Hacking Your Executive Function: Memory Tricks

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Ok friends, this is the final post for Working Memory, and we’re over halfway through my executive function series! I can’t believe how much I’ve posted already on this and how much is left. Thanks for hanging in there with me. This last section for Working Memory is a bit of a catch all, but mostly it’s about simplifying and preparing ahead so that your memory will be on point.

Let’s start with some preparation type hacks that you can use to make sure you aren’t trying to remember things last minute and panicking. I’d highly suggest checking out some Everyday Carry websites, which talk about ways to optimize what tools you need with you on a day to day basis. If you can get everything you need in one bag and you just have to remember one thing, that’s simplified your memory needs significantly!

You can also use those same principles to create a kind of “emergency kit”. If you tend to forget things or lose things, it can be a good idea to have a bag that has all the stuff you might need (a spare key, some money, a snack, etc.) and keep it in your car or create a tiny version to leave in a coat pocket or purse. The idea is not that you’ll be using these things on the regular. You still want to build the habit of bringing your normal keys and your wallet. But in case you forget, you’ll have a back up. I do this with a water bottle in my car so that when I inevitably forget to bring one to work out I’ll have some way to stay hydrated.

The next set of suggestions has to do with keeping things relatively simple so that you can focus well. Rule #1: DO NOT MULTITASK. What most people call multitasking is actually switching very quickly between different tasks. It’s not super efficient, and especially if transitioning is hard for you this will significantly decrease your ability to actually complete tasks since you’re using a lot of mental energy to switch tasks. Instead, pick one thing to do and work only only that task, even if it feels like you have too many things to complete.

Another way to simplify things is to break bigger pieces of information into smaller chunks. Instead of trying to memorize the full periodic table, just work on it row by row. Then you’ll simply have to string things together (hopefully none of your memory tasks require that much memorizing because that’s a doozy). For me this expresses itself in daily life more in how much I choose to do at a time. Instead of saying “I will do all of my ad sales management this morning” I say “I’m going to e-mail the people who haven’t sent me ad copy yet”. Once I’ve finished that piece I check in and take on a new task. A big part of this is breaking down one task into smaller pieces to start. How do I do that?

Planning! I like to write down each task that I have to do each day. Some people prefer visual instructions, and might prefer images or another visual system, but even having a written form is fine for me. I HIGHLY recommend that if someone gives you verbal instructions you take notes because it will be incredibly taxing on your working memory to try to remember everything if you haven’t written it down. Once I’ve written down the main task I like to write down each step of the task. I may not do it in a huge big list. I may choose to write the first step today, the second step tomorrow, etc. so that I am reminded when I need to jump back in and do the next piece.

Another helpful way to increase your working memory is to keep things that are similar together. I have a drawer in my desk at home that contains all of the extra technology I might need, so I know that whether I’m looking for an extension cord or an external hard drive, it will be in that drawer. In my planner I put all of my work related things in one box and all of my home related things in another box. Mentally, I might have a few tasks that need to get done around the house: instead of trying to remember all of them at once I’ll note everything that needs to get done in one room and try to do those things together.

You can also simplify what you’re trying to remember by using acronyms or mnemonics. These are great for sets of items or tasks you have to do repeatedly. I repeatedly forget to turn on the water when I’m doing my laundry before I put the soap and clothes in, so it could be great for me to create a mnemonic. Whack some cloth! Now it’s going to be hard for me to forget that weird saying and I’ll hopefully think of it when I go to do laundry next. That will remind me the steps I need to take.

Last but not least, the best way to hold on to new information is to integrate it with things you already know. So if you’re starting a new project, ask a lot of questions. Understand how it parallels other projects you’ve done. Find out if it relates to something else you’re working on. Can you connect it to something you like and care about? Sometimes those connections may not make sense to other people. I now distinctly remember why I shouldn’t rig an aerial apparatus to a tree because I was talking to a friend the other day and she said that trees make noises when you hang from them and I immediately thought of Ents. Now it’s unlikely that I’ll forget the Ent connection. Any time you can relate a new piece of information to something that’s already solidly in your brain, you strengthen the new memory.

