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.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Practice Self Monitoring

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Friends we’re finally here: the final section of the Hacking Your Executive Function series. It’s been a long (and wild) ride, but I only have five more posts to make and then I’ll go into hibernation to turn this into a book. I’ve saved one of the most challenging skills for last because honestly I was intimidated by it, but I think we’ve all picked up some skills along the way. So here we are: self-monitoring.

Self-monitoring is one of the least intuitive elements of executive function in my opinion, but it’s also one that can cause many difficulties and be hardest to support. So we should probably be talking about it more. Self-monitoring is the ability to assess yourself: it means understanding external standards and seeing if you’ve met them. It’s knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s the ability to make your own corrections by noticing when things are going wrong and figuring out solutions. If you have weak self-monitoring skills you might find yourself surprised when people respond negatively to you or when problems show up. It’s thinking you aced that paper and getting it back to find you got a D.

Self-monitoring combines a lot of different skills, which is why it can be incredibly challenging. It involves a lot of working memory (what were the expectations), comparison skills (how am I matching up to them), time management (how often and when should I be reviewing my work), planning and organization (how do I build editing and review time into my schedule), and emotion regulation skills (how can I troubleshoot if I get frustrated, where am I emotionally, etc.). We’ve worked on a lot of those skills separately so a big part of self-monitoring is putting systems in place that help to organize all of those skills as a comprehensive unit.

One of the things that’s particularly challenging about self-monitoring is that there aren’t very many suggestions for making it easier except to practice. However there ARE some ways that you can intentionally practice using self-monitoring that will hopefully guide you and remind you.

The first tool I use to practice self-monitoring is checklists. If I have a particular type of project or activity that needs to meet certain milestones, I like to write them down and have them handy to double check after I’ve finished the project. For example each month at work I have to create a calendar for the next month. I have a small sheet of paper taped on the wall next to my desk that lists out all of the places on our website that I should look for events. If I have writing tasks I try to create an editing list ahead of time so that when I’m actually doing the editing I can simply go down the list and check off each idea (do I have consistent spacing, are my transitions good, spelling and grammar double check, do I have the appropriate amount of citations or quotes, etc.).

That visual reminder can also be helpful if you have a hard time noticing when your behavior doesn’t match the situation you’re in. For example if I worked somewhere that it was inappropriate to swear (and I am particularly prone to swearing) I might leave a little post it on my desk reminding myself not to swear. These don’t have to be obtrusive, and I mostly recommend using them for when YOU feel you’re not reading or remembering the social cues in the way that you’d like. If you’re having particular trouble with noticing what you should be doing or remembering what you should be doing, you can also ask a trusted friend or mentor to help you brainstorm a list of general guidelines.

If you’re having trouble telling whether you’ve reached expectations or not, that trusted friend can be a great resource. You might schedule a check in weekly with your boss to make sure that you’re on the same page. It can be helpful for you to guide your mentor in these meetings by bringing specific tasks or goals and asking how they think you’re doing. Over time, you can also imagine your work from their perspective and see if that helps you self-monitor.

The final element I like to use for self-monitoring practicing is a schedule/tracker. All of my projects at work get a review one day after I have completed them, and before I send them to my boss. If you’re really struggling with self-monitoring in a variety of ways (you have trouble noticing your emotions, behaviors, abilities etc.) you may want to have a very regular self check in on your calendar. Perhaps twice a day you spend five minutes trying to notice your emotions, writing down the things you’ve accomplished, and how well you think you did. You might also try to notice the things that got in the way of success. After practicing this regularly it will become more natural and you may not have to set it in your schedule.

A side note on scheduling: I ALWAYS make sure that I can wait at least a few hours before I look back over a task or piece and edit/review. I prefer to wait a full day. Immediately trying to edit and monitor your own work is really difficult. Give yourself more time.

And with that we’re into our final topic and heading towards the finish line! How do you manage self-monitoring?

Hacking Your Executive Function: Rewards and Reinforcements

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So now we’ve discussed a ton of different ways to add organization and planning into your life. All of that is well and good, but the challenge is often to actually implement these strategies. You try, and then forget a day or two and quickly it’s all over. So we’re going to jump back a ways and use some behaviorism to encourage ourselves to keep up the habits we’d like to build.

