Category Archives: Executive Function

Procedural Executive Function, Part 3

The Off Road project has since been folded into Rethink Wellbeing, but I’ve continued working to better understand and treat Executive Dysfunction. You can read more about the project’s origins here.

If you haven’t, I suggest reading the start of my overview and exploration of Executive Function. Parts 1 and 2 of Procedural Executive Function can be found here and here.

TL;DR – Organization is the system of habits and external aids that minimizes effort for accomplishing work

Working Memory is your capacity for holding information in your attention at once

Flexible Thinking is your ability to creatively problem solve and avoid getting stuck.

Each helps you maintain progress on your goals, and can help maintain flow by reducing difficulty in solving problems, which is one of the main bottlenecks for productive work.

As we begin the final(?) installment of the series, I hope it’s clear now how the many parts of Executive Function work together to take someone from an initial notion about what they “want to do,” to actually doing it.

We can generally put the problems our executive function faces into two buckets: things that prevent us from starting something, and things that cause us to stop doing something.

The first post, covering Planning, Prioritizing and Task Initiation, addressed things in the first bucket. The second post’s contents, Self Monitoring, Impulse Control, and Emotional Control, address things that can be found in both buckets. And this post’s topics, Organization, Working Memory, and Flexible Thinking, largely have to do with things in the second bucket.

But this frame falls apart, a bit, if we zoom in to each step of the path. Do we ever “write an essay?” Or do we write sentences that make up an essay? Each sentence is of course itself made up of words, and each word is made up of letters, but when people say “I have writer’s block,” they don’t normally mean they’re blocked at the level of “I don’t know how to spell a word.” Sometimes they mean “I don’t know the best word to put here.” But often they mean something like “I don’t know what the next sentence should be,” as a subpart of “I don’t know what the next idea to start exploring is,” or “I don’t know how to best explain this idea.”

Again, things that cause us to “stop” doing something are often the same sorts that prevent us from starting the next bit.

As mentioned in Part 1, the tradeoff of “predicted fun/reward” vs “suffering/cost” is often the best measure of how hard someone will find a task to begin, and this extends to each subtask that makes up the overall goal. If you imagine doing something and the primary feelings are all aversive, such as boredom, discomfort, confusion, hopelessness, etc, then you could be reacting to the overall task, but you also could be reacting to some necessary part of it that you expect to be blocked on.

So, while some tasks are so short or straightforward that difficult problems don’t appear, the process of being able to continually engage in and complete “productive work” requires the ability to adapt to each new problem that might come up in the course of doing a task (or, if the work is boring, ways to stay stimulated and engaged if some part of it becomes monotonous). 

Which is where Organization, Working Memory, and Flexible Thinking come in. When all’s well, these things help keep us engaged and capable of solving problems as they arise until the task is done, or at least until we need a break. But if any of them aren’t functioning properly, we’re at risk of feeling stuck, which we often experience as “getting distracted,” at each problem that comes up, whether on the level of what word to write next, or whether the essay really means anything at all.

So… how do we prepare to solve a stream of unpredictable, potential problems?

Organization

This section might seem overly obvious, or a kind of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” After all, part of how executive dysfunction manifests for many people is not being able to get organized!

But it’s important to recognize what organization is for if we want to understand what goes wrong, and how it can help. And to do that, we need to focus again on what it means to get “distracted” by something.

In some situations, getting distracted is a direct effect. Our awareness brings us a new stimulus that isn’t caught by one of our subconscious filters, and our attention shifts to it, or a stray thought occurs to us that immediately grabs our attention.

But for other situations, maybe even most, getting distracted is a symptom. It’s not a sudden, hard to ignore new stimulus that pulls our attention away from something else. It’s the result of your attention seeking something else to distract you from the discomfort or frustration or anxiety of not knowing what to do next.

The first is like a rock through your window. The second is like a vacuum, pulling in anything that will fill it.

Understanding this difference in what it means to “get distracted” is important, because it’s within that difference that we see what’s within our power and what we can do differently.

So, what causes that vacuum to appear? What are the conditions that get our brains to start roaming?

Back in Part 1, I mentioned that the main two things I’ve found have kept people from starting tasks is either predicting failure, or predicting discomfort. In the same way, basically all the reasons people don’t continue to do something they’ve started doing is that they didn’t know what to do next, or predicted it would be unpleasant to do.

Any kind of friction while doing something can inhibit what I call “next step momentum,” leading to the automatic seeking of other stimuli that’s more rewarding or less effortful or stressful. The less uncertainty there is between one step and the next, the less effort transitioning takes, the fewer parts of your executive function chain are going to trip you up in general.

And again, as mentioned during Task Initiation, sometimes a person’s executive function falters because they forgot to fill their gas tank, and the thought of having to make an extra stop on the way to the gym is too discouraging. Sometimes people working on a book or essay don’t know what parts they should write in what order, and an “ugh field” develops where just thinking about it feels bad, because they don’t know how to even begin the process of deciding what order to go in. 

Those same things occur when obstacles come up in the middle of a process or project too, not just before we start. Our momentum is affected by all the same things that might block us; how close, physically, are we to the thing or place we need to take the next step? How much knowledge do we have of how to do it? Do we have the right tools?

All of which is why putting some work into organization ahead of time can help avoid things that break that flow.

Breaking Tasks into Smaller Steps: This is one of the widely given pieces of advice for a reason. The smaller and more concrete the next step is, the less likely we are to get frozen in uncertainty or confusion, and the less susceptible we are to distraction. Having an organized list of steps can also make it easier to get started, and reduce the feelings of being overwhelmed by the vagueness of a task.

There’s a big experiential difference most people feel between “I need to figure out how to apply for this government program” and “I need to go to X website, fill out Y form, and make an appointment at Z office to hand it in with any of these kinds of proper identification.”

Visual Aids: Some people might feel more overwhelmed by a long list of “to-do”s, but even sticky notes with tips or reminders on the edge of your monitor or various parts of your desk can be useful forms of external memory support that keep you from getting stuck when you’re not sure what to do next.