And with that you have all of my tips for improving working memory. Next up we’ll start talking about initiating tasks.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Sensory Memory

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Sometimes no matter how hard you try to find ways to support your memory or accommodate and use a different tactic, a task just requires you to use working memory and it’s a challenge. Good thing there are ways you can actually improve your working memory. Let’s talk a bit about those today.

Today’s post is similar to a lot of the other things I’ve recommended in other areas because it fucking works bebes. But now we’re going to get specific for memory. Here’s the trick: USE YOUR BODY.

Simple? Yes. Hard to implement? Sometimes. Effective? Hell yeah. One of the things that is particularly taxing on working memory is that we either totally abstract things or use a single sense (usually visual or verbal) to try to remember things. If you can incorporate multiple senses into your memory, you’ll be strengthening the memory and making it easier to hold on to. You can use the senses later to trigger the memory.

Let’s talk specifics. Singing or rhyming introduces a new element to a memory. It might feel a little bit kiddish, but creating a short song that tells you the steps to a project or contains all the information will make it MUCH easier to remember. You might also associate a color or a shape to go with particular facts. If you have a visual in front of you that will help immensely, but even just visualizing it internally can help too. If you’re a doodler, embrace the doodle! When you’re figuring out a new process, you could doodle the steps instead of just writing them down.┬áSome people like to choose a specific place to look in order to remember information, so you tie the name of someone at a party to the red chair in the corner, and when you look at the red chair in the corner it will help you trigger “Jacob”.

Scent is an incredibly strong memory trigger, so while it could be hard to incorporate it into memory, if you’re really struggling you could try using essential oils to associate different memories with different scents. You could also imagine a scent to associate it with particular memories. Flowers or foods could be great places to start since they’ve got strong scents we know well.

Something that could be incredibly fun to play with would be incorporating taste into your working memory. Let’s say you struggle to remember all your possessions in the morning. What if you assigned an element of your breakfast to each item you need? Orange juice is your phone, yogurt is your keys, blueberries are your bag, strawberries are your planner. As you eat your breakfast you can take a mental checklist of all the things that you need. This can be comboed with scent fairly easily I’d imagine.

Moving around while you work to remember something can also improve the memory. It turns out that general physical exercise improves your memory, but some studies also indicate that gesturing while you try to remember something, or acting out what you’re trying to remember will improve your ability to hold on to it. Working out before trying to remember something increases retention, and if you’re having a hard time with your memory, getting up and moving around can improve your abilities.

When it comes to working memory that might mean doing some quick jumping jacks before you try to cook something so that you can hold a bit more in your brain while you’re following the recipe. Or it might mean power walking on the treadmill while you read instructions for a task you’ll do later, then rereading when you have to do the task. Or perhaps it’s spending 20 minutes working on a project, then 5-10 minutes on a trampoline or bouncing a ball. Even just working regular exercise into your weekly routine can make improvements in your working memory, so setting aside 30 minutes a day to go for a walk can help boost working memory.

The more consistently you focus a particular piece of information on a sense or tie it to an external marker, the easier it will be to remember, so if you have challenges remembering what order to wash in the shower, or you’ll forget if you already shampooed, you might add rubber duckies along the side of your tub and associate each one with a task you do in the shower. When you do the task, you could look at the ducky, or move the ducky from one side of the tub to the other. After a while these memories will be so routine that you don’t have to rely as much on working memory.

Again: none of these things alone will “fix” your working memory or make tasks like organization and planning easy. But it may make it easi-ER and that will allow you to start incorporating other supports until hopefully cleaning the house, or remembering where you are in a task doesn’t feel insurmountable or cause intense anxiety.

Next we’ll talk more about the mental ways that you can improve working memory, and then onwards!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Unexpected Transitions

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Most of what we’ve talked about up to this point are when you can plan ahead for a transition. You know it will be coming, you have an idea of what your day will hold, and you can give yourself extra time or use skills to make the transition easier. But sometimes we have to unexpectedly go from one thing to another. Maybe we get interrupted from a project during the day and we have to immediately move to a more pressing task. Maybe you’re out with friends and they decide to change plans. Maybe an emergency comes up. We all have times where our plans get derailed and we have to quickly switch to something new.

