Executive Function Part 2: Hacks and Workarounds
I hesitated to use “hacks” here because I don’t want you to think I’m not taking executive function dysfunction lightly. Finally decided that it was a short and plain way to say “stuff that works” and decided to keep it.
If you’ve been following along with this series, you know that I am relying heavily on the research of Adele Diamond to bring these ideas to you. All mistakes and misunderstandings are my own. From her research, Diamond identified four major categories of ways to improve executive function regardless of what is causing dysfunction. They are:
4 Proven Ways to Improve Overall Executive Function
That’s right. When your mom said “pick up the instrument and play” when she brought home the dreaded clarinet or tuba or violin, she was right. Practice, practice, practice. Memory begins to get stored deeper when you repeatedly put knowledge in your working memory and manipulate it. When you practice ignoring external signals that are interrupting your thoughts, you improve it. When you get in the habit of using a planner every day, you get better at using it. If you start doing one new thing you were afraid to try each week, starting new tasks gets easier.
Oh, come on now. I can hear you groan from here. I wouldn’t bring it up if there weren’t lots of research behind it, because I know that for a lot of you (us) physical activity comes with a lot of fear and doubt and pain. Work on muscles, aerobic fitness, and flexibility all contribute to improving executive function. That doesn’t mean you have to run marathons or be a gymnast or weight lifter, only that whatever you’re doing, do a bit more of it, and do it more consistently. This has been found to improve things significantly even for seniors with dementia, so, hey, maybe a bit of sweat isn’t a bad thing.
I sometimes wonder if the average European is healthier in part because the average European is bi- or multi-lingual. I mean, universal health care probably has something to do with it, but… Anyhow, yes. Learning a language improves executive function. As a reminder, “language” is not only limited to spoken and written languages. Roughly the same neural centers are activated in learning sign language, computer coding, HTML, mathematics, and music. So pick a new language or “language” to learn, and feel your brain getting “stronger”
Incremental increases in difficulty:
Make what you’re doing a little bit harder, pretty much every time you try. Think back to learning how to spell. One week you were spelling three letter words, then four. Pretty soon you could sound out two syllable words and started learning the rules for the various language interlopers into the English language so that you could (sometimes) remember the difference between they’re, their, and there. Whatever you’re trying to improve about your executive function, keep stretching, every day.
General Strategies for Improving Various Executive Functions
Note: Several of the executive function part 2 exercises call for trying the exercise for three months. The reason for this is because it takes approximately that long to create a habit. Work on one habit for a month or two, see if you can start another without dropping the first, and if not, finish the three months with the first habit before starting the next. Try to have them build on each other.
There is a lot of excellent science behind a regular mindfulness practice, where you spend anywhere between a few minutes and a half hour or more each day in a mindful state. We’ll talk later about mindfulness in the context of DBT, but today I’m talking about mindfulness in the traditional sense of exercises in being still and aware.
Exercise: For three months, set an alarm for right before you go to bed, or right after you wake up, and spend three minutes doing “foursquare breathing”. Click the link for a helpful video to get you started. (not mine, this time)
set a timer:
For things that you’re struggling to do, set a timer for five or ten or twenty minute or an hour. Do as much of the task as you can in that time, then take a five or ten or twenty-minute break, rinse and repeat. The traditional “Pomodoro” technique calls for 25 minutes of work to five minutes of rest, but you do you.
Exercise: Every day for three months, choose one thing that is hard for you to do, and do three “mini-Pomodoros” of at least ten minutes work, five minutes rest toward the task.
This means to pick a day (once a week or month is good) to do a group of similar tasks together. Combine this with using the timer, above, if that works for you. So, suppose you need to do reports. Plan a workday to several similar reports to keep your brain on one “track”. Or at home, if you need to sort clothes between keep, donate, and trash, do everyone’s on the same weekend, rather than worrying about other tasks. Each task will build on the last and make the whole thing easier.
Exercise: Pick a day every month to have a “chunking” day. Get others involved, and everyone gets a pizza or a movie party afterward.
When you have something big you’re trying to do, from finding a job to designing a new whatsit, see it before you build it. This can involve simply closing your eyes and imagining the steps, for simpler things, to using mindmaps, a journal (or bullet journal) or planner, spreadsheets, or a “vision board”. There are likely to be lots of scratchy, scribbly notes and half-finished thoughts and dead ends. That’s good. It means the process is working.
Exercise: Buy or “crib together” a planner, paper, electronic or some combination. On a fresh page or file, name your project, and every day set a timer for five or ten minutes and add something to your plan. Or take something away. Or make up wild ideas.
Where people mess up with listing their priority lists is either to write them on something that gets lost or to make them too long. Don’t include things you’re already good at getting done. Only write down the things you need to get better at doing or need to do one time or infrequently.
Exercise: Every single day write down three things you want to accomplish before the end of the day. This can be as simple as 1. get out of bed 2. drink coffee 3. prepare the coffee pot for tomorrow, or earthshaking, lifesaving stuff. Write it down someplace you won’t lose it. An app on your phone, a planner you carry everywhere, or on your refrigerator door or bathroom or bedroom mirror.
Everyone do-si-do! Grab a partner and ’round we go! Find a supportive friend, co-worker, or family member, or a supportive professional, and ask them to help you stay accountable. Return the favor for them. Become exercise buddies, or have them over to help you visualize your idea, or take turns helping each other do a major cleaning task.
Exercise: Make a list of three people you could count on to help you with something on this list even if their help is limited by distance or busy-ness. Call at least one of them and ask for the help you need.
create extrinsic motives:
“Extrinsic” is a fancy psychology word for “external” or “outside of yourself”. I keep repeating it in these articles and videos so you learn a new word. When feeling good about yourself or liking the work you did isn’t enough, reward yourself.
Exercises: There are two here. The first is to make a list of small, inexpensive and relatively emotionally/physically healthy things you can do to reward yourself on a regular basis for things you’ve achieved. The second is to pick one of those things to reward yourself every single time you complete a goal from one of the other exercises in this article.
It Isn’t About Perfection
You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to miss days. And you’re going to think something is the perfect solution and it turns out to be a disaster. That’s okay.
What I want you to do when you mess up is remember that every handmade work of art has at least one mistake in it, whether or not you can see it. I can guarantee the creator can see it. So do three things, no matter how your attempts go:
If your first attempt doesn’t work, change it up a bit.
Keep trying. Take a (short) break to calm yourself, and try again.
Keep growing and learning and move more and more of those brain functions from your pre-frontal cortex executive functions to your lizard brain (basal ganglia) where they become mostly automatic. You want the roots of these habits you’re creating to sink in deep.
See you next time. Let me know what you think of the video and article in the comments.
More on Executive Function
You can find part one of this series, Executive Function Pt. 1: What is it? by clicking the link. Executive Function Pt. 3: Forming Habits is next, and it will lead you to the next in the series. To view all of the Executive Function videos as a playlist, go to Youtube (please like the videos, comment, and follow my channel to keep current). To listen to all of the Executive Function audio as a playlist, go to SoundCloud (again, please like the podcasts, comment, and follow my channel to keep current.
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A final reminder: You are each important and have much to teach, and much to learn.
I look forward to learning from and teaching you all. Comment below or at any of the links to start the conversation.