As a life coach, I work with a lot of autistic and/or ADHD folks who have trouble with executive function skills, like prioritizing and organizing tasks, procrastination, difficulty getting started on a project, and other similar challenges.
If this sounds like you, then I'm here to tell you more about what executive function is and isn't, and to introduce you to two strategies to help strengthen your executive function skills: automation, and the activity partner.
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🎧 Rather listen than read this post? This transcript is based off of Episode 25 of the Neurodiverging Podcast!
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Transcript for Ep 25: Executive Function Tips: Automation & the Activity Partner
Hello, friends, and welcome to this episode of Neurodiverging! Thank you so much for being here with me today. If you’re new here, I’m Danielle, and I’m the autistic parent of one autistic child and one ADHD child, the partner of an ADHD man, and I still have the best cats!
As you may or may not know, I am a life coach, and I work with a lot of autistic and/or ADHD folks. Part of the coaching process is offering clients skill-building techniques and exercises to improve an aspect of their life, or to help them get to a goal they’re interested in achieving.
I work with a lot of people who have issues with executive function in particular, which can include issues around prioritizing and organizing tasks, procrastination, difficulty getting started on a project, and other similar challenges. These are common issues with most neurodivergent brains and seem prevalent among those with autism and ADHD.
In this post, I’m going to talk about two tips I have for what I’m calling executive function issues. I’ll talk more about that framing shortly. Executive function, in short, is the phrase that’s most often used to describe a person’s ability to manage important tasks. It comprises three main areas: flexible thinking, working memory, and inhibitory control.
Flexible thinking is what it sounds like - the ability to try new things, solve problems in new ways, and cope with changing situations.
Working memory is complex, but for right now, we can say that it refers to being able to access and use memories that you acquired within the last minute or so.
Inhibitory control is, put simply, the ability to stop doing something that you really want to do.
What Is Executive Function?
The three pieces I just mentioned – flexible thinking, working memory, and inhibitory control – together form executive function. We use them in everyday life for emotional regulation, keeping track of what we’re doing and how long it’s taking, paying attention to the task or activity we’re supposed to be paying attention to, planning and prioritizing, and other similar organizational and procedural details.
There are a ton of skills associated with executive function, like any kind of planning and "executing" of tasks, self-monitoring and self-control, time awareness and management, or paying sustained attention to something.
So, if you happen to have a brain that has weaknesses in working memory, flexible thinking, or inhibitory control, you’re likely to notice difficulties with some of those associated skills too.
Executive Function Challenges Are Not A Personal Failing
Before we get further into this discussion, I just want to say something about our goals in this episode. First, let me say that an inability to prioritize boring tasks over a special interest or even over a decent TV show, is not a personal failure!
It is NOT related to a lack of willpower, disinterest, or not recognizing the consequences of not finishing something. It’s purely related to the chemicals in your brain and the differences in how your brain thinks about the future compared to neurotypical people. It is not a personal failure to have trouble doing the things that you think you’re supposed to do. It’s not something you’re failing at doing.
There is No Such Thing as a Perfect Brain
When I’m working with a client towards the goal of improved executive function, we’re aiming for a couple of things.
The first is to become aware of what the executive function weaknesses are in the client’s experience. After that, we can build a set of supports to reduce the effect those weaknesses are having.
What we’re not doing is judging the type of functioning we have as "good" or "bad." Honestly, in my opinion, there’s no such thing as "good" or "bad" executive function. Whether the type of function you inherently have is working for you is related to the environment you live in and the tasks you are expected to carry out. It is not related to whether your brain, and its strengths and weaknesses, match some imaginary, perfect brain.
Why? Because there is no such thing as a "good" or "bad" brain. All we’re looking at is whether your unique, wonderful brain is working in the context and environment in which you live.
Along the same lines, most of the challenges faced by people with neurodivergent brains – things that are categorized as “executive dysfunction” by the medical establishment – have a root cause in the anxiety, stress, and lack of support experienced by neurodivergent people every day living in a society formed around neurotypical expectations.
We are constantly overwhelmed by a range of everyday factors like our environments, the expectations of our children, families, friends, social groups, doctors, and therapists, and by our own internalized shame and ableism. (Even if you’re aware of ableism, and you’re working on internalized shame, they still sit there. And, they are always hard to see.)
If all the factors causing our overwhelm disappeared overnight – poof! – most neurodivergent people would experience a sharp and sudden increase in executive function skills. This is because, just like us, executive function skills don’t exist in a vacuum – they are inextricably linked to our feelings, reactions, and thoughts, all of which are responses to what’s happening in the world around us.