One thing you can do is practice your flexibility. This is the part you CAN do ahead of time so that those skills are strong and ready to be used at a moment’s notice. If you can set aside a day where you’ve got time and emotional reserves (ok this might be a ridiculous dream), try switching between different tasks and noticing how you feel, what makes it easier, etc. I recommend starting this out with things you like so that you’re not trying to really accomplish stuff and you don’t have to worry about the anxiety around the task itself, just around the transition. Maybe you pick two tasks and set an alarm for every hour, then move back and forth between them.

Once you start to feel more comfortable switching between tasks you like, you can try to introduce more challenging tasks, or have someone else give you an unexpected task. You can also use a friend to help you practice creating a new plan or expectation in the moment, which is another way to prep ahead of time. Maybe you want to test out having a day or have a day or an hour where you don’t decide ahead of time what you’re going to do. You can practice deciding what to do and how to do it on the fly. To get advanced, set aside the time then have a friend suggest the activity so you can figure out how to accomplish it unexpectedly.

Again, these in advance skills are things that I would only recommend practicing if you have the time and feel emotionally stable when you want to practice them. I’d also suggest having a plan B in place for if you start to melt down or feel overwhelmed so that you can do some self care if you start to struggle with the transitions. However the more you practice these things, the easier it will get to do them in the wild when unexpected transitions appear. You may have to start by practicing in a very intentional way (you get an unexpected transition, you stop and write down what you’re planning to do and how you’re going to do it, you do emotion regulation techniques, then you begin the next task), but I have found that the more I do it the less I have to consciously work through a transition.

There are also some things you can do in specific situations that will help you. I generally try to overplan, meaning have a couple of different options for any plan that I create. It’s like a choose your own adventure book! I’ll have my first plan, which is what I would like to happen. But if I know it’s possible that something might go down differently I’ll have an alternate version of my plan to accommodate. I try not to go overboard with this though because once you start hitting four or five different versions of the same plan it tends to cause more anxiety than it’s worth and eat up a LOT of your time. Be reasonable. Make contingency plans for things that are LIKELY to happen, not every possibility in the whole world. Practice recognizing that something may happen you haven’t planned for and then forcing yourself to stop planning.

Sometimes it also helps to create an order when it feels like things are out of control. The order doesn’t have to make sense: it can be totally arbitrary. If I get a bunch of new projects thrown at me unexpectedly I’ll write them all down and sometimes just pick one, any one, and say that I have to start there. Getting started is more important than prioritizing correctly. Another example would be if an unexpected emergency comes up. Let’s say your spouse gets a flat tire and calls to ask you to come help. I might give myself five minutes to jot down what the steps of that task would be, then give myself a clear reward afterwards. I can tell myself “first I will drive to pick them up, then I will help them change the tire, then I will stop for ice cream on the way home. I can finish my current task at x time.” Having a clear place to pick back up on what you thought you would do also helps alleviate the anxiety.

Last but not least I find it helpful when faced with an unexpected change to notice what’s actually upsetting me about the situation. Am I upset that I can’t do something I was planning on doing? How important was that thing? Do I actually want to do the new thing more? Am I frustrated that I can’t complete what I was in the middle of? I may have another time I can finish it, or I can remind myself that things aren’t all or nothing, it’s ok to do part of something then come back. Is it not knowing exactly what’s about to happen? I can ask more questions to determine what’s going on, or else just make some decisions for myself (this happens a lot in a social group when no one can decide where you’re going. I’ve taken to just saying what we’re doing because generally people will agree). I think we often get hung up on trying to figure out what’s “right” or makes the most sense when we’re trying to plan or put together a schedule, but it’s surprising how often just doing SOMETHING is more effective.

That’s all I’ve got for you on transitions! Drop any extra hints or tricks in the comments. Next up? Working memory.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Transitions That Aren’t Tasks

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Most of the “transitions” that we talk about when we’re looking at executive function are tasks. This gets ingrained early on because accomplishing things is the #1 priority of our shitty capitalist society and also because school tends to be a list of tasks that must be accomplished. But sometimes there are other types of transitions: transitioning from place to place. Transitioning between different people. Transitioning from one environment (and self presentation) to another. Today we’re going to talk about some strategies specific to other types of transitions.

Let’s start by talking about places. There are three elements to actually switching physical locations that I find challenging: first is that sometimes I have not been to a place before and I find the unknown anxiety provoking. Second is that driving places is boring and stress inducing, and public transit can be challenging. Travel time always feels like a waste to me. Third is that when you need to leave the house or leave work you are adding in a lot of extra steps to getting to your next task, whether that’s putting on pants or making sure you don’t forget your purse. Let’s have a look at each element.

First, you can make transitions a little bit easier by prepping ahead of time. If I’ve never been to a location before I like to look it up online, see if I can find pictures, check out maps, and prepare for how long it will take me to get there. If it’s something fairly important I may even visit the location ahead of time just to feel more comfortable. I always like to know where I can escape to if I get overwhelmed in a new location, so you might take time to identify a quiet space. I generally also try to give myself extra time to get from one place to another in case I get lost or need extra time to transition once I arrive. I’ve mentioned before that using your body can help get your brain active and ready for the next thing. I like to walk or bike when I can to put some space between one place and the next in a really physical way.

What about travel? Well we could do a whole series on how challenging transit is when you’re disabled, but I’m going to focus on methods for making it less stressful here. One thing I do is avoid areas that I know are challenging for me. I almost never drive downtown, I try to leave early if I have to get somewhere around rush hour (I’ll go to a nearby coffee shop or library to kill time), and I give myself permission to just pay for an expensive parking ramp if I know parking is going to be a challenge. If you know that certain areas/times/elements increase your anxiety, just don’t do them. Parallel parking? I’d rather walk an extra block. Sometimes it helps to have a friend or buddy who can help you navigate, or who can drive if it gets too dark for you.

I also like to try to keep my commutes interesting. I listen to podcasts or create playlists that will keep my energy up. Sometimes I’ll practice mindfulness in the car. If I’m taking a bus I always bring a book or a game to play (this is especially helpful for stopping strangers from speaking to you). Audiobooks are another great option. Although I still hate driving, I find that it doesn’t feel like as much of an imposition when I have something fun and interesting to do at the same time, or at least it doesn’t feel like I’ve completely wasted my time.

The final element that I find the most challenging about transitioning out of a space is how many steps there are to it. This brings in a social piece that I find particularly difficult. When you’re simply transitioning from one task to another, you generally just have to mentally disengage and then reengage. With physical transitions you need to figure out how to end the conversation/interaction that you might be having in one space, locate all of your items, determine if you need to bring new items with you, find a route to your new location, and make sure you know how to get there. That’s a lot of stuff.

Some of this you can do ahead of time: I always try to know all the locations I’ll be headed during the day and how I’ll get there in advance. I also try to grab all of the items I’ll need during the day and keep them in my car, so I spend some extra time the evening before and in the morning to prepare. Some of it is more immediate. It can help to have a basic script that you use to end conversations. I often like to use my schedule to help myself feel like it’s ok to leave (especially if I like someone). So instead of just trying to leave I’ll say “oh I have to get to work” or “I have to get home and eat dinner” so that I feel less like I’m abandoning someone. Putting together a script for ending conversations can be challenging but I suggest you practice it and think about it in advance if leaving is something you struggle with.

The last element that can be challenging is that you need to rely on working memory to acquire all the relevant possessions. I don’t bring purses with me anymore because I would always leave them places. Instead I’ve downsized to a phone case that holds my credit cards and ID, plus my keys. I try to always keep all my materials together and leave them in the same place (for locations that I go to regularly). If I don’t need to bring something with me, I leave it in my car. I also like to leave some extra things in my car just in case: a sweater or sweatshirt, a waterbottle, a phone charger. That helps diminish the pressure to always remember all the things I need.

As if that weren’t enough, there are often other types of transitions built in to moving from one place to another. One that has its own set of rules and that I have almost never seen discussed is transitioning between different people and different types of people. Basically, depending upon who you’re around you have to present yourself differently. I use a different vocabulary around my mother than I do around my husband, and I discuss different topics with my boss than I do with my aerials instructor. Shifting mindsets to know what’s appropriate and how to act in each of these situations is its own type of transition.

I try to never go immediately from one type of person to another. I at least give myself drive time or some space to reset my brain. I’ll also think about what’s coming next, or imagine the beginning of the social situation to ease myself into it. When I can, I like to have a different outfit for each type of person. It can be incredibly helpful to signal how I should hold myself. Wearing my workout leggings to work feels weird and signals that I should be casual, so it helps me relax when I put them on to be at home or at aerials.

