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: Breaking Down Large Tasks

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So we’ve taken a look at what might STOP you from beginning a task. But now we’re going to jump in to SOLUTIONS. Woohoo!!! Today’s post is all about taking a task that seems large or unmanageable and turning it into reasonably sized chunks that you can tackle with ease. It’s easy to tell someone “if a project seems really overwhelming, start by identifying each individual step”. But hey it turns out that converting one big project into many little tasks is hard so I’m going to give you the steps so you don’t have to figure it out yourself.

The first thing to do is to plan time for breaking a large task into smaller tasks. If you have a large project like a school paper, or even something like cleaning your whole house, allow yourself an hour that you set aside to write down or think through the steps. If you’re looking at something smaller like how to get everything into your backpack, take five minutes before you begin to plan.

In addition to setting aside time to plan, I’m also going to make a recommendation that sounds a little bit weird: half ass it. If you’re intimidated by the scope of a project, it feels too large, you don’t have the energy to do all of it, don’t plan to do all of it. Doing one dish is still better than doing no dishes, and by the time you’ve started running the water and broken out the dish soap you might feel up to doing one or two more dishes or maybe even the whole sink full. Don’t feel ashamed of working on a chunk that seems pointlessly small, because you’re still getting something done. Sometimes it’s not just putting all the steps in order, it’s also the scope that feels overwhelming and you might think that a particular task can’t be broken down further. It can be! start with the smallest increment possible and work up from there.

Ok, now let’s get into the meat and potatoes.

I’d suggest starting by looking at the project you have to complete and listing off all the different things that need to get done. You don’t necessarily need to put them in order yet, just start writing down everything you can think of that will need to happen before you say “it’s done”! For example if I’m writing a paper I might say I need to research, I need to write a draft, I need to edit, I need to print it or e-mail it.

If you’re having trouble coming up with these steps, you can think about the different phases you might need. For example in writing this book I had to have a phase of content creation, a phase of pencil drafts, a phase of digital drafts, and a phase of cleaning up those drafts. You might think about categories: if you’re planning a wedding you can look at the invitations, the venue, the food, the clothes, etc. Or you might imagine the different parts: when cleaning you can divide by the spaces that need to be tackled. Once you’ve got some large tasks, you might split them down into sub tasks, so if I say that I need to clean the living room I can break that into dusting, sweeping, picking up, and mopping.

The next step is to make sure that each task is fairly simple: it is actually just one thing, and that it’s not too big: it should only take 30 min-1 hour. If you look at one of your tasks and realize it seems unmanageable, you may actually have listed a multi-step task instead of a single-step task. So “research dogs” is not a great task. Instead you might break it into three parts: “go to the library and find books about dogs then read them, look up dogs online and find resources, speak with a dog expert.” If you look at each of those and find that you could spend more than an hour on each one, you can split it into three steps of the same thing, so you might write down “read books about dogs for 30 minutes” three times so that you know that’s the amount of time you plan to spend on it.

One good indicator of a strong task is that it has a very specific verb (not do, make etc. but outline, vacuum, etc) and it has a time constraint. Another way to break up longer tasks (like “write a first draft”) is to give yourself milestones. One goal would be “write the first 500 words” or “find three quotations to include”. I like to choose either milestones or time constraints to split up larger tasks.

From there you put them in chronological order. If you start to notice other things that need to happen as you think about the order, add those in. I find that using a digital format for writing out my outline is nice because I can copy and paste tasks where I want them, but you might want to use Post It notes or index cards so that you can stick them in the correct order.

Depending on the type of project you’re looking at, this is where you can assign yourself due dates or create a time line. I wouldn’t do this step for a project like cleaning my house, but if my project was decorating my house I would give myself one room to do each weekend for a few months. If you have a final due date it’s always a good idea to work backwards through your steps to figure out when you want your smaller due dates. I also love to work in a little bit of extra time in case I fall behind or need to add a step or want to review before I need the project finished.

So that’s it! If you are struggling to get started on something because you don’t know where to start, or you’re worried you don’t have the energy to finish all of it, start by walking through this post and breaking your project into tasks. Then all you have to do is follow the plan (so easy hahahaha).

Hacking Your Executive Function: Initiate Initiation Sequence

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As I consider the order in which I have placed these different sections, it hits me that maybe I should have started with initiation since it’s very literally the beginning. However beginning a task is actually fairly complicated, and pulls from skills that we learned in emotion regulation and inhibition, so while it might seem like an obvious place to start we’re actually going to be building on past skills. This post will be an overview of the types of things that can get in the way of starting a new task, and some of the kinds of tools you can use to get started when it seems impossible.

In the sense that we’re using the word initiation, we’ll be talking about beginning something new, whether that’s starting a new project, getting out of bed to begin something, or getting to work and beginning your day. Many of us think about initiation in terms of motivation: if I were just motivated I would be able to go clean the house or start this paper or make myself dinner. We think that there is some kind of internal willpower that fuels our ability to get up and start something. What might surprise us all is that the way we set up our environment and our day, how we manage our emotions, and how we build in motivation to the task is what actually allows us to get moving.

The first thing I’d note that makes it harder for us to start a task is that we don’t know how. We might understand the end goal, but we don’t necessarily understand where to start, or we feel overwhelmed because it feels as if we need to complete all of it. You may also need help with actually understanding what you need to accomplish, with knowing where all the materials are, and with understanding the process. So the first skill we’ll look at is breaking a larger task down into smaller tasks so that you know how to start, and what singular thing to work on, as well as getting any questions you have answered.

Once we have an idea of what we actually need to do, we should start looking at how we’re feeling about it. Many times we blame ourselves for being lazy or unmotivated when what is really stopping us from beginning a task is anxiety or fear. Finding out what is actually stopping you is the next important step: oftentimes it’s a fear of failure or anxiety about looking incompetent. If you can identify the emotions around the task, you can take those on with your emotion regulation skills, and you’ll find that it becomes easier to actually begin the task.

You may also be getting sidelined by distractions. Especially for tasks that aren’t entirely pleasant it’s easy to find other things you would rather be doing. This is where our inhibition skills come into play, especially those skills that involve creating a space with fewer distractions. You can also use those skills to try to spice up the task you’re not entirely interested in. Why DO you want to complete that task? You’re not doing it for no reason. Hold on to the motivation, even if it’s less immediate (you’re writing the paper to graduate from college and get a good job), and try to introduce a more immediate motivation, whether that’s by promising yourself a reward or by incorporating something fun, like seeing how many weird synonyms for a word you can insert into your research paper.

There’s also an element of organization that plays into initiation. Sometimes you need to trick your brain a little bit. I like to create fake deadlines for myself to ensure I’ll work on each step of a project in time and get started on it before it’s late. I also like to track habits and goals so that I can see how I’m progressing. Thinking about putting that checkmark in my planner is a great motivator for beginning a project, and looking at a habit tracker fill up with days that I’ve been successful feels fantastic. It can also help me notice which days I am not successful at doing specific tasks so that I can see what other things were happening on those days. Knowing what you need to get done, when it needs to be done by, and what you’ve already accomplished goes a long way towards helping you start the tasks that need to get done.

This was obviously just a quick and dirty overview of what we’re going to be diving into in more detail in the coming days. Buckle up! We’re initiating the initiation sequence.

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!