Maybe it is just a symptom of this time of year, but I’ve struggled lately with getting everything on my to-do list done every week and some projects are falling behind. So, since my multitude of notebooks are getting a bit full anyway, I started looking for useful tools to get a bit more organized.
Autism and Executive Functioning
As humans, much of what we do happens without any conscious thought. We don’t need to think about breathing, for instance, and we’ll automatically take our hand away from burning heat. For the rest of our daily responsibilities, we rely heavily on “executive function” (EF). We need to have the ability to plan, set and meet goals, refer back to previous experiences, complete tasks, and manage our emotions. For this, we rely primarily on the prefrontal cortex to manage life’s complexities by drawing on what we already know about the world, making links, and controlling our impulses.
Up to 80% of those with autism suffer from executive function disorder, leading to difficulties managing time, completing tasks, and making what for many neurotypicals would be simple tasks very difficult and sometimes impossible.
So, while most people would simply knuckle down and get everything done, we sometimes need some help to get organized. In the National Autistic Society blog post “Executive functioning: a personal perspective,” Finn Gardiner explains it as follows:
"Once I have a system for doing something, tasks become much easier. I sometimes need prompting and check-ins to finish projects. I consider myself a reasonably independent worker, but I need an initial push to get into the groove."
Understanding Executive Functioning
According to Psychology Today, the three main aspects of executive functioning are:
- Working memory
Working memory refers to a person’s capacity to hold onto a limited amount of information in their mind so that it is ready for immediate use. Working memory can be thought of like a sticky note: the information is available and accessible when you need it—for instance, while you’re in the middle of a task. During conversations, working memory is what allows you to store information until you're ready to talk. Working memory also helps the brain store information for long-term memory.
- Cognitive flexibility
This refers to a person’s ability to switch between separate concepts and think about something in more than one way. If you were in a group of people, for example, and suddenly the conversation shifted from talking about holidays to talking about dogs, your level of cognitive flexibility would determine how rapidly, and how well, you would respond to this shift.
Cognitive flexibility also refers to the capacity to update beliefs and respond to new situations, to be aware of a variety of choices, and to deconstruct bigger thoughts into smaller chunks. Difficulties with cognitive flexibility can cause rigid thinking, make it hard for people to switch tasks, and cause problems when it comes to making bigger life changes.
- Inhibitory control
Inhibitory control refers to the ability to ignore distractions and to control our attention. It refers to the ability to suppress impulses and, for instance, could refer to the ability to delay a behavior in order to benefit from doing so. A lack of inhibitory control can cause us to act in automatic but inappropriate ways and to lack the ability to come up with well-considered responses.
How to manage executive disfunction
The popular blogger, Autistic Mama, says that you can find endless tips online for productivity, organization, and getting things done in a more efficient way, but that the problem is, most autistics try those strategies and they don’t really work for us - Then we burn out and feel like a total failure.
The three strategies she proposes are:
- Re-Evaluate Your Expectations
The very first thing that is absolutely vital for autistic adults who struggle with executive functioning is to re-evaluate your expectations. Executive functioning struggles can lead to chaos and struggling in all sorts of areas of your life. Maybe you struggle with self-care tasks, maybe you can’t keep your house clean, maybe you struggle to make and keep appointments or finish school or work tasks on time.
And if you’re anything like me, you may have been suddenly super inspired and decided you were going to fix ALL of those things at one time. You get a new planner, read a new blog post with a magical idea, and you’re sure that you can get your whole life figured out now. And for a day or two, you might actually do all the things and feel pretty awesome… Before you totally crash and burn.
So instead, check your expectations of yourself. Do you expect to keep a super clean and organized desk? Why? Does it really matter if you follow that beautiful morning routine from that blogger who is nothing like you?
Take some time to decide what’s truly important to you to accomplish and separate that from what you’re only doing because you believe society expects it from you.
- Start With Habits, NOT Routines
She says that whenever she feels like tackling her executive functioning struggles and setting up a system (or 50) that will help her get things done, she jumps to routines. She’ll start an awesome morning routine that starts the day on the right foot, or a quick nighttime routine that makes the morning less hectic…
But the thing with routines is, they’re multiple steps and they can get super overwhelming. When you make a morning routine, you likely think of ALL the things you want to or should complete in the morning, list them in a specific order that makes sense to you, and say “this is my new morning routine!” That might work for a day or two, but long-term it’s likely to fall apart.
Instead, she recommends you focus on HABITS. Not Routines.
A habit is small. It’s one or two manageable steps that you focus your attention on until it’s second nature. So instead of a massive morning routine, maybe you pick one morning habit. For example, I’m going to get dressed every morning. Once you naturally get dressed every morning, you can add something else. Maybe your next step is to wash your face.
Before you know it, you’ll have a full morning routine, but it will be built on tiny microhabits that you’ve built over time until you do them naturally.
- Timers Are Your Friend
Autistic Mama says that she uses something called the “pomodoro method” pretty much constantly. Basically, when you have a task you’re working on (like writing this blog post!) you set a timer for 25 minutes and do NOTHING ELSE but that task. You don’t have to keep checking the clock because the timer will go off when it’s time to stop. When the timer goes off, you set a timer for 5 minutes and take a break.
The key is… This break HAS TO be in a totally different activity. Get up and switch the laundry. Go for a walk. Watch a Youtube video. Whatever. But when the 5-minute timer goes off, you start the process over again and dive back into work.
This process helps you stay fresh and focused on your task, AND let’s you take breaks without those “breaks” turning into an entire day sucked into the black hole that is Youtube.