If you’re struggling with appropriate behavior for different types of people, or with your different worlds getting all mixed up (like that time I said “balls deep” to my boss), you could go back to basics. This link gives a very simplified version of the “circles theory”, which helps you place different people in rings close or further from yourself. Different behaviors are appropriate for different circles. You could use a visual of this nature to help remind you of the language, topics, dress, etc. that are appropriate to each social group. Keep it in a purse or car so you can pull it out and remind yourself while you transition.

I think that’s quite enough for now! Look out for the final post on transitions soon.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Starting a Fresh Task During a Transition

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Ok transitionistas (transitionistos? Transitionexes?) let’s say we’ve finished up one task, we’ve managed to disengage and now we need to get moving right along to the next one with minimal distraction, anxiety, and confusion. Let’s lay out a few of the ways that you can make your life easier in getting from thing 1 to thing 2.

The first set of strategies I’m going to recommend comes before you’ll even need to make the transition. These are the things you’ll do when you’re planning your day, organizing your tasks, or getting ready for the day. Oftentimes if you set yourself up correctly you’ll need minimal support in the moment. When you’re setting up your schedule, there are a few things that can help: making a visual schedule so that you can see what’s happening and emotionally prep yourself. You can also do this by numbering your tasks or listing them in the order that they’ll happen. Anything that you can do to visualize your next step or have a concrete order is great.

In addition to a task list or schedule you can do this in other ways. You might write yourself a short social narrative, or even just say it in your head or aloud (first I’m going to wash the dishes, then I’m going to put the dishes away). It sounds silly, but cueing yourself with a first, then type of narrative gives your brain more ways to process the transition. If you’re a highly visual person you might like to have pictograms or images that indicate your next task and post the image for your next task on your computer screen or next to your desk.

In addition to creating these kinds of reminders, you can also organize your day to help improve transitions. I highly recommend building in time for a short break between tasks so that if you’re struggling you can regulate yourself and get back to what you do. I personally like to have something planned for those breaks, whether it’s doing something that I find fulfilling on a sensory level, going for a quick walk, grabbing a snack, or reading for five minutes. I think it’s always good to get your body involved in some fashion during these breaks. Movement does a lot to refresh our brains and get us mentally active if we’re losing focus. Use that!

It’s also always easier to move from something you like less to something you like more, so I generally tend to stack my days so that the hardest stuff is towards the beginning of the day and then I can move to easier and easier work. You may want to notice when you’re the most productive/energetic and build in your hardest tasks then so that you can take advantage of your best focus. This might mean you start out strong, or perhaps you have a couple tasks in the morning that are easy to get started, or maybe you build through the day to the hardest task.

You can also practice transitions moving from harder to easier things. Maybe you know you struggle with moving to a new task, so you set aside an afternoon during which you’ll only spend an hour per task and you order them from least pleasant to most pleasant. The more you practice the easier it will be.

The last organizational tactic I’d recommend is creating routines. A note about routines: it’s easy to become overly dependent on them to the point that we don’t have any flexibility. I try to practice doing something differently every few weeks, or always having a plan B in my pocket just in case things don’t go as planned. However creating routines and patterns in an intentional way means you don’t have to think and plan each step of your day every time you want to do it. It also means that the transitions become easier because you’re used to them and you always know what’s coming next.

I try to have a few different “scripts” or routines that I can run during the day, then I can build a complete schedule out of those blocks. For example, I have a morning routine at work, I have a cleaning routine, I have a routine for when I’m working out after work, I have a routine for doing freelance work. In any given day I might put those together in a different order, but instead of having to transition between ten or twenty different tasks I only have to transition between three or four preset routines.

So once you’ve set yourself up for success, you still need to actually do the transition! One of the things that I often feel during transitions is anxiety, so I strongly recommend taking a look back at the emotion regulation strategies and thinking about what you could employ to decrease anxiety, frustration, confusion, or anger. It can help to have an object, food, or person nearby that helps keep you calm or makes you feel good, and you may even want to incorporate a reward of some kind into the next activity (when I had to transition to practicing piano as a child I’d get a handful of chocolate chips to eat while I practiced).

