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.
I’ve written a lot about executive function, but I realized recently that I don’t have a post that explains what EF is. I set to write one post and 4000 words later, I have a short series. This is part one. The three remaining parts will be posted over the next two weeks.
So what the heck is executive function, anyhow?
Executive function is a broad term that refers to the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control and manage our thoughts and actions. It includes planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, initiation of actions and monitoring of actions.
That’s a nice concise definition, in theory, but what does EF look like in real life?
In practice, executive function is a slippery concept. Sometimes it looks like responsibility. Sometimes it looks like self-discipline. Sometimes it looks like being a competent adult.
If you have poor EF, people might mistake you for being disorganized, lazy, incompetent, sloppy, or just plain not very bright. Why? Because executive function encompasses so many essential areas of daily living. Nearly everything we do calls on areas of executive function. Cooking. Cleaning. Parenting. Work. School. Self-care. Continue reading Executive Function Primer (Part 1)→
One of my special skills is goading people into doing things that I think are great ideas. A few of you have been on the receiving end of this.
When it comes to getting my own stuff done, though, I have a tougher time making things happen. If you have impaired executive function courtesy of autism or ADHD (or some other neurodivergence), you know the feeling. How many times a week do I think “I really should spend some time on my novel” and “I’m way behind on responding to comments” not to mention “The kitchen counters could use a good wiping down” and “When was the last time I vacuumed?”
I’m super organized when it comes to work and bill paying and anything with a deadline. But those things that I should be doing regularly–which includes everything from housework to writing and keeping my blog in order–that stuff slips away from me so easily.
So when Slepa Ulica (who comments here under the username Anonymus) mentioned that they were designing a “smart to-do list” that would serve up tasks to do based on a whole list of customizable parameters, I got just a little excited.
A to-do list that understands crummy executive function! A to-do list that would give me one appropriate task at a time! A website for neurodivergent people created by a neurodivergent person! Much goading encouragement ensued on my part and much work on Slepa Ulica’s part.
1. The fish! I know that’s a silly thing to put first on my list, but the illustrations make me happy. More importantly, the interface is sensory friendly. Plenty of white space, no busy layouts, moving images, sounds or loud colors to assault my brain. Just the minimum of information that I need, accented with whimsical illustrations. (The website also has a boatload of accessibility features which you can read about in detail if you like.)
2. Unlike regular to-do lists, Goal-Fish understands that not all tasks are created equal and we don’t always feel up to tackling certain chores. The constraints feature allows you to limit tasks to what you’re capable of doing (based on energy level, time of day, etc.) and how much time you have. Once you’ve input your constraints (which will take less time to do than it took you to read about it here), you press a button and the software gives you an appropriate task.
For example, I set up a 15-minute time window, a pain (you can change this to spoons, energy, etc.) level of 4 and no helpers. The software gave me “change sheets” which I should probably go do now because I have no idea when I last did that. Increasing my pain level to 6, it told me to take out the trash. When I decreased my pain level to 1 and increased the time to 30 minutes, it told me to clean out the fridge (another task I should do more regularly).
3. What you see when you first start using Goal-Fish is Slepa Ulica’s tasks and categories. You can edit tasks to fit your needs, add your own tasks, assign them to categories, change/create detailed instructions for each task and modify the constraints. Depending on how much time you want to spend, you can do quite a bit of customizing.
4. It’s free. Wow, right? Of course, if you’re feeling generous and can afford to, you can throw a few bucks Slepa Ulica’s way. If you do, you’ll get an additional 20 tasks and 6 categories added to your account. Plus the good feeling that comes along with supporting a cool project by a member of our community. Just use that bright shiny donate button at the top of the screen.
5. The detailed instructions can include as many or as few steps as you need. Some of us may be fine with “do laundry” as a single instruction. Others may need a detailed list of steps to complete more complex tasks like doing the laundry. I can see this making a great independent living tool for pre-teens, teens or adults who need support in completing daily self-care tasks.
6. It almost makes doing chores fun. Clicking the button and getting a semi-random chore makes completing tasks feel like part of a game. Also, having a time limit on a chore makes mundane tasks less open-ended and onerous. If I decide I want to spend 15 minutes on a chore and the software tells me to go pick up stuff, then I feel good about spending 15 minutes or less picking stuff up, even if I don’t get every last thing put away. Without that limit, I’ll avoid even starting because I know I can easily end up spending an hour straightening up, getting distracted, drifting off into other tasks, etc. and then feel like I got nothing substantial done.
I’m going to close this out with Slepa Ulica’s description of why the software is called Goal-Fish, because it ties in nicely with #6 and it made me smile:
“I got to thinking that my todo list is kind of like one of those digital pets where you have to order it to do things, feed it, water it, and take care of it, except in reverse. I’m the digital pet, and the computer is the person telling me to clean my room.”
If you have questions or comments, Slepa Ulica (Anonymus) has promised to reply to them here or you can find an email link at the bottom of the software’s help page.
Obligatory disclaimer: I didn’t receive any compensation for reviewing the software/website.