Hacking Your Executive Function: Time Management

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Organization can encompass quite a number of things, both literal and more abstract. The next organizational task we’re going to look at is time management, which can be a source of particular struggle for a lot of folks with executive function challenges, and is a bit different from other types of organization. There are quite a few levels to this, so we’re going to try to break it down from long term to short term.

The first and most important suggestion I can make is to be protective of your time. You do not need to do everything, you don’t need to say yes to everything, and one element of time management that is incredibly important is learning how much you can reasonably accomplish and what you need to delegate or simply say no to. If you are worried about completing tasks on time, this also means asking for help or seeing if someone around you can jump in and take something on for you. Those are all pretty challenging emotional tasks, but we discussed some of the ways to set boundaries and ask for help in the emotion regulation section. A final element of this communication piece of time management is that you need to be able and willing to tell people when they are affecting your time management.

So for example if I have a really packed day and I’m trying to finish a project, I need to learn how to tell my coworkers I can’t get pulled into anything. That might be a sign on my door, asking my boss to work remotely until I finish the big project, or creating a script I can use whenever someone interrupts me. This can also go for friends and family members, or for people who continue to ask you for time consuming help.

The other challenging element involved in protecting your time is knowing how much time tasks will take. If you’re not sure it can be hard to tell if your schedule is too full or too empty. This is where you might need to do some long term work to improve your executive function. Alas there is no easy list of how long every task in the world takes because we’re all different. So you’ll have to take some data about how long it takes YOU to accomplish your standard tasks. Yes, that means timing yourself doing a bunch of different things. Probably for a while. Making a spreadsheet or a list of how long each task takes you (and doing each type of task a couple of times) so you get an idea of your average times.

If you really struggle with estimating how long tasks will take you may want to create a place where you can actually keep these estimates in the long term so that you can refer to them when you’re creating schedules or planning out your time. Another element of this is that you may have a hard time generalizing your time estimates. So let’s say you know that sweeping the living room takes you 15 minutes, but you haven’t timed yourself sweeping the dining room and you feel totally uncertain of how long it will take. You can use other, similar tasks to make estimates.

I also like to take some data on how external factors affect my timing. So over time I have noticed that if I’ve had to do something stressful first thing in the morning, everything during my day will take 1.5 times as long (approximately). If I’m tired or hungry I know to add in some time to my estimates. Sometimes if my mood or physical well-being is bad enough I might estimate that it isn’t worth it to even try to complete a difficult task in that moment and save it for when it will take less time.

I always aim to overestimate the time I will need to spend on something, because it always feels good to get done “early” and have some time left over.

The next step in long term planning is to be aware of deadlines. When you have an external deadline make sure that it gets added to whatever you use for planning, whether that’s a notebook, an app, or something else. I also like to add reminders in a week or two weeks in advance so I remember to start working on it. You can also schedule in your own sub-deadlines ahead of time (for example if you have a larger project give yourself a deadline for step 1).

A few notes about scheduling: I always try to schedule myself some breaks or ensure that I’ve got at least an hour or two of down time each day. This will allow you to actually keep your schedule. It seems counterintuitive but the more you give yourself breaks and rest, the most you accomplish. Giving yourself a particular amount of time to rest also means you don’t “take a break” and never go back to the work. I like to use an alarm to remind myself when it’s time to head back to work.

The other thing to remember when you’re thinking about creating a schedule or a plan to improve your time management is that your schedule needs to be flexible. Things will come up when you don’t expect them to and you’ll have to move things around. I like to think of my schedule in blocks. I tend to use 1 hour blocks, but you can plan in the time interval that makes the most sense for you, even if that means planning down to 10 minutes. Once I’ve created my “blocks” (so I may have 1 hour of aerial, 2 hours to write my freelance work, and 4 hours of my day job) I can move them around as necessary.

If you find that process stressful or difficult you can use some of the skills around flexibility that we’ve talked about in prior posts, or practice writing a schedule, then changing one thing about it the day of. It takes time and practice to get good at organizing on the fly.

Ok now for the good stuff: deciding what you’re going to do when. Prioritization. The best tool I’ve seen for this so far is called an Eisenhower Matrix. Check it out:

Last but not least…DO NOT MULTITASK. It seems like it will help you accomplish more in a smaller amount of time but it’s just a big, dirty lie. You actually get less done and do the work you DO accomplish poorly because your brain has to transition quickly between so many things. It’s much more effective to pick one thing and focus all your energy on it until you’re done.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Organizing Physical Spaces

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The past couple of posts have focused on organizing and planning for projects, tasks, and thoughts. That’s an important place to start when you want to get your executive functioning under control, but one area that I see frustrates people over and over is physical spaces: how do I keep my stuff organized and clean? How do I manage my household? What can I do to make this easier for myself?

Once again this is an area where different people have different preferences and needs, so focus on finding something that feels comfortable and useful to you rather than making yourself fit into a system that doesn’t come naturally. It might seem odd as a place to look for executive functioning hacks, but I’ve found that Pinterest, mom blogs, and other “household” hack websites are actually incredibly useful in finding suggestions. Even if you don’t use exactly the method that they do, it’s good for inspiration.

There are however a few general suggestions that will apply to everyone. The first is to simplify as much as possible. I know that some autistics tend towards “have nothing that I do not need” and some autistics tend towards “I am a magpie give me every shiny thing”, however thinking carefully about what you’re actually going to use or care about in the long term is useful for everyone. Why? The less stuff you have the less stuff you need to organize. It’s harder to lose two shirts than it is to lose your favorite shirt in a pile of 30.

There are tons of different ways to approach downsizing. You can Konmari it, you can get rid of everything you haven’t used in the last year, you can work on one room at a time. But no matter what works for you, be honest with yourself about what will improve your life if you keep it and what will improve your life if you don’t. This is a big step that takes a lot of executive function, and you don’t have to do it all at once. I try to reserve some time at least once a year to go through my clothes and clean out things that don’t fit or have holes or that I don’t wear. At a different time in the year I might go through my books and decide to get rid of some. You can break this down (using the skills we’ve already learned) into smaller projects that happen completely independently of each other.

Once you’ve cut down the sheer amount of stuff you need to organize there are some principles you can use to organize in a useful and easy to understand way. My biggest rule is that all of my things should have a place where they are supposed to be. They don’t always end up in that place, but at least I know where they should go. This also means that when I DO need to clean or organize I don’t have to use a lot of brain power to figure out how I want to put things away, I already know.

Some subelements of this: it can be incredibly helpful to purchase a lot of bins/bags/baskets or other containers so that you can put things AWAY. This also helps you to put similar things together. I have a bin that is all of my journaling supplies. I have another that is all of our extra technology. It’s much easier to stick things into a closet or on a shelf when they’re inside a box, plus it’s easier to find things later. It can also be great to add a label so that you know what’s inside.

I personally prefer to have all of my clutter hidden. I don’t want to see all my shit. So I put them in opaque boxes or put my boxes away in a closet. If you find that more confusing and prefer to see what you have, clear bins can be a lifesaver. That way you know exactly what’s in there, but it’s still contained and organized.

One thing that I want to call out specifically: have a space for things that need to be done. Most often for me this is mail, but it’s also where I keep all of my tax stuff until it’s ready to be done, or my paychecks when they need to be cashed, or other generic “to do” things. I like this to be somewhere visible, and somewhere that it’s going to be annoying and in my way until I complete the task (I put them on my desk. On top of the keyboard. Like an irritating cat). DO NOT let these things sit in an untended corner of your kitchen counter or they will be unearthed in three years when the bills are past due.

If you’re not sure how to put things away, here are some options to consider: peg boards can be a great way to organize oddly shaped and otherwise bulky objects. They’re especially good for craft spaces or garages. Also consider places that you aren’t using: headboards and footboards can have shelving, which is really useful. Corners are a great place to add a tailored shelving unit. I’m a big fan of chests or tables that open and have space inside so that you can hide shit away.

You may also want to use some of your objects as decor. Maybe you get a nice jewelry organizer that hangs on the wall so that your jewelry becomes artwork. If you’ve got a lot of hats you can display those. Especially if you prefer to be able to see your possessions, think about ways that you can have them out without just throwing them in a pile on a shelf or on the floor.

Finally, I would suggest using your physical space to include visual reminders as you need them. If you need to see your week written out, there are great white boards you can buy that go on the fridge. I like to have a corkboard so I can add relevant and important things to it and see them easily. If you require additional support with something like remembering what order to do your morning routine, you can post a picture schedule on the inside of a cupboard or next to your mirror.

Of course in addition to all these general suggestions there are tons of hacks for making organization easier: you can roll your t-shirts or socks instead of folding them. You can add racks into cupboards or under sinks to get additional space. If you have a hard time putting together outfits you can organize your clothes by color to make it easy to grab complementary or matching clothes. There’s tons of ideas out there, and that’s where I suggest checking out Pinterest or similar websites. Good luck my friends!