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.

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.

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!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Transitions

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Welcome to transition week! We’re going to be spending some time focusing on what executive functioning skills and tricks you can use to make it easier to move from one task, thought, or place to another. This may seem incredibly specific, but many people with autism and ADHD struggle with effectively changing their focus, so it’s getting a whole section of its own.

People struggle with a number of types of transitions. One that gets addressed a lot is specific to kids in school when they need to move from one assignment to the next or one class to the next, but I find myself struggling with transitions in all kinds of places: getting out the door and moving to another location. Ending an activity and doing something else. Leaving social situations, which is not only a transition but also a social communication moment so it’s got some extra levels of difficulty.

Sometimes it’s tough to move from one thought to another: I’ll get stuck need to complete a thought or follow something through to its conclusion and can’t move on (this bit me in the butt a lot in school when I was writing papers because I had to explore EVERY thought completely, which meant I would write pages and pages beyond what I was supposed to and couldn’t ever cut it down). One that I have rarely heard mentioned is moving from one person to another. For me this is specifically when those people are parts of different social circles and I have to adjust to different contexts, it can be incredibly difficult to turn off the one version of myself and turn on the other one.

The skills we’re going to talk about this week will apply to some (and maybe all) of these types of transitions, but hopefully throughout the week I’ll address each of them. Sometimes it’s helpful to even identify something as a transition so that you can give yourself more time or insert a break in between the two things.

One of the challenging things about transitions is that moving from one task to another isn’t one skill. It’s a lot of skills, but we don’t typically break it down because for many of us these skills come naturally. First you have to decide when and how you will end one task. You have to remove your focus and attention from that task. You have to figure out how to clean it up/save your work/put away the component. Then you have to determine what you’ll do next and in what order, figure out what you need for the next task and how to get it, acquire all of it, and bring your focus to a new task. All of this needs to be done without getting distracted, without sensory overload, in the correct order, and in many cases while interacting with other people.

I highly recommend looking at all of those steps if you’re struggling with transitions. Which one are you getting stuck on? Did you forget certain steps? Would it help to write out the sequence you need to follow? You can tailor your skills to fit the part that you’re having trouble with. If it’s figuring out what to do next, perhaps write a to do list in advance. If it’s ending the task, work on visual timers or giving yourself concrete stopping points. We’ll talk more about all of those types of skills in later posts this week.

There are a couple of elements of neurodivergent brains that can make it harder to transition. I’d like to call them out so we can reference them when we talk about skills. The first is hyperfocus, which is especially pertinent for autistic brains. If you become hyperfocused on a project, it becomes much more challenging to pull your attention away and end it. There’s also sensory overload: you might be changing environments and sensory inputs during a transition which makes it a prime time for sensory overload. Transitions also require putting things in order, following the sequence, and understanding how the steps relate, which is its whole own element of executive functioning (I’ll be writing about it in a bit). Finally, transition is a prime opportunity for distractions to arise, especially if you’re going to a new location.

Any one of these elements can break down in the process of transition. It can help to figure out which one you’re struggling with and tailor your solutions to that problem.

A final element that I have experienced around transitions and that I know other people experience is anxiety. If you’re not certain how to start the next task, that can be anxiety provoking. If you’re not sure what’s coming next that’s even worse. While I’ll be focusing on practical suggestions in this section, I highly recommend heading back to the emotion regulation posts if you are struggling with a lot of anxiety around transitions. You can pair skills from emotion regulation with the skills we’ll address in this transition section to be effective and feel better.

So now that we’ve identified the challenges of transitions, we’ll head on in to some solutions. Look for a second post soon!