Hacking Your Executive Function: Ritual, Repetition, and Routines for Working Memory

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Are you ready for one of my absolute favorite topics? ARE YOU!?!?!?! That’s right bebes we’re talking about creating routines and using them to your own benefit. One of the things that professionals often talk about in relation to autism is an overreliance on routine, and a lack of flexibility when routines are changed. It’s often cited as a problem that needs to be fixed. I’m not sure I’d agree. Instead I would say that routines can be immensely helpful. We just have to be aware when we’re using them, intentionally choose when we’d like to use them, and understand when it won’t be helpful to continue following through on the routine. That means practicing stopping a routine partway through, and sometimes practicing having alternatives.

But once you’re sold on the idea of routines, I have quite a few suggestions for what you can do to use repetition, ritual, and routine to improve working memory. First, create routines where you don’t have to remember as much. I like to use automation for this. Whenever possible I automate my bills so that I do not have to remember when to pay them (recognizing that I am lucky to have the ability to do this without worrying about overdrafts). It is possible to have groceries automated through online delivery services. You can automate certain functions on your electronics (there’s a phone app called IFTTT that allows you to set up if/then logic to trigger certain functions on your phone. I don’t fully get it, but if it makes sense to your brain you can streamline a lot of things). You can also get plugs that will automatically turn off after a certain amount of time if you tend to forget things like turning off your curling iron. Let something else run the routines so that you don’t have to!

You can also create your own rituals/routines. Sometimes they’re totally arbitrary: I like to find ways to time activities by doing other things while I’m waiting. For example when I’m making ramen noodles I let my noodles cook for as long as it takes me to get a bowl and spoon, then pour myself a glass of milk. With that routine I don’t forget my noodles and end up with icky overcooked mush. Other times you might just decide what order you do things in. It doesn’t have to be based on some kind of logic, but doing things in the same order each time makes it easier. For example when I get home from work I nearly always check the mail when I get out of my car, feed the cats when I get inside, look at my mail, then go to the bathroom. That helps me manage a couple of tasks that could be lost otherwise but since they always come at the same time (and after a clear trigger, coming home) it’s much easier to remember.

I also like to create rituals around things that I want to feel important. While this isn’t directly related to working memory, it creates a nice combo of working memory and emotion regulation because it can help you to carve out space for self care and remember to do specific things that feel good. For me that looks like buying bath bombs and candles for when I take a hot bath so that I can go through the ritual of setting it up to cue myself that it’s time to relax. Or it might look like scheduling a date with my husband and texting him throughout the day to make plans and get excited. Those ritualistic elements can help to set the stage emotionally for a particular task or type of event and get you more excited, in the right mood, or ready to do what you’re planning to do.

Another option that improves working memory is repetition. I use this in the way that I set up my planner. I will regularly write the same task 3-4 times in different places to ensure that I don’t forget it. No, I don’t just arbitrarily write it over and over again. I have one section in which I have calendars for the full year and I’ll write down events and tasks that are in the far future. Then I have a section for each month that I create at the beginning of the month, and I’ll add the task there when the time comes. Finally I have a weekly section where I write down the relevant tasks for each day, where I’ll finally place the task when I need to do it. Not only does this allow me to organize my time in a variety of timeframes, it also helps me remember things by writing them multiple times.

I also like to incorporate repetition into things that are very important by making it fun: that might include creating mnemonics or songs/rhymes to remember certain things, writing them in fun fonts, drawing pictures, or finding another way to burn the information in your brain so deeply that you can call it up at a moment’s notice. In general handwriting helps you hold something in your brain longer than typing it, so when I want to be particularly focused I leave electronics.

Finally, I encourage people to not be afraid to practice stuff. Even stuff that seems like you shouldn’t need to practice it. A lot of basic tasks actually involve quite a few smaller steps. If your executive function is less than stellar everything from cooking to getting dressed can be challenging because they require many steps put in the correct order, holding information in mind. It’s ok to do the same, simple thing a few times in a row to get it into your muscle memory. No shame at all! The more you repeat doing something the same way, the easier it will be every other time you have to do it. I have practiced my cleaning routines until I know how to do them so well I don’t have to think anymore. For tasks that aren’t too complex that you do a lot? Forget the working memory. Find a workaround.