Optimizing Executive Functioning: Tips and Tricks for When Your “Brain Boss” is on a Coffee Break

happy colleagues working together
Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

By Dr. Julie Caplan

You may have come across the term “executive functioning” in your reading or discussions about organization and time management. The technical definition of executive functioning (EF) is: a set of cognitive skills and mental processes that allows us to manage our behaviors, usually in pursuit of some kind of goal. In layman’s terms, it’s the stuff that we often take for granted in our daily lives, such as waking up on time, making (and keeping) our appointments, paying bills when they are due, rerouting to side streets if there’s too much traffic on the freeway, keeping our space organized, etc. Just like an executive is the boss of a company, EF skills are like brain bosses that are meant to keep you on track and “doing life” efficiently. Sometimes, your brain bosses seem to go on a looong coffee break just when you need them the most. Chaos ensues, and all those balls you’ve been juggling come crashing down.

Executive functioning skills develop over the course of childhood and adolescence; they don’t come fully online until early adulthood. Our EF can be impacted by many factors, including chronic ones like autism and/or ADHD, or fluctuating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even stress. For those of us who struggle with EF, day-to-day life can be summed up in two words: chronic overwhelm. Things that might seem simple and a non-issue for some folks instead create frustration, confusion, and a serious desire to scream into the ether for those of us whose brains are neurodivergent or just not working at full capacity because of emotional factors. 

That being said, there are definitely tips and tricks to help combat EF weaknesses. As with anything, some of them may require some trial-and-error, so take note of what does or does not work for you (or your child) in order to determine what makes the most sense for your daily life. Further, while some may seem simplistic or obvious, I’ve found that gentle reminders can help us actually utilize these sorts of strategies.

Organization, both Physical and Mental

Growing up, my room was constantly messy. I couldn’t make sense of how to keep it clean and organized. The messiness extended to my binders, backpack, locker, and college dorm. I never created a global organizational system to help me manage my physical space, and I wasn’t taught how to do so. 

**Fun Fact: organizational systems must be taught explicitly and/or modeled, ideally during childhood and adolescence; they do not develop out of thin air.**

It’s only as an adult that I have begun to internalize what works for me, and that’s only because I hired an actual organizer to come in and help me. So, never be afraid to outsource! My organizer approached my house in a systematic way, taking note of what my realistic day-to-day looks like, and helped me to put systems into place to make things as automatic as possible. For example, I now have a dedicated place to put my keys, I have bins set up to sort my son’s schoolwork and artwork as he brings them home, and I have my shredder placed directly beside the spot where I put my mail. So, what might work for you?

  • Have a place for everything. That way, your reading glasses don’t end up on the counter in the bathroom.
  • Use visual reminders. Our schoolwork and art bins are labeled as such, so that there is no question about what goes where.
  • Declutter as much as possible! The fewer things you have, the fewer things you need to organize.
  • Declutter as you go- it’s much easier to get rid of one or two things than to do a full-on purge, which can feel overwhelming.
  • Put everything back in its place AS SOON as you are finished with it. Now I can always find my batteries, and it’s because my batteries have their own special place in my entry closet.

Self-Monitoring – Paying Attention to What’s Going on With Your Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

When your frontal lobe is three years behind developmentally, as it is for ADHDers for example, it can be hard to put the brakes on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors much less pause long enough to be aware of them and how they are being received by others. Self-monitoring is actually a two-pronged process: 1) measurement or assessment; and 2) evaluation. It requires you to pay attention to yourself as well as the world around you in real time and then decide whether to keep going, whether to stop, or whether to make a change. Anytime you need to keep track of what you’re doing, thinking, or feeling, you are self-monitoring. This is a capability that generally improves over the course of childhood, but only if you have prerequisite skills of attention, impulse control, and flexibility to make adjustments as needed.

**Fun Fact: we develop self-monitoring at a young age by imitating others. If kids are not learning these skills organically (possibly because the EF challenged apple didn’t fall too far from the tree), they can be taught explicitly.**

When your focus is intermittent, you struggle with perspective-taking, or your anxiety flares, it is very difficult: to pay attention to your on-task behavior, to determine if you’ve hurt someone’s feelings and need to apologize, to make sure the pan isn’t too hot for the pancake batter, or to know whether you’re getting your stuff done within the allotted time-frame. Are you able to recognize when you start to check-out? 

  • Use a self-monitoring schedule by setting a timer and stopping at regular intervals to check whether you are on-task, whether your strategy is working, and whether you need to make adjustments.
  • Develop a self-talk script to help guide yourself through complicated tasks or challenging social situations. 
  • Keep a log of how you’re feeling and what you’re doing. This can be a checklist, a journal, the notes app on your phone; it doesn’t matter. Start to identify whether there are any patterns around your triggers or off-task behaviors. 
  • Create a bullet journal. This is kind of similar to the previous strategy, but a prettier, more organized way to track how you’re feeling, and very appealing to those of us who identify as crafty creatives.
  • Start to identify how you’re reacting to people and situations, and write it down. Do you engage in a more spontaneous way, or are you more apt to be purposeful and deliberate about your interactions? Notice how the differences between the two impact your engagement with other people. Does one feel better than the other? Adjust as needed for your maximum comfort. 

Task Initiation and Procrastination – Getting Started on Those Things That you Don’t Want to Do, Even Though You Know You Should Do Them

This is a big one in the world of executive dysfunction. I liken it to having a huge cloud hovering over your head at all times, filled to the brim with all of your obligations. And all your obligations are shouting at you constantly to “START ME!” Why is it so hard to get started? Well, because to get started we have to be motivated. And to be motivated, particularly when you have a neurodivergent brain, takes a special combination of factors. It’s *much more* fun to scroll through social media, text a friend, read a book, make some art, get lost in the newest season of The Great British Bake Off…the list goes on! 