Here’s the basic idea: if you don’t include rewards and reinforcements in your organizational system it’s unlikely that you’re going to keep it up. Sometimes the rewards are natural: you get more done, you feel less anxiety, you don’t lose as many things. That’s obviously going to incentivize you to keep going! But those rewards don’t always happen as you’re planning and it can take some time using a system before they’ll start to show up. So you want to create some rewards and reinforcements that make your organizational systems feel good and worthwhile right away and that you associate immediately with the planning process.

The most important way that I like to build rewards into my organization and planning is to intentionally plan relaxation and fun into my schedule. When I am stressed out and don’t know what I’m doing I never feel that it’s appropriate to relax. So when I make a schedule I make sure that every day has adequate relaxation and every week has enough fun and entertainment. I can trust based on the schedule that I’ve written that I have enough time to complete my tasks AND spend the hour or two hours doing the fun thing I’ve scheduled. That allows me to enjoy those things without feeling stressed, which builds in some nice reinforcement for myself.

Secondarily I like to use my planning to remind myself of all the cool stuff that I’ve done and to buoy my spirits when I feel like I’m a worthless pile of poophead. I write down everything I do, even if sometimes it’s writing it down after I’ve finished just so I can check it off. It feels really good to look back at a productive day and see the things I’ve done. But this doesn’t just happen naturally. It’s easy for me to always be looking forward at what needs to happen instead of thinking about what I’ve successfully accomplished. When you get something done pause. Notice it. Feel good. It’s way too easy to ignore your own successes so be bold and tell yourself you’re awesome. Star things that felt like a big deal. Call them out.

There are a couple of other elements to creating your schedule that can be important reinforcers. The first one is pretty difficult because there are no hard and fast rules to it: sometimes you have to give yourself permission to change or ignore your schedule/plan. This might seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to learn to be better at following a plan, and if you tend not to look at or follow your plan, then this advice isn’t for you. But it can seem overwhelming to schedule if you don’t allow yourself the ability to adjust based on what’s happening around you. I plan for the best case scenario, but I know that if I start getting bad anxiety or traffic is particularly bad and I lose time, I will have to change my schedule. Remind yourself that things happen and you have to be willing to have a bit of flexibility. When you require yourself to ALWAYS follow the schedule, it can create a great deal of pressure and guilt that leave you unhappy when you’re thinking about or looking at your planner, and that diminishes its usefulness.

The last built in version of rewards that I like to focus on is the planning itself. For some of us, writing out our schedule feels really good. Other people hate it. If you are one of the latter, you’ll want to work to find ways to make it more enjoyable. Are you into stickers? There’s a whole exciting world of stickers for planning. Do you like drawing, doodling, or art? You can easily find inspiration for creating an artistic planner ALL over the internet. Do you like games? Habitica could be a good system for you. Do you hate planning with every fiber of your being but love lilgrabbies? Print a bunch of those sweet pictures and paste them in your planner. You can be really creative here but do your best to ensure that when you open your planner, you smile a little bit.

In addition to these ways of adjusting planning itself to feel better, you can also add external rewards. I like the Habitica system relatively well: different tasks are worth different amounts of points. Each time you complete a task you earn points. Then different rewards cost certain points, so you buy the rewards with your points. Your reward could be some chocolate, a pedicure, a nap, a couple hours of a Netflix binge, whatever feels good to you. Maybe you prefer things to be more simple: every time you finish x number of tasks you get a reward. Or perhaps it’s once you hit a goal: finish drafting your paper and you get a reward. Keep it simple enough that you’ll actually use it (Habitica does all the point tallying for you which is nice), and write it down so you don’t forget.

Another option is gratitude journaling. This is not my personal favorite, but many people enjoy it. Take some time each day in your planner, journal, notebook, online, wherever you do your planning and organization, to write down a thing or two that you’re grateful for that day: something that felt good, something that sparked your curiosity, something that reminded you of your values, etc. I specifically encourage doing it in the place you’re planning so that you associate the positive feelings of gratitude with the space you use for organization.

That’s how I keep up with my planning! What tricks do you have?

 

Hacking Your Executive Function: Time Management

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Organization can encompass quite a number of things, both literal and more abstract. The next organizational task we’re going to look at is time management, which can be a source of particular struggle for a lot of folks with executive function challenges, and is a bit different from other types of organization. There are quite a few levels to this, so we’re going to try to break it down from long term to short term.