I also like to create external reminders that pull me in to the next task, whether that’s setting up a particular area to get me started on the next thing (when I go to stretch in the evenings part of my transition is to pull out a yoga mat and put on Youtube. Those environmental cues get me ready to start), or simply having all the elements you need to do the task readily available (instead of waiting until I need to work on my iPad, I keep it near my bed or in my bag so that I can get to it quickly).

Just as it’s helpful to have a concrete way to end a task, it can also be helpful to start the same way each time. Whether that’s having a cup of coffee when you sit down to write or putting on your running shoes when you work out, if you have one consistent element that will help cue you in, it makes life easier. If you can’t have that, I sometimes like to create something: perhaps play a particular song when I start opening my e-mails or take five minutes to set up my planner before I begin my work each day. It might be as simple as closing your eyes, changing your seating position, and paying attention to your breath for thirty seconds. Any way that you can cue your body that it’s time to start something is helpful.

And of course, all of the strategies we covered in the initiation section are also great tools. Good luck transitioners!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Ending A Task

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In my prior post, I discussed the ways that transitioning from one thing to another can be challenging. Today I’m going to start with suggestions and supports for the first place that transitions can break down: ending one task and taking your attention away from that task.

The first thing that can help with mentally disengaging from a task when you need to is to be very clear about when you will be done with it. That might mean that you give yourself a specific time at which you’ll end, or it might mean that you decide what “finished” means for this particular task (so for example you will be done washing the dishes when there are no more dirty dishes in the sink). That can help you mentally prepare for the end point.

Once you have set that end point, it’s good to give yourself reminders about it. You might want to use a visual timer or countdown so that you know how much time you have left to work on the task. You may set an alarm that will let you know when you’re finished, or even a couple of alarms so that you know when you have 5 minutes left, 3 minutes left, then it’s time to be done. There are a ton of apps out there that can help you with this as well. When possible, it’s great to have both visuals and verbal reminders. Sometimes the task itself will give you a visual reminder which is great. In the dishes example, you’ll see the pile of dishes getting smaller and know how close you are to the end.

Another piece that can be helpful is having a clear way to signal the end of a task. You might use imagery to help yourself see it as complete: imagine putting the task in a box and putting it in a closet, then shutting the door. You may give yourself a word, phrase, song, or object that signals to you that you’re finished and you say or do it every time you complete a task. Maybe you always build in a small amount of time between tasks so that you can have a short break, and you do the same 5 minute “break” activity each time. That kind of consistency helps your mind transition more easily and will condition you to feel “done” when you do your transition routine.

Speaking of consistency, you can also implement consistency on a larger scale to help yourself out. If you can do your regular tasks in the same order each time, you won’t have to spend as much energy figuring out what comes next or how to move from one task to the next. It can become a habit that runs on autopilot. When you’re setting up these types of routines, you’ll also want to think about what will be the easiest for you. Do you struggle when you have downtime between tasks? Try to organize your day so that there’s minimal waiting, or if you will have to wait bring a project with you. This can keep your mind from getting distracted and wandering between tasks, or from feeling like you’ll be bored when a previous task ends.

When possible, have the fewest number of transitions in your day. That might mean doing all of one task before moving on to the next instead of splitting batch similar a task into multiple parts. It might mean doing all of the things that need to be done in the same place at one time. Or it might mean batching similar tasks together so that you can continue your momentum, for example making all the phone calls you need to make in a day all at once. You may have to transition from one call to the next, but you’re in the same place doing the same type of task, so fewer transitions are necessary.

In general, it’s easiest to go from a harder or less pleasant task to an easier, more fun task. If you can order your day to hit the hardest task when you feel the most on top of things (for me that’s about mid morning, for you it might be at a different time) and then ease on down from there, it will make the transitions easier.

The last trick that you can use for ending a task is to get your body involved. If you’re still sitting in the same place with the same materials you were using for the previous task, it’s going to be fairly difficult to get your mind to move on. Standing up and moving to a new place, or even just taking a quick walk can signal that you’ve completed the task. You may even want to involve other senses: stop and listen to a song, or grab a snack, or just stretch. Our minds are more connected to our bodies than we often want to believe, so use that! Change something physical and it will help signal to your mind that it’s time to change gears mentally as well.

Next up: starting a fresh task!

Hacking Your Executive Function: What the Heck is Inhibition?