If you are someone who likes task lists or outlines, workflow diagrams can combine visual aids with breaking tasks down. Having an easily accessible reference sheet we can check keeps us in problem-solving mode, which is much more motivating than the void of uncertainty or confusion.

A friend of mine showed me the project outline for a web course she planned to create, and if the following image doesn’t produce visceral anxiety:

then I highly recommend something similar for any long and multiphase project.

If it does produce deep or prolonged anxiety, then maybe something simpler like Kanban boards might be better:

The best tool or system is whichever one most helps you (yes you, specifically) minimize the amount of time you spend unsure of what to do next, and the one that helps minimize the chance that you forget to do something entirely.

An extra benefit of this kind of organization is that it lets you pick and choose more easily what you have the capacity for at any given moment. If your project allows you to choose what order to do what tasks in, having the reminder that you don’t have to do the big, scary, difficult next step and still get productive work done can be very valuable.

Decluttering Spaces: Whether it’s through clearing your desktop or the top of your desk, reducing distractions makes it easier to find what you need and not have your attention caught by something else. Every bit of potential friction, including a few moments of “Where did I put that…?” can contribute to cognitive overload or trigger a path-of-least-resistance into something less taxing or more rewarding, like opening social media or a game.

This is probably a good place to mention that “declutter” doesn’t necessarily mean “empty” or “bland.” Some people work better in a stimulating environment rather than a static one. Some would find a room full of comfy bean bags and backjacks detrimental compared to a work desk, but for others the work desk would kill their productivity after ten minutes due to physical discomfort. A cozy room with lava lamps and a cat in it is perfectly valid so long as it works for you.

Similarly, some people need silence to focus, while for others a good way to declutter their soundspace is to play music. Personally I find music without lyrics (or lyrics in a different language) particularly helpful for maintaining mental focus, and sometimes I’ll even play the same song on loop for hours when I want to maintain a flow state.

But if there’s anything that you know reliably captures your attention and shifts it toward things you don’t want to be doing, it’s good to separate it out. This is a big part of why many people who work from home distinguish their workspace from their relaxation space, if they can.

Time Management: There are a number of reasons “pomodoro timers” work for many people, but the best general explanation I have is that they act as a form of mental offloading. Open-ended work sessions can be difficult to know how to orient to; dividing work into 25 minute chunks, with built in 5 minute breaks, serves as a form of external memory to pre-empt distracting thoughts related to when to take a break and whether to keep working.

Also, if you’re not in flowstate it can be really helpful to give your brain a rest every so often when engaging in deliberate executive function. For some people it’s a literal break away from whatever area or object they were using to do the work. For others, just swapping between a thing that takes lots of effort with minimal reward signals, and a second task that doesn’t take much effort while providing many, is enough to actually boost their productivity, even if they’re swapping often.

(For an example of this, I often find consistent writing over long durations easier when I can alt-tab to some RP I’m engaging in with someone, as the natural back and forth of whose turn it is to respond allows me to take regular breaks every 3-15 minutes and is naturally fun and easier. I also know people who do the same thing with turn-based multiplayer games, or who set the pace of swapping between work and a single player game themself, though I expect that last one is likely to be particularly hard for most people with some EF disorder.)

In a broader scope, effective time management lets you adjust plans and priorities based on changing circumstances, and having accurate predictions about what to do when. Whether you’re planning out a busy day or a multi-week project, if the time you planned to take on one thing starts making the rest harder, the feeling of overwhelm can make it harder to catch up.

Oh, and of course, no discussion of EF and time management would be complete without mentioning deadlines. Many people experience approaching deadlines as a sort of turbo-mode for their executive function and creativity, but there’s a whole separate post that would need to be written about how that works (and when it fails). 

The main relevant bit for this overview is, if you know that you’re the kind of person who just does better with deadlines and are fine with last-minute crunches as your primary way to get things done, one thing you could possibly do beforehand is ensure you have all the tools you need, ready and prepared, so that your last-day-sprint has a minimal amount of distractions or unexpected frustrations. In general, doing a premortem for anything you care about going well is helpful.

Seeking Support: As mentioned in an earlier part of the series, people often have an easier time doing things when they’re doing them with others. Even when working alone, however, no matter what step of your project you’re on, an easy to reference list of all the people you can reach out to if confused or stuck can be really helpful in providing you with next-step-momentum at a critical juncture where you might otherwise end up frustrated, listless, or seeking distraction.

Make a list of people who have worked on similar projects or done similar tasks before. Add people who would be happy to act as rubber ducks, or generally brainstorm/problem solve with. Find a subreddit or web forum or discord that might be able to provide answers.

In general, it can be really helpful to make the mental motion of “seeking support” a part of your automatic reaction to noticing “I don’t know what to do next.” As mentioned in Part 2, the better you are at noticing those sorts of feelings when you have them, the more likely you are to act in an endorsed way to the experience of having them.

There are other things we could cover on the ways organization help with executive function, but that’s a good note from which to transition to the “next” part of the procedure. As a closing note though, keep in mind that all “organization” is meant to do is minimize distractions, friction, and loss of momentum. Some tasks need a little organization, some tasks need a lot, and you might not always know what you’ll need ahead of time. But we usually have some inklings of how to improve our workspace or work flow, if we give ourselves the time and frame to think about them, and if you don’t know how to do a premortem yet, I highly recommend learning how to.

As a final point, if you find yourself in an endless loop of Organization Hell, planning and organizing and meta-planning how you organize… pay extra attention to the Flexible Thinking section, and also, maybe look into some of the things that help with fears and anxieties tied to perfectionism.

Meanwhile…

Working Memory

Most people think of memory in terms of “short term” vs “long term,” a frame in which memory is all about retention of information. This brings to mind comparisons to a computer’s hard drive and RAM, and people might then model the brain as having two specific areas where “long” and “short” memory are kept.

