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.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Use These Weird Initiation Tricks, Doctors Hate Them!

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It’s been a minute you guys. I apologize, the holidays got to me and I took a big old break and I feel much better for it. With that, I’m heading in to our final topics with some excitement, and also looking forward to finishing up this series.

So you might remember that quite a while ago we covered the topic of taking a big task and breaking it into smaller tasks to increase the likelihood that you’ll start to work on the task. Sometimes that’s not quite enough. I know that even if I’ve got a concrete place to start, sometimes I have too much fatigue or anxiety to begin my task. If you’re in the boat where you’ve done a lot of the upfront work to make a task manageable but you’re still struggling to get up and go, here are some tricks you can try that might make it easier.

If a particular task is sounding daunting to you, there are a few ways you can work around that. The first one I picked up on Tumblr, and the creator called it “junebugging”. Go to the area in which you need to be working (so if you needed to do dishes you would go to the kitchen) and putz. Put something away. Pour yourself a glass of water. Just walk around. Metaphorically “bump into” things in the space you need to work on. You’ll be surprised at how often you find yourself picking up the project you meant to do in the first place. The trick is that you don’t tell yourself you’re about to go work.

Location is a big part of getting started on something. Whether it’s moving to the area you want to work in or creating a space that is specifically for work, getting up and going somewhere new can help you break the “I don’t want to start” cycle.

In addition to location, the when is also important. If you’re really struggling to get started on projects, start with something that feels easy. Instead of jumping in to the paper that makes your brain melt, do some simple data entry or pick up your room to get things started. On the other hand, if you’re more fresh in the morning it can help a lot to start with the worst thing and just get it out of the way. Pay attention to when you feel most productive and when you think you’ll be effective at different tasks. Sometimes I’ll get an urge to work on a particular project: maybe it’s not due until next week and I’ve got something due this week. But I’ll still follow through on the desire to do something because I know I’ll finish it more quickly and be able to focus on the higher priority task once I’ve finished what I want to do.

The other element of when is to notice when you can focus. I cannot do work past about 5:00 in the evening. My brain does not want to focus, and it’s like pulling teeth to get anything done. I found a place where I can work from 8-4 and then be DONE. Not everyone has the luxury of working when they want to, but thinking about timing can be an important part of how you set up your life. If you CANNOT work first thing in the morning, don’t try to get up before work and do things. Wait until the evening.

If you know it’s time to get started and you can’t quite seem to get that final oomf, sometimes it can be helpful to pick an arbitrary time to get started. I do this almost every morning when I need to get out of bed and get my day started. I look at my phone and pick a time about 5 minutes in the future and say that at 8:31 I will get out of bed. Having a very specific time that I need to start helps. It can also be very useful to say “will” instead of should. Sometimes little semantic choices help us to frame things as inevitable rather than possibilities.

One final element to use in your arsenal against procrastination: visualization. I like to have visual timers or visual schedules to help myself see how much time I have left to complete my tasks. It can also be helpful to visualize yourself completing the task. Instead of imagining the bigness of the task, or feeling tired, visualizing can convince you that it’s possible. If that doesn’t help, you could imagine yourself as a fictional character that you admire: it’s not that I have a bunch of homework to do, it’s that I’m Hermione and I’m about to show how brilliant and competent Muggle born witches are, and even defeat Lord Voldemort. Sometimes making a simple, boring task into an exciting game does wonders for making it more exciting and more appealing.

These are great in the moment tactics that can help you get past the first hurdle of starting a task. Good luck initiators!

Hacking Your Executive Function: External Reminders

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Alright, alright, so last post I introduced you to the concept of working memory but I’ll be honest: I didn’t give you a ton of super helpful ideas for how to manage bad working memory. I’m here to rectify that situation today! The first realm of supports that I use for working memory is external reminders. There are approximately one billion different ways to use your environment to remind you of different things but I’m going to give some suggestions and hints here.

