Hacking Your Executive Function: Supported Self-Monitoring

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Welcome to the end my friends. I’ve been so happy to work through all the skills that I know in executive functioning (and a few I’ve grabbed from other folks) with you all. I hope you found the series as helpful and interesting as I did, because writing it gave me quite a few ideas. But here we are at The Final Post of Hacking Your Executive Function. To finish up we’re going to end on an area that always makes me happy: letting other people support you. In this case we’re going to talk about marrying self-monitoring with a support system that can help you be self-aware.

It might seem a bit counterintuitive that other people can help you be self-aware, since it’s a skill that’s self-initiated and self-directed, but I like to use other people to help me tune my perceptions to reality, as well as to help me practice. I also know that sometimes I don’t have the ability to be as self-aware as I would like, and in those cases I think it’s a-ok to ask someone else to step up and be aware for you.

Let’s break down those functions.

The first way that I like to get support in my self-monitoring is by comparing my own perceptions to other people’s perceptions. I find that it’s not uncommon that I think I’m coming across one way, but other people are perceiving me a different way. It’s important to me to know that. There are a few people that I trust deeply (my husband, a few friends who understand being on the spectrum, etc.) who I check in with when I’m uncertain about something. I might say “Hey, I thought I was being friendly but people didn’t react to me like that. Any ideas what’s up with that?”

I also will sometimes use explicit verbal communication when I’m having difficulty with my self-monitoring. So sometimes at work or with a friend I might say “Hey I think I came across as irritated or sarcastic, but I want you to know that I’m being completely sincere, I’m just anxious about x unrelated thing. Are we on the same page?”

I can also use other people’s perceptions to help me check reality. I might think that I’m being really quiet, but it turns out I’m using a loud voice. I can ask a trusted friend to let me know if I’m getting super loud. In a completely different direction, my anxiety often means that I have really bad self-perception. I think I’m awful at literally everything. This is in some ways a failure of executive function (I literally cannot tell if I’m being accurate in my perception of how I look or if I’m talented). So I check in with my friends. I ask them to remind me on the regs that I’m awesome. I ask them to point out specific things they think I’m good at. It helps me recalibrate.

On the other hand, there are some areas where my self-monitoring isn’t very good right now but I think I could improve it in the future. In those cases I’d rather try and ask someone to help me practice. Perhaps I’ll work on a project and then show it to a friend and ask for feedback (e.g. I think this paper is a little unfocused but that the thesis is very strong. What do you think? How could I make it better?).

For something less concrete I may just ask someone to check in with me regularly while I’m working on a skill. For example, I have a hard time realizing when I’m talking about things that are too personal or embarrassing involving my husband. He pointed it out to me, and I tried to be more aware of it, but it wasn’t sticking very well. Not super consciously, I started debriefing with him after we were out together to check in about what fit within his comfort level and what didn’t so that I could understand what I was doing. If I told a story involving him, I’d ask later if it was ok. Over time, it became second nature not to violate his boundaries without thinking.

Finally, there are some circumstances where I might just ask someone else to be my self-monitoring for me. This is something that I’ll use in particular circumstances where I don’t have the spoons myself, or where a situation is particularly challenging. For example, if I’m going somewhere in which the social expectations are particularly challenging or specific, I would ask the person I was attending with to give me a nudge or a signal if I do something outside of the social norm. Typically I don’t care, but at an important place (let’s say a relative’s wedding) I might want to behave more neurotypically for the sake of ease and politeness. Having another set of eyes on you to let you know if you’re using the wrong dang fork or breaking some other silly expectation can be really helpful.

As always, that’s a tool to use as you see fit! If anyone else says that they want to fix a behavior for you or tell you when you’re behaving a way they don’t like, screw them. You get to choose if you want to be flappy or make eye contact or script or whatever.

And that’s all from me. Thanks for coming on this weird journey with me folks!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Noticing Your Own Emotions

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At the end of the last post, I dipped gently into the waters of emotional self-monitoring and regulation, which we’ve talked about in depth during the emotion regulation section, but which we’re going to talk about here in regards to “behaviors” and self-awareness. I’m going to spend a full post on this because for us neurodivergent folk, acting in ways that don’t make sense to neurotypicals can cause serious issues, if not put us in danger. Being self-aware of how your emotions are affecting your behavior and how to get what you need in a neurotypical society is a pretty important coping strategy in my experience.

In addition, I also find that it becomes much easier to engage overall emotion regulation tactics if you’re aware of your own behavior and emotions, and in turn that helps you become aware of the progress you’re making on tasks or productivity. It’s all linked.

So what am I talking about when I mention the self-awareness of behaviors and emotions?

Some people would see emotions and behaviors as very separate forms of awareness, but they seem quite linked to me. Let’s start with behavior and then talk about how it relates to emotions. Because people with executive dysfunction or neurodivergence tend to have unmet needs (thanks living in a world that’s not built for us), we are more likely to do things to get our needs met. We might fidget or stim. We might meltdown. We might yell or become aggressive. In my personal experience, these actions tend to be less conscious than some other behaviors. I’m not always aware that I’m stimming, it just happens, as opposed to something like cooking where I have to decide to do it and consciously follow the steps.

Every person has some behaviors that they do unconsciously or semi-consciously. Where it becomes a problem is when those behaviors a. hurt you or someone else or b. get in the way of you accessing spaces and getting your needs met or c. are illegal. I will also include a qualified “it’s socially inappropriate” because that really depends on the level of social appropriateness. Flapping or not making eye contact? That really isn’t a problem. Sticking your hand down your pants in public? Yeah, probably a problem. Screaming in church or laughing a funeral? Definitely up for some debate.

