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: It’s Tech Time

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Ok, so last post we talked about ways that you can stay organized if your preference is to use pen and paper: planners, notebooks, etc. That doesn’t work for everyone though. Maybe it just takes too long, maybe you hate hand writing, maybe you always forget to bring it with you. Whatever the reason, some people just don’t find planners effective. Lucky for us, we’re living in a time with TONS of productivity apps, websites, and supports. Today I’ll talk about some of the different types of options, what to think about when you’re picking one, and ways to optimize your technological organization.

Let’s start with the very basics: apps whose job it is to manage your habits, to do lists, and projects. There are SO MANY OPTIONS here, so similar to planners you’ll want to think about what it is you’re looking for. Do you prefer something that’s text based? Some systems are more visual. Do you want to be able to share with other people? Are you primarily interested in to do lists, or do you want to be able to manage large projects and workflows? What kinds of reminders do you want? Do you want rewards? A good place to start when choosing an app is to browse some of the lists that are out there and see what sticks out to you.

A few options that I’d like to highlight: Habitica was my app of choice for a long time (I only stopped using it because it was having a lot of issues with glitches which have since been fixed). There are a few elements of Habitica that I think are important.

1. It gamifies your life. In Habitica you play as an RPG character. You earn points by completing tasks, with extra bonuses for doing habits many days in a row. With the points you earn you can buy rewards (which you choose yourself) or by in-game things like new outfits and steeds. You can even choose “quests” that you complete with a certain number of tasks completed.

2. It’s social. This was one of my favorite parts. You can join a party with your friends, complete quests together, encourage each other, share rewards. You get the benefits of sharing a goal with someone else (the accountability, the support) while also having other built in motivations.

Another option I want to highlight is ToDoist, which gives you a LOT of data about your productivity (when you’re most productive, when you put things off, etc.) as well as a great deal of customization for how to view, prioritize, and share your tasks. There are also pre-created templates that you can use if you struggle to break a project into its pieces.

Finally I’d mention Evernote. The big benefit of Evernote is how open it is: you can add almost anything to it. Links, recipes, sketches, video, text, audio recording. If you prefer a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” approach, or you’re working on projects that are creative and variable, Evernote gives you the flexibility to include a lot of different things.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of some of the things apps can offer, and what types of things to look for. Maybe you’re interested in motivation (there are tons of apps like this, including everything from Zombies! Run!, an exercise app, to StickK, which donates to a charity you hate if you don’t follow through on your goals), maybe you’re interested in organization (there are so many project management softwares that can help you visualize your process) or maybe you’re interested in keeping literally everything in the same place.

Once you’ve chosen a system there are quite a few things you can do that will optimize that system. Many apps or websites have the option to create templates so that if you have similar projects or tasks you can copy them instead of starting with nothing. Almost every option out there has the possibility of recurring appointments so that you can enter it once and then forget it. You may also want to explore the options that any given system has for alarms and reminders. In some cases you can see all the things you have scheduled for the day in one screen. But you may want an out loud alarm 15 minutes before an important meeting. Maybe you just want a reminder to pop up on your computer screen.

Whether all of these features are within one system or you use a couple of different systems, it’s good to set up some reminders. I use my basic phone alarm for important reminders, and my e-mail for work meetings. In general I wouldn’t recommend hodge podging a thousand different apps and programs together for what you want, but it’s really normal and reasonable to have 3-5 different apps that work on different things.

I also highly recommend that when you start using a system you take time to optimize it. One obvious example is e-mail. It’s incredibly easy for e-mails to get lost. I personally leave e-mails marked “unread” until I have responded to them. Once a week I go through my inbox and file or delete everything that is not still “open” (waiting on a response or will be necessary for an upcoming project). Your system might be different but you should think ahead about how you’d like to set things up. Even systems with a lot of structure like Habitica give you the option to decide if you’re going to create positive habits (I need to do this every day) or negative habits (I’d like to refrain from doing this every day) and you can decide how to frame many of your to dos.

Ok that’s a lot of info about how to find and create a technological system that can support your executive function. But I also mentioned that you’ll probably need to use some supplemental systems as well. This will in part depend on what you want (are you concerned about mental health tracking? There are a lot of specific apps for that) but there are a few things that are generally helpful to talk about.

If you’re interested in tracking your time, there are lots of different types of options out there. Timewinder gives you timers so that you can (for example) stand and sit at work for the optimal intervals. Hours shows you where you’ve spent your time on the web. There’s even a time tracking cube! You set each side to a task and turn it so that the relevant side is up while you’re working on that task. At the end of the day the app tells you how long you spent on each task.

Another realm is optimization. The best example of this that I’ve seen is called “If This Then This”. You can create relationships between the different apps on your phone so that tasks are automated (for example you could set it so that when Google maps detects that you’re at work it will mark it in a timesheet app). I find this one a bit ambitious for my tastes but if you like coding and logic I’ve heard it’s fantastic.