As you’re considering your own goals and priorities, consider if you’re judging yourself for not being neurotypical “enough.” Are you considering your own, neurodivergent needs? It’s always important to remember that if you are not neurotypical, you cannot expect to function the same way a neurotypical person does. By neurotypical standards, there will be things that you are “bad” at. Remember: it’s not your fault, it’s not something you failed at! The world isn’t structured to work for – or work with – all kinds of people.
As much as we want to world to change and be open to people with all kinds of bodies and brains, right now we live in a world that is built around neurotypical expectations. This means there may be times when you are required to prioritize tasks that are uninteresting, to overcome anxiety-based procrastination, or to organize physical objects or tasks in a way that is not completely comfortable for you. In those cases, there are some strategies you can use to make it easier on yourself to live in the world and accomplish some of these boring, procrastination-inspiring, or uncomfortable tasks. The rest of this post is devoted to two simple ways that may help you find these tasks a little less challenging and uncomfortable.
How Do I Strengthen My Executive Function Skills?
I’d like to introduce you to two strategies to help strengthen Executive Function skills: automation, and the activity partner. There are tons of ways to strengthen Executive Function skills, but I’m focusing on these because they are the ones I find work for the most people – and they are the easiest to implement.
Before we dive in, I’m going to remind you (again) to be kind to yourself! Don’t judge yourself if you have trouble implementing these tips. I hope these will help you live in the world a little more easily, but there are a lot of things that can get in the way. Brains – and people! – are so complex. Try these out, see what works for you. But if they don’t work, don’t think it’s a failure on your part. It just means there’s something else out there that will work better for you and your brain. As always, you can reach out to me via email with questions, I’m happy to help.
Alright, on to automation!
Strengthening Strategy #1: Automation
Automation is a way to create new habits in your life that are linked to specific tasks or activities you already do every day. I’ve seen automation referred to in a lot of ways, including rhythms and microhabits; sometimes checklists are considered automation. The basic idea, though, is to connect a task you need help remembering to do with something you do already, that isn’t a challenge for you.
However, we’re specifically looking for small habits that are necessary to your well-being. Automation isn’t going to work nearly as well for bigger goals like “I’m going to run five miles every day,” or “I’m going to write an epic novel in a month.” The key here is small, basic tasks or activities. Once you have those little things down, you can move on to bigger ones.
Let me introduce you to a handy, three-step process to incorporate the idea of automation into your life!
Step One: Brainstorm
The first step is to brainstorm. What are some things you need to accomplish every day (or every three days, or every week, etc.)? Write down some small, basic actions you want to do every day (or other period of time). Some examples are brushing your teeth, taking a shower, eating meals, doing five-minute PT exercises, making your bed, taking your medication, drinking water, and/or scheduling appointments.
Have your list? Now, pick one. One at a time! If you try to do eight new things at once, you will overwhelm yourself and never ever want to try another automation again. Obviously, that’s not the outcome we want. The reason I emphasize a small task, like showering or making your bed, is because you want it to be something that doesn’t take a lot of your mental energy to accomplish. If you start with a very small task, it will be easier to work it into your day.
Step Two: Connect to an Existing Routine
Once you’ve picked your very small activity or task, you’re going to connect it to an existing routine. Now, I know a lot of you are going to think “Ack, I don’t have any routines,” or you’re a person who doesn’t like routines. But, if you think about it, you almost certainly have things you do every day. You may not do them at the same time every day, and the routine may vary slightly, but chances are there are a few things you do without really thinking about it. If you get up at the same time every day, or walk your dog before dinner, or brush your teeth before you go to bed, those are routines.
The idea is to find one of these routines, like getting out of bed, that can link easily with the habit you want to add. So, if your goal is to make your bed every day, you’d add that to your getting out of bed routine. Get up, make the bed. Whatever the routine is, you’re linking it with this new habit you want to develop.
Step Three: Celebrate!
This third step is just as important as the previous two for building a successful habit: reward yourself. If your goal is to get up and make your bed, come up with a mini-reward that you give yourself every single time you accomplish those tasks, something that makes you happy.
You want to celebrate doing your new habit because it’s going to help you look forward to doing it; as an added bonus, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you accomplished a task. In other words, a reward will make it feel less like something you have to do, and more like something fun that you’re integrating into your day.
I’ve mentioned some possibilities, but let’s look at a real-world example from my life. I need help remembering to eat breakfast in the morning. It’s really basic, but there are a lot of things that can get in the way of remembering to eat, remembering to eat enough, eating the right foods, etc.