Executive functioning comes into play in that it helps us be aware of what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and how others are responding to it. The reason that emotions are important here is because behaviors don’t happen for no reason. We need to be aware of the motivations and needs that underly each behavior before we can really intentionally decide when and how we choose certain behaviors.

That was a lot of preamble. What can you actually do to become more self-aware of what your body is doing and improve your self-monitoring?

Unsurprisingly, I’m going to recommend making a schedule for yourself, because if a task isn’t regularly integrated into my life I immediately forget about it. Basically, I try to schedule in time during which I explicitly pay attention to what I’m doing and how I’m feeling. Those can be break times so that you can reset or it might just be an alarm that goes off while you’re at work so that you pause for 30 seconds and take stock.

That kind of noticing is the beginning of mindfulness. As I’ve mentioned before, mindfulness is just being aware of what’s happening right now and staying present in the moment. It’s the opposite of imagining the future or replaying the past. The more aware you are of the now, the easier it will be to notice what you’re doing and how to respond.

When I schedule in breaks I like to use a mindfulness practice to check in with myself. I might try progressive muscle relaxation or a five senses activity. If you specifically want to check in on a particular behavior or emotion, you might jot down a couple of questions to ask yourself each time you have these short breaks. Let’s use me for an example! This is a technique that I really should be using because I want to stop picking at my fingers as much. It’s a fairly stimmy behavior, but it hurts and I do it to the extent that my fingers bleed so I’d prefer to stop. If I set three alarms throughout the day to check in and see if I am picking at my fingers or have been picking at my fingers, I’m likely to stop doing it so unconsciously.

The second element of these mindfulness breaks is to note your emotions. I know that I finger pick more when I’m anxious, however if I wasn’t sure what emotions were connected with the behavior I would have a harder time knowing why I do it. Once I understand why I have an easier time of replacing it with something that works for me (I try to use fidgets instead of my fingers) or to use my emotion regulation skills before I hit the level of anxiety that leads to finger picking.

Regularly checking in on emotions also helps to increase your emotional awareness overall so that you can deal with emotions before they become a problem. Your emotions can also help let you know when a need isn’t getting met so you can decide what you want to do to meet it before your body starts meeting it without your consent. That might be too abstract. Let’s say you are someone who has meltdowns. The really big, unpleasant, awful ones.

You practice noticing your emotions for a few weeks and you start to get better at it. One day you start to notice that your anxiety and fear are going up over the course of the day. You notice that people are placing a lot of social demands on you and you need a break. You also notice that you’re starting to feel incredibly sensitive to sounds and that it’s making you angry. The awareness of what you’re feeling and why give you the opportunity to decide how to manage it. Maybe you find a way to be alone in a quiet space for half an hour. Maybe you get some deep pressure because that calms you. The idea is that you get to decide how to respond to keep yourself safe and continue your life uninterrupted.

This kind of awareness can also help with some of the more on the fence situations. Let’s say you are at a somber or quiet event (like a funeral) and you know that when you’re uncomfortable you tend to laugh. Knowing that will allow you to pay attention to how uncomfortable you’re growing at this particular event. Now is there anything inherently wrong with laughing because of discomfort? No. Is it possible that it would feel really disrespectful to some of the other people there? Yeah. Do you want to stop yourself from laughing at a funeral? Maybe. But knowing that it’s your tendency allows you to make the choice.

You can use many of the skills we talked about in emotion regulation to identify emotions and decide how to respond to them, but it’s important to note that being aware of your behavior and emotions (as well as the link between them) is an additional skill you can practice. Good luck friends!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Identifying Your Strengths and Weaknesses

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One of the elements of self-monitoring that I find challenging is determining what skills you can bring to the table, and how to apply them to the task at hand vs. what elements will be particularly challenging and how you can get support. I like to think of this as a two parter: one is determining the parts of the task that seem like they will be challenging and which will be easy. The other is reflecting on yourself and figuring out what you can do well vs. not so well.

Let’s start with assessing tasks. You may need to rely on someone else to begin with if you really struggle to know what you can and can’t do. If you’re looking at a project or task and aren’t sure about it, you can pull in a trusted friend and ask them whether they think it will be difficult or not. Offer your own reasons you think it might be hard or easy and ask them for feedback. Work together to develop a strategy that addresses the difficult element (this math problem will be challenging because it has many steps. We can work on that by clearly writing out each step and checking our work for each before we move on to the next). Afterwards you can reflect together on whether your predictions were right.

That might seem kiddish, but I do find it helpful to talk through things instead of getting stuck inside my own head. If you don’t like working with another person you can follow those steps on your own. If you’re struggling with the first step, you can think of tasks that are similar to the one you’re doing and whether those were hard or difficult. I do this a lot with my aerial practice. When I watch a new skill being demonstrated I try to connect it to something I already know. If it’s made up of pieces that I can already do, then I know I’ll be able to do the new thing. If it includes an element that I know I struggle with, I know I’ll have to focus specifically on that area.

It’s easy to use these types of exercises to focus on what will be hard or what you’re worried about. I want to encourage you to remember that part of assessing your own skills is knowing what you can do well. You’ll also want to try to identify the elements of a task that you know how to do. Have you done it before? Were you successful? Have you completed something similar? What skills did you use?

Sure, we can learn from failure, but we can also learn from success. It teaches us what works. It teaches us what we’re capable of. It can also help you to understand how to approach a task. Let’s say in the past you had written academic reports. Now in adulthood you’re being asked to write a short description of a project you’re working on. They may not be exactly the same, but you’ll understand that you start with brainstorming, then you create an outline, then you draft the story. I always try to start a project by comparing it to something I’ve done successfully in the past, then drawing out the elements I understand so that I can approach something new with skills that are comfortable and familiar.