But unlike computers, which store everything in discrete bits, human thoughts are pretty interconnected. Our bodies are constantly receiving, filtering, and processing sensory inputs from multiple sources, which means human memory systems have to span multiple parts of the brain to create the “mental workspace” where active thinking occurs.

In 1999, Nelson Cowan proposed the “embedded-processes” model[1], which put a greater focus on attention to presented stimuli, and stressed the role of “capacity” for understanding the working memory concept. Basically, the more capacity you have to hold things in mind at the same time, the more complex thinking you’re capable of doing for longer… 

But attention is one of the limiters. You can’t actively think about everything in your sensorium all at the same time.Which is why the more information you have “memorized,” the cheaper it is to shift your attention between ideas and let them work together. Ditto externalizing your thinking to a whiteboard or notepad, though as mentioned in the previous post, when focusing on any one thing, your attention will naturally shrink to exclude other bits of information.

Which, it turns out, is pretty important for executive function, a.k.a, our capability to follow through on doing specific things.

As I learned more about working memory, I’ve started to imagine memory’s role in executive function as similar to using my hands to build something out of lego.

Imagine if we had a big tub of lego sitting next to us, which represents all the information we have in our long term memory. Most of it is useless for any one task, but we don’t necessarily know which is and isn’t. Also, some of it is visible on top, while most is “buried” in the tub (which would represent our subconscious, as well as anything stored in “recognition memory”).

On our other side, imagine a conveyor belt carrying semi-random lego past us. Hopefully some of the pieces are needed for the thing we’re trying to make, but most won’t be. So long as we keep our attention moving to different things, that conveyer belt keeps moving. If we stop, it (mostly) stops, leaving us with what’s in reach, and of course what’s in our lego tub.

So we have a few options here.  We could sift through the tub/our memory and see if anything feels useful… but it’s possible we won’t recognize the right pieces even if we feel them. We could also focus entirely on what passes us on the belt. Or of course we could try to mix things from the belt and things in the tub… whatever we decide, we can’t access the pieces that have already passed us, and for the purposes of this metaphor, we can’t keep any pieces we pick up until they snap together in a way that at least somewhat helps solve our problem.

And that process of fitting pieces together and seeing if they’ll snap into place, forming a step in the right direction for solving our problem? That’s where working memory comes in.

Our hands, like our working memory, can fit only so much at once. But they can try any combination that will fit, either from the new pieces of lego passing by, or legos in the tub. All you have to do is find a piece, decide to pick it up (which may require letting go of others), and hold onto it as you try combinations.

Which brings up some important questions, like “how many pieces can your hands hold at once,” and “how good are your hands at only picking up what you want them to?”

…Well, for most people “not many” and “not very.”

You might have heard that the average amount of “chunks” of information a person can hold in their active attention at once is four, but what counts as a “chunk” is a whole essay in and of itself, and it can vary wildly for different kinds of information. Some people can train themselves to hold a truly staggering amount of digits, but it’s unclear how much this level of retention translates into capability for manipulation of information.

In any case, the likely outcome when “trying to build an object out of lego” is that you’ll find yourself constantly changing out pieces, sometimes at random as you drop some and pick up others without a useful plan or intention. And since you can’t hold many at once, any new pieces you pick up might make you have to start all over again until you just happen to get the exact right combination, without any wasted pieces.

To make things more complicated, what if instead of a box full of lego pieces you have a box of mixed lego pieces, roblox pieces, hard candies, bits of colorful paper… and instead of a single conveyor with only lego on it, there are a dozen of them all snaking around you, each with a mix of things on them?

We can even imagine all sorts of variations of this metaphor to incorporate diagnoses that affect executive function like ADHD. What if the room is filled with different colored strobe lights? Or what if the candy feels warm and soft while the lego blocks feel sharp and cold? For things like mania, what if the room is dark, and only a specific and ever changing set of pieces glow? For things like depression, what if some people’s arms get more tired than others more quickly? 

It’s worth noting that learning something new, or applying new knowledge, also uses up our “working memory hands.” Learning something new while at the same time trying to apply it in whatever task we’re doing can be very taxing, and quickly lead to mental fatigue… which often leads to our attention simply going elsewhere, wanting to do other things that are less effort and more rewarding. 

Hopefully it’s clear why difficulty with this can affect executive function, but for those who want more grounded models of what’s happening in the brain, and how we know memory is integral to executive functioning at all, we can examine the brain itself. Our prefrontal cortex is the primary source of all our executive function, a “Central Executive Network” that connects with other areas to engage in various cognitive processes: 

Episodic Buffer: The temporary storage system that modulates and integrates different sensory information for us to work with. To “create” this, the CEN routes through our anterior cingulate cortex, which is our attention controller, into the parietal lobe, which is for perceptual processing.

Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad: Our ability to not just visualize things, but also remember the relative positions of things in space, like where we parked our car or what the next step in a series of directions we should take is. This requires our CEN to link up with our posterior parietal cortex and occipital lobe.

Phonological Loop: Our ability to perfectly recall things we hear or read before they get stored in long-term memory, or lost. This involves Broca’s area, which is part of our complex speech network interacting with the flow of sensory information from the temporal cortex, and Wernicke’s area, which is where speech comprehension and understanding written language come from, both of which are part of our cerebral cortex.

The sheer variety and number of parts working together to create our working memory means a lot of different things can go wrong at this step in people’s ability to have “healthy” executive function. For example, damage to Broca’s area causes a form of aphasia where people speak in a jumbled “word salad” even if they clearly know what they want to say. Wernicke aphasia makes it difficult for people to understand others, and their ability to speak is also affected; they can convey intelligible thoughts, but usually limited to just a few words at a time. Both of these disabilities have been found to impair even non-linguistic executive function.

