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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hacking Your Executive Function: Ending A Task

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: starting a fresh task!

Hacking Your Executive Function: 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: 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!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Resisting Temptations

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Note: there may be some mention of self harm or other unhealthy coping strategies. It should not be graphic.

Hello and welcome to the least fun part of executive function, resisting temptations (booooo everyone give in to temptations it’s so fun). But in all seriousness, sometimes we do need to have the ability to look at something that could be fun or taste delicious or feel nice and say “nope I gotta do something healthy and responsible today”. We all have to be our own inner parents and force ourselves to eat a vegetable every once in a while.

When I first started researching for this series I didn’t realize that this type of skill was part of executive functioning, but it COULD explain why I consistently eat too much ice cream immediately before doing aerials and even though I know it will make me sick I still can’t make myself stop.

Anyway, the point is that the part of your brain that has to balance what you want and what you need is the same part of your brain that organizes and balances other complex things like schedules and emotions. So we’re going to talk about using some of the same types of strategies that we did for organizing other stuff to organize your needs when you gotta do poopy stuff instead of fun stuff.

The first thing I’d note is that if you want to “resist temptations” (I really need a better way to say this) you need to be aware of what it is you’re trying not to do (eat a bunch of sugar, fall asleep at 3:00 in the afternoon on the couch, play video games all day instead of doing your work) so that you can tailor your strategies to fit that. It’s best to have a clear and defined goal that is reasonable, so instead of saying “I’m not going to eat any sweets ever again” you might say “I’m only going to eat dessert two times a week.”

Sometimes you can prep ahead of time and set yourself up for success, but sometimes things will pop up unexpectedly (a wild cake appeared! What do you do?), so you’ll also want to have some skills that can be deployed at a moment’s notice. Let’s start with planning ahead, then move into reactive strategies.

There are a few tactics that are very similar to ignoring distractions: create an environment where there’s just less temptation. I try not to buy ice cream from the store and keep it at home so that if I want some I have to drive somewhere and get it. Get an app that blocks websites you would RATHER be on if you have to work. Or you may want to create an ideal environment by building up your ability to focus on what you should be doing, like giving yourself a reasonable number of tasks to work on or trying the Pomodoro Technique.

BUT as I mentioned in the previous post, we don’t have unlimited amounts of self control. I personally am a proponent of moving away from black and white thinking when it comes to things that are tempting. You don’t have to give up all sugary desserts, just be reasonable about how often you eat them. When you give yourself a set amount of the thing you’re craving, it gives you something to look forward to and can help you to stop focusing on how bad you want it. I like to build these types of things in as a reward for doing the harder thing and using my willpower. So if I’m trying to spend an afternoon working instead of watching Youtube, I might say that I can have one hour of Youtube once I finish a certain number of tasks. It’s easier to put the temptation away when it has a clear time and place and you feel confident you’ll have it later.

Sometimes though it’s just not possible or healthy to give yourself a small amount of something. One of the things that has required me to resist temptation was overcoming self harm. A great option for resisting temptation in those cases is substitution! What is something that satisfies the same urge but doesn’t have the negative consequences? For me it was getting tattoos! I’ve also found that frozen fruits taste a lot like dessert, that fidgets are a good substitution for picking at my nails, and that dying my hair satisfies the urge for change that sometimes leads me to ghost all of my friends. Isn’t substitution fun?

The challenge here can be figuring out what the underlying need is that you are fulfilling through giving in to the temptation. This is where mindfulness can play a role. When you notice yourself getting pulled towards a particular course of action, it can be very helpful to stop for a moment and take note of what you’re feeling. Notice the sensations of your body. Notice the thoughts that are running through your head. See if you can identify the emotions you are feeling. Notice what you were doing before you started feeling specific urges, or if it has been a long time since you did a particular activity you like.

It’s rare that there is only one specific activity that can meet the need we’ve got. When you look at all of this data you may be able to find the underlying need: so self harm was not what I really needed, what I really needed was an intense physical experience that helped me to release some emotions. You may have to try out a couple of different substitutions to find one that scratches the itch so to speak, so be patient with yourself, and potentially use multiple substitutions if a behavior is satisfying more than one need. For reference, there are some good lists of self-harm alternatives out there.

Another good way to deal with temptation is to distract yourself! You can’t focus on how much you want to punch your annoying coworker if you’re neck deep in a really engaging project. This is where it’s good to have a list of Stuff That Gets Me Interested (just generally a good list if you have trouble with your emotions) so that if you’re feeling the siren call of purging a meal, instead you can look at your list and remember that when you’re reading Harry Potter nothing on this planet will be able to distract you.

Finally, you may also want to focus on WHY you shouldn’t be doing the thing you want to do. If logic is your jam, you can give yourself reasons that it’s a bad idea (I should not eat all this ice cream because I will feel horrible), remind yourself of your long term goal (I want to build up my muscles so I should go to the gym instead of taking a nap), or write out a pro and con list of doing or not doing the thing. Even just taking the time to think through your choice is sometimes enough to get past the urge.

Choosing not to do something that sounds appealing in the moment is a big skill. It can range from making long term healthier choices to deciding not to do something really awfully impulsive and dangerous. While we often think about resisting temptations as something our parents or authority figures force on us, it’s actually really important that we have some level of control over our behaviors so that we can choose not to do something that is dangerous, unhealthy, or mean if we want to. Good luck resisting my friends!

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.

Hacking Your Executive Function: What the Heck is Inhibition?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally you can go ahead and do the thing!

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