In addition to paying attention to the task itself you also want to notice what you bring to the table for any given problem. I find it pretty challenging to know what I’m actually good at (thanks depression for lying and saying it’s nothing), so I often ask others to reflect back to me what they see me doing well, and I try to carefully note when I see myself do something successfully. I might literally take notes on it, like a self-review. For me personally, I’ll note that I’m good at writing, I’m good at organizing, I’m good at completing tasks quickly, but I’m not great at details and I’m pretty bad at reviewing my own work. Other people think they’re great at everything and might need reminders of the places they struggle.

You can put your own strengths and weaknesses together with what will be challenging or easy about the task and notice the places that you might need some help. I also think that it’s important to recognize that accurately assessing your own strengths and weaknesses as well as the challenges of a particular task doesn’t just apply to things like work or school.

It’s really common for providers or caregivers to talk about self-monitoring in regards to “socially inappropriate” behavior. So a provider might say that a person with low self-monitoring just doesn’t notice when they’re doing something inappropriate, and that’s why we need to increase their self-monitoring abilities (so that they stop stimming or start making eye contact or whatever).

I’m not super into that. I think a lot of the behaviors that providers want to extinguish are a-ok. However, I do think that it can be helpful to be self-aware because there are circumstances in which you might want to choose not to do them or choose to do them less (I change my behavior pretty drastically during a job interview for example).

Strengths and weaknesses or goal-setting aren’t really frameworks that make sense for things like stimming. Instead, I prefer to think of them in terms of needs. Many, many people have a hard time identifying what they need in a given moment, and for those of us whose needs are out of the ordinary, it can be even more challenging. In addition to noting strengths and weaknesses, I try to take time to be aware of my body and what it’s communicating to me (I’ve mentioned mindfulness in other areas of this series, but you may prefer something else), as well as noting basic needs like sleep, hunger, or social comfort.

If you can identify the need that a particular behavior is satisfying, then you can make decisions about how you would like to satisfy that need, whether it’s bringing a very small fidget to a job interview so that you can stim quietly under the table, or being loud and proud about your hand-flapping in public. This can also be helpful for dealing with behaviors like self-injury.

You can also use the strengths/weaknesses lens to think about how you want to approach “socially inappropriate” behaviors. For example, I know that I’m pretty great at sitting still and focusing, but I am balls at small talk. I also know that it takes a lot less out of me to sit quietly in the corner than it does to try to be polite and friendly. So when I need to mask or when I want to be unobtrusive, I use my quiet, camouflaging skills rather than trying to interact with other people. Masking is a personal choice, but if you decide you’d like to do it, there are easier and harder ways to do it. Pick the ones that work for you.

I always prefer to use as many strengths as possible and circumvent my weaknesses. Instead of trying to force myself to do something I struggle with, why not find an alternative way that uses my skills? The more you pay attention to what you’re good at, the more you’ll find your own methods of success that actually work for you.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Practice Self Monitoring

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Friends we’re finally here: the final section of the Hacking Your Executive Function series. It’s been a long (and wild) ride, but I only have five more posts to make and then I’ll go into hibernation to turn this into a book. I’ve saved one of the most challenging skills for last because honestly I was intimidated by it, but I think we’ve all picked up some skills along the way. So here we are: self-monitoring.

Self-monitoring is one of the least intuitive elements of executive function in my opinion, but it’s also one that can cause many difficulties and be hardest to support. So we should probably be talking about it more. Self-monitoring is the ability to assess yourself: it means understanding external standards and seeing if you’ve met them. It’s knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s the ability to make your own corrections by noticing when things are going wrong and figuring out solutions. If you have weak self-monitoring skills you might find yourself surprised when people respond negatively to you or when problems show up. It’s thinking you aced that paper and getting it back to find you got a D.

Self-monitoring combines a lot of different skills, which is why it can be incredibly challenging. It involves a lot of working memory (what were the expectations), comparison skills (how am I matching up to them), time management (how often and when should I be reviewing my work), planning and organization (how do I build editing and review time into my schedule), and emotion regulation skills (how can I troubleshoot if I get frustrated, where am I emotionally, etc.). We’ve worked on a lot of those skills separately so a big part of self-monitoring is putting systems in place that help to organize all of those skills as a comprehensive unit.

One of the things that’s particularly challenging about self-monitoring is that there aren’t very many suggestions for making it easier except to practice. However there ARE some ways that you can intentionally practice using self-monitoring that will hopefully guide you and remind you.

The first tool I use to practice self-monitoring is checklists. If I have a particular type of project or activity that needs to meet certain milestones, I like to write them down and have them handy to double check after I’ve finished the project. For example each month at work I have to create a calendar for the next month. I have a small sheet of paper taped on the wall next to my desk that lists out all of the places on our website that I should look for events. If I have writing tasks I try to create an editing list ahead of time so that when I’m actually doing the editing I can simply go down the list and check off each idea (do I have consistent spacing, are my transitions good, spelling and grammar double check, do I have the appropriate amount of citations or quotes, etc.).

That visual reminder can also be helpful if you have a hard time noticing when your behavior doesn’t match the situation you’re in. For example if I worked somewhere that it was inappropriate to swear (and I am particularly prone to swearing) I might leave a little post it on my desk reminding myself not to swear. These don’t have to be obtrusive, and I mostly recommend using them for when YOU feel you’re not reading or remembering the social cues in the way that you’d like. If you’re having particular trouble with noticing what you should be doing or remembering what you should be doing, you can also ask a trusted friend or mentor to help you brainstorm a list of general guidelines.

