Executive Function: Planning & Initiation

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Starting things is hard. I’ve devoted way more creative energy over the years to excusing why I haven’t started projects than I have to starting them. “Statistically speaking,” says John Mulaney, “it is 100% easier not to do a thing, than to do a thing.” Nonetheless, I have things that I’m passionate about, and that I deprioritize either through my poor time management, or because starting feels so daunting. This month’s buzzwords are initiation and planning. While these may be conceptually distinct, or even implicate unique brain systems, they are frequently related to each other in day-to-day life for those of us who struggle with executive function.


1.STOP – Space, Time, Objects, People

STOP is Sarah Ward’s quick, pneumonic checklist of what I need to account for in accomplishing a goal. A simple example can demonstrate how this can generate a list of tasks. Friends of mine are getting married next month, so I need to think about many details, including:

Space 

  1. The hotel where we’re staying…
  2. the ceremony site…
  3. and the reception site…
  4. in New Jersey.

Time 

  1. The third weekend in July…
  2. for two days…
  3. with a 5-hour drive before and after.

Objects 

  1. We need to bring clothes…
  2. and toiletries… 
  3. and a phone charger…
  4. and a gift.

People 

  1. Clients needing to be rescheduled…
  2. my mother needs to be enlisted in weekend childcare, and 
  3. friends may be carpooling with me 

2.Think Forward, Reason Back

This is a strategic planning phrase that comes out of game theory. It is a particular challenge for those with executive functioning deficits to project ourselves into the future. We can agree too easily to take on a responsibility, forgetting that we are the SAME person who has to later fulfill that responsibility even if we don’t feel like it. If we look at where we currently are, the possibilities for what to do next are infinite. But, if we think forward to what our goal looks like, there are relatively fewer results that need to happen to accomplish the goal. It can then be easier to “rewind” our script of what needs to happen just prior to that, and to continue rewinding until we know what our next step is from where we currently stand. 

3.Chunking

BJ Fogg has a great TED talk on behavioral change. He says that to change our habits, we should break a task down into its smallest meaningful units, and do the first one. In an effort to increase flossing habits, he lowers the friction to getting started by conceiving the goal not as “to floss all of my teeth” (how tedious!) but as “to floss one of my teeth.” This flossing one tooth idea applies not only to permanent behavioral changes, but also to any plan initiation. When I’m resistant to getting started with a project, I often will make the first step smaller and smaller, until it is ludicrous not to do it. Instead of a workout, I make the goal putting on my workout clothes. Instead of finishing that spreadsheet I started months ago, I make the goal to open the file and add or edit one piece of information.

4.Use Neutral Terms

As we discussed in our delayed gratification buzzword, how we talk about a stimulus can affect how we behave towards it. If we replace “I have to” for “I get to,” for example, we may start feeling warmer towards a task despite ourselves. If we use hyperbolic language to describe some unpleasant task, we’ll only make ourselves more likely to be avoidant about it. Most things are worse when they are hypothetical than they are in reality.


So get out of your way and write your book, or teach that class, or make puff pastry from scratch, or call your college friend, or just plan some time to do nothing.