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?