Other things that affect working memory include age (worse as we get older[2]), hormones (estrogen seems to improve it in older women[3], but testosterone boosters don’t help retain WM in aging men[4]), caffeine (mixed, but potentially negative)[5], and emotions (super mixed and also weird).[6]

This also means there’s a variety of approaches people can take to try to improve their working memory… but reviewing studies trying to pin down the effect of this can be discouraging.

For example, some[7] studies[8] suggest that stroke victims with aphasia benefit more from working memory exercises than they do routine speech therapy, and the benefits from working memory training also seems to help children with spastic displegia cerebral palsy [9].

There’s a lot of research out there that shows a mix of outcomes when trying to isolate the effects of working memory training on executive function [10]. For people without some explicit medical diagnosis that affects EF, this study [11] reported that transferable benefits weren’t found to a statistically significant degree beyond the participants’ ability to get better at specific skills trained.

In other words, if there’s nothing specifically “interfering” with your natural working memory, there isn’t much evidence that training it will improve your executive function.

Buuuut if my model of Procedural Executive Function is correct, I do expect it would be hard to notice improvements in EF just by addressing one part of it… especially when the part trained isn’t the participant’s specific “bottleneck,” or not their only one.

There are in fact many reasons why measuring people’s executive function is genuinely hard, not least of which is the very first point I emphasized at the start of all this: “is your executive function the problem, or are you trying to do things you don’t actually want or need to do?”

All of which is to say that while the research so far paints a muddy picture, I encourage people who believe WM is the main bottleneck for their EF to do some reading of their own and decide if it’s worth trying to deliberately improve it. I’d be very interested to hear first-hand accounts if you believe 1) this is your specific bottleneck, and 2) practicing exercises to improve it helped your memory, but not your executive function.

(As a side note, I’m fascinated by the question of whether those with aphantasia (who lack the experience of having mental imagery) develop workarounds to visual processing such that they don’t experience[12] the same limits[13] as those who undergo brain damage to their visual processing center, or if their brain does in fact utilize those portions and they just don’t experience the phenomenology. If scans have been done to distinguish this I haven’t found any. (I suspect people without an “internal monologue” are similarly unimpaired compared to those who suffer from either form of aphasia.))

For everyone else, let’s talk about the last most likely bottleneck in executive function…

Flexible Thinking

To begin the ending, let’s take seriously again the notion that “doing things” is just a process of repeated, fractal problem solving.

If you manage to do a thing you want to do, it’s because you’ve succeeded at solving all the problems in the way. Kind of tautological.

If you don’t, it’s because some problem came up that you didn’t know how to solve, or predicted (consciously or not) would be too painful or frustrating or tiring to solve… which are themselves problems that could be hypothetically solved, but if we don’t know how, or we predict that solving them would be too painful or frustrating, then etc, etc.

Our brains seek rewards, and one of our reward functions involves showing competence and solving problems. When we get stuck on a problem, rather than try to brute-force it (Time consuming! Tiring! Unpleasant!), most people have natural defense-mechanisms pop up that will divert our brain’s attention elsewhere. Better to stop expending resources on something that will not reward you and try to focus on other things that will, right?

This mental pop-out is really important for avoiding getting mentally stuck in problems, and is likely a big part of what makes human cognition “special.” A lot of humanity’s problem solving capabilities exist through abstract thinking, but you can get stuck in abstract thinking much more easily than in reality. You can also get your attention hijacked by things that aren’t “real.” Minds facing discomfort or difficulty are just acting rationally when seeking more rewarding stimulation.

It’s not our brains’ fault that we’ve aimed them at goals that are totally abstract and disconnected from our immediate survival, nor is it their fault we’ve surrounded them, in the modern world, with superstimuli like social media and video games, such that the more rewarding stimulation we turn to instead of solving our problems are not often developing skills that will solve more problems; they just feel like they do.

But it’s important to notice that this natural impulse isn’t itself bad. Phrases like “diffuse thinking” or “lateral thinking” or “flexible thinking” were invented to point at the way our brains sometimes come up with answers to problems in indirect ways. It’s common advice for people stuck on problems to take a shower or walk or  generally just do anything that doesn’t require mental attention, so they can give their subconscious the chance to mix old and new problems and ideas in ways that sometimes lead to unexpected “Eureka!” moments. 

Which is why flexible thinking is a part of executive function. Sometimes we get stuck when trying to solve a problem because we’re stuck thinking in a specific way, or have blindspots that keep us from noticing potential solutions or alternatives. 

Which is why, if you learn more ways to solve problems, expand your awareness of solution space, you’re empowered to do more things, and you’re less likely to get tripped up and stop when trying to achieve any given goal. Getting caught up in “yak shaving” is generally considered a bad thing, but… well, sometimes in life, changing a lightbulb requires shaving a yak. The more easily you can swap between multiple different tasks in a short time, the less likely you are to be stymied by abruptly different kinds of problem solving that you might be called upon to do.

For some people, interruptions are more difficult to return from than others, and in a word, that sucks. Good organization can help with that, as mentioned above. But getting better at switching between modes of thinking while working on the same problem doesn’t necessarily often have the same derailing effect.

Edward de Bono was a physician and psychologist who wrote a lot (like, a lot) of books on thinking and reasoning more effectively and creatively. He coined the term “lateral thinking,” and one of his many ideas, the Six Thinking Hats, is an example of trying to systematize flexible thinking:

The idea is that you can think through a problem from each of these different lenses, one at a time, to ensure you’re not missing the solution by being too stuck in a particular mental frame. It’s also a particularly useful tool for social coordination, where, instead of people having different hats on at different times and potentially butting heads over why they’re focusing on different aspects of a debated concept or problem or solution, everyone take turns working to make different focuses of attention common knowledge, while being more obviously part of the same team.

(I also happen to think, from an IFS perspective, that whatever helps a group of people coordinate better could also help with an individual trying to coordinate themselves.)

I don’t know how effective Dr. de Bono’s 6 Hats technique is compared to alternatives; there’s some research done that claims effectiveness when used in total [14] or just from trying on particular hats [15], but as with all “rationality techniques,” my main takeaway is people should in general be trying more things (so long as they’re low cost) and see if they work for them, because finding even one out of ten that does can significantly help improve our lives.