The first and most important suggestion I can make is to be protective of your time. You do not need to do everything, you don’t need to say yes to everything, and one element of time management that is incredibly important is learning how much you can reasonably accomplish and what you need to delegate or simply say no to. If you are worried about completing tasks on time, this also means asking for help or seeing if someone around you can jump in and take something on for you. Those are all pretty challenging emotional tasks, but we discussed some of the ways to set boundaries and ask for help in the emotion regulation section. A final element of this communication piece of time management is that you need to be able and willing to tell people when they are affecting your time management.

So for example if I have a really packed day and I’m trying to finish a project, I need to learn how to tell my coworkers I can’t get pulled into anything. That might be a sign on my door, asking my boss to work remotely until I finish the big project, or creating a script I can use whenever someone interrupts me. This can also go for friends and family members, or for people who continue to ask you for time consuming help.

The other challenging element involved in protecting your time is knowing how much time tasks will take. If you’re not sure it can be hard to tell if your schedule is too full or too empty. This is where you might need to do some long term work to improve your executive function. Alas there is no easy list of how long every task in the world takes because we’re all different. So you’ll have to take some data about how long it takes YOU to accomplish your standard tasks. Yes, that means timing yourself doing a bunch of different things. Probably for a while. Making a spreadsheet or a list of how long each task takes you (and doing each type of task a couple of times) so you get an idea of your average times.

If you really struggle with estimating how long tasks will take you may want to create a place where you can actually keep these estimates in the long term so that you can refer to them when you’re creating schedules or planning out your time. Another element of this is that you may have a hard time generalizing your time estimates. So let’s say you know that sweeping the living room takes you 15 minutes, but you haven’t timed yourself sweeping the dining room and you feel totally uncertain of how long it will take. You can use other, similar tasks to make estimates.

I also like to take some data on how external factors affect my timing. So over time I have noticed that if I’ve had to do something stressful first thing in the morning, everything during my day will take 1.5 times as long (approximately). If I’m tired or hungry I know to add in some time to my estimates. Sometimes if my mood or physical well-being is bad enough I might estimate that it isn’t worth it to even try to complete a difficult task in that moment and save it for when it will take less time.

I always aim to overestimate the time I will need to spend on something, because it always feels good to get done “early” and have some time left over.

The next step in long term planning is to be aware of deadlines. When you have an external deadline make sure that it gets added to whatever you use for planning, whether that’s a notebook, an app, or something else. I also like to add reminders in a week or two weeks in advance so I remember to start working on it. You can also schedule in your own sub-deadlines ahead of time (for example if you have a larger project give yourself a deadline for step 1).

A few notes about scheduling: I always try to schedule myself some breaks or ensure that I’ve got at least an hour or two of down time each day. This will allow you to actually keep your schedule. It seems counterintuitive but the more you give yourself breaks and rest, the most you accomplish. Giving yourself a particular amount of time to rest also means you don’t “take a break” and never go back to the work. I like to use an alarm to remind myself when it’s time to head back to work.

The other thing to remember when you’re thinking about creating a schedule or a plan to improve your time management is that your schedule needs to be flexible. Things will come up when you don’t expect them to and you’ll have to move things around. I like to think of my schedule in blocks. I tend to use 1 hour blocks, but you can plan in the time interval that makes the most sense for you, even if that means planning down to 10 minutes. Once I’ve created my “blocks” (so I may have 1 hour of aerial, 2 hours to write my freelance work, and 4 hours of my day job) I can move them around as necessary.

If you find that process stressful or difficult you can use some of the skills around flexibility that we’ve talked about in prior posts, or practice writing a schedule, then changing one thing about it the day of. It takes time and practice to get good at organizing on the fly.

Ok now for the good stuff: deciding what you’re going to do when. Prioritization. The best tool I’ve seen for this so far is called an Eisenhower Matrix. Check it out:

Last but not least…DO NOT MULTITASK. It seems like it will help you accomplish more in a smaller amount of time but it’s just a big, dirty lie. You actually get less done and do the work you DO accomplish poorly because your brain has to transition quickly between so many things. It’s much more effective to pick one thing and focus all your energy on it until you’re done.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Organizing Physical Spaces

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The past couple of posts have focused on organizing and planning for projects, tasks, and thoughts. That’s an important place to start when you want to get your executive functioning under control, but one area that I see frustrates people over and over is physical spaces: how do I keep my stuff organized and clean? How do I manage my household? What can I do to make this easier for myself?

