Executive Functioning: Top 10 Strategies
Finding motivation, planning steps to complete an assignment, organizing your work, initiating work, sustaining focus, metacognition (awareness of your thoughts), managing your time, shifting between activities, controlling impulses – these are all examples of “Executive Functioning Skills.” These skills are essential skills for anyone to get through school, work, and activities of daily life – personal hygiene, maintaining relationships, regulating emotion, the list goes on. Being able to ‘get stuff done’ is very much dependent on your executive functioning skills, which might be impaired if you are anxious (ever noticed you don’t think as rationally when you’re really upset?), or if you have ADHD (deficits in these skill areas are a key feature of the disorder). As a therapist specializing in treating adolescents with anxiety disorders as well as learning issues including ADHD, I spend a lot of time working with my clients on improving their executive functioning skills. I also coach parents on how to support their child’s executive functioning; a student with executive functioning deficits will need more help in many of the items I listed at the top of this blog, and will need added support, structure, and practice in order to compensate for lagging skills. The coronavirus pandemic is causing anxiety and taking away the support and structure that ADHD people need in order to thrive; this means more problems in executive functioning, and a greater need to practice these skills.
Everyone will vary in what helps them get organized and focused- the key is to try out different tools, then select ones that are useful and repeat them until they become habits. Here are the top strategies I recommend:
- Use a planner and/or checklist. Don’t rely on your memory- come up with a system for yourself using a planner or a checklist of tasks that are in order of short-term (today), medium (this week) and long-term (this month or longer). This can be online or on paper- whatever is most visually appealing and logical for you to follow. Stick to it every day; check each night to see what is on the next day’s agenda, check each morning for that day, schedule in times for doing work or for studying, schedule your own due dates for outlines & drafts. Check things off as you go and notice how satisfying that is!
- 5/10/15 minutes of organizing daily (with a timer!). Either right when you get home or right after dinner is a good time cue- this is a routine, not something to do after things get messy. This means organizing your desk, workspace, backpack, binders- whatever needs it, every day.
- Sensory stimulation to help focus. Start to observe whether you do better with or without music, using a fidget, sitting still or using a yoga ball to balance and bounce as you work. People with ADHD often need more stimulation in order to focus – so if you or your child need to listen to music while doing work, that isn’t necessarily a distraction.
- Warm up before a tough/boring task. Do physical exercise like jumping jacks or burpees to get some adrenaline going. Also be sure that you’re moving around on your breaks.
- Time yourself (and your breaks). Estimate time to complete a task (or time you can stay focused working on it) and set a timer, use Forest or other apps that time you and keep you on task. Take breaks, but also keep that to a set time if you have work that still needs to get done.
- Chunk bigger assignments into smaller parts. Especially if you have ADHD you can focus intensely for a long time if you’re really into something, but with other things your attention span is much shorter- and that’s ok. Instead of seeing it as a problem, see it as doing sprints instead of a marathon- if it is a boring task or a long task, chunk it: pick a small number of pages to read at a time, or one small step to do at a time, then take a short break and come back to it.
- Use a Mantra. Choose a productivity/motivational mantra and use it, all the time. Examples: Just Do It!, Get it done, I’ve got this!, Check it off the list, etc. After repeated use, this becomes a mental cue for focus.
- Positive reinforcement, not shaming. The more you pay attention to successes (even small ones) and on the times you have felt focused and productive, the more you reinforce those behaviors, both consciously and at a brain/neural level.
- Create Accountability. Tell a friend or parent what you’re working on, study together or ask them to edit a draft, set time to check in with a teacher to track progress. Having someone to report to increases motivation.
- Just get Started. If you’re overwhelmed, just start anywhere because starting is the hardest part- the more you avoid starting the easier it is to procrastinate. Once you start something it is easier to keep going! Tell yourself you’re not going to ________(check social media/ take a shower / go to lunch etc) until you start whatever the dreaded task is.