TRIZ is a procedure formalized by inventor and sci-fi author Genrich Altshuller, though he was sent to a gulag before he could spread it among Soviet engineers. After Stalin’s death, he was released and founded an engineering school that popularized the method, which is meant to help people reframe specific problems we have to general ones, so we can more easily find  general solutions that can then be adapted into specific solutions for the one we face.

It’s the inspiration for not just this pretty cool database that lets you look up all sorts of potential physics problems and solutions, but also some Separation Principles for solving apparent contradictions in design space, and an additional (somewhat intimidating) list of 40 Principles for general problem solving. In his later years, Altshuller believed this system could be used not just for engineering problems, but for overall critical thinking and creative problem solving, and created a community that has continued spreading the good word.

His various intellectual descendants promote it as the all-inclusive method for systematized problem solving, but as with all such things, your mileage may vary. Creative thinking, an as-yet fairly illegible and mysterious process, is likely going to work somewhat differently for everyone, which again is a good reason to experiment.

Which isn’t to say there might not be better and worse systems for it. But personal fit shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly if it means you’re more likely to remember to use the method or schema. Some people use tarot cards, while for others, the Magic: The Gathering color wheel cuts reality at a number of useful joints:

Credit to Duncan Sabien. “Color pentagram” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.

Deep knowledge of this kind of schema can create powerful intuition pumps like “How might MtG Red orient to this,” or “What would MtG Green think of this problem?” This can be particularly useful if you feel a strong affinity for the “opposite” colors of Blue or White, and make some effort to really understand how people who identify with the others see and experience and navigate through the world.

Yes, this is just another way of saying “understanding how other people think is valuable” or “taking on a diversity of viewpoints can help you think better” and similar, which is nothing new, and can be said without the complex “systems.” But if you want to keep yourself from getting stuck thinking in a rigid way, and you want a deliberate mental motion or habit you can build to try, schemas like this can be useful.

The map is not the territory, but the more different maps you collect for reference, the more different lenses you have through which to view reality, the less likely you are to be stuck in any given situation.

Speaking of which, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention therapy. My post on the various different therapy philosophies that all modalities can fit into basically goes over four different lenses through which to view problems and solutions, which can be summarized roughly as: 

  1. How our past influences our present (Psychoanalytic)
  2. How incentives shape our behavior (Behaviorist)
  3. How feelings and frames affect our experiences (Existential)
  4. How systems can create/solve our problems (Systemic)

I’d claim that any therapist stuck thinking through problems in just one mode is going to be less effective than one who can consider a problem from multiple, and help guide a client to do so as well. If we expect ourselves to tackle every problem alone, we’re like the therapist who only sticks to one modality, let alone one general philosophy of therapy or theory of change.

But while having a knowledgeable guide is valuable, you don’t need to go to a therapist yourself to learn how to reexamine your problems from different therapeutic lenses. Not just because you can learn them yourself, but also because different people often have very different “natural” ways of viewing problems we face, and those outside views can be just as valuable.

In any case, the more flexible your thinking is, the less likely you are to get stuck on a problem. And the less likely you are to get stuck on a problem, the easier you will find it to work on the next step of it.

Using The “Procedure” in Procedural Executive Function

This series took a while to complete. Part of that is that I lost the original driving motivation to do it once the initial reasons and funding for this research drastically shifted, and I let some of my many other projects take priority.

Of course, noticing difficulty completing a series on executive function is too perfect an opportunity to miss actually putting the research into practice. This meant paying extra attention on the days that I felt were “supposed” to have some time dedicated to working on these articles. Did I work on them as much as I wanted to? If not, why not?

It became practically instinctual to just run down the list and zoom in on what particular thing my brain was tripping over. Thoughts/feelings like “I’d rather be writing fiction/reading/playing video games” soon had an attached thought of “What would make me want to write the next paragraph instead?”

And often I’d just check and read over what I’d gotten to last again, and think something like “Huh, right, I’m stuck because I don’t know how to word this part well. Can I just skip over it and come back? Is there someone I can ask for feedback? How would ChatGPT write it?”

(Still badly, in my view; not technically so, but I’m fairly sensitive to writing voice, and while AI assistance can be useful for writing in other ways, I still feel a need to write from scratch for it to feel even marginally interesting for me to reread.)

Or “Ah, yeah, reading all these research papers has gotten less interesting. What else can I do instead to learn something new related to this?”

(Books like Superlearning by Scott H. Young and A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley were occasionally helpful in pointing in the right directions, even if they didn’t often contain uniquely insightful bits I hadn’t covered already.)

Or “I don’t know how to actually solve this problem, and none of the things I’m looking up are optimistic. I should probably just skip for now and circle back to it, and if I still don’t find anything just say that.”

(This was for Working Memory, which took by far the longest to write and edit to a point where I feel okay with it. I almost just cut out the entire LEGO analogy altogether to reduce bloat and avoid getting the analogy wrong in various ways, but some feedback convinced me to keep it in.)

Since it wasn’t an emotionally complicated or taxing experience, my noticed speed bumps were always of this “knowledge problem” sort. I don’t really experience shame or anxiety or prolonged internal conflict, but these are also common bumps in the road when people are writing something for public consumption, and are why learning to integrate and manage emotional experiences are a powerful deblocker for executive function.

But there are plausibly other things that would come up as well, and I don’t presume that this process will be sufficient on its own to solve everyone’s difficulties with getting something done. I do believe, however, that whatever the solution is, it’s something that can be incorporated into a procedural series similar to this one, and I hope to continue updating and expanding on this series in the future, if some new frame or strong additional component is discovered.

As a final note, I hope you remember the first part of all this: the most important first step in solving executive dysfunction is figuring out if you actually want to do the thing.

