You know the scene. You’ve got a heap of work to do, you know you’re capable of doing it, but you’re not doing it. You’re not even sure where or how to begin. So you flit off into your favourite online hiding hole: facebook, news websites, even reading this blog.
You could do amazing things, if only you could organise yourself to do them more efficiently. Instead, you crank stuff out at the last minute, tanked up on caffeine and sugar. Then you fall into a post-project lull, annoyed at yourself for doing such a crazy deadline rush and feeling crappy now the caffeine, sugar and adrenaline have worn off.
You see, this is the thing. You can be brilliantly intelligent in some kinds of processing, and weaker, or let’s say underdeveloped, in others. Your analysis is brilliant, your code stunning, your designs amazing. But you completely suck at efficiency: planning and delivering in a paced, easy-on-the-soul kind of way.
What you need here is executive function. Not of the CEO type, though there are similarities in the decision-making powers required. Executive function of the “getting shit done” type.
In terms mental processes, executive function is:
- having an awareness of the task that needs to be done
- analysing the task
- calculating the time, energy and resources requirements necessary
- allocating (decision-making) the time, energy and resources to get your task done
- applying yourself (decision-making, engaging energy and action) to getting it done
- maintaining focus on the task until completion
When a deadline looms, we can skip straight from awareness to application until the project is done. But for a whole load of different reasons (health, relationships, stress levels, output quality…) it would be heaps better to make use of the in-between phases too, for a steadier, more controlled approach to project delivery.
Weak executive functioning can look a lot like procrastination. Disorganisation. Lack of focus.
But it’s not necessarily these. It’s an absence of skill, practice and habit of the in-between steps: analysis, calculation & planning, and allocation of resources.
The Catch-22 is that you build these skills by using them, but you don’t plan them in, so you don’t use them.
What’s needed here is a resolution: you need to make a decision to build your executive function skills, then take steps – using the process outlined above – to make sure you do indeed build and apply your skills.
Like building muscle strength: you need to use and train your muscles. Also like muscles: these skills are already present in you, no matter how low their strength at present!
As a collection of mental processes, you build your executive function muscles in internal and external ways.
Working internally on your mind, through meditation and reflection, you get familiar with your mental muscles and how they work.
Then you apply your mind to your activities and environment using strategies that positively amplify your executive function. These strategies also support your mind in its executive functioning mode.
Using internal and external methods together, your executive function skills get stronger and stronger, until the strategies become your default auto-pilots for how you tackle getting stuff done.
You’ve probably had quite a few years of not doing this. Be patient and persistent. It can take a few months to unlearn bad habits and install new ones.
Here are a few ways to strengthen and support your executive function, which will help you be more efficient at work, at home, and in getting everything else done too.
- Make a braindump
Get everything floating around your head out onto a piece of paper, a screen, wherever. Take 20-30 minutes and write down everything you need and/or want to do. The laundry. An essay. Analysis for your latest project at work. Prepare a presentation. Research something. Get a haircut. Big, small, important, trivial. Don’t read your list, just write it. You can pick it all up again after you’ve tried these exercises. Making a list helps you free up space in your mind to think about things, by putting down,just for a short while, all these things you want to remember to do.
Meditation, especially mindfulness meditations focused on the body or breath, is a effective and direct method to improve your awareness and attention skills. Through training the mind to pay attention in meditation, you create good mental habits. You also get familiar with how your mind works, and quicker at noticing when you’re attentive to the right thing, and when you’re distracted.
- Create rhythm
Make every day follow the same kind of pattern. From getting up, to having mealtimes at roughly the same time, doing your various activities, through to winding down and going to bed, see if you can build in a regularity to your days. When you follow a rhythm every day, you get used to it. And like a good rhythm in music, you feel the rhythm and follow it with ease, once you’ve got used to it.
- Use a diary or calendar
Buy a paper diary, or install a calendar app, and put your appointments and reminders into it. Birthdays, deadlines, even your weekly rhythm can go into your diary. Go ahead and put a “go to bed” reminder on your smartphone! If you need to, put an alert on each morning to check your diary and task list. Train yourself to remember to use your diary.
- Plan in some rest and leisure time
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, goes the saying. It’s true. And I would add “makes Jack a dull and tired boy, likely to have a burnout soon if he’s not careful” but that rather loses the conciseness of the original. Put time for rest and leisure in your diary. Most of us have mentally demanding work, so our rest and leisure time needs to include things that are not mentally demanding. Our minds need rest!
- Choose what’s important
What’s going to take you closer to your goals? (If you’re not clear on your goals, get clear on them first!). Cut out the crap too – take things off your list that are just not important, useful or necessary.
- Create a checklist for each task or project
For every task or project that has more than one action involved, create a checklist. Estimate how long each action will take. Remember to include subtasks – writing up research on your latest topic may also include checking references and doing the reading/researching in the first place. Check that each item on your checklist is actionable: if you can’t answer ”yes” to the question “can I do this right now?” then you probably need to break it down into subtasks. After you’ve done this a few times, you’ll become quicker at creating checklists, estimating how long you need on each task, and breaking projects down into actionable subtasks.
- Plan your task from your deadline backwards
Using your checklist, work backwards from your deadline to calculate when each step needs to be done. Check this against your diary too: if your project needs three days in total, and you’re out of the office until Thursday, you can’t deliver next Friday without rearranging your appointments, delegating parts of your project, or negotiating a new deadline for the following week. Put your project into your diary.
- Do the work
If only it were as easy as that! Using your diary and your checklists, work on your project in the times you’ve allocated to it. Work through your checklists item by item – adding, deleting and editing items along the way if necessary. Keep going until you’ve finished!
Each step of the way, celebrate your actions and progress. Allow yourself to feel pleasure and pride in what you’ve achieved. This increases your motivation to develop your executive function further and get more stuff done, because it makes you feel good.
Now over to you: what are you going to do to get things done?