Are you someone that struggles to stay organized? Has trouble following projects through to completion or even getting started? Is chronically late and forgets things that need to be done? Challenges with executive functions can wreak havoc but there are tools that can help compensate. Read my first post in this series for detail about executive functioning skills and executive dysfunction symptoms. This 2nd post covers options for executive function disorder treatment…or at least tips to create workarounds that can make life easier.
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It is never too late to be what you might have been.
– George Eliot
With executive function disorder it’s a challenge to start using tools:
Planning and organization can be overwhelming so it can feel unpleasant to try to use tools. This is not something that “comes naturally” to people who have deficits in their executive functioning skills.
Many people with deficits in executive functions are uninterested in spending time organizing and planning. They may already feel behind or under pressure, so sitting down and planning out steps can seem like a waste of time.
However, even if they hate it I think most would admit that they could use some help and that the deficits in executive functioning skills are causing stress in their life.
If getting things done feels like a never-ending struggle and you wonder how to ever catch up I encourage you to read on and see if you can try ONE tool to start with.
1. Use checklists:
Checklists are the most basic of organizing techniques and possibly the most helpful. People with executive function disorder have a poor working memory which makes it hard to remember tasks.
Keep track of what needs to be done with a list instead of holding it in your head. Making a list can feel insurmountable for some people with executive dysfunction symptoms so they may attempt to just remember everything that needs to be done. Except for the most gifted of us, this is a recipe for dropping the ball and forgetting responsibilities.
In your list, try to define the steps that are necessary in order to complete a task. This can make it less overwhelming to start tackling the item.
2. Pick 5 top things to get done each day
Can you write down the 5 top things that need to happen today? Get a blank piece of paper and write your 5 must-do tasks on the top half and bonus tasks on the bottom. Fold the paper in half so you only see the bonus tasks after you finish the top half.
Made-for-you planners to write your top 5 tasks on:
If you are a visual person and want to organize everything on one page check out these daily or weekly planners. I love these planners! They create an already laid out structure that can make getting started easier. For some people, looking at a blank piece of paper will be enough to stop them from organizing.
Each planner has tear-off pages for an overview of to-do’s. See which planner fits for your needs better. I like the weekly one that includes both work and home life to-do’s and has additional boxes for self-care and gratitude. I like that I can jot down my 5 must-do things ahead of time, especially if I know something is coming up later in the week that I don’t want to forget.
These planners will help you work on your to-do lists, what is needed for each day of the week, and work on life balancing. Don’t get weekly planners if you get overwhelmed looking at more than one day at a time and instead try the blank paper idea I mentioned above or the daily tear-off planner. DO get the weekly planner if seeing the whole week laid out is helpful.:
Is there a particular task you are dreading? Do that first! Tackling a task that is causing you angst will free you up to focus on other tasks that you aren’t worried about. Don’t keep transferring that task to a new day. If the dreaded task sits around on your list it may cause you to avoid even looking at the list. Dreaded tasks can be progress stoppers!
4. Don’t overdo the lists!
Some people overdo it and make long lists which then serve to overwhelm them instead of reducing stress. If a list is so cumbersome that it inspires repulsion it is not going to have the effect that we are going for.
Checklists aren’t just for projects but can help with daily routines. Spend less time trying to recreate what has to be done each day. It can be helpful to make a list of the morning routine or bedtime rituals. Or steps to take when you are about to leave work for the day. Think about where you waste energy trying to remember things (or where you find yourself forgetting steps) and start with a list for that.
6. Use apps to automate your lists and routines
There are great apps that can help automate lists. Recurrent tasks can be scheduled out at whatever frequency is needed and reminders can be set. The more that is automated the less chance for skipping the list that day and energy can be focused elsewhere.
I love these apps for tasks like cleaning the coffee pot, water plants, change air filters, etc. This way I don’t have to always try to remember when these need to be due.
I use and love the Wunderlist app. Everything can be organized on it – grocery lists, chores, movies you want to watch, projects at work, etc… The app can be shared with family members or colleagues so that tasks can be delegated or collaborated on. Best of all its free!