You can also use timers when struggling to start a task. Sometimes when she knows she needs to do something and want to do something, but just can’t get it together to start doing the thing, she will set a 60-second timer.
“When the timer dings, I will start ______”
That timer going off helps her to handle the transition from what she’s already doing and the task she wants to start working on. It’s brilliant and it really helps to stop procrastinating and get something started.
Tools to assist executive functioning
There are quite a few tools that you can use to make this process easier. And you don’t have to go out and buy them immediately (only to put them on the pile of “stuff” that will never be used), rather use them as guides to create your own system.
- Personal Habit tracker
There are some awesome habit trackers available (mostly on amazon, of course) such as the Daily Habit Tracker Journal and Goal Board or the Clever Fox Habit Tracker Calendar. If you’d prefer a free version, you can download a template here.
- Personal Kanban board
If you work in IT, you probably know what a Kanban board is, but for everyone else it might be a new concept. The word kanban is of Japanese origin, and simply means sign board or billboard. The kanban system is a very visually-oriented system developed by Toyota in Japan. It’s used to control the flow of parts around Toyota facilities for building cars, but has been adapted for the purpose of managing software projects.
The kanban itself is simply a card that tells you, in simple terms, what is needed. Each product or task that is required is put on a card and arranged on a kanban board. This can be as simple as a piece of wall or a white board. Each column represents a stage of your workflow (i.e. “To Do”, “In Progress”, “Done”). There are no hard rules about how many columns you should have, or what they should be, but ideally they should represent well-defined stages of work in a progression from something that is needed to something that is finished and delivered.
In this article, Magnus Heidemark explains how he uses a personal kanban board to manage his executive disfunction.
- Executive Functioning Journals
With my complete lack of short-term memory, I can never have enough notebooks or journals. Here are some awesome examples that you can use to develop your own personal Executive Function Journal:
- Mobile Apps
There are many apps you can use, so I’ve just listed the ones I’ve either tried before or have seen good reviews for (in no particular order):
ClickUp is a simple and intuitive project management platform and a great organization app. It has a user-friendly, easy-to-navigate UI that shows a hierarchy of different project views based on their priority. This makes organizing and managing projects across teams easy.
Monday.com is an organization app and project management tool that can help teams plan, manage, and collaborate on any project or portfolio. The software offers a comprehensive set of features that make it easy to streamline your projects, increase collaboration, and monitor performance. With Monday.com, you can connect all the moving parts of your projects, centralize and plan projects from start to finish, and track and optimize your performance to make confident decisions.
Wrike is a project management and organization software that can help teams increase productivity and achieve their goals through team coordination, collaboration, and automation. With Wrike, teams can manage tasks and priorities in a single platform, adapt workflows, and achieve full transparency.
Clockify is an organization app that lets you seamlessly glide into your day. This all-in-one organization and time management solution comes with a handy Calendar view that helps you visualize your workweek and keep your schedule in order. This app can also let you track time from every corner of the Internet, schedule and plan projects, and get a visual breakdown of everyone’s workweek.
Staying organized isn’t limited to your professional life. Remembering to complete a project report is just as important as sending a birthday card to your friend. The best organization apps make it easy for you to stay organized in all facets of your life. Any.do helps you organize all aspects of your life in an easy manner.
Whether you’re looking for an organizer to track tasks or a flexible tool for daily/weekly to-do lists, Sunsama makes for a great online organizer and app. Sunsama is trusted by people at companies like Uber, Hubspot, Spotify, and more. Sunsama has helped multi-tasking professionals urgent tasks and plan their time more efficiently.
The Kanban board approach in Trello makes it convenient to organize and manage your day, month, and even a quarter. Trello was built as a project management tool that helps teams organize and collaborate seamlessly. Some of the best organization apps use a card system and Trello is no different.
Todoist is one of the best organization apps to organize your tasks and stay on top of them. It has a simple interface and is easy to use. Todoist offers multiple features such as subtasks, sub-projects, recurring tasks, notifications, different priorities, and more to better organize your day.
Akiflow helps multi-taskers get more done and stay on top of things by assisting them to prevent the most common mistakes that affect productivity. Akiflow works as an efficient online planner to help teams and individuals organize and manage tasks, process them, and keep schedules under control--like your own personal assistant.
Get Plan is like your work concierge. It intelligently organizes projects and tasks from all the tools you and your team use such as calendar, email, JIRA, Zendesk, Salesforce, and GitHub. This saves time and makes it easier for you to focus on doing the work instead of organizing everything.
Toggl is an organization app to track and manage how you spend your time. The Toggl Chrome extension adds a timer on any web tool helping you track how much time you spent on each application. It makes it easy for you to manage and organize how you spend and prioritize your day. It also offers advanced features such as idle detection that helps you monitor the time of the day when you’re most productive and when you’re not.
Asana is another great organization with fantastic project management capabilities. Whether it’s a team-wide project or something personal, Asana’s user interface makes it easy to organize and collaborate. Its timeline feature helps you map out your project schedules and create dependencies between tasks to identify relationships.
24me is another one of the best organization apps that keep your hectic day organized. It offers features such as a to-do list, calendar, reminders for tasks and events, and note taking making it easy to organize your thoughts and your day. It also functions on voice control making it convenient to take notes and set appointments.
DayViewer is an easy-to-use online planner that lets you plan and organize time, keep notes, manage tasks, and more, all in one cross platform system. It acts as a time and task management system that helps you improve your overall productivity.
Lastly, here is a reminder from Sue Larkey's article, Executive Functioning & Autism/ADHD – What is it? What to do?, aimed mostly at teachers of autistic children, of everything to remember when it comes to executive functioning and getting things done: