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!