Hacking Your Executive Function: Use Behaviorism!


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.


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!