When breaking down a task, assign time limits to the steps for better long-term planning. This will give a more accurate sense of how much time is needed to complete the project.
Some people find setting time limits to be an effective way to help combat procrastination.
8. Do tasks immediately if they take less than 3 minutes.
Stop yourself when you are about to say “I’ll do it later”. (This seems to be the mantra for some people with executive function disorder!) Train yourself to do these tasks immediately. It isn’t worth the time it takes to write these on your to-do list. It is better to tackle them immediately before they are forgotten.
Maybe you won’t feel like doing it at that exact moment but the good news is that you will be done with it in under 3 minutes! Just get it done, give yourself a high five, and move on.
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9. Use a calendar planner:
Planners can be essential in order to visualize the steps that have to happen and when they need to be done. A planner can help you keep track of projects, organize time, and evaluate progress. To-do lists can be done in the planner so that you have access to everything in one place.
One key is to find a planner you love! Make sure it has all the components that would be helpful for you. Try one and if it isn’t the greatest move on to a different one.
What about a planner that helps to motivate you at the same time? Check out these beautiful planners. Previously, I showed you planners with tear-off weekly or daily pages. If you don’t want to have separate sheets then get one of these books. Also, these planners include more than just to-do lists and work in self-care reminders and motivational quotes:
10. Are you in the “Sticky Note Fan Club”?
Different systems work for different people with executive function disorder. Some people swear by sticky notes and use them for everything. Using different colored notes for each project or class can be a way to quickly and easily visualize what needs to be done.
The key to using sticky notes is to keep them organized enough that they make sense and don’t get lost. The benefit to sticky notes is that they are “non-threatening” ie. they don’t seem too cumbersome to use. A person with executive function disorder may be more willing to jot down things on sticky notes then have to pull out a planner and write in it.
11. Word of caution when trying to implement executive function disorder treatment:
A general rule: start incorporating changes one step at a time. It’s the same thing as if you wanted to lose weight- a crash diet doesn’t get integrated well into normal life and therefore is difficult to maintain. We all know people who do this and their weight bounces up and down. The changes would have been much slower if they chose to do something “small” like give up added calories in drinks and gave themselves time to get used to that. Even though the weight loss is more gradual maybe they would have been able to make a long-term lifestyle change.
This is similar with the executive functioning skills. The skills for executive functions need to last a lifetime. They aren’t going to change overnight and therefore should be done step by step.
I also caution against having multiple different systems in place at the same time. For example, don’t have both a phone calendar and a paper calendar to keep track of appointments and due dates. It is hard to consistently remember to transfer things into both calendars. This is a setup to miss things and have important tasks fall through the cracks.
12. Establish a routine:
Routines are helpful and take the guesswork about what needs to be done. Once a routine is practiced regularly it can become a habit. Habits become automatic and are less likely to be forgotten.
What do you do daily that a routine can be created for? Maybe it is something that you struggle to carry out smoothly. Are you prone to leaving out a few steps in the morning? Straying from your evening rituals? Come up with a routine and try to practice it daily.
You can even make it silly and come up with a song or mnemonic that covers all the needed steps. In order to help one of my children remember all the steps in the shower, we made up a silly rap song that she can repeat over and over to stay on track. I’m too embarrassed to share it but suffice it to say it works to help keep on track!
13. Use rewards and encouragement for efforts: “Growth mindset”
This is especially true for children. Praising their efforts (not necessarily the end result) builds resilience and a growth mindset. It helps them not fixate on the outcome but also the process and lets them feel more in charge of their progress. We don’t want kids with executive dysfunction symptoms to lose confidence and decide its too hard to try.
Let’s just take a minute to make sure we understand what a growth mindset is as this is an important point. Here is a quote from a great article in Mindset Works. I encourage you to read the whole article as it is a great overview of this topic:
the feedback that teachers give their students can either encourage a child to choose a challenge and increase achievement or look for an easy way out. For example, studies on different kinds of praise have shown that telling children they are smart encourages a fixed mindset, whereas praising hard work and effort cultivates a growth mindset. When students have a growth mindset, they take on challenges and learn from them, therefore increasing their abilities and achievement.