If you’re having trouble telling whether you’ve reached expectations or not, that trusted friend can be a great resource. You might schedule a check in weekly with your boss to make sure that you’re on the same page. It can be helpful for you to guide your mentor in these meetings by bringing specific tasks or goals and asking how they think you’re doing. Over time, you can also imagine your work from their perspective and see if that helps you self-monitor.

The final element I like to use for self-monitoring practicing is a schedule/tracker. All of my projects at work get a review one day after I have completed them, and before I send them to my boss. If you’re really struggling with self-monitoring in a variety of ways (you have trouble noticing your emotions, behaviors, abilities etc.) you may want to have a very regular self check in on your calendar. Perhaps twice a day you spend five minutes trying to notice your emotions, writing down the things you’ve accomplished, and how well you think you did. You might also try to notice the things that got in the way of success. After practicing this regularly it will become more natural and you may not have to set it in your schedule.

A side note on scheduling: I ALWAYS make sure that I can wait at least a few hours before I look back over a task or piece and edit/review. I prefer to wait a full day. Immediately trying to edit and monitor your own work is really difficult. Give yourself more time.

And with that we’re into our final topic and heading towards the finish line! How do you manage self-monitoring?

Hacking Your Executive Function: Time Management

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Organization can encompass quite a number of things, both literal and more abstract. The next organizational task we’re going to look at is time management, which can be a source of particular struggle for a lot of folks with executive function challenges, and is a bit different from other types of organization. There are quite a few levels to this, so we’re going to try to break it down from long term to short term.

The first and most important suggestion I can make is to be protective of your time. You do not need to do everything, you don’t need to say yes to everything, and one element of time management that is incredibly important is learning how much you can reasonably accomplish and what you need to delegate or simply say no to. If you are worried about completing tasks on time, this also means asking for help or seeing if someone around you can jump in and take something on for you. Those are all pretty challenging emotional tasks, but we discussed some of the ways to set boundaries and ask for help in the emotion regulation section. A final element of this communication piece of time management is that you need to be able and willing to tell people when they are affecting your time management.

So for example if I have a really packed day and I’m trying to finish a project, I need to learn how to tell my coworkers I can’t get pulled into anything. That might be a sign on my door, asking my boss to work remotely until I finish the big project, or creating a script I can use whenever someone interrupts me. This can also go for friends and family members, or for people who continue to ask you for time consuming help.

The other challenging element involved in protecting your time is knowing how much time tasks will take. If you’re not sure it can be hard to tell if your schedule is too full or too empty. This is where you might need to do some long term work to improve your executive function. Alas there is no easy list of how long every task in the world takes because we’re all different. So you’ll have to take some data about how long it takes YOU to accomplish your standard tasks. Yes, that means timing yourself doing a bunch of different things. Probably for a while. Making a spreadsheet or a list of how long each task takes you (and doing each type of task a couple of times) so you get an idea of your average times.

If you really struggle with estimating how long tasks will take you may want to create a place where you can actually keep these estimates in the long term so that you can refer to them when you’re creating schedules or planning out your time. Another element of this is that you may have a hard time generalizing your time estimates. So let’s say you know that sweeping the living room takes you 15 minutes, but you haven’t timed yourself sweeping the dining room and you feel totally uncertain of how long it will take. You can use other, similar tasks to make estimates.

I also like to take some data on how external factors affect my timing. So over time I have noticed that if I’ve had to do something stressful first thing in the morning, everything during my day will take 1.5 times as long (approximately). If I’m tired or hungry I know to add in some time to my estimates. Sometimes if my mood or physical well-being is bad enough I might estimate that it isn’t worth it to even try to complete a difficult task in that moment and save it for when it will take less time.

I always aim to overestimate the time I will need to spend on something, because it always feels good to get done “early” and have some time left over.

The next step in long term planning is to be aware of deadlines. When you have an external deadline make sure that it gets added to whatever you use for planning, whether that’s a notebook, an app, or something else. I also like to add reminders in a week or two weeks in advance so I remember to start working on it. You can also schedule in your own sub-deadlines ahead of time (for example if you have a larger project give yourself a deadline for step 1).

A few notes about scheduling: I always try to schedule myself some breaks or ensure that I’ve got at least an hour or two of down time each day. This will allow you to actually keep your schedule. It seems counterintuitive but the more you give yourself breaks and rest, the most you accomplish. Giving yourself a particular amount of time to rest also means you don’t “take a break” and never go back to the work. I like to use an alarm to remind myself when it’s time to head back to work.

The other thing to remember when you’re thinking about creating a schedule or a plan to improve your time management is that your schedule needs to be flexible. Things will come up when you don’t expect them to and you’ll have to move things around. I like to think of my schedule in blocks. I tend to use 1 hour blocks, but you can plan in the time interval that makes the most sense for you, even if that means planning down to 10 minutes. Once I’ve created my “blocks” (so I may have 1 hour of aerial, 2 hours to write my freelance work, and 4 hours of my day job) I can move them around as necessary.

If you find that process stressful or difficult you can use some of the skills around flexibility that we’ve talked about in prior posts, or practice writing a schedule, then changing one thing about it the day of. It takes time and practice to get good at organizing on the fly.