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Welcome to part two of Hacking Your Executive Function! This week we’re going to be talking about something that’s relatively new to me: inhibition! I’m so excited to jump in and explore. Similar to Emotion Regulation, we’re going to start with an overview of what this is, why we might want to practice it, how it’s related to executive function, and what the skill does for us.

At its most basic, inhibition is the ability to decide what you do and don’t want to do. It means controlling your automatic or impulsive behaviors and creating behaviors that you want through attention and reasoning. That can be a lot of things: the ability to focus your thoughts and attention on specific things and ignore distractions; or motor control that keeps you from bouncing your leg when bored and anxious; or on a behavioral level choosing not to yell when you’re frustrated. Inhibition is also closely related to building and breaking habits. It’s what allows us to break habits we don’t like and helps us build the habits we do want. It is resisting temptations and ignoring distractions.

Inhibition is one of the very basic forms of executive function. It involves noticing the behaviors and thoughts that you’re having, connecting them to your values and long term goals, and then making plans and initiating the course of action that you do want. There’s a lot contained there, so part of these posts will be breaking down inhibition into different components and finding ways to notice where you’re struggling.

One thing that I want to make super clear is that the type of inhibition that I’m talking about here is an internal skill that someone chooses to engage in. Especially when it comes to autism, ADHD, or other neurodivergences, it is incredibly common for parents, caregivers, teachers, and other authority figures to demand that an individual change or give up certain behaviors. That is NOT what I am promoting here. Instead, what I would like to focus on is skills that will help an individual achieve their own goals, diminish the stress of feeling distracted or out of control, and give an individual the option to choose behaviors that they want.

So we are NOT talking about stamping out your stims but we ARE talking about learning how to better ignore that annoying buzz from the radiator. Sometimes this does mean not doing something that is super fun and choosing to do something less fun, but it’s always to reach the goal that you want to achieve.

I like to think of inhibitory control as your inner parent. This is the part of your brain that helps you balance what you want with what you need, and gives you rules and schedules to keep you on track. It’s the part of you that says “yeah, ice cream for dinner might feel nice now but when you get sick to your stomach in two hours it won’t be so great.” Sometimes it can help to imagine or visualize this part of yourself so that you can have a specific voice or face that acts as the parent. I also like to visualize the more childlike parts of myself so that I can understand what I WANT as well as what I should be doing.

So for example I imagine my child self. This is the part of me that wants to explore, have fun, try new things, be colorful, be loud, and act impulsively. There are elements of this that are very important, and that child self can give me important information when I feel as if I need to be taken care of.

I also imagine that I’ve got a more teenaged self. This is someone who is driven and wants to accomplish, be recognized, be perfect, and fit in. This version of me has a great deal of anxiety and is often too hard on myself, convinced that any rest is bad.

My parent self is the one who balances those two and adds in my long term values, pays attention to emotions, notices what other people are feeling and what they need, and tries to find solutions that will balance all of this. It’s the one that can tell my child self “we’ll do that later but right now we need to take care of work”. It’s also the part of me that can break down any act of inhibition to notice where I’m struggling.

The final section of this blog post will give you an outline of the steps it takes to inhibit a behavior and thus the different places that it can go wrong.

The first step of inhibition is noticing a behavior or thought that you don’t want. Sometimes you’ll notice later that you did something you didn’t want to do (like if you reacted with extreme anger to someone and later feel remorse about it) whereas other times you’ll know in the moment (when you look at the chocolate cake and think “hey, I’m trying not to eat so much sugar” and then you eat it anyway). In both cases it can be beneficial to try to give yourself some time in the moment to not just be aware of the behavior or thought but to take time to consider your options.

The next step would be to gather data. What are your long term goals and what action in the moment will help you achieve them (your shoulds). What do you want to do (your wants). What would be the impact of doing what you want vs. what you should? Will other people be impacted? Will it have negative consequences for you down the line?

Then you can brainstorm solutions. That might be finding a course of action that satisfies should and want. It might be giving yourself a time to fulfill your wants later but doing the shoulds right now. Or maybe you decide that you’ve been doing a lot of should and right now want will be better for you.

Finally you can go ahead and do the thing!

In the next few days I’ll be talking through how you can get better at each of these steps, whether that’s identifying problems, making a decision in the moment, or finding the motivation to do the should when you’d rather do the want. Join me!