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: Transitions

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Welcome to transition week! We’re going to be spending some time focusing on what executive functioning skills and tricks you can use to make it easier to move from one task, thought, or place to another. This may seem incredibly specific, but many people with autism and ADHD struggle with effectively changing their focus, so it’s getting a whole section of its own.

People struggle with a number of types of transitions. One that gets addressed a lot is specific to kids in school when they need to move from one assignment to the next or one class to the next, but I find myself struggling with transitions in all kinds of places: getting out the door and moving to another location. Ending an activity and doing something else. Leaving social situations, which is not only a transition but also a social communication moment so it’s got some extra levels of difficulty.

Sometimes it’s tough to move from one thought to another: I’ll get stuck need to complete a thought or follow something through to its conclusion and can’t move on (this bit me in the butt a lot in school when I was writing papers because I had to explore EVERY thought completely, which meant I would write pages and pages beyond what I was supposed to and couldn’t ever cut it down). One that I have rarely heard mentioned is moving from one person to another. For me this is specifically when those people are parts of different social circles and I have to adjust to different contexts, it can be incredibly difficult to turn off the one version of myself and turn on the other one.

The skills we’re going to talk about this week will apply to some (and maybe all) of these types of transitions, but hopefully throughout the week I’ll address each of them. Sometimes it’s helpful to even identify something as a transition so that you can give yourself more time or insert a break in between the two things.

One of the challenging things about transitions is that moving from one task to another isn’t one skill. It’s a lot of skills, but we don’t typically break it down because for many of us these skills come naturally. First you have to decide when and how you will end one task. You have to remove your focus and attention from that task. You have to figure out how to clean it up/save your work/put away the component. Then you have to determine what you’ll do next and in what order, figure out what you need for the next task and how to get it, acquire all of it, and bring your focus to a new task. All of this needs to be done without getting distracted, without sensory overload, in the correct order, and in many cases while interacting with other people.

I highly recommend looking at all of those steps if you’re struggling with transitions. Which one are you getting stuck on? Did you forget certain steps? Would it help to write out the sequence you need to follow? You can tailor your skills to fit the part that you’re having trouble with. If it’s figuring out what to do next, perhaps write a to do list in advance. If it’s ending the task, work on visual timers or giving yourself concrete stopping points. We’ll talk more about all of those types of skills in later posts this week.

There are a couple of elements of neurodivergent brains that can make it harder to transition. I’d like to call them out so we can reference them when we talk about skills. The first is hyperfocus, which is especially pertinent for autistic brains. If you become hyperfocused on a project, it becomes much more challenging to pull your attention away and end it. There’s also sensory overload: you might be changing environments and sensory inputs during a transition which makes it a prime time for sensory overload. Transitions also require putting things in order, following the sequence, and understanding how the steps relate, which is its whole own element of executive functioning (I’ll be writing about it in a bit). Finally, transition is a prime opportunity for distractions to arise, especially if you’re going to a new location.

Any one of these elements can break down in the process of transition. It can help to figure out which one you’re struggling with and tailor your solutions to that problem.

A final element that I have experienced around transitions and that I know other people experience is anxiety. If you’re not certain how to start the next task, that can be anxiety provoking. If you’re not sure what’s coming next that’s even worse. While I’ll be focusing on practical suggestions in this section, I highly recommend heading back to the emotion regulation posts if you are struggling with a lot of anxiety around transitions. You can pair skills from emotion regulation with the skills we’ll address in this transition section to be effective and feel better.

So now that we’ve identified the challenges of transitions, we’ll head on in to some solutions. Look for a second post soon!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Ignoring Distractions and Controlling Attention

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Welcome to part 2 of Inhibition! we’re going to be talking quite a bit about focus today: how to decide what you’re going to focus on and how NOT to focus on the things you don’t want to focus on. Ignoring distractions and keeping your attention on the project or activity at hand. This is one that many people struggle with, especially since many of our lifestyles are set up with oodles of delightful distractions that seem far more appealing than writing a report or cleaning the kitchen. I’m going to be upfront here: sometimes these strategies won’t work. You will get distracted sometimes. But hopefully this can help you set up your life and environment with minimal distractions and improve your ability to get stuff done when you want to.

So the first thing I’m going to suggest for ignoring distractions is going to seem super obvious but sometimes we forget about it, so it’s a good place to start: set up your environment so that you don’t have as many distractions. This might mean your physical environment, so if your pets will get up in your business when you try to work at home you could go to the library instead, or it might mean a digital environment. There are lots of apps out there that will block the internet or certain sites or apps to keep you focused. Maybe you want to keep your phone out of reach so that you can’t text or play games. Maybe you write things out long hand first so that you don’t have any temptations at all (madness I know).