You can also use apps to support a lot of other executive functioning by changing the format you’re using. Most of our lives are based around text. If that’s not your jam, you’re pretty fucked a lot of the time. But you can use an iPad or tablet to doodle your notes if you prefer that to writing, then save to Evernote. Or you can create a video schedule or picture schedule through an app and use that instead of a written schedule. There are digital time timers to help you visualize your time. Maybe you’re aural not visual: you can record notes or conversations (please make sure you ask people before recording them) and listen back later (these can also be kept in some organizational apps). You can automate verbal reminders. The beauty of technology is how customizable it is.

What apps and tech have you used to improve your executive functioning?

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: Unexpected Transitions

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Most of what we’ve talked about up to this point are when you can plan ahead for a transition. You know it will be coming, you have an idea of what your day will hold, and you can give yourself extra time or use skills to make the transition easier. But sometimes we have to unexpectedly go from one thing to another. Maybe we get interrupted from a project during the day and we have to immediately move to a more pressing task. Maybe you’re out with friends and they decide to change plans. Maybe an emergency comes up. We all have times where our plans get derailed and we have to quickly switch to something new.

One thing you can do is practice your flexibility. This is the part you CAN do ahead of time so that those skills are strong and ready to be used at a moment’s notice. If you can set aside a day where you’ve got time and emotional reserves (ok this might be a ridiculous dream), try switching between different tasks and noticing how you feel, what makes it easier, etc. I recommend starting this out with things you like so that you’re not trying to really accomplish stuff and you don’t have to worry about the anxiety around the task itself, just around the transition. Maybe you pick two tasks and set an alarm for every hour, then move back and forth between them.

Once you start to feel more comfortable switching between tasks you like, you can try to introduce more challenging tasks, or have someone else give you an unexpected task. You can also use a friend to help you practice creating a new plan or expectation in the moment, which is another way to prep ahead of time. Maybe you want to test out having a day or have a day or an hour where you don’t decide ahead of time what you’re going to do. You can practice deciding what to do and how to do it on the fly. To get advanced, set aside the time then have a friend suggest the activity so you can figure out how to accomplish it unexpectedly.

Again, these in advance skills are things that I would only recommend practicing if you have the time and feel emotionally stable when you want to practice them. I’d also suggest having a plan B in place for if you start to melt down or feel overwhelmed so that you can do some self care if you start to struggle with the transitions. However the more you practice these things, the easier it will get to do them in the wild when unexpected transitions appear. You may have to start by practicing in a very intentional way (you get an unexpected transition, you stop and write down what you’re planning to do and how you’re going to do it, you do emotion regulation techniques, then you begin the next task), but I have found that the more I do it the less I have to consciously work through a transition.

There are also some things you can do in specific situations that will help you. I generally try to overplan, meaning have a couple of different options for any plan that I create. It’s like a choose your own adventure book! I’ll have my first plan, which is what I would like to happen. But if I know it’s possible that something might go down differently I’ll have an alternate version of my plan to accommodate. I try not to go overboard with this though because once you start hitting four or five different versions of the same plan it tends to cause more anxiety than it’s worth and eat up a LOT of your time. Be reasonable. Make contingency plans for things that are LIKELY to happen, not every possibility in the whole world. Practice recognizing that something may happen you haven’t planned for and then forcing yourself to stop planning.

Sometimes it also helps to create an order when it feels like things are out of control. The order doesn’t have to make sense: it can be totally arbitrary. If I get a bunch of new projects thrown at me unexpectedly I’ll write them all down and sometimes just pick one, any one, and say that I have to start there. Getting started is more important than prioritizing correctly. Another example would be if an unexpected emergency comes up. Let’s say your spouse gets a flat tire and calls to ask you to come help. I might give myself five minutes to jot down what the steps of that task would be, then give myself a clear reward afterwards. I can tell myself “first I will drive to pick them up, then I will help them change the tire, then I will stop for ice cream on the way home. I can finish my current task at x time.” Having a clear place to pick back up on what you thought you would do also helps alleviate the anxiety.

Last but not least I find it helpful when faced with an unexpected change to notice what’s actually upsetting me about the situation. Am I upset that I can’t do something I was planning on doing? How important was that thing? Do I actually want to do the new thing more? Am I frustrated that I can’t complete what I was in the middle of? I may have another time I can finish it, or I can remind myself that things aren’t all or nothing, it’s ok to do part of something then come back. Is it not knowing exactly what’s about to happen? I can ask more questions to determine what’s going on, or else just make some decisions for myself (this happens a lot in a social group when no one can decide where you’re going. I’ve taken to just saying what we’re doing because generally people will agree). I think we often get hung up on trying to figure out what’s “right” or makes the most sense when we’re trying to plan or put together a schedule, but it’s surprising how often just doing SOMETHING is more effective.

That’s all I’ve got for you on transitions! Drop any extra hints or tricks in the comments. Next up? Working memory.