planning a wedding you can look at the invitations, the venue, the food, the clothes, etc. Or you might imagine the different parts: when cleaning you can divide by the spaces that need to be tackled. Once you’ve got some large tasks, you might split them down into sub tasks, so if I say that I need to clean the living room I can break that into dusting, sweeping, picking up, and mopping.

The next step is to make sure that each task is fairly simple: it is actually just one thing, and that it’s not too big: it should only take 30 min-1 hour. If you look at one of your tasks and realize it seems unmanageable, you may actually have listed a multi-step task instead of a single-step task. So “research dogs” is not a great task. Instead you might break it into three parts: “go to the library and find books about dogs then read them, look up dogs online and find resources, speak with a dog expert.” If you look at each of those and find that you could spend more than an hour on each one, you can split it into three steps of the same thing, so you might write down “read books about dogs for 30 minutes” three times so that you know that’s the amount of time you plan to spend on it.

One good indicator of a strong task is that it has a very specific verb (not do, make etc. but outline, vacuum, etc) and it has a time constraint. Another way to break up longer tasks (like “write a first draft”) is to give yourself milestones. One goal would be “write the first 500 words” or “find three quotations to include”. I like to choose either milestones or time constraints to split up larger tasks.

From there you put them in chronological order. If you start to notice other things that need to happen as you think about the order, add those in. I find that using a digital format for writing out my outline is nice because I can copy and paste tasks where I want them, but you might want to use Post It notes or index cards so that you can stick them in the correct order.

Depending on the type of project you’re looking at, this is where you can assign yourself due dates or create a time line. I wouldn’t do this step for a project like cleaning my house, but if my project was decorating my house I would give myself one room to do each weekend for a few months. If you have a final due date it’s always a good idea to work backwards through your steps to figure out when you want your smaller due dates. I also love to work in a little bit of extra time in case I fall behind or need to add a step or want to review before I need the project finished.

So that’s it! If you are struggling to get started on something because you don’t know where to start, or you’re worried you don’t have the energy to finish all of it, start by walking through this post and breaking your project into tasks. Then all you have to do is follow the plan (so easy hahahaha).

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.