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: Memory Tricks

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Ok friends, this is the final post for Working Memory, and we’re over halfway through my executive function series! I can’t believe how much I’ve posted already on this and how much is left. Thanks for hanging in there with me. This last section for Working Memory is a bit of a catch all, but mostly it’s about simplifying and preparing ahead so that your memory will be on point.

Let’s start with some preparation type hacks that you can use to make sure you aren’t trying to remember things last minute and panicking. I’d highly suggest checking out some Everyday Carry websites, which talk about ways to optimize what tools you need with you on a day to day basis. If you can get everything you need in one bag and you just have to remember one thing, that’s simplified your memory needs significantly!

You can also use those same principles to create a kind of “emergency kit”. If you tend to forget things or lose things, it can be a good idea to have a bag that has all the stuff you might need (a spare key, some money, a snack, etc.) and keep it in your car or create a tiny version to leave in a coat pocket or purse. The idea is not that you’ll be using these things on the regular. You still want to build the habit of bringing your normal keys and your wallet. But in case you forget, you’ll have a back up. I do this with a water bottle in my car so that when I inevitably forget to bring one to work out I’ll have some way to stay hydrated.

The next set of suggestions has to do with keeping things relatively simple so that you can focus well. Rule #1: DO NOT MULTITASK. What most people call multitasking is actually switching very quickly between different tasks. It’s not super efficient, and especially if transitioning is hard for you this will significantly decrease your ability to actually complete tasks since you’re using a lot of mental energy to switch tasks. Instead, pick one thing to do and work only only that task, even if it feels like you have too many things to complete.

Another way to simplify things is to break bigger pieces of information into smaller chunks. Instead of trying to memorize the full periodic table, just work on it row by row. Then you’ll simply have to string things together (hopefully none of your memory tasks require that much memorizing because that’s a doozy). For me this expresses itself in daily life more in how much I choose to do at a time. Instead of saying “I will do all of my ad sales management this morning” I say “I’m going to e-mail the people who haven’t sent me ad copy yet”. Once I’ve finished that piece I check in and take on a new task. A big part of this is breaking down one task into smaller pieces to start. How do I do that?

Planning! I like to write down each task that I have to do each day. Some people prefer visual instructions, and might prefer images or another visual system, but even having a written form is fine for me. I HIGHLY recommend that if someone gives you verbal instructions you take notes because it will be incredibly taxing on your working memory to try to remember everything if you haven’t written it down. Once I’ve written down the main task I like to write down each step of the task. I may not do it in a huge big list. I may choose to write the first step today, the second step tomorrow, etc. so that I am reminded when I need to jump back in and do the next piece.

Another helpful way to increase your working memory is to keep things that are similar together. I have a drawer in my desk at home that contains all of the extra technology I might need, so I know that whether I’m looking for an extension cord or an external hard drive, it will be in that drawer. In my planner I put all of my work related things in one box and all of my home related things in another box. Mentally, I might have a few tasks that need to get done around the house: instead of trying to remember all of them at once I’ll note everything that needs to get done in one room and try to do those things together.

You can also simplify what you’re trying to remember by using acronyms or mnemonics. These are great for sets of items or tasks you have to do repeatedly. I repeatedly forget to turn on the water when I’m doing my laundry before I put the soap and clothes in, so it could be great for me to create a mnemonic. Whack some cloth! Now it’s going to be hard for me to forget that weird saying and I’ll hopefully think of it when I go to do laundry next. That will remind me the steps I need to take.

Last but not least, the best way to hold on to new information is to integrate it with things you already know. So if you’re starting a new project, ask a lot of questions. Understand how it parallels other projects you’ve done. Find out if it relates to something else you’re working on. Can you connect it to something you like and care about? Sometimes those connections may not make sense to other people. I now distinctly remember why I shouldn’t rig an aerial apparatus to a tree because I was talking to a friend the other day and she said that trees make noises when you hang from them and I immediately thought of Ents. Now it’s unlikely that I’ll forget the Ent connection. Any time you can relate a new piece of information to something that’s already solidly in your brain, you strengthen the new memory.

And with that you have all of my tips for improving working memory. Next up we’ll start talking about initiating tasks.

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!