**Fun Fact: procrastination is a double-dipped reward. You get the reward of avoiding the unpleasant task and as a BONUS, you get the reward of freedom from the guilt of not doing it (because you fully intend to do it later).**

Why would we get started on something boring or non-preferred when there are infinitely more interesting things to do? How do you extricate from a quicksand activity and get your stuff started?

  • Baby steps! Take a larger project and break it up into itty bitty pieces. Soon after you start this strategy, you’ll be able to adjust the smaller parts into time chunks that work best for you, e.g., 20 minutes of work, 5 minute break, etc. 
  • Reward yourself. Once you finish a step, break out the chocolate. Or a Candy Crush level. Or catch a Glaceon on Pokémon GO. Find something small and short but time-limited and effective in flooding you with dopamine (i.e., something that floats your boat). 
  • Reduce distractions. Maybe switch your work station from the bed or the couch to a desk or a table. We are often more motivated to do our work when we feel like we’re *at* work. 
  • Create realistic goals. This one goes hand-in-hand with time-management. Understanding what is realistic will ideally decrease the overwhelm and resistance to getting started. 

Time-Management, Better Known as Planning, Prioritizing, and Follow Through

Can you accurately estimate how long something will take? I can’t! I always underestimate how long it will take me to write. In my brain, I am much more efficient than I am in real life. Further, it can be hard to figure out which task to do first, especially if there are multiple things vying for your attention, all with different due dates. 

**Fun Fact: kids with good time management skills tend to do better in school, have more stable and lucrative careers as adults, and enjoy better social relationships as well as a higher overall quality of life.**

Do you find yourself rushing to finish during time-limited tasks, having spent way too much time on one particular part? What about making a ton of grand, imaginative plans, only to fail to bring them to fruition? Are you doing the bare minimum required in order to meet a deadline, even if you know it’s not your best work? You’re not alone!

  • Try to create a daily routine, as much as is realistic. Create this routine visually, and put it in various places around your house, car, and office. As silly as this might sound, the more you see it, the more you will remember what you need to do, and the faster you will create a habit. 
  • Set alarms and reminders on your phone! Set two morning alarms if you notice that the first one never works to get you up and out of bed. Set a daily recurring reminder to take your medication. Create two or more alerts for every appointment you put into your calendar (I always have two alerts, for 15 minutes and 5 minutes, prior to phone calls/Zooms).
  • Once again, break your bigger projects and grand plans into smaller parts. Check in with yourself often to gauge how far along you are, and how far you have to go. Think ahead to the next day.
  • Try making to-do lists and checklists, either handwritten or digitally. It can be super satisfying to check things off your lists. Use these checklists daily to help prioritize your tasks and activities.
  • Buffer your estimate of how long something will take if you tend to underestimate. I add at least 15 minutes to the time I think it will take me to drive somewhere to account for traffic and parking.

Impulse Control and Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is often overlooked when thinking about executive functioning skills. However, our frontal lobe is responsible for regulating our emotions and our impulses, and as such, deficits in EF can result in being flooded by intense feelings. Unmodulated emotions can feel uncomfortable and scary, can negatively impact our relationships with others, and can undermine our sense of self. Those with neurodivergent brains frequently struggle to temper their emotional reactions, not to mention being baffled by trying to figure out what to do about them. Further, if you didn’t have healthy emotional expressions modeled for you, it can be hard to know how to react instinctively to any given situation.

**Fun Fact: different parts of the brain mature at different rates; kids’ “emotional” brain structures develop faster than their “regulation” ones. Caregivers and trusted adults can be “social regulators” that influence maturation in the emotional control parts of the brain.**

I remember what it was like when I was a teenager–to feel out of control when triggered by something, and it wasn’t fun. Over the years, I was able to implement a number of strategies to help me start to recognize when I was feeling a certain way, with the goal of regulating before I reacted. It worked, and I am now consistently able to take a step back before I react to a trigger. The goal is to respond rather than react

  • Scaffold self-regulation skills for kids. Coach them through the experience, narrate it for them, and help them put words to their feelings. Using visuals for this can also be very helpful, as can different types of grounding tools. For example, getting a cold drink, doing 15 jumping jacks, or naming everything you see in the room out loud. Practice these tools when everyone is calm so that there is a better chance of internalizing the skills. 
  • Try to identify and label the many steps that come between calm and explosive. When you are reactive to triggers, it can feel very much like your emotions go from zero to 100 in no time at all. Increasing your awareness into what comes between nothing and everything and starting to recognize when you’re at a 5, or a 10, or even a 50, will help you put coping strategies into place to temper the big feelings. 
  • Keep visual cues around to remind you of your coping skills. It’s very easy to access these skills when you’re calm, but much more difficult to figure out what to do when you go into fight-or-flight mode. While your body is getting itself ready to fight really hard or run really fast, your frontal lobe goes offline. Having a visual cue will hopefully help you remember what works to help you feel calm and grounded.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of executive functioning skills, but these are the ones that seem to create the most distress, both for the person experiencing the executive dysfunction and for those on the outside looking in. Remember, EF skills are like most other skills–teachable! Being able to set up a strong foundation of EF skills for our kids will benefit them greatly as they grow into independent adults, so do what you can to set your kiddo up for success. Also remember that adults are teachable too, and EF problems often run in families. When the adults are consciously working on improving their EF skills, modeling systems of organization, and regulating their emotions, everyone in the household benefits.

%d bloggers like this: