Hacking Your Executive Function: Transitions That Aren’t Tasks

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Most of the “transitions” that we talk about when we’re looking at executive function are tasks. This gets ingrained early on because accomplishing things is the #1 priority of our shitty capitalist society and also because school tends to be a list of tasks that must be accomplished. But sometimes there are other types of transitions: transitioning from place to place. Transitioning between different people. Transitioning from one environment (and self presentation) to another. Today we’re going to talk about some strategies specific to other types of transitions.

Let’s start by talking about places. There are three elements to actually switching physical locations that I find challenging: first is that sometimes I have not been to a place before and I find the unknown anxiety provoking. Second is that driving places is boring and stress inducing, and public transit can be challenging. Travel time always feels like a waste to me. Third is that when you need to leave the house or leave work you are adding in a lot of extra steps to getting to your next task, whether that’s putting on pants or making sure you don’t forget your purse. Let’s have a look at each element.

First, you can make transitions a little bit easier by prepping ahead of time. If I’ve never been to a location before I like to look it up online, see if I can find pictures, check out maps, and prepare for how long it will take me to get there. If it’s something fairly important I may even visit the location ahead of time just to feel more comfortable. I always like to know where I can escape to if I get overwhelmed in a new location, so you might take time to identify a quiet space. I generally also try to give myself extra time to get from one place to another in case I get lost or need extra time to transition once I arrive. I’ve mentioned before that using your body can help get your brain active and ready for the next thing. I like to walk or bike when I can to put some space between one place and the next in a really physical way.

What about travel? Well we could do a whole series on how challenging transit is when you’re disabled, but I’m going to focus on methods for making it less stressful here. One thing I do is avoid areas that I know are challenging for me. I almost never drive downtown, I try to leave early if I have to get somewhere around rush hour (I’ll go to a nearby coffee shop or library to kill time), and I give myself permission to just pay for an expensive parking ramp if I know parking is going to be a challenge. If you know that certain areas/times/elements increase your anxiety, just don’t do them. Parallel parking? I’d rather walk an extra block. Sometimes it helps to have a friend or buddy who can help you navigate, or who can drive if it gets too dark for you.

I also like to try to keep my commutes interesting. I listen to podcasts or create playlists that will keep my energy up. Sometimes I’ll practice mindfulness in the car. If I’m taking a bus I always bring a book or a game to play (this is especially helpful for stopping strangers from speaking to you). Audiobooks are another great option. Although I still hate driving, I find that it doesn’t feel like as much of an imposition when I have something fun and interesting to do at the same time, or at least it doesn’t feel like I’ve completely wasted my time.

The final element that I find the most challenging about transitioning out of a space is how many steps there are to it. This brings in a social piece that I find particularly difficult. When you’re simply transitioning from one task to another, you generally just have to mentally disengage and then reengage. With physical transitions you need to figure out how to end the conversation/interaction that you might be having in one space, locate all of your items, determine if you need to bring new items with you, find a route to your new location, and make sure you know how to get there. That’s a lot of stuff.

Some of this you can do ahead of time: I always try to know all the locations I’ll be headed during the day and how I’ll get there in advance. I also try to grab all of the items I’ll need during the day and keep them in my car, so I spend some extra time the evening before and in the morning to prepare. Some of it is more immediate. It can help to have a basic script that you use to end conversations. I often like to use my schedule to help myself feel like it’s ok to leave (especially if I like someone). So instead of just trying to leave I’ll say “oh I have to get to work” or “I have to get home and eat dinner” so that I feel less like I’m abandoning someone. Putting together a script for ending conversations can be challenging but I suggest you practice it and think about it in advance if leaving is something you struggle with.

The last element that can be challenging is that you need to rely on working memory to acquire all the relevant possessions. I don’t bring purses with me anymore because I would always leave them places. Instead I’ve downsized to a phone case that holds my credit cards and ID, plus my keys. I try to always keep all my materials together and leave them in the same place (for locations that I go to regularly). If I don’t need to bring something with me, I leave it in my car. I also like to leave some extra things in my car just in case: a sweater or sweatshirt, a waterbottle, a phone charger. That helps diminish the pressure to always remember all the things I need.

As if that weren’t enough, there are often other types of transitions built in to moving from one place to another. One that has its own set of rules and that I have almost never seen discussed is transitioning between different people and different types of people. Basically, depending upon who you’re around you have to present yourself differently. I use a different vocabulary around my mother than I do around my husband, and I discuss different topics with my boss than I do with my aerials instructor. Shifting mindsets to know what’s appropriate and how to act in each of these situations is its own type of transition.

I try to never go immediately from one type of person to another. I at least give myself drive time or some space to reset my brain. I’ll also think about what’s coming next, or imagine the beginning of the social situation to ease myself into it. When I can, I like to have a different outfit for each type of person. It can be incredibly helpful to signal how I should hold myself. Wearing my workout leggings to work feels weird and signals that I should be casual, so it helps me relax when I put them on to be at home or at aerials.

If you’re struggling with appropriate behavior for different types of people, or with your different worlds getting all mixed up (like that time I said “balls deep” to my boss), you could go back to basics. This link gives a very simplified version of the “circles theory”, which helps you place different people in rings close or further from yourself. Different behaviors are appropriate for different circles. You could use a visual of this nature to help remind you of the language, topics, dress, etc. that are appropriate to each social group. Keep it in a purse or car so you can pull it out and remind yourself while you transition.

I think that’s quite enough for now! Look out for the final post on transitions soon.