Because if you don’t actually want to do it, and you don’t actually need to do it (on a deep, emotionally recognizable level), then the question of “why aren’t I doing this thing?” sort of answers itself.

And you can construct abstract chains of reasoning for why you “should” do it anyway, of course, and those abstract chains of reasoning might evoke aesthetically pleasing values or ethics or philosophies that makes them feel more real and motivating.

But they must tap into some predicted emotional experience that your mind can actually simulate, or they likely won’t motivate you to do “hard” things… including the process of solving problems keeping us from doing what we want, or managing the emotions that rise up when we struggle.

If you dig deep and find out that, yeah, that whole “figure out what I actually want” is the part where you’re stuck…

From my work both as a therapist and teaching at rationality camps and workshops, I can say you’re definitely not alone, there. But that’s another essay, for another time.

Citations

[1] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-02490-002

[2] https://books.google.com/books?id=YeJ4AgAAQBAJ

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6182645/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7822596/

[5]https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/55537145.pdf

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8771390

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10275719/ 

[8] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0021992420301453

[9] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fneur.2020.601148/full

[10] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/working-memory-training

[11]  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34344249/

[12] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010945221002628

[13] https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0b16s06v

[14] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/366387002_The_Effectiveness_of_Using_the_Six

[15] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1871187117301803

Procedural Executive Function, Part 2

The Off Road project has since been folded into Rethink Wellbeing, but I’ve continued working to better understand and treat Executive Dysfunction. You can read more about the project’s origins here.

If you haven’t, I suggest reading the start of my overview and exploration of Executive Function. Part 1 of Procedural Executive Function can be found here.

TL;DR – Self Monitoring is your ability to notice what you’re doing at any given moment so that you can ask yourself whether it’s actually the thing you want to do.

Impulse Control is the ability to decide whether to turn impulses noticed through Self Monitoring into actions.

Emotional Control involves awareness and acceptance of what you feel, so that you can experience your emotions fully and decide which to act on without feeling overwhelmed or controlled by them.

Before I continue to divide the executive function into parts that I consider roughly sequential in how people experience “deliberately doing something,” it’s important to take an extra moment to re-emphasize that I perceive executive function as a process with multiple steps. Part of what I hope people learn from this series is to better understand which aspect of the process is blocking them when they feel stuck with their own, unique executive dysfunction, so that it’s easier to notice pitfalls and figure out how to avoid them.

So if I focus on a certain aspect of the process and share a perspective on how to help ensure that part goes smoothly, that doesn’t mean the assumption is everything will go fine as long as that one aspect does. For some actions you take, the whole process will go smoothly. When it doesn’t, the part that trips you up can change depending on context, personality, diagnoses, the type of action you’re taking, and more.

The point of examining these parts individually is to understand how they interact more systematically; no part of this process should be taken as a final, normative word on how your own inner workings must look. 

(As a final note, I won’t talk about medical solutions to Executive Function, as it’s outside of my area of expertise. I hope to add more resources for that at some point.)

It’s worth noting that in the flowchart, Impulse Control, Self Monitoring, and Emotional Control are only vaguely sequential and are all bound together. But I’ve organized this post in what I believe is the best order to understand them before revisiting how they affect each other at the end.

Self Monitoring

Sometimes, once we’ve passed the Task Initiation stage of executive function, it’s smooth sailing. If it’s a short and simple task, like taking out the trash or doing the dishes or answering an email, it might just get done within a minute, or even within ten, without any further issues. 

But the longer it takes to finish a task, and the more complex the task, the higher the chance of some step in the executive function procedure to go awry.

Of course, even relatively long and complex tasks can still go smoothly. Sometimes when we write, the words pour out as fast as we can type, with only occasional stops for focused thinking and imagining. When doing chores, each act follows the next like checking boxes down a list. (This is particularly true if we enter “flow state,” but covering that is beyond the scope of this post.)

Other times, we struggle to keep doing the same thing for more than a few moments, distracted by a constant stream of new thoughts, urges, or stimulation. Why the discrepancy, given how in both scenarios, our sensorium is constantly receiving input from our environment, and our brain is constantly churning through different thoughts or ideas?

First, it can be helpful to clearly define three particular terms:

Awareness is the umbrella term for the things you’re conscious of at any given moment, including your surroundings, thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations.

Attention is the selective noticing of a particular stimulus or thought process, at the mild-moderate exclusion of others. Attention can be both voluntary (e.g. choosing to read a text message) or involuntary (e.g. being distracted by a loud noise).

Focus refers to the concentration on a stimulus, thought process, or activity for an extended period of time. It is a more intense and sustained form of attention, often at the moderate-extreme shrinking of your awareness, that can require deliberate effort, but can also be the automatic result of intense interest or engagement.

To demonstrate the distinction, right now, as you’ve been reading, you’ve probably been focused on the words on your screen. But unless something is reflecting off it, the “screen” has likely been “invisible” to you while you do so; your attention was on the words. But now that I’ve called your attention to the screen, it will likely stay in your awareness for a while, even if your attention stays on these words, before eventually being filtered out once you’re back in a state of deep focus.

Our minds filter all sorts of things out of our awareness, all the time. You never stop receiving the physical sensation of your tongue in your mouth, or the clothes you’re wearing against your skin, but so long as nothing calls your attention to it, your attention will go to more productive things. Same goes for background noises, smells you’ve adapted to, and even thoughts that pass through your mind without snagging your attention. Our minds are sensitive to changes in our sensorium; without any, the default for our attention is to be smaller than our awareness even when not deliberately focusing on anything.

So, with all that said… what’s Self Monitoring?

The simplest way I can put it is that it’s your ability to notice what you’re doing at any given moment, not fleetingly, but enough that you can ask yourself whether it’s actually the thing you want to do. It’s effectively the thing that keeps you from being on autopilot all day, as well as a thing that helps avoid having your attention grabbed away from where you want to focus it. It’s often the desired effect of things described as “mindfulness” or “self awareness,” and it helps people create space in their own head to make deliberate decisions. 