This might also mean lowering the number of sensory distractions. If noise really gets to you, try to find someplace quiet, or potentially use a white noise machine to drown out specific sounds. You can lower the shades so it isn’t too light. Noise cancelling headphones, sunglasses, earplugs, or comfortable clothes are great mobile options. Make the space comfortable and have all that you might need (water, a snack) right there so you don’t have to get up and go get things. When you can keep your body focused in a single place it can sometimes help your mind focus in a single place.

Sometimes that may mean naming a distraction and asking for a change. It’s easy enough to set up your environment well if you’re talking about your own space, but what if you’re sharing an environment with coworkers and they microwaved fish (this is obviously an exaggeration no reasonable or good or acceptable human would do that in shared spaces)? You may have to let them know that a specific behavior is super distracting to you and ask them to change it or offer an alternative. This is also an important thing to remember if a person keeps distracting you, e.g. if you’re trying to work and they keep wanting to talk to you. You can always offer a later time to engage with them, but be firm about needing your own time. If you’re interested in resources about setting boundaries, I highly recommend Captain Awkward.

Once you’ve created an environment that is conducive to focus (and it will look different for everyone, so again, data is great! Figure out how you focus best), you may need to turn inward a bit more. When you can’t focus it’s not because you’re lazy or weak. There’s likely something that your mind and emotions want to pay attention to. One option is to meet that need. I’ve seen some people use “morning pages” where they give themselves 15 or 20 minutes at the beginning of each day to just let out all of their thoughts. Once those thoughts are out and written down they don’t feel like they have to focus on them anymore.

You may also be having a difficult time focusing because there’s a need that’s not being met: if you’re sad or just had a fight with a friend or are really irritated about a Facebook post that someone made, you may need to give yourself a set amount of time to address what’s bothering you before you can really move on. You get 30 minutes to focus on the issue, and then you have to move to the next thing. Visualization can help when you need to be done with that topic, so for example imagining putting it in a box, sealing it, then sticking that box in a closet.

One thing that’s good to remember (and that will come up in other parts of this series) is that willpower is a finite resource. If you continually need to use it, you’ll run out during the day. That’s why it can be great to plan ahead. Do the hardest thing you have during the day first, that way it’s easier to focus on everything else without the Big Bad Scary Thing looming over you. You may also find it easier to focus if you put similar tasks together and do them all at once, like all of your running errands at once, and all of your reading at once, or everything related to your pets at once.

I like to always have my planner open and sitting next to me so that if I do get a bit distracted all I have to do is look down and I can see what I was supposed to be working on. It makes it easier for me to refocus (which is also an important skill).

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and want to distract if you look at your to do list or plan for the day and see a million things to do. I recommend setting realistic goals: pick 3 major things you’re going to accomplish each day. It makes it easier to get through them. Make sure you’re also rewarding yourself with rest time and fun activities after you finish focusing (I always work before play or it will be impossible to shift back into work, but maybe for you it’s easier to give yourself a dose of fun to kickstart the day). I also like to notice if something is EXTREMELY difficult (like more difficult than it normally would be) and just skip it for something that feels easier in the moment. I can always come back to it later, but if my brain does not want to focus on this particular task it is not going to help to use all my willpower and executive function to force myself into working on it. Work with your brain!

I also try to be aware of what useful tasks my brain wants to do at any given moment. If I had planned to do work when I get home, but I’m feeling antsy and don’t want to sit down anymore, maybe I’ll clean instead because that’s easier in the moment.

Last but not least, don’t expect the impossible of yourself. Give yourself a reasonable amount of timeĀ  to stay focused on something without distractions, then a break! You can use the Pomodoro Technique, which is a more formalized way of doing this, or you can just say work 30 minutes, break for 10! It’s always great to get up and move your body during those breaks as well, or you will get groggy and sore and achy.

If you have any tips for staying focused and ignoring distractions, drop them in the comments!

One thing that I want to note here, possibly just for myself but also possibly for you is that many of these things aren’t ground breaking new suggestions. For people who don’t have issues with executive function, these are things that their brain does automatically and unconsciously. When your executive function isn’t quite up to par you have to intentionally and consciously remember to do all of them. Hopefully that’s where some of these reminders can come in handy, even if it’s just writing them down and keeping them somewhere you can look at them.