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Executive Function: Time Management

Executive function sounds like an academic thing that cognitive psychologists made up so they can have theories about it. And they have a lot of theories. But basically, it’s a set of skills that allow us to direct our focus to plan, start, remember, and continue tasks: inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory.

Our recent piece on creativity took a high-minded, aspirational approach to cognitive flexibility (though in less fancy terms). Here, we take a practical, damage-control approach to time management skills critical to being effective at work and school.

Full disclosure: I’m a widely known executive functioning disaster — especially when it comes to working with time. While I have developed a set of compensatory strategies to frame my scheduling and record-keeping shortcomings as mere side effects of my absent-minded intellect, it can be a frustrating liability. I’m routinely five minutes late. I wear the same work outfit daily to minimize the planning I need to do. I park in a space far from the entrance to my grocery store so that I can always park in the same place and need not remember where.

Between structured tasks, my life is a sequence of “wait, why did I come into this room?” If I don’t invest in sleep, or if my eating and exercise habits become unreasonable, my brain acts like a powerful sports car with no brakes or steering, and I go straight into the ditch. With a lot of speed and power, though. I fly into the ditch with glorious abandon and style.

Paradoxically, perhaps, this makes me an expert on time management — because I’m an expert on all the good advice that has not worked for me. Provided my basic needs for self-care are met, the strategies below are incredibly helpful in my getting done what I need and want to do. They function much like my glasses: without them, I can often avoid danger and stumble around my environment. With them, I can engage my world much more freely, pleasurably, and efficiently.

1) Visualize Time as Space

Time doesn’t make any sense. It only goes in one direction. It feels very subjective and elastic. It’s precious and finite and irritatingly vexing. Tangible metaphors, then, are remarkably helpful: ask what an hour looks like; plot things on timelines; pace and move your heads when thinking about the steps needed to finish a project. Buy a cheap analogue clock and dry erase markers, then draw pie sectors for how long you plan to work on tasks before breaking. This may help you identify that some tasks may take far less time than you think (unloading a dishwasher, for example), while others may take far longer than you expect (such as writing about executive dysfunction).

2) Prioritize the Important over the Urgent

If executive function is a challenge, you should do yourself a favor and watch Randy Pausch’s time management lecture. Among so many useful bits of advice, he recommends breaking down a to-do list into four quadrants: the urgent and important, the urgent but unimportant, the important but non-urgent, and the unimportant non-urgent. Sounds complicated, I know. The upshot is that we’re often tempted to tackle projects that are urgent before those that are important, but we need to save room in our time budget to chip away at those long-term projects that are important to us.

3) Write it Down!

This is one we’ve talked about before: unclutter your mind by writing down whatever is distracting you. Don’t carry your to-do list in your working memory … it’s a bad tool for the job. I use an index card system that I learned from Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind. To keep straight my personal projects, work projects, and family and administrative duties, I write a single task on a single 3×5 card. I then reprioritize them at will whenever I want, based on how much time I have available or how important a task is. When someone tells me something I want to remember, or asks me to do something, I write a new card. When I complete a task, I tear up the 3×5 card. Simple.

If you struggle with executive functions, you’re in good company. For the most disciplined among us, there are constant bids for our attention and more entertaining distractions than ever. Brains subject to common conditions like ADHD and PTSD are even more prone to having some challenges here. I’ve found that while self-punishment through guilt and shame are easy tools to pick up, they are counterproductive in the long run.

It should go without saying that if executive function deficits are causing you significant trouble, go get some help! People around you love you and want you to be your best. We tutors can provide some basic study skills and relieve some of the pressure to plan and stay on task. For issues that routinely impact the quality of life or even your safety, please talk to a licensed speech language pathologist or psychologist.

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