Hacking Your Executive Function: Using Momentum to Manage Inhibition

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We’ve spent quite a bit of time talking abut strategies for inhibition, but one thing that might be occurring to you at this point is that this is a lot of wrk. If you have to be consciously and mindfully employing these strategies every time you want to focus on work or go to the gym or clean your house, this will sap your executive function quite quickly. Is there a way to do all this that doesn’t require quite as many active skills?

Why yes now that you mention it there is! They are called habits, routines, or rituals, and we all use them every day to decrease the number of active choices we need to make. The more you can build up momentum in the types of choices you want to make, the easier it becomes to continue making those good choices. As you might be aware, building and breaking habits is a whole beast of its own, so in this final inhibition post we’re going to be talking about habits and useful ways of creating the ones that will work for you.

As we’ve mentioned before it’s often useful to consider why you’re doing a particular behavior and replacing it with a behavior that fulfills the same purpose. This is especially important when we’re talking habits, and one of the reasons that cold turkey is often not a helpful way to go when you want to break a habit.

Again, I’m going to recommend taking some data here by tracking your habits: what comes before them, what are the elements, how do you feel afterwards? That way you can identify what the habit is doing for you. This will also help you to break the habit into its elements. Sometimes you may not want to try and change a full habit all at once. If you always eat a snack after you get home from work and you want to stop, maybe start by changing from chips into veggies first, then stop walking in to the kitchen after work, then cut the snack out entirely. Start small! The tracking can help you determine how to start small, and can help you be very specific about what it is you want to change. “Eat healthier” is not a goal for changing a habit. “Eat salad 3 times a week” is.

Speaking of starting small, I also highly recommend practicing changing some habits with a small and easy habit first. Quitting smoking? Maybe work up to that. Instead you could try stretching for 10 minutes before bed, or spending a half hour every Sunday evening preparing for your week. It’s definitely a good idea to focus on one habit at a time as well so that you can use your energy and build up the momentum. Once you feel more confident and comfortable with building and breaking habits, you can move into something really challenging.

Another benefit of tracking is that once you start implementing a habit change you can see how well you’re doing, get back on schedule if you miss a day or two, and notice if your current strategy isn’t working for you. If you’re finding that you need a bit more support with changing a habit, it’s a good idea to build in rewards to your plans. If you hit your goal every day in a week maybe you get to splurge on a manicure or spend an afternoon playing your favorite video game.

You can also rely on reminders through a variety of systems. You could try apps like Habitica or Todoist, or use a pen and paper system like Bullet Journaling. There are so many options for habit tracking, so check out some of these lists for recommendations. You can also enlist a friend to help you out, either by reminding you (when I was really struggling with food I sometimes would have a friend text me around lunch each day to check in if I had eaten) or by doing the habit with you (workout buddies are the absolute greatest because they make the activity more fun and keep you accountable).

Whenever possible I like to try to make my habits more enjoyable. I’ve been trying to add in a stretch routine to my daily life because I want to increase my flexibility. I nearly always do it while watching a TV show that I like to keep it interesting and fun, and add in some foam rolling at the end to help myself feel good. If you can use some of the other inhibition skills to set yourself up for success and create habits that you may actually want to do, you’re far more likely to follow through. This might mean adding elements that make it more enjoyable like fun music, a TV show, or a good friend, or it could mean getting rid of the part that you absolutely hate, e.g. if you have sensory issues and washing the dishes is deeply uncomfortable you may want to invest in a dishwasher or at the very least a good pair of rubber gloves to keep your skin safe from that icky water.

Last but not least, be realistic about momentum. While habits can be incredibly helpful to decreasing the amount of energy you need to expend to do what you need to do, it does take a lot of initiation energy. Be patient with yourself. It takes some time before many of these things will become second nature. You will slip up and that does not negate all the progress that you’ve already made. When I was working at breaking my self harm habit it was easy to feel like one slip up started me back at day 0, but I had still NOT self harmed for the days before. Sure it’s not sequential, but all the days you were successful are important and real whether you slip up or not. Give yourself space to make a mistake and jump back in.

Next week we’ll be starting on transitions, which is an especially challenging area of executive function for many folks on the spectrum. Have a great weekend!