Who Else Wants These Executive Function Skills?

Recently, I was struggling with my To Do list.

executive function skills

Two co-workers were on vacation, and I had to cover their work plus my own.

I sat down at the beginning of the day….and just stared at my computer screen: Paralyzed!  I had so many things to accomplish, but I couldn’t figure out which tasks were the most important, so I froze.

Cynthia Kim, in her article, Executive Function Series, defines executive function as “an umbrella term for the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control, and manage our thoughts and emotions.”

Executive function includes initiating action, planning, attention, and problem-solving.

Many people on the autism spectrum struggle with executive function difficulties.

Similar to my mind-freeze at the beginning of my work day, adults with Aspergers may have difficulties getting things done.   Or, more importantly, getting the important things done.

For example, I remember throwing a snowball at a friend.  My friend ducked, and I ended up hitting his parent instead!

That’s what it’s like when I get things done that don’t really matter – the result can be somewhat embarrassing and ineffective.

Everyone with executive function difficulties can learn how to organize multiple tasks and get them done effectively.

Today’s suggestions, in part, come from Mastering Your Adult ADHD, in the chapter, “Organizing Multiple Tasks”.

Executive Function Skills – Organize and Prioritize

Organize – Buy A Calendar and Notebook

Will You Help Me Free Yourself explains this simple system.

Purchase one calendar to record all your appointments in. Here’s one I’ve listed for you. You can order it through Amazon, or you can just buy one at your nearest office supply store.

Purchase a notebook to record everything you need to do.  Each day, I start with a fresh page for my daily tasks.  I keep a Master To Do list in the back of the notebook.

Will You Help Me Free Yourself explains in-depth how to use these two simply powerful items.  Before you try any other online computer system, or phone app, or slick organizational system, just use the Calendar and Notebook for 21 days straight.  You’ve got to form a habit.

Here are some questions and tips to help you form your daily habit:

  • Where will you keep the notebook and calendar?  I make sure I keep them in the same bag every day.  You might even consider using a rubber band to keep the calendar and notebook together.
  • How will you remember to use it every day?
  • How will you remember to look at your task list every day?  Pick the same time every day to look at your task list – e.g., when you feed your dog, after you brush your teeth, or when you’re having your morning coffee or breakfast

Prioritize – Two Methods to Prioritize Your To Do List

Before you start your day, write down everything you need to do on a fresh sheet of paper.

ABC Method –

Use this method to separate your to do items accordingly –

A Tasks – are the tasks of highest importance. This means they must be completed in the short-term (like today or tomorrow)
B Tasks  – are of less importance, to be done over the long-term. Some portions of the task should be completed in the short-term, but the other portions may take longer.
C tasks –  are the least importance, and may be attractive and easier to do, but are not as important as tasks with higher rankings.

In this method, you will work only on the A tasks first, then the B tasks, and then C if you have time.  You always work the A tasks first, so that you are completing the most important tasks first.

Low Effort High Impact

Mark Joyner, of Simpleology, taught me this method for sorting my daily tasks.

Go through your list of To Do’s.

Rate each items with two different scores:  Ease and Impact.  For each item on your list, think, “How easy will it be for me to do this item, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the easiest?”

Then ask yourself, “How much impact will this item have, both in the short-term and in the long-term?”

Here’s a sample list:

  1. call a client back about a potential appointment
  2. check my email
  3. work on a blog post
  4. spend time with my son

I’m going to rate each item:

Item 1 – Ease: 10, Impact: 8

Item 2 – Ease: 10, Impact: 3

Item 3 – Ease: 5, Impact: 9

Item 4 – Ease: 10, Impact : 10

Now I’ll multiply the scores: Item 1 (80), Item 2 (30), Item 3 (45), Item 4 (100).

So now I’ve prioritized my To Do list according to which activities are Lowest Effort with Maximum Impact – my re-ordered To List looks like this:

  1. Spend time with my son
  2. Call client back about a potential appointment
  3. Work on Blog Post
  4. Check Email

Executive Functioning Skills – Focus

Use the Pomodoro Method

  1. Use a timer set to 25 minutes.  I’ve used E.ggtimer and Keep Focused when I’m working on the computer.
    1. While you’re working, clear your desk and your browser of any distractions. [e.g., close down Facebook, email, and any other distracting sites]
  2. Work on the first task on your list until the timer rings.
  3. Take a short 5 minute break to stand, walk, go to the restroom, or get a drink of water.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until you’ve completed your first task.  Then go on to your second task.
  5. Every 4 Pomodoro cycles, take a longer break to reward yourself.

The Cynthia Kim Method For Tricking Yourself Into Getting Things Done

I can’t say it any better than Cynthia Kim states it in her article, Executive Function Primer – Part 3:

Out of necessity–because I have no boss to impose deadlines or fire me if I’m not productive–I’ve developed a whole bag of tricks to get myself through the initiation phase. Telling myself I’m just going to read something over before I start editing. Starting with the easiest or most appealing aspect of a project. Setting fake deadlines or creating rewards for getting a certain number of pages done in a day. Talking to someone about a project I need to start planning. Using one project to “procrastinate" on another. It seems silly that I have to trick myself into starting projects that I know are inevitable, but it works. And hacking executive function is all about what works.

In summary:

  • Buy yourself a calendar and notebook.
  • Read Will You Help Me Free Yourself to learn how to carry out the system.
  • Commit to using the calendar and notebook system daily.
  • Organize by writing your to do list daily.
  • Prioritize using the ABC Method, or Low Effort High Impact Method.
  • Focus using the suggestions above, including the Pomodoro Method and Tricking Your Brain.
  • Finally, don’t think you have to get everything on the list done in one day.  If, at the end of the day, you only finished one task, carry the rest of the tasks over to the next day.  They’ll be there for you when you start the next day.

Image credit: doglikehorse / 123RF Stock Photo

What are some ways you organize and prioritize your To Do list each day?  How do you stay focused?

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I'm Steve Borgman. I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

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