Part 3: Improving executive functioning
Executive functioning is affected by ADHD. But the good news is that we can do something about this.
As you read through these strategies – don’t try and do them all at once.
Pick a couple of strategies that are manageable for you and implement them.
By manageable I mean strategies that naturally fit you anyways (or fit the best). Once you have mastered those strategies then add in more. If you try them all out at once, you will burn out – and you won’t know which strategies actually worked well for you.
I will look at 3 key areas that you can adjust:
- changing your brain
- managing your environment
Many people with ADHD find that medication helps improve their executive functioning. Sometimes if one medication doesn’t work for, then you might have greater success with another type of medication.
This is a personal choice that should be made in consultation with your psychiatrist or neurologist.
Change your brain
Did you know we can change our brains? The idea of neuroplasticity is that your brain is able to change, making it possible for you to improve you executive functioning. Neuroplasticity creates new neural connection in the brain through learning and behaviour – ultimately making tasks easier to complete.
Four ways to change your brain are through:
- challenge your mind
A great way to change your brain is through neurofeedback, which you can access through a specialised psychologist.
In neurofeedback an EEG is taken of your brain and targeted brain training is conducted.
It’s something I have done personally and I highly recommend neurofeedback. You may be able to do neurofeedback under a Medicare mental health plan.
For more information on neurofeedback in Australia see: https://www.neurotherapy.com.au
When we are happy, calm, well-rested, physically fit, and feel socially supported our executive functioning Improves.
Whilst self care does not directly improve executive functioning, they do support executive functioning to happen in the first place. Self care won’t strengthen it, but it will set you up for success.
Just another great reason to look after yourself.
Exercise can directly improve our executive functioning as well, but it has the be the right kind.
Whilst straight up cardio like running or riding a bike supports our executive functioning, exercise that includes a challenge will directly improve our executive functioning.
The “right kind of exercise” is the type that requires intentional and strategic movements.
Some examples of exercise that will improve your executive functioning are:
- martial arts
- drumming circles
- social circus
- sports, such as tennis, soccer or hockey
Challenge your mind
Doing things that are mentally challenging will not only stimulate you, they will also improve your executive functioning.
Some example include:
- Take an acting class or join a local theatre. (This is obviously harder with COVID).
Acting requires you to lean lines, cues and choreography as well as work with others. These activities can help improve attention and working memory.
- Learn an instrument – actually very similar to acting in terms of the challenge that it provides.
- Use Brain gym app such as: CogniFit and video games that include puzzles, logic or have other thinking skills components
Change your environment
Changing your environment means changing the how, where, or what you are doing. It might be changing the actual environment or it might be changing you in the environment. Four elements that I will look at are:
- Know yourself
- Task analysis
- Manage your time
- Manage distractions
Do you know what strategies work for you?
I know what helps me stay focused is listen to loud music through my headphones. I know this works, because it helps me to completely submerge in my task.
What is your go-to strategy?
If you’re not sure what works for you, then start keeping a journal for 30 days.
Record the following things:
1. What is working well
After you’ve had (or you’re having) a productive time try and notice what might have sparked your ability to focus. What was happening internally and externally? Try and notice as many things as possible and write them down
2. What is not working well
- When you are struggling to focus do the same thing. What is happening for you? Why is it hard right now? Write your answers in your journal.
- When you are procrastinating, stop and ask yourself: what do I gain by avoiding this task? We often procrastinate for short term gain, so what is it that you get out of it? This isn’t a judgement, but rather a recognition that all behaviour serves a purpose – and usually that purpose is to make ourselves feel better in some way. Record the feeling, process or activity that you are avoiding and why?
After 30 days you should have some clues. These clues will point to what is working well. Things that help you to be productive, like me with my music. Use these clues to help you figure out what you can do more of to help create environments that are conducive to learning/working.
You will also have some clues as to what is not working well. Use these clues to help you figure out what you can do less of.
