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: 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.