I’m putting the blog on hiatus for the month of August. Some more details at the end of the post if you’re interested.
Back in March, someone left a comment on the self-employment series asking me to share some of the ways I manage my executive function challenges in the context of work. With an amusing mix of irony and executive function fail, I’m just now getting around to writing the promised post.
One of the reasons I’ve been avoiding writing this is that I couldn’t figure out how to approach it. Should it be a list or a narrative? Does it need examples? How detailed should it be? There was also the nagging fear that maybe all of my executive function hacks are plain old common sense.
Back when I was fourteen and an aspiring doctor, someone recommended that I read “The Making of a Surgeon” by William Nolen. It was a memoir of Nolen’s progression from med school student to surgeon and I excitedly dug into it, hoping for insight into what med school would be like. Only to be disappointed when one of the first grand bits of wisdom that the author offered was how he learned to do multiple chores at one time–literally to pick up records, drop off samples and get his lunch all in the same trip rather than making three separate trips from his unit to do each errand individually.
I remember lying on my bed thinking, “How on earth did this man get into such a prestigious medical school?” It seemed like a no-brainer to me that if you had three things to do, the best option would be to do them in a geographically efficient sequence.
At the risk of some of you having these same kind of thoughts about my executive function hacks, here are some of the strategies I use at work and day-to-day life.
1. Apps, Reminders and Task Lists, Oh My!
Most important strategy: put everything in writing, either on paper or in an organizational app.
To-Do Lists: I use Todoist to keep track of daily tasks, which are tasks that need to be done on a certain day but aren’t time-specific appointments. I also use it to remind me of recurring tasks like washing the bedsheets and giving the dog her heartworm pills. Happily, the more things I put in Todoist, the more things I get to check off when I finish them. And who doesn’t love checking things off a list?
Calendar: For future appointments, I use Google calendar, with reminders sent to my email and phone. I also use the alarm on my phone to remind me of critical time-sensitive tasks (an important phone call, airline check-in) because if I’m engrossed in work, I might miss a notification. It’s much harder to ignore a ringing alarm.
Lists: I keep a shopping list on the fridge at all times. When I notice I’m running low or using up the last of something, it goes on the list. If I waited until it was time to shopping to make the list, I’d come home with only half of what I needed. I use lists to organize travel, prepare for events and plan shopping trips with multiple stops. Lists are strangely comforting.
Other Useful Tools: I’ve used other tools in the past, particularly in the pre-digital-everything era. Some things that have worked:
- paper calendars (day planner, desk blotter, wall calendar)
- printed spreadsheet-style tracking matrices
- a whiteboard with dry erase markers
- post-it notes
- a magnetic board with magnets to organize notes and reminders
- a visual schedule
I also make liberal use of visual reminders; in fact, I’m going to give them their own section.
Visual triggers are my failsafe. For example, I keep my bottle of multivitamins on the kitchen counter because I haven’t yet integrated them into a new routine (more on that in a bit). At some point during the day, I’ll walk into the kitchen and see the bottle, which will trigger a “hmmm, have I done that yet?” thought.
I make heavy use of visual reminders in my office too. Right now on my desk I have:
- legal pad with dated notes for a work project that requires daily updates
- a printed email that I need to take action on later today
- a draft of an earlier version of this post so I remember to work on it
- a stack of torn-up scrap paper under my pen jar, making it easy to quickly make new notes
- a coded record of the anonymous survey answers I’ve transferred from Survey Monkey to date, which is my daily reminder to check for new answers
- my food diary for the month, ensuring that I update it throughout the day
- a piece of junk mail from my bank, a reminder to log in to my account and check on a minor update I requested
- a call for submissions for an anthology that I need to start working on (this is motivation by guilt at this point because the deadline is far away)
- a print out of the proofreader’s queries for my book, which I work on each evening
- a clipped together stack of test results with the neurologist’s phone number on top, my nagging back-up reminder to phone (ack!) for an appointment when the office reopens
- the dog’s records folder with a note on top that reads “bring poop”, all of which I need to take with me to her vet appt on Friday (serving as reminders to take the paperwork and collect a sample and go to the appointment)
Whew. Typing that was kind of stressful, but seeing the stuff on my desk is comforting. I think visual reminders help me quantify tasks more easily than a one-dimensional list does.
3. Routine, Routine, Routine
One weakness in my organizational system is that I can go hours without remembering to actually look at my to-do list. One solution has been setting up a daily reminder email from Todoist, which I use as a trigger to open my to-do list in a browser tab each morning. Seeing the open tab reminds me to occasionally look at my goals for the day.