As an example:

Alice is sitting at her computer, trying to finish an essay that’s due tomorrow. She’s focusing on the words she’s writing, in a flow state of following a chain of ideas that she can easily put into words. While she writes, a friend sends her a message; the notification enters her awareness, and part of her attention is hooked on it even as she finishes writing the next sentence. Eventually she alt-tabs to check and sees it’s a post from reddit. She clicks through, laughs at the post, sends a reply to her friend, then starts reading the comments.

First off, I think it’s important to note that from my perspective, there’s nothing in the above that is inherently bad or wrong. As always, when I speak of Executive Function, I think it’s valuable to treat it as the process between one’s deep and “actual” desires and their actions; the critical part of this examination is what the person endorses, both in the moment and in the future.

Second, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s just one simple factor for why Alice’s flow state ended. She might have been sent a dozen similar messages up until now without her focus shifting. Maybe this particular friend’s messages are more important to her, or maybe her mind is closer to needing a break. Again, digging into this more is beyond the scope of this post.

But meanwhile, the example brings up two different ways to think about Self Monitoring: dynamic and frequent.

Dynamic Self Monitoring

An Alice with very high Self Monitoring would quickly notice that her attention is being grabbed by the meme, then decide if this is what she wants to do.

An Alice with high Self Monitoring might only notice once she’s opened Reddit, in the moments around the page loading.

An Alice with moderate Self Monitoring would probably only notice once she’s actively scrolling the comments.

An Alice with low Self Monitoring might notice after scrolling for a few minutes.

And an Alice with very low Self Monitoring might not notice until she’s on another page, or something else has caught her attention, and she realizes an hour later that she intended to finish her essay before doing anything else.

(These labels aren’t concerned with relative frequency among the overall population, I don’t have numbers for what the bell curve on Self Monitoring might look like, assuming it naturally even falls into a bell curve.)

Again, the measure of Alice’s SM is not what she decides to do upon noticing that she’s no longer writing her essay. It’s only in the noticing itself. Also, remember that everyone’s Executive Function is to some degree different for different tasks and in different contexts. An Alice that has low SM in this context might have high SM in another.

So a high SM Alice could notice when her friend messages her that she’s making a deliberate decision to change tasks, and then be okay with it. Then she might notice when she starts scrolling Reddit comments, and not be okay with that. Or she might be okay with it, and then another friend calls her and she decides she doesn’t want to do a call just yet, and endorses ignoring it.

The focus on dynamic triggers is meaningful because the transition from one sort of activity to another is often what causes people to pop out of autopilot and ask “What am I doing and why am I doing it.” But to model what might happen next, the frequency of her SM is also important.

A high dynamic SM Alice might be okay with reading Reddit comments “for a bit,” and notice consciously that she’s doing it rather than just autopiloting into it. But reading Reddit comments might still be  the sort of activity that she has lower SM on from a frequency standpoint, because it’s the sort of task that will lead to autopilot for longer. This is why it can be practical to divide between dynamism of SM and frequency.

Frequent Self Monitoring 

An Alice with very high Self Monitoring frequency would have a mental “check in” a few times per hour, whether she’s writing her essay or not, to decide if she still wants to or would rather do something else.

An Alice with high Self Monitoring frequency might only check in every ~hour or so.

An Alice with moderate Self Monitoring frequency might only check in every few hours.

An Alice with low Self Monitoring frequency might only check in a couple times a day.

And an Alice with very low Self Monitoring might go entire days without experiencing this sort of popping out, checking in, “What am I doing and why am I doing it” mental motion.


Again, the question of how long it might take for Alice to remember that she’d planned to finish writing her essay is a different one than whether she decides to save reading the comments for later, or reading the Reddit comments later, or even just take a break and walk around the block.

An Alice with very high SM frequency might very well be okay with taking a break from her essay for a while, and then (if her SM is high enough in whatever alternative activity she decides to do next) would re-evaluate even if no other new task triggers a dynamic SM moment.

It’s worth noting that, upon reading the above, some people might have very different experiences.

Some might read about the high SM Alices and think “Wait, people can actually do that? TEACH ME HOW!” 

Or, alternatively, “Wait, people actually live like this? That sounds EXHAUSTING!”

At the risk of being too normative, I generally believe that higher SM, whether dynamic or frequent, is overall a positive trait to have. Some informal surveys I ran showed that the majority of people wanted more SM, even if they already ranked themselves as experiencing them “frequently.” Of those that didn’t say they wanted more SM, the majority still preferred keeping their amount of SM the same rather than reducing its frequency.

It’s worth noting that the qualia range between how different people experience Self Monitoring can be vast. Going too deep into this, interesting though it is, would be (again) beyond the scope of this post. 

But while for myself SM doesn’t feel stressful or like it interrupts my life at all, for those who would prefer less frequent SM, the usual reason given was that their experience of it, rather than being “empowering” or “awake,” was more “anxious” or “disembodying.”  It makes sense that if SM moments are too frequent and negative, they could reduce someone’s ability to enjoy films or games, prevent them from entering a prolonged flow state while working, or make it harder to get lost in the embodied enjoyment of swimming or sex. 

So long as the SM moment is not much more than an “actual” moment, sometimes as quick and fleeting as an impulse, and not an anxious experience, most people do not seem to experience them as disruptive. There are even some who have mildly negative valence SM that still say they’re happy with how frequently they experience it, because it’s one of their strategies for managing ADHD. 

In any case, it’s not a state that I believe can be held indefinitely. For SM to pop you “out” of something requires being “in” something engaging enough that, even if you wouldn’t describe it as “autopilot,” is not as fully self-reflective.

But I do believe the frequency and duration can be increased, and the quality of it can be improved. I used to have these moments once or twice on a bad day and three to five on a good day. Now I regularly have them about one to two dozen times per day, sometimes more if I’m doing a wide variety of things.

