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  • New Year, New You: Tips for Improving Executive Functioning & Setting Reasonable Expectations for the Year to Come

    New Year, New You: Tips for Improving Executive Functioning & Setting Reasonable Expectations for the Year to Come

    Written by Sue Cook, MS, MSW, L.Ac., LSW

    With the New Year around the corner, there’s a lot of pressure to make dramatic changes in our lives. Many people make resolutions to change their diets, exercise more, find true love, get organized, get a new job, or save money. Yet statistics show that less than 10% of the people who make New Year’s Resolutions end up keeping them for the whole year. Why do so many of us struggle to achieve our goals? My theory is that underdeveloped executive functioning is involved- not to mention our society offers more challenges than we are physically equipped to handle. So what exactly is executive functioning, anyway? Simply put, executive functioning is an umbrella term for a set of skills our brain uses to help us manage our lives- a sort of mental Mary Poppins. Executive functioning skills include organization, planning and goal setting, time management (initiating tasks, staying on task), self regulation (flexibility in thinking, impulse control, managing emotions), and accountability (self-monitoring, processing/implementing feedback). In theory, the average human being doesn’t fully develop their executive functions until their mid-20s. I don’t know about you, but I struggled with my own executive functioning throughout my 30s as well. Without a good grounding in these skills, it can be very difficult to accomplish ambitious goals, let alone keep an apartment clean, stay on top of laundry, eat healthy meals and snacks, get enough sleep, take medications on time, and do a good job at work.

    As a chronically ill, neurodivergent person, it’s always a constant battle for me to stay on top of life tasks. When I went back to grad school in my late 30s, I had a miniscule attention span, constant brain fog, severe chronic pain, and woefully underdeveloped organizational skills. You can imagine how daunting it was to have to plan out and write somewhere between three to five 15-20 page papers every semester. Luckily, I was interning at my school’s disability services office, where I received some training in executive function coaching, which was incredibly helpful. I’m going to share some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned that helped me survive and even thrive despite my extremely limited mental and physical resources. I hope they will help you, too!

    Combat task initiation dysphoria with conditioning. “Task initiation dysphoria” is a term I came up with last year to describe the feeling of your inner toddler throwing themself on the floor, pounding their heels, and screaming “BUT I DON’T WANNA.” It can be a real struggle to get started, especially when the task at hand is tedious or uninteresting. But here’s a fun fact: humans are almost as easy to train as dogs. By offering yourself treats as you go, you can help yourself overcome the misery of starting a boring task. I had to train myself into getting started on horrible boring theory papers by acquiring an extensive hot tea collection and surrounding myself with a variety of tasty snacks- dark chocolate almonds seemed to work particularly well for me. Right now I’m sitting here writing this essay with my favorite tea and the promise of replaying the bathhouse quest in The Witcher 3 later this afternoon to motivate me. Some folks might use scented candles, instrumental music, and fidget toys to lend a positive association to their workspace and reward themselves at the end of the day watching Netflix in a hot bath. It’s up to you!

    Your space matters. It’s almost impossible to stay focused in a messy space, as well as a dark and uncomfortable one. When I started grad school, I was trying to write at my dining room table with my laptop propped up on an empty box and my roommates going in and out of the kitchen. I had to get myself a laptop stand and a proper desk and office chair and set them up in the sunroom along with my daylight lamp so I had a dedicated writing space with bright lighting. My bedroom might have been perpetually messy, but I forced myself to spend 5-10 minutes tidying the office (i.e. throwing everything into a laundry basket and cramming it into my bedroom) before starting any major writing projects. It can also help to have comfort objects at hand, such as artwork or toys that make you feel happy when you look at or touch them.

    It’s also worth noting that your bed should be a place for resting- when you try to be productive from your sleep space, you end up simultaneously fighting against your brain’s inclination to slow down while also training yourself to be wakeful in bed. This can have a negative effect on your sleep down the road as well. Humans tend to be most alert when upright and in a space they associate with productivity.

    Break it down into smaller pieces and use a timer. Sometimes when a task is particularly large, it can feel impossible to even get started. Breaking it down into smaller pieces and setting a timer so you know you have an out can really help. This can also work particularly well for major cleaning tasks you’ve been putting off as well as major work projects. The greater your dysphoria about getting started, the shorter the timer. For example, if you’ve been putting off cleaning your room for ages, start with your bed, then move onto other flat surfaces, then to the floors and closet. Set a 15 minute timer (most people can bear anything boring for at least 15 minutes) and see how much you can get done before it goes off. If you’ve still got some steam after the first timer, reset it and keep going. If you’re really struggling to figure out where to start, this leads me to my next tip:

    Ask for help/get an accountability buddy. I remember how hard it was to get anything done back in my 20s when I was struggling with severe depression and just felt so lonely and sad all the time. I used to ask a friend to come over and keep me company while I cleaned my room- she didn’t have to help, just sit there and talk to me so I didn’t get sucked into apathy. Zoom or other video calling services can be super helpful for this- you and your friend or group of friends can keep each other entertained and on task while you scrub down your stoves and fold your laundry. Even if you don’t talk, just knowing there’s another person there can take the edge off the loneliness and boredom.  I often offer to help my clients make phone calls to schedule appointments they have been putting off by simply sitting there and bearing witness- sometimes knowing someone else is there can make all the difference.

