Hacking Your Executive Function: Identifying Your Strengths and Weaknesses

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One of the elements of self-monitoring that I find challenging is determining what skills you can bring to the table, and how to apply them to the task at hand vs. what elements will be particularly challenging and how you can get support. I like to think of this as a two parter: one is determining the parts of the task that seem like they will be challenging and which will be easy. The other is reflecting on yourself and figuring out what you can do well vs. not so well.

Let’s start with assessing tasks. You may need to rely on someone else to begin with if you really struggle to know what you can and can’t do. If you’re looking at a project or task and aren’t sure about it, you can pull in a trusted friend and ask them whether they think it will be difficult or not. Offer your own reasons you think it might be hard or easy and ask them for feedback. Work together to develop a strategy that addresses the difficult element (this math problem will be challenging because it has many steps. We can work on that by clearly writing out each step and checking our work for each before we move on to the next). Afterwards you can reflect together on whether your predictions were right.

That might seem kiddish, but I do find it helpful to talk through things instead of getting stuck inside my own head. If you don’t like working with another person you can follow those steps on your own. If you’re struggling with the first step, you can think of tasks that are similar to the one you’re doing and whether those were hard or difficult. I do this a lot with my aerial practice. When I watch a new skill being demonstrated I try to connect it to something I already know. If it’s made up of pieces that I can already do, then I know I’ll be able to do the new thing. If it includes an element that I know I struggle with, I know I’ll have to focus specifically on that area.

It’s easy to use these types of exercises to focus on what will be hard or what you’re worried about. I want to encourage you to remember that part of assessing your own skills is knowing what you can do well. You’ll also want to try to identify the elements of a task that you know how to do. Have you done it before? Were you successful? Have you completed something similar? What skills did you use?

Sure, we can learn from failure, but we can also learn from success. It teaches us what works. It teaches us what we’re capable of. It can also help you to understand how to approach a task. Let’s say in the past you had written academic reports. Now in adulthood you’re being asked to write a short description of a project you’re working on. They may not be exactly the same, but you’ll understand that you start with brainstorming, then you create an outline, then you draft the story. I always try to start a project by comparing it to something I’ve done successfully in the past, then drawing out the elements I understand so that I can approach something new with skills that are comfortable and familiar.

In addition to paying attention to the task itself you also want to notice what you bring to the table for any given problem. I find it pretty challenging to know what I’m actually good at (thanks depression for lying and saying it’s nothing), so I often ask others to reflect back to me what they see me doing well, and I try to carefully note when I see myself do something successfully. I might literally take notes on it, like a self-review. For me personally, I’ll note that I’m good at writing, I’m good at organizing, I’m good at completing tasks quickly, but I’m not great at details and I’m pretty bad at reviewing my own work. Other people think they’re great at everything and might need reminders of the places they struggle.

You can put your own strengths and weaknesses together with what will be challenging or easy about the task and notice the places that you might need some help. I also think that it’s important to recognize that accurately assessing your own strengths and weaknesses as well as the challenges of a particular task doesn’t just apply to things like work or school.

It’s really common for providers or caregivers to talk about self-monitoring in regards to “socially inappropriate” behavior. So a provider might say that a person with low self-monitoring just doesn’t notice when they’re doing something inappropriate, and that’s why we need to increase their self-monitoring abilities (so that they stop stimming or start making eye contact or whatever).

I’m not super into that. I think a lot of the behaviors that providers want to extinguish are a-ok. However, I do think that it can be helpful to be self-aware because there are circumstances in which you might want to choose not to do them or choose to do them less (I change my behavior pretty drastically during a job interview for example).

Strengths and weaknesses or goal-setting aren’t really frameworks that make sense for things like stimming. Instead, I prefer to think of them in terms of needs. Many, many people have a hard time identifying what they need in a given moment, and for those of us whose needs are out of the ordinary, it can be even more challenging. In addition to noting strengths and weaknesses, I try to take time to be aware of my body and what it’s communicating to me (I’ve mentioned mindfulness in other areas of this series, but you may prefer something else), as well as noting basic needs like sleep, hunger, or social comfort.

If you can identify the need that a particular behavior is satisfying, then you can make decisions about how you would like to satisfy that need, whether it’s bringing a very small fidget to a job interview so that you can stim quietly under the table, or being loud and proud about your hand-flapping in public. This can also be helpful for dealing with behaviors like self-injury.

You can also use the strengths/weaknesses lens to think about how you want to approach “socially inappropriate” behaviors. For example, I know that I’m pretty great at sitting still and focusing, but I am balls at small talk. I also know that it takes a lot less out of me to sit quietly in the corner than it does to try to be polite and friendly. So when I need to mask or when I want to be unobtrusive, I use my quiet, camouflaging skills rather than trying to interact with other people. Masking is a personal choice, but if you decide you’d like to do it, there are easier and harder ways to do it. Pick the ones that work for you.

I always prefer to use as many strengths as possible and circumvent my weaknesses. Instead of trying to force myself to do something I struggle with, why not find an alternative way that uses my skills? The more you pay attention to what you’re good at, the more you’ll find your own methods of success that actually work for you.

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: 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).