Hacking Your Executive Function: Don’t Let Anxiety Get In the Way

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One of the most common things that comes up when I talk to folks about beginning their to do lists is that they have a LOT of emotions wrapped up in getting things done. Whether it’s anxiety about not being able to do things well enough, fear that they’ll do it wrong or let someone down, or guilt that they haven’t gotten to the task list yet. This is one of those places where emotion regulation can be incredibly helpful in managing the rest of your executive functioning, but the emotions around getting started are so big and so specific that I’m going to spend some time focused on how you can manage those emotions particularly.

We’ve already gone in depth on breaking down a large task into smaller pieces, but I’m going to return to that here because one of the emotions that can cause you to freeze up when you need to start something is the panic/overwhelmed feeling that it’s too much. If you’re one of those people who looks at a project and immediately feels the intensity of every step of that project, I highly suggest being kind of arbitrary in where you start. Sure, if you’ve got the time and the energy you can map it out, but it might be easier to pick one piece of it, any piece, that is easiest or closest to you, and focus exclusively on that.

For example when I started writing this series I didn’t really think about the order particularly well. I knew I just needed to get started. So I started writing about emotion regulation, because I feel very comfortable with it. I didn’t think about the other topics at all. I just looked at the one that felt the most comfortable, until I had finished that and could move on to the next one. This is a little bit like an extended exercise in mindfulness. When your brain starts to think about the scope of the project or drift to other areas, you might make a note, but then return to what you were doing before. Or you can just remind yourself that you’re not working on that right now, and bring yourself back to the topic at hand.

One helpful way to do this is to schedule in regular breaks so that your focus doesn’t get worn down. You can also use sensory techniques to ground yourself: if you start to get distracted or overwhelmed, pay attention to your breath, do a body scan, or notice what the seat underneath you feels like. One game that I like to play when I feel panicky is to pick a color and name each thing in the room that is that color. It helps to remind my stupidbrain that nothing is actually dangerous in my environment. That way you can reengage logic to refocus.

The next major issue that I see people run into is perfectionism: I can’t start because what if I do it wrong? This one is a classic when we’re talking about writing things: people will stare at the blank page and refuse to put down a single sentence if it’s not just right. This is not one of my personal issues, since my tendency is to just do MORE if I’m concerned about perfectionism, but there are lots of good resources out there.

First, remind yourself that you can always go back and make changes. One method that I use is having a system to note where I’d like to change something. When I’m writing I’ll highlight sentences or passages that I know I’m not a fan of, but I won’t let myself fix them the first time around. It helps me to feel better knowing that it won’t stay that way, but I can still move on and get the general shape of what I want to write. You can practice this by banning your delete button: everything you write stays on the page for this draft.

I also like to allow myself filler when I need to. If I’m writing or drawing, and I know there’s an element that will be there in the final piece but I don’t feel ready to work on it yet, I’ll just make a note: “add citation here” or “argument two here”. It feels weird at first, but the more you practice using these halfway techniques, the easier it feels to start because even if you get stuck you can just skip the hard bits.

I’m using a lot of writing examples here, but all of life can be thought of as drafts, and each time you work on a task you can improve it with a second go around. Sure, maybe I’ll look at my dirty house and be overwhelmed that it will never be perfect. But I can give it a sweeping and that will be my first draft. It will be something. Tomorrow I can “edit” it by putting away all the clutter. There is rarely a task that you can’t come back to and make improvements on. A few general tips: don’t compare yourself, whether to past you, other people, or some imagined perfect you. Avoid all or nothing language. Practice doing something halfway. See if anyone cares.

When you’re not overwhelmed or being a perfectionist, sometimes it’s just plain old low self-esteem that’s the culprit: if you’ve made mistakes in the past or worry that you don’t do enough, it can seem pointless to start on things now. “I’ll just screw it up, why should I bother?” “I’m so bad at this I don’t want to do it,” or even “I haven’t done it yet so I’ve already screwed up.” Guilt and low self-esteem suck and can be 100% crippling.

If this is something that hits you on the regular, I highly recommend taking some time every day to write down what you have accomplished. I know you’re going to want to be a sassafras and discount 90% of what you do, but be honest with yourself. If you need to, check in with a trusted friend or partner who can remind you of all the things you do. When you’re feeling like a guilty failure, look at that list. It’s facts and you can’t argue with it.

You can use some of the techniques I mentioned above to ground yourself when you start to get swamped by feeling like a failure. But I also encourage you to be realistic about your past failures: did they truly have the big impact that you think they did? How many other people actually remember that failure (I suspect you might be the only one). Think of the times you see yourself as a “failure” in context with all the other things you do: what percentage of your life are you making mistakes? It’s probably within the realm of very normal. If you find that this makes you feel much worse, you might want to check in with someone who loves you, who can help you be realistic about when you make mistakes and when you are successful.

Finally, I’d remind you that past mistakes do not dictate the future. I’ve made a whole buttload of mistakes in my life, but usually once I make one I learn from it. Then I can make new ones! If you are really concerned that a project is our of your reach, it’s a good time to ask for help and see what supports you can put in place. Mistakes feel like shit, but they’re an opportunity to improve. I admire few people more than those who notice when they’ve screwed up, ask for feedback, and make improvements.

Good luck with all your feelings around initiation! You’ve got this.