In my case, it takes my brain a long time to turn on in the morning, and I don’t have great hunger cues. My whole day is better when I eat breakfast – my body, like everyone’s, needs food for energy. So, remembering to eat breakfast is something that’s important, and a task I need help with.
Following our steps above, I identified eating breakfast as the habit I want to build. The trick for me is getting the food in front of me; once it’s there, I’ll eat it. But if I don’t remember to put it in front of myself, I won’t eat. (And yes, in this example, there is some prior work that needs to happen: there has to be food in the house I know I will eat, which is its own task.)
The second step is to link it to something I already do. For whatever reason, I will remember to give my kids their vitamins in the morning. I’ll get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, and give my kids their vitamins. The small task I added on to “kids’ vitamins” is “get breakfast.” This way, when I see the bottles of my kids’ vitamins, I’ll start associating it with making my breakfast. In linking these two things together, I have a much higher likelihood of remembering to eat in the morning.
My reward for doing this pair of tasks is getting a second cup of coffee, hooray!
More on Automation
One purpose of automation is to give your brain little things to do without giving it too much. As we talked about earlier, your brain is likely already overwhelmed, and we don’t want to add to that. Lack of self-judgement is important here, too. If you fail to do your newly linked habit one day, don’t stress over it, just do it the next day. Everyone has days where nothing works – there are days I forget to brush my teeth or brush my hair, it happens! Be kind to yourself that day, and try again the day after.
Now, if you have a bunch of days in a row where the habit-to-be doesn’t happen, it might be worth sitting down and thinking about why it’s so hard. Are there other aspects to achieving the goal that you may not have considered when you were brainstorming? Has something about your routine changed that’s made it harder to link the two tasks together?
My experience is that automation tends to work for a lot of people. The key is to take the time to brainstorm, pick a suitably small task that you do every day, link it to one of your routines, and then reward yourself when you accomplish the tasks.
I’ve noticed, too, that morning and evening routines tend to have the most success for people. With neurodivergent folks especially, schedules can be all over the place. You’ll need to figure out what works for you when building these linked routines. For a lot of folks, though, they have a morning wake-up routine and an evening wind-down routine. Attaching small things to those routines can be really successful because you already have that routine in place and you’re making one, tiny addition.
Once you’ve successfully accomplished your linked habit for a week or so, that’s when you can consider adding in another tiny, microhabit, following the same steps. Remember, one at a time!
Strengthening Strategy #2: Activity Partners
(If you’ve listened to the Neurodiverging interview podcast with Reverend Catherine Clarenbach, she and I talked about activity partners. If not, check the interview out here.)
Having trouble starting, completing, or picking a task up? For a lot of people, external oversight of some kind, even just having someone else in the room with you, can provide the necessary nudge to get you going. Having an activity partner is a way to take advantage of this mental quirk – needing oversight – and using it, on purpose, to get things done. There are a lot of ways to approach this, and it can be used for large and small tasks alike. For me, an activity partner works best for physical tasks, like folding laundry – something I hate doing!
How It Works
A lot of us – and I’m one of these people – do really well getting things done if someone is watching us, literally or figuratively. For example, one of your tasks is to do the dishes. But you tend to get distracted, maybe you remember something else that you need to do, you walk away, and the dishes aren’t done. But, if someone is in the room with you, you’re less likely to walk away and not come back to the dishes.
To solve this problem, you can engage the help of an activity partner, also sometimes called a shadow or a body double. The basic idea is that you have another person in the room with you and you’ve told them ahead of time what your goal is. They usually aren’t there to help you with actually doing your task; their presence is helping you stay with your task until it’s done.
For instance, you have a paper you need to write or a presentation you need to finish up. You and your activity partner are in the same room, and you’re working on your paper while your shadow is doing their own thing (something that isn’t distracting you).
If their presence isn’t quite enough, maybe you ask them to occasionally, gently check in with you and ask, “How’s it going, Danielle? Are you still stuck on that one thing?” Having someone else to bounce ideas off of can be a huge help, if your partner is good with that level of engagement. (If they have a paper they need to write too, they might not want to chat.)
This can also work really well over the phone or video chat. I have a weekly date with a friend where we are in a video chat and we’re each doing our own tasks. We may or may not be talking to each other while we do our things; the point is that we’ve both set aside the time to get things done – paying bills, making a grocery list, cleaning up email – and the other person is expecting us, which gives just that little nudge of motivation to get started or finish up something that you’ve been struggling with.
Alright, I hope that was helpful. I would love to know if you liked this episode and want more information about executive function tips or skills. And if you have any favorite executive function tips, send them in to me and maybe we can make a listener-collaborative episode some time in the future. Again, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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