This post was originally published in February 2017. It is being revisited as part of the Adulting With ADHD series.
In the previous post, we talked about what executive dysfunction is and today we’re going to talk about some ways to live a better life with executive dysfunction. If you’ve ever tried to look for resources on how to cope with executive dysfunction, I’m sure you’ve had the same desire I did to bang your head against a wall in frustration as basically all of the resources out there are for how parents can help their children. There are virtually no guides to help an adult (or teen) help themselves. So that’s where this post comes in. The following will be tips on how you can help yourself deal with executive dysfunction.
The first thing I want to address when it comes to dealing with executive dysfunction is the idea of self-compassion. Many of us who struggle with executive dysfunction have come to think of ourselves as lazy/worthless/incompetent/[insert other negative attributes here], particularly those who went undiagnosed for a long time or never were taught about executive dysfunction. These negative ideas about ourselves can discourage us and hold us back, making us less likely to get things done. When working to live better with executive functioning, it’s important to engage in self-compassion. We need to work to reframe our view of ourselves so that we can see that this is just part of how our brains work rather than a personality flaw or failure. Our struggles are things that are hard-wired into us and we are not lesser or bad people for struggling with executive functioning. Try to forgive yourself for the areas in which you struggle. Try to have understanding for yourself when you’re unable to do things that others seem to do easily. Try to treat yourself the way you would treat a friend who was struggling.
The next thing I want to emphasize is the importance of a support network. Not everyone will have a good support system available to them so if that applies to you, you can skip to the next part. However, for those who have loved ones (friends, family, partners) who are supportive of you, it’s important to work with your support network as you try to help yourself. Your support network can make a huge difference in a variety of ways. They can help encourage you when you’ve become discouraged and need help carrying on. They can help remind you of tasks that need to be done or follow up with you to make sure that you did what needed to be done. Your support network can also be a sounding board to help you figure out how to break down tasks into smaller steps so that you can more easily do what you need to do. For example, I have strong support network between my husband and our friends. We all struggle with executive dysfunction, but in different ways. We help each other by reminding each other to schedule appointments, cleaning together to make the tasks less overwhelming, encouraging each other when we’re struggling, and much more. I can honestly say I would never have made it this far without my support system.
Now, let’s move on to what you’re really here for: tips on how to help yourself with executive dysfunction. This will be broken down into categories of the types of executive dysfunction with bulleted lists of tips to help. The categories are time management/organization (there’s a lot of overlap in what can help each of these), initiation, emotional regulation, and apps to help.
- Visual schedules– visual schedules use pictures or other visual cues to break down your day into the different things you need to accomplish. For many with executive dysfunction, visual schedules are much more useful than typical schedules as the visual reminders are more likely to stick out and help keep us on track. You can make your own visual schedule or you can buy one from my Etsy shop where I make visual schedules designed for adults [https://www.etsy.com/shop/StrangerDarkerBetter].
- Color coding– related to visual schedules is color coding. Whether you’re making a list, making a schedule, or working on an assignment, using a variety of colors to organize what you’re doing can make a huge difference. For instance, if you’re making a to-do list, you can use different colors to represent different kinds of tasks. This will help your brain process what it is transitioning to next. This can also help you find all the related tasks if you’re able to get them done all at once.
- Checklists– I’m sure many of you are rolling your eyes right now. Many of us have tried to do the whole list thing and had a lot of difficulty sticking to it. However, if you’re able to remember to check your list, a checklist can be a great help. Crossing something off your list can help activate the reward centers in your brain to make you feel good about what you’ve accomplished. This will also give you a visual reference of everything you’ve accomplished throughout the day. Use color coding or visual cues to help make your list more useful.
- Routines– If you are able to develop them, routines can be a huge help for those of us with executive dysfunction. Once you’ve developed a routine, getting through your routine takes little thought and can be done on autopilot. Routines can be hard to develop at first, especially for those of us with executive dysfunction, however, using a visual schedule or other reminders to help you stick with it at first can help you get to the point where you don’t have to think about it anymore.
- Rewards– Give yourself rewards for sticking to routines/checklists. Set a goal of how much of your checklist/routine you need to accomplish each day and if you stick with it for a set amount of time, reward yourself in some way. That could mean buying yourself that thing you’ve had your eye on for a long time or it could be indulging in a decadent food you wouldn’t normally eat. Whatever it is, it should be something that will help motivate you to stick with things.
- Break down tasks– Take a look at your list of tasks. For any that seem overwhelming or challenging, try to break the task down into smaller tasks. Take some time to figure out the different steps and write them down. Things will be much less daunting if it’s a series of small tasks rather than a few big tasks. If you struggle to figure out the steps needed, talk with someone you trust to help you break things down into smaller things.
- Use a whiteboard– Having a whiteboard at home can be a great tool. You can put it up in an area that you’ll see it frequently and use it to write down reminders. This can really help with remembering what you need to take with you each day or with remembering to make that phone call you keep forgetting about.
- A place for everything and everything in its place– Have a designated place for everything important and try to always put things back in those places. This will make things a lot easier when you need to go looking for things. As tempting as it may be to just drop things wherever, make an effort to put things back where they belong.
- Make a to-go box-Keep a box near the front door for everything you need to take with you. This can be a place to drop your keys, a pocket book, your phone, literally anything you may need to remember to take with you. Then make an effort to check the box every time you leave the house.
- Set a time for weekly organization– Pick a time each week to organize your living space. If you do this on a regular basis, it won’t be such a daunting task. You can even see if you can convince a friend to help you in exchange for helping them as company tends to make things easier and they may be able to help you in areas you struggle. Make sure that everything goes back to its assigned place. This will save you a lot of headaches and wasted time that would be spent searching for things you need.
- Track your time– As you are completing tasks that you will need to do again, time yourself on how long each task takes you. Many with executive dysfunction struggle with time management, so knowing how long something will take will help you better budget your time. For instance, time how long you spend in the bathroom each morning getting ready, or how long it takes to clean a room of the house. Knowing how long each task will take will better prepare you to schedule your days.
- Mentally rehearse plans– if you’re unsure of yourself or worried about your tasks for the day, practice going through the motions in your head. Think your way through the task. Try to think of all the little details of the task. For instance, with making a sandwich, it wouldn’t just be make sandwich” it would be “take bread out, get knife, get peanut butter, get jelly, use knife to spread jelly on one side of a piece of bread, use the knife to spread peanut butter on one side of the other piece of bread, put the pieces together, put away the peanut butter, put away the jelly, clean the knife, put away the knife, put away the bread.” Even a simple task can have a lot of steps and thinking through them can help you be better prepared when you need to do the task.
· Enlist help– have someone else tell you what to do. Sometimes, having someone else tell you to do something can help with overcoming the hurdle of initiating a task. For instance, I often struggle to just go shower. As such, when it gets bad, I’ll tell my husband that I need to take a shower when I get home. Then, when I’m home, he’ll tell me “Go take a shower” and, often, that’s enough to get me headed to the shower. Enlist the help of a friend or family member to help you get started with tasks.
· Use the buddy system- while this won’t work for things like showering, it can work wonders for household tasks. See if a friend/family member could help you with some chores, perhaps in exchange for helping them with something. Having someone else working with you may make it easier to get started because you can follow the other person’s lead rather than having to self-initiate.
· Use a time- set a timer for 15 minutes. Tell yourself that when the timer goes off, you are going to do the thing. When you hear the alarm go off, stand up and go to wherever you need to be to do your task. Even if you don’t actually follow through with doing the task, make yourself go through the initial motions. Then, do it again. Basically, train yourself to initiate action when you hear a certain sound (yes, this is inspired by Pavlov). I suggest picking an alarm that isn’t particularly common as you don’t want to have someone else’s phone go off and feel the need to initiate a task.
· Talk to yourself– talk to yourself out loud and tell yourself to do whatever the task is. For instance, if you need to start laundry, tell yourself, out loud, “It is time to do laundry now. I am going to do laundry now.” Then do the first step. Even if that’s all you do, just get yourself to start the task.
- Consider therapy– therapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and DBT (dialectic behavioral therapy) can be very helpful in learning how to self-regulate emotions. A therapist can help you work through these therapies and help teach you techniques for self-regulation. If therapy is unattainable, try searching for online resources from either therapy. There is a lot available for free online that you can use to help yourself without the aid of a therapist. (This site actually has a lot of info on DBT that you can use to help yourself)
- Be open– Be open with those close to you about your struggles so they can be more understanding. If your loved ones know that you struggle with emotional regulation, they are more likely to be understanding when you are unable to self-regulate. You can also enroll the help of those you trust to call you out when your emotions are causing you to behave in damaging ways. Further, being open with those around you can help you process what you’re feeling, just be careful not to treat your loved ones like therapists.
- Identify your emotions– if you are able to, try to identify what you are feeling. Just knowing what it is you are feeling better prepares you to self-regulate. For those with alexithymia, this can be a difficult or impossible task, but for those who are able, this can be very helpful.
- Keep a journal– writing in a journal can be very therapeutic. Just getting your feelings down on paper can make them easier to process. Personally this is one of the techniques that helps me the most. When you write down what you’re feeling, you can start to notice trends in your emotions as well as processing how to deal with them.
- Take breaks– if you notice yourself becoming dysregulated, try to take some time away from whatever is going on to center yourself. Whether this means just going and sitting somewhere quiet or playing a game on your phone or anything else, take a break from what you’re doing to give yourself a chance to reregulate.
- Some resources: Here, here, and here are some useful resources for emotional regulation.
- Evernote– consolidate all your notes in one place. Do you have random sticky notes everywhere? Do you write things down then lose it? Then this app is for you.
- Phone alarms– pretty much all phones come with built in alarm clocks. Use them. Set yourself alarms to remind you to do things. Need to take care of something when you get home? Set yourself an alarm to go off when you know you’ll be home with a title that will remind you of the task. Have something you need to do daily but always forget? Set a recurring alarm to remind you.
- Calendar app- Most phones come with a calendar app or you can use google calendars or another calendar app. Put in anything that you need to do like appointments, meetings, etc. Most of these apps can be set to remind you at a designated time before the event.
- IntervalMinder– plays chimes at regular intervals to help refocus
- Toodledo– this to-do list app can help you manage your to-do list and keep it accessible at all times.
- Habitica– this app turns your life into an RPG. Turn your to-do list into a game to help motivate you to get things done.
- Google Keep– this cross platform app is great for keeping track of notes. Not only can you access your notes from your phone, computer, or tablet, but you can categorize and color code your notes.
- Regularly– (suggested by wishuponanautist) a task list for things that need to be done regularly but not at a specific time.
Hopefully some of the tips included here will help you improve your executive functioning. Keep in mind that not all of these tips will work for everyone. If you try something and it doesn’t work, it isn’t a failure on your part, it just wasn’t the right technique for you. Good luck!