My day is structured around small but important routines like this. So much so that if I change a routine, I’ll often forget to do the tasks associated with it. Recently I decided to start taking my multivitamin at lunch because I’ve switched to having smoothies for breakfast and vitamin + smoothie = tummy upset. It’s been nearly a month and for some reason, the “vitamin at lunch” routine just isn’t sticking. At least a few days a week I’ll notice the vitamin bottle sitting on the counter and realize it’s mid-afternoon and no vitamins have been taken. Visual reminder to the rescue.
In general, though, one of the surest ways for me to remember to do anything is to make it part of a daily routine. Which has led to the development of elaborate systems around recurring work tasks.
4. There’s a System for That
Doing recurring tasks systematically reduces the chances that I’ll miss a critical step. I’ve developed weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual systems for everything from paying the bills to filing tax forms. Systems ensure that recurring tasks get done the same (right) way each time.
A system can be as simple as “pay a bill, enter the expense into the accounting software, file the bill” or as complex as a daily accounting process used to track sales and commissions. Regardless of the scale, the principles are the same–a process that can be replicated by following a series of predetermined steps, ensuring consistency and reducing the need to “reinvent the wheel” each time the task is done.
For infrequent tasks or a change in process, I document the required steps along with key information needed to perform them (account numbers, logins, etc.). Eventually most systems become second nature to me, but until that happens, having written “cheat sheets” is a big help.
5. File Everything
I’m one of those dorks who loves to file things. My traditional New Year’s Day activity is to archive and purge my filing cabinet. Before everything was computerized, I had two 4-drawer filing cabinets in my office plus a huge (really, massively huge) fire-proof filing cabinet that we’d inherited when bought a very old house.
I’m down to one 2-drawer filing cabinet now because most stuff is stored digitally. But being a traditionalist, I still print and save important documents. Things that don’t need to be immediately referenced to into boxes, labeled by subject and year. This sounds obsessive until you realize that the IRS (for example) can demand business records going back seven years.
Just a few months ago I got an IRS notice that made no sense. Within 15 minutes I was able to put my hands on the 2-year-old documents it was referencing and see that the IRS had made a computer error. A phone call confirmed my conclusion and the documents went back into their box. I might have gloated just a bit.
My filing system is simple: hanging folders labeled by subject–subjects that are broad enough that I don’t have to look in multiple folders guessing at where I put something but narrow enough that no folder is more than a half inch thick. Documents go into them in no particular order. Occasionally I use manila folders to subdivide a subject if it seems necessary.
My system works for me, but others might find it too loosely organized. A good portion of why it works is that I have a freakishly good memory for where I’ve filed things and why.
6. Interim and “False” Deadlines
If a project has many steps or is going to take me more than a day or two to complete, I break it into multiple interim deadlines. This was an especially valuable trick during the four years I spent taking college classes while working full time. To keep from getting overwhelmed by school and work, I kept a separate homework calendar, with multiple interim reminders for every assignment. At a minimum, I set “deadlines” on my calendar for when to start an assignment, when to work on it and when it was due.
Often these deadlines are meaningless to anyone but me. My professors didn’t care if I started a Powerpoint presentation three weeks before it was due or that I had a complete first draft done one week before the due date. But for me, these “false” deadlines are an essential tool to staying on track with big projects.
I use them for work too, splitting months-long projects into goals like “20 pages a week for 6 weeks” or “one chapter a day” for the next eight days. Not only does that help me ensure steady progress, but it addresses my difficulties with conceptualizing longer time frames. I’m more motivated by knowing that I have reasonable 6-week plan for finishing a 120-page project than plodding along with no idea of when I might be finished.
7. Incremental Planning
Getting started on things can be challenging. Sometimes it’s a planning problem. Sometimes it’s an initiation thing. Often it’s a little of both.
I was going to say that I don’t have any tricks for effective planning but I realized that list and reminder making is how I plan. My thinking process isn’t well suited to “let’s sit down and make a plan.” Instead, I plan incrementally.
What does that mean? Usually I start with a simple groundwork step to get my brain moving in the right direction. I might make some initial notes but maybe not. Then I put the task on the back burner to simmer. When an idea related to the task surfaces, I make a note of it, think a bit more. If nothing else comes to mind, back on simmer it goes. Eventually, after a few rounds of simmering and making notes, the idea will come to a boil and I’ll be able to complete an initial plan.
If that explanation is too metaphorical, here’s an example to illustrate:
Last week, I received proofs for my book with instructions for making final corrections. This is the kind of task that, if I’m not careful, will overwhelm me. It’s big and important and multi-part and will take many hours to complete. I noted the early August deadline, closed the email and took some deep breaths.
The next morning I did my groundwork step: I printed out the queries and downloaded the PDF to my tablet.