School can be a lot more difficult for children with executive function disorder and they need support.
Celebrate what they do right more than harping on what they do wrong. People with executive dysfunction symptoms are already self-conscious about their challenges. Encourage them to develop their talents and passions so they build confidence.
Adults can benefit from rewards too!
Even as an adult you can create a reward chart. Allow yourself a reward for every 5th or 10th or 20th task completed. These can be as simple as stopping to grab your favorite cup of coffee or allowing yourself to make your favorite meal. I seriously will tackle the most onerous and unpleasant of tasks if it means I get sushi at the end of it.
Everyone appreciates positive feedback and exciting rewards. Figure out what rewards will keep you going when the going gets tough.
14. Enlist help: A friend, coach, or therapist
Set-up for failure?
I think it’s important to acknowledge that using these tools to help with executive dysfunction take executive functioning! Yes, I know. It sounds like a set up for failure. And sometimes it is if the right supports aren’t in place.
If self-discipline is a struggle for you, ask a loved one, colleague or friend, to help you set goals and check in with you weekly to assess progress. Make it a mutual check-in. Everyone has goals they want to work on and you can help them stay accountable to their goals while they help you at the same time. It’s win-win.
Get a coach
Find an independent coach to guide you in setting appropriate goals, deciding on steps to take, and help to hold you accountable. These are trained professionals and can be extremely valuable in helping stay on track.
Here is a site that may help you find a coach in your area. This is specifically for ADHD coaching but there is so much overlap with executive functioning that I think this could be a helpful place to start even if you aren’t diagnosed with ADHD.
Find a therapist
Many people find having a therapist well-versed in executive functioning skills and executive dysfunction symptoms is essential. A therapist can provide a non-judgemental environment so you are safe to be able to try using tools. Some therapists have different training than coaches but some great coaches are also therapists.
A therapist can both help work through the emotional reasons for getting stuck and keep you moving forward to meet the goals to improve your executive functions.
15. Sit down monthly to reassess progress
Schedule a time each month to reassess what is working and what isn’t. If you have a therapist or coach hopefully this is something incorporated into treatment/coaching on an ongoing basis. If you don’t, add this to your Wunderlist app or your paper calendar. Schedule it as a recurring monthly task for the entire year.
For your monthly review ask yourself:
- How did this month go?
- What did you try that was helpful?
- What didn’t go well? Everything can’t always go well. It is important to take note of what doesn’t work and continue to move forward.
- How can you improve?
- Did you achieve any goals you set of yourself?
- How can you sustain the progress?
Get a year of reminders delivered monthly to your inbox.
To help you stay on track I created a series of monthly email prompts so you don’t forget and lose sight of your goals.
These prompts will serve as a reminder to check-in and give you questions to walk through to assess your progress. Think of this as a built-in safety net to help you stop and reset if you need to.
To sign up fill in your email here and they will be sent to you once each month.
Whatever satisfies the soul is TRUTH.
– Walt Whitman
Remember that everyone is different and has varying strengths and challenges to contend with. There is not ONE right answer about tackling executive dysfunction symptoms.
Finding what works for YOU is the goal.
My recommendation is to keep it simple while figuring out executive function disorder treatment.
- Start with one tool and try to integrate it.
- Don’t make it so complicated that it is onerous. Try ONE THING!
- What are the things you already do each day? Identify the routines you already do well.
- Build tools into the daily structure that already exists.
- Can you work on using your planning tool in the 5 minutes when you sit down with a morning coffee?
- What about keeping a piece of paper at your bedside to jot down the 5 items that you want to accomplish the next day?
- Or put your calendar next to your toothbrush so you can write in it at night and review the plan for the day in the morning.
Just get started!
The most important point is to just get started trying to do things differently. So often we get stuck and set in our ways even though they aren’t benefitting us. Executive functioning skills can be improved by incorporating some of these tips and tools. It will get easier!
Let me know how it goes. What executive functioning skills have you tried and has it been helpful?
My next post is about book recommendations for executive function disorder. There are some fantastic books out there that are sure to be helpful in your goal of calming the chaos in life that happens when there are deficits in executive functioning skills.
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