Last Updated on August 8, 2022 by Valarie Ward
If you’ve had a hard time managing your life–work, school, money, relationships, or anything else–you may have heard those accusations leveled against you, or may have read them behind your mother’s disappointment or boss’s negative performance review. But it bears repeating: you are not lazy, stupid, or crazy.
The ability to maintain your work and home life comes from a series of skills in the brain known as the executive functions. These affect your ability to plan, organize, and carry out tasks, as well as your ability to understand and control your emotions.
Several different mental conditions or situations can impact executive functioning, including:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other traumagenic conditions
- Traumatic brain injury
- Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Stress, including recent life changes or grief
What are the executive functions?
There are a number of skills in the brain that can be called executive functions, but we’re going to focus on 8: self-monitoring, controlling your emotions, controlling your impulses, thinking flexibly, organizing, planning & prioritizing, initiating tasks, and your working memory.
As you work through these, you might notice one or two that stand out to you as challenges, such as initiating tasks. However, it’s important to understand that all of the executive functions work together. If you don’t have the self-monitoring skills to understand why you’re struggling with task initiation, or the prioritization skills to decide which task is the most important to initiate, you’re not going to get very far. I’ll keep using task initiation as an example throughout.
(And a quick note: I’m speaking from my experience as an ADHDer here, so some of the content may be a little skewed toward that angle. We’re always happy to hear other experiences in the comment section of what does and does not work for your own executive functioning!
Self-monitoring is an essential skill to build on to help you succeed with all of the other executive functions. It involves looking inward to assess your mood, strengths, challenges, and behavior. For instance, if we’re trying to look at initiating tasks, we might need to ask ourselves why am I having trouble with this?
If you’re struggling with self-monitoring, you may need to take a few mindfulness breaks throughout your day to check in with yourself. Therapy can also teach you skills to improve your ability to monitor yourself.
We often don’t think about emotional stability as being directly related to more “logical” skills like task initiation, but they are very dependent on one another. If you are feeling stressed or depressed, it’s going to be extra difficult to get yourself to start on tasks. (And if you lack self-monitoring to recognize that you’re stressed and depressed, you’ll be having a hard time getting started without even knowing why!)
Tips to help you manage your emotional control include self-care, treating yourself with loving kindness, and therapy. (Bonus tip: we just ran a series on pleasure chemicals with a great summary on lifestyle choices you can make to help you get more joy out of life!)
Poor organization can quietly make it more difficult to control your emotions and manage tasks. Organization can mean organizing your calendar, to-do list, or files for work, but it can also be about a cluttered home giving you a little bit of background stress.
If you have ADHD or another condition that gives you a deficit in executive functioning, you may need to seek books or other resources on organization tools that work specifically for your mind.
Tip: Body Doubling
One great tip for organizing or managing your tasks is body doubling or co-working. Have you ever found that your productivity increased if you had a friend working in the same room as you, or on a call with you? That’s common for people who struggle with executive functions; we find the presence of another person grounding and comforting! (And if you struggled to complete tasks after your job went from in-person to remote during the pandemic, that may be one reason.)
If you can’t invite a friend over or call them while you’re getting your tasks done, you can try finding a Discord server for body doubling, try a service like FocusMate, or even find videos on Twitch, YouTube, or TikTok of other people doing tasks alongside you.
Planning and Prioritization
Okay–you know more about how you’re feeling and what you need, your space and tasks are organized… now which one do you do? Executive dysfunction can make it almost impossible to figure this out in your head because of working memory and flexible thinking, so let’s talk about those two things next:
Working memory is the ability to keep as many different facts in your short-term memory as possible. Because ADHDers have executive function deficits that often tie to under-regulation of parts of our brain, working memory is something we lack almost entirely. This makes planning and prioritization exceptionally difficult; if we need to run five errands and get different things done at each location, we won’t only forget crucial steps along the way, we might be so overwhelmed trying to remember everything that we get frustrated and miss our turn. (Definitely speaking from personal experience on that one!)
Since we can’t rely on our working memory, it is extra-important for ADHDers to externalize our processes for planning and prioritizing: in other words, to use calendars, task managers, bullet journals, post-its, or whatever tools and systems we can create to keep our lives running smoothly. However, there’s another thing that gets in our way…
Flexible thinking is otherwise known as cognitive flexibility or, in its inverse, stuck thinking. It can get in the way of planning and prioritization for ADHDers in particular; sometimes we get so stuck trying to find the right order to do our tasks that we get frustrated when little things in that process go wrong, as we feel the right order is the only way. Perfectionism–the belief that it’s better not to do a task at all rather than do it halfway–is another form of inflexible thinking.
Externalization can help us with this, too. It can be easier to sort through our tasks when they’re written down somewhere than try to manage it all in our heads. However, it’s also important to take breaks and monitor yourself and your feelings to identify when you’re getting trapped in stuck thinking. Then, consider all of your options, starting with “quitting my job and becoming a Buddhist monk” and working up from there.
You could go do the hard work task or the dishes you’ve been putting off… but wouldn’t it be more fun to play video games instead, or catch up with your favorite show? Learning to control these impulses and balance your work-fun time (or stop yourself from spending money you don’t have) is another skill in managing your needs.
Good impulse control starts with good daily routines and habits; if you’re doing things by routine, you won’t be thinking so much about what to do next and therefore liable to make the wrong choice. It also involves self-monitoring to understand what you really need and how you might be able to meet those needs in healthier ways.
Finally, we get to the most important skill related to task initiation–task initiation! 🙂 This is where you put all of your skills together: check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling, give yourself what you need, organize and externalize all of the things you need to do, make sure you’re not getting trapped in stuck thinking, and consider relying on tools like body doubling or accountability to get you through.
To recap, the ways we’ve discussed to improve all areas of executive functioning are:
- ADHD coaching or other resources made with executive functioning challenges in mind
- Mindfulness breaks throughout your day
- Body doubling
- Externalizing your thoughts and tasks in an organized, consistent manner
- Setting good routines and habits
Eating a healthy diet and making other healthy lifestyle choices to improve the chemicals in your brain can also help improve all areas of executive functioning and help you live a more productive life.