Once again this is an area where different people have different preferences and needs, so focus on finding something that feels comfortable and useful to you rather than making yourself fit into a system that doesn’t come naturally. It might seem odd as a place to look for executive functioning hacks, but I’ve found that Pinterest, mom blogs, and other “household” hack websites are actually incredibly useful in finding suggestions. Even if you don’t use exactly the method that they do, it’s good for inspiration.

There are however a few general suggestions that will apply to everyone. The first is to simplify as much as possible. I know that some autistics tend towards “have nothing that I do not need” and some autistics tend towards “I am a magpie give me every shiny thing”, however thinking carefully about what you’re actually going to use or care about in the long term is useful for everyone. Why? The less stuff you have the less stuff you need to organize. It’s harder to lose two shirts than it is to lose your favorite shirt in a pile of 30.

There are tons of different ways to approach downsizing. You can Konmari it, you can get rid of everything you haven’t used in the last year, you can work on one room at a time. But no matter what works for you, be honest with yourself about what will improve your life if you keep it and what will improve your life if you don’t. This is a big step that takes a lot of executive function, and you don’t have to do it all at once. I try to reserve some time at least once a year to go through my clothes and clean out things that don’t fit or have holes or that I don’t wear. At a different time in the year I might go through my books and decide to get rid of some. You can break this down (using the skills we’ve already learned) into smaller projects that happen completely independently of each other.

Once you’ve cut down the sheer amount of stuff you need to organize there are some principles you can use to organize in a useful and easy to understand way. My biggest rule is that all of my things should have a place where they are supposed to be. They don’t always end up in that place, but at least I know where they should go. This also means that when I DO need to clean or organize I don’t have to use a lot of brain power to figure out how I want to put things away, I already know.

Some subelements of this: it can be incredibly helpful to purchase a lot of bins/bags/baskets or other containers so that you can put things AWAY. This also helps you to put similar things together. I have a bin that is all of my journaling supplies. I have another that is all of our extra technology. It’s much easier to stick things into a closet or on a shelf when they’re inside a box, plus it’s easier to find things later. It can also be great to add a label so that you know what’s inside.

I personally prefer to have all of my clutter hidden. I don’t want to see all my shit. So I put them in opaque boxes or put my boxes away in a closet. If you find that more confusing and prefer to see what you have, clear bins can be a lifesaver. That way you know exactly what’s in there, but it’s still contained and organized.

One thing that I want to call out specifically: have a space for things that need to be done. Most often for me this is mail, but it’s also where I keep all of my tax stuff until it’s ready to be done, or my paychecks when they need to be cashed, or other generic “to do” things. I like this to be somewhere visible, and somewhere that it’s going to be annoying and in my way until I complete the task (I put them on my desk. On top of the keyboard. Like an irritating cat). DO NOT let these things sit in an untended corner of your kitchen counter or they will be unearthed in three years when the bills are past due.

If you’re not sure how to put things away, here are some options to consider: peg boards can be a great way to organize oddly shaped and otherwise bulky objects. They’re especially good for craft spaces or garages. Also consider places that you aren’t using: headboards and footboards can have shelving, which is really useful. Corners are a great place to add a tailored shelving unit. I’m a big fan of chests or tables that open and have space inside so that you can hide shit away.

You may also want to use some of your objects as decor. Maybe you get a nice jewelry organizer that hangs on the wall so that your jewelry becomes artwork. If you’ve got a lot of hats you can display those. Especially if you prefer to be able to see your possessions, think about ways that you can have them out without just throwing them in a pile on a shelf or on the floor.

Finally, I would suggest using your physical space to include visual reminders as you need them. If you need to see your week written out, there are great white boards you can buy that go on the fridge. I like to have a corkboard so I can add relevant and important things to it and see them easily. If you require additional support with something like remembering what order to do your morning routine, you can post a picture schedule on the inside of a cupboard or next to your mirror.

Of course in addition to all these general suggestions there are tons of hacks for making organization easier: you can roll your t-shirts or socks instead of folding them. You can add racks into cupboards or under sinks to get additional space. If you have a hard time putting together outfits you can organize your clothes by color to make it easy to grab complementary or matching clothes. There’s tons of ideas out there, and that’s where I suggest checking out Pinterest or similar websites. Good luck my friends!

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.