Then I put it on my mental back burner: Throughout the day I occasionally thought about how best to approach the proofing process. My first instinct was to push it off to the weekend and do it all in one marathon session. That seemed both exhausting and like an invitation to disaster; I filed it under worst case scenario and kept thinking.
Eventually, while watering my squash plants and mulling other possibilities, I realized that I could proofread one chapter a day and be done with a few days to spare. While I wouldn’t be finished “quickly”, the results should be higher quality. I also knew that one chapter a day was a reasonable time commitment. I had no idea if a weekend was even a realistic time frame for finishing. I went inside and scheduled a chapter for each day in Todoist, starting the next day.
I’ve found that I plan best when I don’t force things. If I feel like the planning process is on a deadline, I tend to settle for the first plan that comes to mind (usually not be the best option). In this case, the initial plan would have eaten up my weekend and left me drained. The final plan requires a moderate amount of time each evening and ensures that I’ll approach each chapter fresh, with an unhurried attitude.
And this ties into one of the best tricks I know for starting big, intimidating tasks. Like cleaning up the kitchen . . .
8. Just One Thing
Initiation can be a big hurdle when you have wonky executive function. I’ve learned that I can trick myself into starting a big task by telling myself that I’ll just do one small thing. Like this:
I walk into the kitchen to make breakfast smoothies and discover that the sink is filled with last night’s dirty dishes and the dishwasher is full of clean dishes. The thought of putting away the clean dishes, loading the dirty dishes into the dishwasher and washing the non-dishwasher-safe items by hand is daunting.
As I’m standing there contemplating my dish problem (and yeah, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that this feels like a huge insurmountable problem at 7 AM) I think, “oh, I need the smoothie glasses from the dishwasher” and I take them out.
Now the dishwasher is open, so while the blender is blending, I decide to move the rest of the glasses to the cabinet, emptying the top rack. Half done! How rewarding! And all in the 60 seconds that I would have been idly standing there watching the blender do its thing.
Inspired by this progress, I empty the bottom rack while the blender runs through a cleaning cycle. 60 more seconds and, yay, empty dishwasher. Now, cleaning up the sink feels easier. I move some glasses and plates to the empty dishwasher, leaving just a brownie pan and some utensils. “Since I have to wash out the blender anyhow, I might as well wash these few extra items,” I tell myself.
And I’m done.
The actual time spent on the dishes was less than 5 minutes. It wasn’t the length of the task that threw me but having to sequence multiple steps and initiate them. By tackling each one as an individual task in itself, I can do an end run around the sequencing problem, simplifying the initiation process. A small specific task like putting away 8 glasses feels more manageable than the vaguer concept of “do something about this mess.”
This post is turning into an unruly monster so I’ll stop here. Even if the hacks I use aren’t new or useful, hopefully this has illustrated some of what goes into managing an executive function deficit on a daily basis.
People often assume that because I run a business I must be “soooooo high functioning” or just not that autistic. The reality is messier. To make up for my EF deficits I’ve learned to be hyper-organized and to create double and triple checks in the areas where I’m most likely to get tripped up.
Consequently, my EF hacks are skewed toward the areas where I need the most help: planning, initiation, attention, working memory and organization. Or maybe they’re skewed toward the areas where I’ve found it easier to compensate. I would love to hear about how others wrangle their EF deficits, especially in relation to cognitive flexibility and monitoring of actions, which I find especially hard to compensate for in the moment and often only manage to troubleshoot in hindsight.
More Executive Function Strategies:
Executive Function Mentor: This 2-part series by Mados talks about how she mentored her brother in EF strategies after the sudden death of their father. Part 1 explains the situation and the scope of the problem and part 2 details the many excellent strategies she helped her brother put into place. Part 1 (Why) | Part 2 (Strategies)
As a follow-up to this post, Mados has added a post about her own Executive Function Strategies, which has in-depth information on how to use Todoist effectively plus additional strategies she uses (with photos!) to manage her daily life.
Over the past month, I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with blogging. For a while now I’ve noticed that my expressive language is becoming more literal and I was okay with that, as long as I was producing blog posts that felt informative. But I’ve noticed that my receptive language has recently become so literal and jumbled that I’m having trouble processing and responding to comments in the way I’d like. That, combined with how hard writing has become, and the frustration triggered by the constant reminders of my language problems has finally hit a tipping point.
In the interest of self-care, I’m taking the month of August off from blogging. There are three more sets of survey questions, which I promise to post in September, whether I’m back to writing again or not. In the mean time, I’m training for a triathlon in September and I’ve taken up gardening and cooking everything from scratch and fishing (!) and playing games like Game About Squares. So life in general is good, it’s just a lot less verbal than it was a year ago.
I’ll miss all of you. Enjoy the rest of your summer!