It might seem obvious, but write everything down. EVERYTHING. The trick with this is not the part about writing it down, but the part about seeing it again when you need it. There are a few different tactics you can take to make sure that you’ve always got paper available and to make sure that you will see it again later. The first is to leave paper in many places; you can put post it notes on your light switches or other high traffic areas that you know you’ll encounter in your day to day life so that you’ll see the reminders later. You can have notepads kept around your house so that no matter which room you’re in you’ll be able to write something down. One potential pitfall of this is having so many reminders that you stop paying attention, so make sure that you remove things you’ve already completed and try to follow through when you see the reminder.

The other way, which is my preferred method, is to write everything in one place (for me it’s my planner), and to always have that with you and open. When I’m at work, my planner is always directly next to me and open. If I’m “on” at home (rather than just relaxing), my planner is out and open. I’ll talk more about effective planner usage in the planning and organization section, but the main take away for working memory is that if it’s going to be useful it needs to be visible.

Some people don’t love the written word though, and so they prefer to use other methods to remind themselves. There are lots of ways you can leave yourself reminders, depending on what you prefer. You might take photos on your phone and put them all in a particular folder for “reminders”. You could leave yourself voice memos. If you’re a very visual person and you tend to forget certain steps (like say turning off the oven after you’re done with it) you could leave a cartoon of the steps for cooking or a post it over the stove. You can set alarms and reminders on your phone, your calendar app, or your email that will pop up or beep or make irritating noises until you turn them off. There are some specific types of hacks for particular reminders, like this pill bottle that has a timer telling you how long it’s been since you opened it. If you’re struggling to remember a particular task, the internet may have something to help you out, so definitely check Google.

These types of reminders can also help with your physical objects. If you’re always forgetting what you need to bring with you, it’s a good idea to always leave those things in the same place. I have a bowl next to my door that holds my keys, and I leave my bag next to it. I don’t have to wonder what I need to bring with me in the morning, because it’s always right there. I also work hard not to move things around in my house. My laptop is always next to my bed. I have these glasses holders, one next to my bed and one next to my computer, so that my glasses always end up in the right place.

While it can be challenging to organize your physical spaces when you’re struggling with executive function, if you can set aside an afternoon or two each month to try to improve certain spaces, it can really help with memory. I try to ensure that each drawer of my desk holds one type of thing (cords and electronics, pens and pencils, gaming materials, etc.), and never leave things just sitting out as the place that they belong. Everything has a box or a drawer so that I know where it’s supposed to be. You might like to label everything, or organize it based on what makes sense to you (maybe you like to organize by color), but I generally find it helps to have the place that things SHOULD be so that I can always look there first.

In addition to these ongoing types of memory accommodations, sometimes you also need to remember something specific, whether it’s to thank your grandma for that card she sent you or to pay your bills. One trick is to pick an object that’s just full on weird. A plastic alien. A rubber duck with an eyepatch. Something that will stick out. Tell yourself that the object is your reminder to do the task, and leave it somewhere that you’ll see it when you can and should do the task. Maybe you buy yourself a mock Harry Potter Remembrall and it serves as your cue whenever you need to remember something. Use things that stick out in your environment as ways to kick start your memory.

Sometimes all of the reminders in the world aren’t going to help though. In those cases, I like to enlist some help from a friend. When I was really struggling with getting enough food in my body, there were times I would have someone text me at mealtimes to check in and see if I had eaten. Adding another person can give a layer of accountability that keeps the task in your mind for longer. It’s easy enough to turn off an alarm, but a bit more challenging to brush off a friend or family member who wants to help you. You may even want to ask them to do a task together so that you can’t get distracted or lose a step partway through. The more you practice common tasks, the less you’ll need to focus on each step, and the less you’ll need to rely on working memory. Asking others to be a part of that can help a ton!

We’ll get more into using routines and repetition to help your working memory in the next post, so look forward to it!