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Saturday, January 15, 2022

Executive Functioning Tips and Tricks

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notebook and hot cocoa on knit blanket; notebook says "My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open"

We’ve talked a lot about productivity tips over the years, but I don’t think we’ve ever explicitly discussed executive functioning — what it is, and what executive functioning tips and tricks and supports might look like.

I don’t know why, but I never heard about executive function skills until recently — possibly within the past five years — but after I understood what they were, it felt like I suddenly understood a lot of my own issues with time management, focus, and so forth. (I may or may not have ADHD; I was diagnosed with it a while ago but I’ve never been medicated for it. Maybe we’ll write a post on adult ADHD diagnoses later! Just FYI, there is also a separate diagnosis, Executive Function Disorder.)

{related: how to make the most of your productive times}

First, from Verywell Mind, here’s a great description of what executive functioning skills are — Healthline has another great description. From Verywell:

Executive function is a set of cognitive skills that are needed for self-control and managing behaviors. These skills include self-control, working memory, and mental flexibility. Such functions allow people to do things like follow directions, focus, control emotions, and attain goals.

The executive functions’ role is similar to a conductor’s role within an orchestra. The conductor manages, directs, organizes, and integrates each member of the orchestra. They cue each musician so they know when to begin to play, and how fast or slow, loud or soft to play, and when to stop playing. Without the conductor, the music would not flow as smoothly or sound as beautiful.

There are different kinds of executive function skills, and I thought it might be interesting today to talk about some that we use in daily life. Readers, what do you do to help your own executive functioning go smoothly? Do you think of them as productivity tips, coping mechanisms, or something else?

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Psst… stay tuned for some of our favorite tools to help us manage our time, focus, and otherwise stay productive!

My Executive Functioning Tips and Tricks

Some of the little things I do to make it easier to focus, stay on top of time, and limit time spent on bad behavior (like screen time) include:

Tricks for Remembering Appointments and Time Management

  • When I make an appointment in my calendar (for a call, a doctor’s visit, a night out with friends, whatever), I set up numerous notifications: one 10 minutes before I should be leaving, one four hours before I should be leaving, and often one a day or two in advance.
  • We sometimes use our Echo to keep track of repeating appointments — for a while we had it going off every school day, 10 minutes before the kids had to leave for school. One of my kids has a virtual appointment on Mondays at 10:30 a.m. that I kept forgetting, so Alexa now goes off every Monday at 10:25.
  • I hate making calls, so for things like doctor visits, haircuts, and other appointments, I try to schedule my next one before leaving.
  • I stink at enforcing my own bedtime, so I recently set a profile for myself on Circle, which we use to limit the kids’ screen time. It now essentially turns off WiFi on my phone and iPad at 10:30 at night. It’s nice because I know what time it happens, and when it does, it inevitably is like, YUP, I know I SHOULD go to bed right now, so this is a good thing. I’ve also heard of people doing this by attaching their router to a timed outlet, which is definitely cheaper, but I would worry about having to set everything up again.

{related: how to manage your time}

Ways I Try to Improve My Focus

  • I turn my mouse over (like a turtle) to subconsciously remind myself to stay on the task I’m doing on the computer
  • I set timers to focus for X amount of time — and I am only allowed to do the ONE thing. Sometimes I end up staring off into space, but a lot of times I get focused work done. (We’ve talked about the Pomodoro method before!)
  • I take notes, even if it’s for something casual like a Zoom call with friends — it helps keep my attention from wandering.
  • As I’ve noted before in our post on how to improve your focus when you work from home, using a Bluetooth keyboard with your iPhone helps by limiting distractions — only one tab is open and it’s a pain to switch tasks.

{related: five ways to improve your focus}

Planning So I Don’t Have to Think About Things

  • I schedule or automate repeating tasks whenever possible because otherwise I lose track of them. You’ll recognize this with my suggestions to automate your savings and set up automatic investments — but, for example, I also look at Corporette analytics on the first of the month, and not any other time.
  • Our smart home appliances work like this — I often lose track of time and realize it’s totally dark around me; we have lights set to go on automatically 30 minutes before sunset. (Some go off at 8:30 p.m. when we start winding down; some go off when we head to bed.)
  • For me I also need to plan dinners a week in advance — otherwise it’s my husband and me looking at each other at 5:15 saying, “Uh…. pizza? Eggs?”
  • Sometimes I need to break down things into the smallest tasks possible because I get overwhelmed needing to do the whole thing. A major one-item task on my checklist will sit for months, but if I break that task down to 30 smaller tasks it’s more doable.
  • I “batch tasks” wherever possible — if I have three phone calls to make, I try to make them all in one sitting.
  • I like Gretchen Rubin‘s idea of the “power hour.” All those little tasks you don’t want to do? Commit to spending one hour getting them done.

Something I haven’t gotten into too much (but would love to hear your tips if you have them, readers!) is the “decision fatigue” or “limited spoons” theory — the idea that you have limited brainpower and so you should save it by doing intentional tasks. I suppose my repetitive lunches do this (I’m having eggs unless I actively don’t want them); the idea of putting an outfit on autopilot (Zuckerberg’s gray hoodie, Obama’s navy suits) is also along these lines.

Readers, are you familiar with the concept of executive function skills? Do you recognize some of your own struggles in there? What are your own executive functioning tips and tricks to help get things done?

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