Ok now for the good stuff: deciding what you’re going to do when. Prioritization. The best tool I’ve seen for this so far is called an Eisenhower Matrix. Check it out:

Last but not least…DO NOT MULTITASK. It seems like it will help you accomplish more in a smaller amount of time but it’s just a big, dirty lie. You actually get less done and do the work you DO accomplish poorly because your brain has to transition quickly between so many things. It’s much more effective to pick one thing and focus all your energy on it until you’re done.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Organizing Physical Spaces

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The past couple of posts have focused on organizing and planning for projects, tasks, and thoughts. That’s an important place to start when you want to get your executive functioning under control, but one area that I see frustrates people over and over is physical spaces: how do I keep my stuff organized and clean? How do I manage my household? What can I do to make this easier for myself?

Once again this is an area where different people have different preferences and needs, so focus on finding something that feels comfortable and useful to you rather than making yourself fit into a system that doesn’t come naturally. It might seem odd as a place to look for executive functioning hacks, but I’ve found that Pinterest, mom blogs, and other “household” hack websites are actually incredibly useful in finding suggestions. Even if you don’t use exactly the method that they do, it’s good for inspiration.

There are however a few general suggestions that will apply to everyone. The first is to simplify as much as possible. I know that some autistics tend towards “have nothing that I do not need” and some autistics tend towards “I am a magpie give me every shiny thing”, however thinking carefully about what you’re actually going to use or care about in the long term is useful for everyone. Why? The less stuff you have the less stuff you need to organize. It’s harder to lose two shirts than it is to lose your favorite shirt in a pile of 30.

There are tons of different ways to approach downsizing. You can Konmari it, you can get rid of everything you haven’t used in the last year, you can work on one room at a time. But no matter what works for you, be honest with yourself about what will improve your life if you keep it and what will improve your life if you don’t. This is a big step that takes a lot of executive function, and you don’t have to do it all at once. I try to reserve some time at least once a year to go through my clothes and clean out things that don’t fit or have holes or that I don’t wear. At a different time in the year I might go through my books and decide to get rid of some. You can break this down (using the skills we’ve already learned) into smaller projects that happen completely independently of each other.

Once you’ve cut down the sheer amount of stuff you need to organize there are some principles you can use to organize in a useful and easy to understand way. My biggest rule is that all of my things should have a place where they are supposed to be. They don’t always end up in that place, but at least I know where they should go. This also means that when I DO need to clean or organize I don’t have to use a lot of brain power to figure out how I want to put things away, I already know.

Some subelements of this: it can be incredibly helpful to purchase a lot of bins/bags/baskets or other containers so that you can put things AWAY. This also helps you to put similar things together. I have a bin that is all of my journaling supplies. I have another that is all of our extra technology. It’s much easier to stick things into a closet or on a shelf when they’re inside a box, plus it’s easier to find things later. It can also be great to add a label so that you know what’s inside.

I personally prefer to have all of my clutter hidden. I don’t want to see all my shit. So I put them in opaque boxes or put my boxes away in a closet. If you find that more confusing and prefer to see what you have, clear bins can be a lifesaver. That way you know exactly what’s in there, but it’s still contained and organized.

One thing that I want to call out specifically: have a space for things that need to be done. Most often for me this is mail, but it’s also where I keep all of my tax stuff until it’s ready to be done, or my paychecks when they need to be cashed, or other generic “to do” things. I like this to be somewhere visible, and somewhere that it’s going to be annoying and in my way until I complete the task (I put them on my desk. On top of the keyboard. Like an irritating cat). DO NOT let these things sit in an untended corner of your kitchen counter or they will be unearthed in three years when the bills are past due.

If you’re not sure how to put things away, here are some options to consider: peg boards can be a great way to organize oddly shaped and otherwise bulky objects. They’re especially good for craft spaces or garages. Also consider places that you aren’t using: headboards and footboards can have shelving, which is really useful. Corners are a great place to add a tailored shelving unit. I’m a big fan of chests or tables that open and have space inside so that you can hide shit away.

You may also want to use some of your objects as decor. Maybe you get a nice jewelry organizer that hangs on the wall so that your jewelry becomes artwork. If you’ve got a lot of hats you can display those. Especially if you prefer to be able to see your possessions, think about ways that you can have them out without just throwing them in a pile on a shelf or on the floor.

Finally, I would suggest using your physical space to include visual reminders as you need them. If you need to see your week written out, there are great white boards you can buy that go on the fridge. I like to have a corkboard so I can add relevant and important things to it and see them easily. If you require additional support with something like remembering what order to do your morning routine, you can post a picture schedule on the inside of a cupboard or next to your mirror.

Of course in addition to all these general suggestions there are tons of hacks for making organization easier: you can roll your t-shirts or socks instead of folding them. You can add racks into cupboards or under sinks to get additional space. If you have a hard time putting together outfits you can organize your clothes by color to make it easy to grab complementary or matching clothes. There’s tons of ideas out there, and that’s where I suggest checking out Pinterest or similar websites. Good luck my friends!

Hacking Your Executive Function: It’s Tech Time

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Ok, so last post we talked about ways that you can stay organized if your preference is to use pen and paper: planners, notebooks, etc. That doesn’t work for everyone though. Maybe it just takes too long, maybe you hate hand writing, maybe you always forget to bring it with you. Whatever the reason, some people just don’t find planners effective. Lucky for us, we’re living in a time with TONS of productivity apps, websites, and supports. Today I’ll talk about some of the different types of options, what to think about when you’re picking one, and ways to optimize your technological organization.

Let’s start with the very basics: apps whose job it is to manage your habits, to do lists, and projects. There are SO MANY OPTIONS here, so similar to planners you’ll want to think about what it is you’re looking for. Do you prefer something that’s text based? Some systems are more visual. Do you want to be able to share with other people? Are you primarily interested in to do lists, or do you want to be able to manage large projects and workflows? What kinds of reminders do you want? Do you want rewards? A good place to start when choosing an app is to browse some of the lists that are out there and see what sticks out to you.

A few options that I’d like to highlight: Habitica was my app of choice for a long time (I only stopped using it because it was having a lot of issues with glitches which have since been fixed). There are a few elements of Habitica that I think are important.

1. It gamifies your life. In Habitica you play as an RPG character. You earn points by completing tasks, with extra bonuses for doing habits many days in a row. With the points you earn you can buy rewards (which you choose yourself) or by in-game things like new outfits and steeds. You can even choose “quests” that you complete with a certain number of tasks completed.

2. It’s social. This was one of my favorite parts. You can join a party with your friends, complete quests together, encourage each other, share rewards. You get the benefits of sharing a goal with someone else (the accountability, the support) while also having other built in motivations.

Another option I want to highlight is ToDoist, which gives you a LOT of data about your productivity (when you’re most productive, when you put things off, etc.) as well as a great deal of customization for how to view, prioritize, and share your tasks. There are also pre-created templates that you can use if you struggle to break a project into its pieces.

Finally I’d mention Evernote. The big benefit of Evernote is how open it is: you can add almost anything to it. Links, recipes, sketches, video, text, audio recording. If you prefer a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” approach, or you’re working on projects that are creative and variable, Evernote gives you the flexibility to include a lot of different things.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of some of the things apps can offer, and what types of things to look for. Maybe you’re interested in motivation (there are tons of apps like this, including everything from Zombies! Run!, an exercise app, to StickK, which donates to a charity you hate if you don’t follow through on your goals), maybe you’re interested in organization (there are so many project management softwares that can help you visualize your process) or maybe you’re interested in keeping literally everything in the same place.

Once you’ve chosen a system there are quite a few things you can do that will optimize that system. Many apps or websites have the option to create templates so that if you have similar projects or tasks you can copy them instead of starting with nothing. Almost every option out there has the possibility of recurring appointments so that you can enter it once and then forget it. You may also want to explore the options that any given system has for alarms and reminders. In some cases you can see all the things you have scheduled for the day in one screen. But you may want an out loud alarm 15 minutes before an important meeting. Maybe you just want a reminder to pop up on your computer screen.

Whether all of these features are within one system or you use a couple of different systems, it’s good to set up some reminders. I use my basic phone alarm for important reminders, and my e-mail for work meetings. In general I wouldn’t recommend hodge podging a thousand different apps and programs together for what you want, but it’s really normal and reasonable to have 3-5 different apps that work on different things.

I also highly recommend that when you start using a system you take time to optimize it. One obvious example is e-mail. It’s incredibly easy for e-mails to get lost. I personally leave e-mails marked “unread” until I have responded to them. Once a week I go through my inbox and file or delete everything that is not still “open” (waiting on a response or will be necessary for an upcoming project). Your system might be different but you should think ahead about how you’d like to set things up. Even systems with a lot of structure like Habitica give you the option to decide if you’re going to create positive habits (I need to do this every day) or negative habits (I’d like to refrain from doing this every day) and you can decide how to frame many of your to dos.

Ok that’s a lot of info about how to find and create a technological system that can support your executive function. But I also mentioned that you’ll probably need to use some supplemental systems as well. This will in part depend on what you want (are you concerned about mental health tracking? There are a lot of specific apps for that) but there are a few things that are generally helpful to talk about.

If you’re interested in tracking your time, there are lots of different types of options out there. Timewinder gives you timers so that you can (for example) stand and sit at work for the optimal intervals. Hours shows you where you’ve spent your time on the web. There’s even a time tracking cube! You set each side to a task and turn it so that the relevant side is up while you’re working on that task. At the end of the day the app tells you how long you spent on each task.

Another realm is optimization. The best example of this that I’ve seen is called “If This Then This”. You can create relationships between the different apps on your phone so that tasks are automated (for example you could set it so that when Google maps detects that you’re at work it will mark it in a timesheet app). I find this one a bit ambitious for my tastes but if you like coding and logic I’ve heard it’s fantastic.

You can also use apps to support a lot of other executive functioning by changing the format you’re using. Most of our lives are based around text. If that’s not your jam, you’re pretty fucked a lot of the time. But you can use an iPad or tablet to doodle your notes if you prefer that to writing, then save to Evernote. Or you can create a video schedule or picture schedule through an app and use that instead of a written schedule. There are digital time timers to help you visualize your time. Maybe you’re aural not visual: you can record notes or conversations (please make sure you ask people before recording them) and listen back later (these can also be kept in some organizational apps). You can automate verbal reminders. The beauty of technology is how customizable it is.

What apps and tech have you used to improve your executive functioning?

Hacking Your Executive Function: Let’s Talk About Planners

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You guys. It’s here. It’s finally time. I get to talk about one of my favorite accessibility devices in all the land: the planner. This is where you get to take a TON of the skills we’ve already talked about and keep them nice and neat and organized. I will make a note here: physical planners aren’t for everyone. I’ll also be doing some posts this week about apps and other options for keeping yourself organized. I do however strongly recommend having SOMETHING that is your major organizational tool so that you can keep important things in one place. This is just one of the available ways to do it. So for now, let’s chat about planners (YES). I’m also going to drop some pictures of my planners in here for your joy and delight.

If you think that keeping a planner might be the right choice for you, it’s a good idea to stop and think a little bit before you buy something or create something. There are endless ways to organize yourself, and each one suits different people. The most important question to ask yourself when picking out a planner is “will I use it?”

I generally work to make my planner fun and engaging in some way so that I will keep up with it. I have colorful pens, I learned how to do hand lettering so that I feel like I’m engaging with it in new ways, I designed my own layouts to match my needs, I use stickers. Some people like to do stamps, or they add quotes and doodles. Maybe you want to color code things or use sticky notes. The sky is the limit! But maybe you don’t care about any of that and you just want it to be as easy as possible: grab a notebook and keep a basic to do list and calendar. It’s unlikely that you’ll find something with literally every feature you could want that will by itself MAKE you into an organized person. But you can pick something that’s more suited to you and your lifestyle.

Things to consider:
How big do you want your planner to be? Many people like to keep it small enough to put in a purse. I have a big honking beast so I can keep absolutely everything in one place.
Do you want to organize yourself by day, week, or month?
Do you want something pre-printed, something you write out yourself, or a mix of the two?
Do you like to organize your days by time (so having a schedule written out) or by task list/events? Or perhaps something even less specific than that?
Do you want space to free write or journal?
In addition to your day to day task lists, do you want to keep track of other things like cleaning schedule, workouts, meal planning, etc.?
Do you want to plan each day as it happens or have space set up to write tasks that will happen in the future (I will recommend having a place to write future tasks so that you can make long term appointments)?

That might seem like a lot to think about before you even start, but it can help guide you towards what you want. Maybe you look at it and you’re like “fuck all that it’s too complicated”. That tells you something. Or maybe you get excited by the list. There’s a wild world of planners out there my friend and you can join some Facebook groups that will feed that excitement.

If you’re interested in checking out some different options, I’d suggest taking a look at Bullet Journaling, Happy Planner, Passion Planner, Erin Condren, or else just taking a trip to your local office supply store and browsing for a while. Pay attention to how much you use any given planner, and try to figure out what makes things work or not work for you so that you can get one you’ll actually open up and write in.

Once you’ve chosen a planner (and don’t be afraid to try out different ones, then decide they’re not for you. You’re not married to a planner just because you bought it), my first rule of plannerdom is to always have mine with me. I can’t use it if I don’t have it. Whenever possible I like to have mine open as well. Even if I’m not using it actively, I always have my planner open on my desk at work, next to me on the table at home, or at the very least quickly available in a bag. The more you do this the more natural it gets, so even if it seems like overkill at first go with it.

Ok, you’ve got your planner, you’ve got it with you, what now? Write. Down. EVERYTHING. Especially if you’re just starting out, I suggest going overboard with how much you write down. Over time you’ll start to figure out what you can remember on your own and what really needs to go in the planner, but until then it’s best to use this memory aid to its fullest extent. Write down tasks, write down events, write down notes, write down birthdays, write down holidays. Put it ALL in there.

That might sound overwhelming. How do you do that? I like to set aside time to plan. Personally I take about 10-20 minutes each morning when I get in to work to plan out my day. I look at what tasks I did yesterday and what didn’t get completed, I look at my long term calendar and add anything from there, and I note any other tasks I’ve thought of or need to do. If I get new tasks during the day (if I have a meeting or get an email) I just drop them right into the list. If I plan a new event, I stick it in on the date that’s appropriate.

The other element of this planning ahead is that if I get a large project that I know will take multiple steps and sessions, I set aside 20-30 minutes to break it in to component parts and then write down each of those steps in the appropriate place. I personally like to give myself a very specific piece of the large project to do each day so that it’s easier to tackle. You can read more about this here. Then I get prompted to start on each of the things and I have built in due dates. I will also take time to plan ahead like this if I set up a recurring task: let’s say I set up a recurring therapy appointment that happens every Wednesday. I’ll go through my planner after making that appointment and write down therapy on every Wednesday through the end of the year.

In a similar vein, I also try to schedule certain tasks at the same or similar times each week. This makes it easier to write it down, and it makes it easier to remember to do it. So for example I try to do my cleaning each week on Friday afternoon, and I’ll always write that in my planner. If I was into meal planning, I might do that every Sunday. That kind of consistency simplifies everything. Just remember that consistency is not binding: you can generally do things on the same day, but still feel comfortable moving it if something else comes up.

A final element I like to include in my planners is deadlines. I write a task both on the deadline and on the days that I’m doing it. However I’m a big fan of trickery, so I arbitrarily assign myself deadlines before the thing is actually due. That helps keep me moving and get things done faster.

If you’re like me, you also tend to lose things and forget things EVERYWHERE. My solution for this was to get a planner that has a cover with pockets. I can include all of my materials in a single place and I don’t lose stuff. I also include stencils and stickers in there so I can plan on the go and keep my weeks organized and relatively clean. I’ve also got tons of fun accessories on there so that I feel happy when I open it and want to keep using it. If you’re not into carting a bunch of extra stuff with you everywhere and want a minimalistic and small journal, I’d suggest having somewhere at home that you can use as your materials and paper repository to keep it all together.

All of this is a LOT of information. Take a deep breath. I also like to use my planner for self-care, and seeing in front of you all that you’re trying to work on can be a good reminder. Make sure you write down that you are going to take care of yourself. Block out time to relax. Write “take a damn bath” in your to do list. Be willing to cross out an entire afternoon and take a nap instead. I like to use my planner as a way to give equal weight to my own needs as I do to everyone else’s. I also highly recommend noting your accomplishments as well as your to dos, whether that’s by looking back through everything you checked off last week or writing down one thing you’re proud of each day.

The planner is a TOOL. It’s not an obligation. If it’s stressing you out or feels like one more thing that you NEED to get done, put it away. It’s here to serve you, not the other way around.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Use Behaviorism!