You might also be able to devise some strategies that help you get around the things that are not working well. For example, if you avoid paying your bills every month because you hate how long it takes you to log into your credit card website each time, then a better strategy might be to put your bills on direct debit.
The real strength of the “know yourself strategy” is that you will find out what does and does not work for you.
Task analysis means looking at the smaller parts of a task or goal.
Sometimes a goal is too big and we get overwhelmed by trying to achieve the entire goal in one go. For example, I know that I cannot do a full grocery shop and cook a big dinner on the same night, because I will be too exhausted. So I structure my week so that I don’t shop and cook on the same night.
If you know that a task is too difficult/overwhelming for you, break your task down into smaller more manageable tasks. This will make the task less overwhelming as you will have a set of smaller goals. You can feel success in achieving these smaller goals.
For example, after reading this blog you might decide that you will start eating healthier as part of helping your brain to do better. But eating healthier is a big task (and also a very vague goal). A task analysis on this goal might include
1. Research some healthy recipes
2. Write a list of ingredients for the recipes.
3. Buy the ingredients.
4. The night before you intend to cook read your recipe again.
5. Cook your recipe!
Improving mental task analysis
Lots of people with executive issues struggle doing mental task analysis. That is: they don’t plan their tasks, they just plunge in and then forget crucial steps.
This might look like:
- Starting a recipe without having all the ingredients.
- Writing an essay without doing any research or planning the structure of your essay
- You have trouble starting tasks (because you are not sure where to start)
If that’s you, I would recommend that you practice doing task analysis. If you’re able to write down your task analysis, even better.
A really practical way to do this is to write procedures at work or home for tasks you do often. Ask a friend or family member to follow your procedures to see if there are any steps you missed out on or didn’t communicate properly.
If you want an extra challenge, try and estimate how much time each element of the task might take and see how accurate you are in your estimates.
Manage your time well
If you have ADHD you should just know that things take longer because you are you. Plan for that!
I always try to run early, because I know that I have to factor in time for forgetting some things three times, taking a couple of wrong turns on the way there and then getting distracted by something when I do finally arrive.
Estimate how long each activity will take and build in extra time for problems that might occur.
Make the most of your focus time.
- If you do have time where you are focused and motivated – make the most of that time.
- Tackle some difficult tasks or things you’ve been putting off.
- Don’t waste your productive time on easy to do tasks.
Pair fun activities with boring ones
If you are finding that you are struggling to do focus time, pair up your fun activities with activities you procrastinate on.
For example, I quite like doing spreadsheet work, but I hate calling people on the telephone. I might do my spreadsheet work first, which makes me feel good about myself. That then gives me the motivation to do my calls.
Control impulsive behaviour by having fixed daily routines. For example, have specific times for working/learning and for having fun.
If fixed isn’t you, you can try something something more flexible. Work hard for 50 minutes and then do something you think is really fun for 10 minutes.
It takes hard work to establish new habits so expect this to be hard. I say that, because sometimes we give up too early, before we get the benefits of our hard work. Expect to take about 2 months for new habits to form.
Block access to things that tempt you.
- Don’t put things in your work or study space that will likely distract you.
- Put things that you find tempting (like chocolate or your phone) out of sight.
- Turn off social media and put your phone on silent.
- You can even build rewards in that you will only check your socials. between certain times, like on your lunch break. .
Are you distracted or are you bored? Increase the challenge.
Focus on building your motivation by setting more difficult goals. This will help you if you’re feeling bored or not feeling challenged enough. If your task does not have in-built ways to make it harder, make them up yourself.
For example, I don’t compete with others, but I compete with myself all the time. Find ways to make your tasks harder or change the expectations (even if your work or study doesn’t need you to do that – do it for yourself). Challenge yourself to set new personal bests. Make up personal bests at work, at home, at school. You can compete with yourself on pretty much anything.
Readings that inspired this series (Part 1 – 3)