Hacking Your Executive Function: Starting a Fresh Task During a Transition

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Ok transitionistas (transitionistos? Transitionexes?) let’s say we’ve finished up one task, we’ve managed to disengage and now we need to get moving right along to the next one with minimal distraction, anxiety, and confusion. Let’s lay out a few of the ways that you can make your life easier in getting from thing 1 to thing 2.

The first set of strategies I’m going to recommend comes before you’ll even need to make the transition. These are the things you’ll do when you’re planning your day, organizing your tasks, or getting ready for the day. Oftentimes if you set yourself up correctly you’ll need minimal support in the moment. When you’re setting up your schedule, there are a few things that can help: making a visual schedule so that you can see what’s happening and emotionally prep yourself. You can also do this by numbering your tasks or listing them in the order that they’ll happen. Anything that you can do to visualize your next step or have a concrete order is great.

In addition to a task list or schedule you can do this in other ways. You might write yourself a short social narrative, or even just say it in your head or aloud (first I’m going to wash the dishes, then I’m going to put the dishes away). It sounds silly, but cueing yourself with a first, then type of narrative gives your brain more ways to process the transition. If you’re a highly visual person you might like to have pictograms or images that indicate your next task and post the image for your next task on your computer screen or next to your desk.

In addition to creating these kinds of reminders, you can also organize your day to help improve transitions. I highly recommend building in time for a short break between tasks so that if you’re struggling you can regulate yourself and get back to what you do. I personally like to have something planned for those breaks, whether it’s doing something that I find fulfilling on a sensory level, going for a quick walk, grabbing a snack, or reading for five minutes. I think it’s always good to get your body involved in some fashion during these breaks. Movement does a lot to refresh our brains and get us mentally active if we’re losing focus. Use that!

It’s also always easier to move from something you like less to something you like more, so I generally tend to stack my days so that the hardest stuff is towards the beginning of the day and then I can move to easier and easier work. You may want to notice when you’re the most productive/energetic and build in your hardest tasks then so that you can take advantage of your best focus. This might mean you start out strong, or perhaps you have a couple tasks in the morning that are easy to get started, or maybe you build through the day to the hardest task.

You can also practice transitions moving from harder to easier things. Maybe you know you struggle with moving to a new task, so you set aside an afternoon during which you’ll only spend an hour per task and you order them from least pleasant to most pleasant. The more you practice the easier it will be.

The last organizational tactic I’d recommend is creating routines. A note about routines: it’s easy to become overly dependent on them to the point that we don’t have any flexibility. I try to practice doing something differently every few weeks, or always having a plan B in my pocket just in case things don’t go as planned. However creating routines and patterns in an intentional way means you don’t have to think and plan each step of your day every time you want to do it. It also means that the transitions become easier because you’re used to them and you always know what’s coming next.

I try to have a few different “scripts” or routines that I can run during the day, then I can build a complete schedule out of those blocks. For example, I have a morning routine at work, I have a cleaning routine, I have a routine for when I’m working out after work, I have a routine for doing freelance work. In any given day I might put those together in a different order, but instead of having to transition between ten or twenty different tasks I only have to transition between three or four preset routines.

So once you’ve set yourself up for success, you still need to actually do the transition! One of the things that I often feel during transitions is anxiety, so I strongly recommend taking a look back at the emotion regulation strategies and thinking about what you could employ to decrease anxiety, frustration, confusion, or anger. It can help to have an object, food, or person nearby that helps keep you calm or makes you feel good, and you may even want to incorporate a reward of some kind into the next activity (when I had to transition to practicing piano as a child I’d get a handful of chocolate chips to eat while I practiced).

I also like to create external reminders that pull me in to the next task, whether that’s setting up a particular area to get me started on the next thing (when I go to stretch in the evenings part of my transition is to pull out a yoga mat and put on Youtube. Those environmental cues get me ready to start), or simply having all the elements you need to do the task readily available (instead of waiting until I need to work on my iPad, I keep it near my bed or in my bag so that I can get to it quickly).

Just as it’s helpful to have a concrete way to end a task, it can also be helpful to start the same way each time. Whether that’s having a cup of coffee when you sit down to write or putting on your running shoes when you work out, if you have one consistent element that will help cue you in, it makes life easier. If you can’t have that, I sometimes like to create something: perhaps play a particular song when I start opening my e-mails or take five minutes to set up my planner before I begin my work each day. It might be as simple as closing your eyes, changing your seating position, and paying attention to your breath for thirty seconds. Any way that you can cue your body that it’s time to start something is helpful.

And of course, all of the strategies we covered in the initiation section are also great tools. Good luck transitioners!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Ending A Task

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In my prior post, I discussed the ways that transitioning from one thing to another can be challenging. Today I’m going to start with suggestions and supports for the first place that transitions can break down: ending one task and taking your attention away from that task.

The first thing that can help with mentally disengaging from a task when you need to is to be very clear about when you will be done with it. That might mean that you give yourself a specific time at which you’ll end, or it might mean that you decide what “finished” means for this particular task (so for example you will be done washing the dishes when there are no more dirty dishes in the sink). That can help you mentally prepare for the end point.

Once you have set that end point, it’s good to give yourself reminders about it. You might want to use a visual timer or countdown so that you know how much time you have left to work on the task. You may set an alarm that will let you know when you’re finished, or even a couple of alarms so that you know when you have 5 minutes left, 3 minutes left, then it’s time to be done. There are a ton of apps out there that can help you with this as well. When possible, it’s great to have both visuals and verbal reminders. Sometimes the task itself will give you a visual reminder which is great. In the dishes example, you’ll see the pile of dishes getting smaller and know how close you are to the end.

Another piece that can be helpful is having a clear way to signal the end of a task. You might use imagery to help yourself see it as complete: imagine putting the task in a box and putting it in a closet, then shutting the door. You may give yourself a word, phrase, song, or object that signals to you that you’re finished and you say or do it every time you complete a task. Maybe you always build in a small amount of time between tasks so that you can have a short break, and you do the same 5 minute “break” activity each time. That kind of consistency helps your mind transition more easily and will condition you to feel “done” when you do your transition routine.

Speaking of consistency, you can also implement consistency on a larger scale to help yourself out. If you can do your regular tasks in the same order each time, you won’t have to spend as much energy figuring out what comes next or how to move from one task to the next. It can become a habit that runs on autopilot. When you’re setting up these types of routines, you’ll also want to think about what will be the easiest for you. Do you struggle when you have downtime between tasks? Try to organize your day so that there’s minimal waiting, or if you will have to wait bring a project with you. This can keep your mind from getting distracted and wandering between tasks, or from feeling like you’ll be bored when a previous task ends.

When possible, have the fewest number of transitions in your day. That might mean doing all of one task before moving on to the next instead of splitting batch similar a task into multiple parts. It might mean doing all of the things that need to be done in the same place at one time. Or it might mean batching similar tasks together so that you can continue your momentum, for example making all the phone calls you need to make in a day all at once. You may have to transition from one call to the next, but you’re in the same place doing the same type of task, so fewer transitions are necessary.

In general, it’s easiest to go from a harder or less pleasant task to an easier, more fun task. If you can order your day to hit the hardest task when you feel the most on top of things (for me that’s about mid morning, for you it might be at a different time) and then ease on down from there, it will make the transitions easier.

The last trick that you can use for ending a task is to get your body involved. If you’re still sitting in the same place with the same materials you were using for the previous task, it’s going to be fairly difficult to get your mind to move on. Standing up and moving to a new place, or even just taking a quick walk can signal that you’ve completed the task. You may even want to involve other senses: stop and listen to a song, or grab a snack, or just stretch. Our minds are more connected to our bodies than we often want to believe, so use that! Change something physical and it will help signal to your mind that it’s time to change gears mentally as well.

Next up: starting a fresh task!