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A note before we jump in to today’s post: many people within the neurodivergent community have some squicky feelings about behaviorism and for good reason. Applied behavioral analysis has a nasty past of abuse and a not so great current track record either. What I will say is that behaviorism works to change behaviors: humans are a kind of animal and when we get reinforcements we’re more likely to do a thing. In this case I suggest using behaviorism to reinforce yourself so that you can achieve your own goals. No use of behaviorism should ever force someone to behave a way that’s uncomfortable, traumatic, or painful for them, or not in line with what they want for their life. Behaviorism should also recognize that we can communicate with humans, rather than seeing us simply as input and output machines.

Onwards!

We’re going to talk about the basic principles of behaviorism today and how you can use them to encourage yourself to begin a task. These are going to be long term strategies that you can build up over time to make it easier to initiate tasks in general. These are things that I recommend should be SELF motivated or only done with the explicit understanding and consent of the person they’re done to/with.

We’re all probably fairly familiar with Pavlov’s dogs: if you ring a bell then feed a dog over and over, eventually the dog will hear the bell and start to have automatic responses like drooling.

Turns out human brains work in a relatively similar fashion. When two stimuli are consistently paired together, we learn to expect them together. You can use that fact to make something more or less appealing. A reinforcement is something that makes you want to do the task more. It can be either positive (you add something) or negative (you take something away). A positive reinforcement would be if your mom gave you a cookie every time you cleaned your room. A negative reinforcement (and this is where it might be lightly confusing) is when you hit your alarm clock in the morning and the irritating noise goes away. If you want to encourage a specific behavior, you can use a reinforcer to make it seem nicer to a person’s brain.

You can also use punishment, which is when you make a task less appealing. Positive punishment is adding something (discomfort, pain, etc) and negative reinforcement is taking away something that a person wants (withholding a toy). I do not ever suggest using punishment because it’s cruel and also it doesn’t work very well. Causing pain or distress is never worth it just to change a behavior, don’t do it.

So how do we use these elements to make tasks easier? The most obvious answer is to build in rewards. Do you hate making phone calls? Build yourself a sweet little routine that makes it easier: maybe you do your phone calls wearing your comfiest clothes with a cup of delicious tea, and each time you successfully make a call you eat a bite of chocolate. Now you’ll associate phones with all these other delightful things, and over time you may find that your negative feelings about doing the task will lessen.

I also want to encourage you to focus on natural consequences of your actions, especially negative reinforcers (when you remove something stressful or unpleasant). When I clean my house, it’s easy for me to only think about how unpleasant that task is. But it’s also really stressful and awful to live in a house that has dirty dishes and trash everywhere, to not have any clean clothes, to have messy litter boxes. Taking the time to notice and appreciate that my house is clean when I’ve finished helps to reinforce that it’s worth it. ENJOY your successes. The more I’ve noticed that I appreciate living in a clean house, the more motivated I am to continue cleaning. One thing that always motivates me in a major way is that accomplishing things reduces my anxiety. That’s a MAJOR reinforcer. Think about how getting the task done will affect you positively, or affect your emotions.

Another thing to consider is what’s happening before you try to start a project. There are two major elements to this: one is what you might call “setting events”. These are the things that contribute to your mood and state of mind leading up to something. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep last night, and they were out of coffee at work this morning. The second element is the antecedent, or what happened directly before a behavior. So maybe your alarm went off and you knew it was time to start a project, so you went to go do it. Or perhaps it’s that you spent three hours playing video games avoiding the project and after staring at your to do list for the 27th time you finally started.

If you want to make it easier to start things, you’ll want to make these leads up as positive as possible. We’ve talked already about taking care of your basic needs in emotion regulation. But you’ll also want to notice your mood and circumstances before you start a hard project. If I went to bed late last night, you better believe that I’m only trying to do easy projects today. If I had a stressful encounter this morning, I might wait until I’ve eaten some chocolate and calmed my nerves appropriately before I try to write a particularly challenging piece. In fact I might even wait a day or two if the piece is likely to be emotional. If you know that you have a hard time starting a particular type of task, it can be helpful to take a moment before you try to start it to make note of your mood and state. I might even track these moods over time so that I can notice when it’s more or less effective to try to work on different types of projects.

The other element is to create useful antecedents. If you’re sitting around and have three hours before you need to sleep, and you need to spend one of those hours cleaning, how do you know when to start? Well in all likelihood you’ll end up not cleaning because you’ll start doing something else, lose track of time/become absorbed/keep putting it off, and run out of time. The trick? Insert some external antecedent that prompts you. Reminders! Alarms are a great way if you don’t have other folks around. They work especially well if you respond to them every dang time (or if you respond to them by getting up and eating a cookie THEN doing your thing, because then you’re reinforcing yourself).

You can also have a trusted support person give you reminders. I particularly like this one because you can’t make the other person shut up by clicking an “off” button, and sometimes they’ll even help you for the beginning of the task to get you started. I also find that making a date with someone else to do a project makes me a million times more likely to do it, even if all they do is sit with me and hold me accountable.

The trick with creating an antecedent is to find one that inspires you to DO. It might be easy to think you should guilt yourself into doing things (this is how we tend to talk to ourselves), but guilt isn’t an emotion that spurs action. Instead, thinking of something that will remind you of your goals, make you feel accomplished or capable, or let you know that you’re supported. Those kinds of reminders will be more likely to get you started.

Do you have any final initiation tips?

I’d also like to note that if there’s any element of behaviorism that I’ve represented positively here that you have concerns about, please let me know! I know that many autistics have strong negative feelings against using any behavioral principles. I would rather understand that humans are wired to respond to them, and use those powers for good. I welcome discussion!

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.