    Similarly, if you’re having trouble breaking something down or conceptualizing where to start, sometimes talking through it out loud with a friend can really help. The “Explain It Like I’m Five” method in which you imagine you’re trying to teach a kid about something can often help you simplify what you’re working on by seeing it from a different angle. If you’re consistently struggling to break down major tasks into smaller pieces, you might also consider finding a more experienced mentor in your field to guide you.

    Stop trying to hold everything in your head. Back when I was in school, I renamed my iphone “Pocket Brain.” I created a redundant system that involved using a wall calendar, a paper planner, and setting up pop-up notifications on the calendar and reminder apps on my devices so I could remember what I needed to get done. That included preliminary steps of projects as well, such as a reminder to start researching a paper 3 weeks before it was due. To this day, I still use two event reminders on my phone for everything important, usually a day before and a few hours before. I don’t rely on my old “meat brain” to remember anything important nowadays! Some folks like to write weekly to-do lists and post them on the wall next to their workspace. I’m definitely a fan of sticky notes, too. It can take time to find the system that works for you, but keep at it and you’ll find a way to stay organized.

    Aim lower and quit while you’re ahead. I saw this great TikTok last fall about setting your expectations and assessing your capacity to be productive on a bad day, rather than on a good one. It makes sense- if you base your concept of how much you’re able to do on a really good day that isn’t the norm, then you’ll never be able to live up to it and you’ll end up in a vicious cycle of self-recrimination and shaming. Rather, establish your baseline for how much you can reasonably get done on a bad day. It’s ok if you can’t do as much as you wish- it’s better than getting stuck in shame quicksand and not getting anything done at all! It’s also self-compassionate to allow yourself to stop before you’re exhausted and miserable. This circles back to tip #1- if you are constantly grinding yourself ragged, you’ll end up reinforcing your task initiation dysphoria because you’ll associate productivity with being miserable. It’s important to save some energy for other things that matter, like feeding and taking care of physical needs, so we can associate completing a task with a wonderful feeling of being able to relax. When we set reasonable, accomplishable goals for ourselves, we come out ahead!

    Be kind to yourself. Let’s be real: self-compassion is not a skill our society teaches us. Most of us were raised to be incredibly self-critical, or learned it in response to trauma. I recently read Pete Walker’s phenomenal work on the link between complex trauma and perfectionism and was honestly blown away by his conceptualization of the Inner Critic as being triggered by the emotional flashback state of abandonment depression. So many instances of perfectionism seem to be linked to feeling scared and unsafe! When you find yourself stuck on the nitpicky details of a project and notice you’re calling yourself names in your head or catastrophizing about the horrible failure you’re about to experience, please take a moment to practice mindfulness and speak kindly to yourself, the way you would to a young child who is in your care. “Hey, hey, hey. There’s no need to go to the Dark Place. I know you’re feeling a bit worried about doing well on this project. It makes sense for you to feel this way (this is my therapist catchphrase, btw), but you’re doing the best you can and that is good enough.” One of my favorite ways to reframe the thought “I’m bad at ______” is to change it to “I’m still learning _____ and it’s ok if I’m not perfect at it right away.”

    Finally, last but not least: get professional help. It’s been a rough couple years, and a lot of us are just barely getting by. If you are consistently struggling to take care of yourself and falling behind at work and at home, it may be time to talk to a psychiatrist or a therapist. You don’t have to go through this alone!

    2022 is just around the corner, and with it comes a whole new set of uncertainties and worries. I hope these tips help you understand yourself a little better and find new ways to be kinder to yourself while coming closer to your goals. I’m wishing you and yours a gentle start to the year. Hang in there; we’re all in this together!

    Written by Mind Body Co-op Psychotherapist & Acupuncturist, Sue Cook, MS, MSW, L.Ac., LSW. Sue has a Master’s degree in Traditional East Asian Medicine from Pacific College of Health and Science and a Master’s in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago. They have been in practice as an acupuncturist for the last eight years and recently became a licensed social worker. Their approach as a therapist has been heavily influenced by their work in Traditional East Asian Medicine and they offer client-centered compassion-based therapy that incorporates methods such as CBT, Solution Focused Brief Therapy, and narrative therapy. 

    Mind Body Co-op is Chicago’s only space for individuals to discover, explore, and heal what is occurring internally at the cognitive, emotional, and physical levels. This unique, holistic approach to treatment and wellness is born out of the belief that examining the cognitive, emotional, and physical pieces and how they intersect helps lead to uncovering your full potential by providing thoughtful, collaborative, and complete integrative mental health care. We offer a variety of clinical services, including individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, psychological/neuropsychological assessments, medication management, CPT (comprehensive transitional program), somatic mindfulness, somatic groups, DBT, adventure therapy, therapeutic yoga, and more. We provide culturally competent services in English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Russian & Arabic.

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