As for the use they have…

Impulse Control

Now that we’ve covered Self Monitoring so exhaustively, it’s easier to zoom in on the specific value of Impulse Control. If Self Monitoring is the ability to notice impulses and actions, then Impulse Control is the ability to decide whether to turn those impulses into actions.

Not all impulses you have while doing something are disruptive, of course. While working on her essay, Alice might have an impulse to take a sip of water, or glance out the window. She might suddenly put some music on, or change the temperature, or get up and stretch. In addition, many decisions she makes for what to write next are impulsive, generated by intuitions of flow and sparks of imagination.

None of these impulses get in the way of her writing her essay; the ideal amount of impulses to have is not 0, even if that were possible.

Some impulses that rise up could be disruptive depending on context. The impulse to read the message from her friend is, sort of definitionally, disruptive, but it doesn’t have to actually derail her work. Believe it or not, some people actually work better with a semi-regular stream of such interruptions; it’s easier to focus on one track when it’s not the only thing they’re “expected” to focus on, and the extra stimulation draws their attention and feeds their brain dopamine without requiring a full focus shift.

This is an important thing to highlight because it shows why this is Impulse Control and not impulse obstruction.

Again, a breakdown through use of rough scale:

An Alice with very high Impulse Control almost always has at least a moment of consideration for whether acting on an impulse would suit her goals or values.

An Alice with high Impulse Control has a moment of consideration for most impulses she experiences, with the likely exceptions being while she’s tired, hungry, or otherwise under-resourced.

An Alice with moderate Impulse Control might only reflect on impulses when they’re for particular actions she’s on the lookout for; opening Reddit, for example, or having an unhealthy snack.

An Alice with low Impulse Control only rarely reflects on impulses, and probably just those that are fairly weak or fleeting, while

And an Alice with very low Impulse Control bounces from one whim to another as she has them. This Alice isn’t incapable of doing something for a long time, but those things she does do for a long time are things that are so engrossing they reduce the frequency of other impulses.

Again, it’s worth noting that while more of this sounds great to most people, the experience of being very high, or even high, might strike others as annoying, or even neurotic. For some the qualia is stifling/repressing, for others it’s empowered/agentic. The ideal version of this doesn’t keep you from having totally uninhibited moments of fun, particularly if you’re in a high trust and safe environment, but those could be rarer for some people than others.

Being able to consistently act in a way that’s aligned with your intentions requires being able to manage impulses in such a way that they’re an extension of your goals and values rather than intrusive or self-sabotaging.

Impulses are momentary things, however, there and then gone, whether they were acted on or not. Some impulses will self-repeat if ignored, but if they do that often enough it’s usually because there’s a deeper, underlying drive that’s at play. That’s why people with high Impulse Control can still struggle with…

Emotional Control

Finally, now that we’ve covered the ability to notice and decide what to do, it’s time to talk about what actually affects which decision you end up making.

To begin, I think it’s important to establish that nearly all actions are driven by emotions/desires/urges. People with disorders affecting their ability to feel emotions invariably have difficulty with motivation. If you don’t feel, you don’t do. Our higher cognition, our reason, is used to decide between action and inaction, one decision and another, but these are always ultimately driven by different feelings.

People with anhedonia notice this most clearly with motivation related to things that used to bring them joy, but depending on severity, they might still be motivated by frustration or guilt. If the emotional deadening is severe enough, making decisions as simple as what food to eat becomes hard, and people tend to default to whatever is the most energy-saving. This is mirrored by the fact that the process for determining which emotion will guide your behavior can often take more energy than people have to spare.

As I’ve said before, “control” is not the word I like to use for this process. But it’s the commonly used and understood one for the concept of, in order from farther to closer to what I actually mean, emotional management, regulation, and integration. Rather than trying to suppress or deny emotions, what I mean by Emotional Control involves awareness and acceptance of what you feel, so that you can experience your emotions fully and decide which to act on without feeling overwhelmed or controlled by them.

But once again, the process of learning to observe your own emotional responses and finding ways to manage them in a way that feels natural and authentic to you is beyond the scope of this post, and so I’ll just point to some resources in the Suggestions, and give an abridged sense of what this looks like in the context of unblocked executive function.

Let’s talk about Alice yet again, and her ongoing decisions to write her essay or do other things. At the point in which she receives the message from her friend, there’s a number of things we could imagine her feeling:

  1. Anxiety over not finishing her essay in time.
  2. Anticipated-relief of eventually being done with her essay.
  3. Interest in the topic of her essay.
  4. Curiosity over what the message says.
  5. Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. Awareness of potential bio needs (Thirsty? Hungry? Tired?)

And so on. Each of these emotions has a potential action that they can lead to, but before we go into that, it’s important to note that this is a pretty flat distribution. The actual experience of Alice might look more like this:

  1. HIGH Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
  2. MODERATE Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
  3. MILD Interest in topic of essay
  4. MODERATE Curiosity over what the message says
  5. HIGH Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. MILD awareness of potential bio needs (Not really hungry but could snack…)

Or this:

  1. MILD Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
  2. MODERATE Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
  3. HIGH Interest in topic of essay
  4. MILD Curiosity over what the message says
  5. MODERATE Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. HIGH awareness of potential bio needs (THIRSTY)

Or this:

  1. MILD Anxiety over not finishing her essay on time.
  2. MILD Anticipated-relief of being done with her essay
  3. MILD Interest in topic of essay
  4. MODERATE Curiosity over what the message says
  5. MODERATE Boredom->Desire for pleasant distractions.
  6. MILD awareness of potential bio needs (Kinda tired…)

For each hypothetical Alice, if you imagine an equal amount of Self Monitoring and Impulse Control, you could then wonder what she would endorse doing upon reflection… but insofar as she doesn’t just follow the strongest emotion she has, it’s because she has some amount of Emotional Control.

This is where reason comes into why we end up making the choices we make. Remember the factors that go into Task Initiation, such as the expectations of how positive or negative an activity’s outcome will be? There’s a way in which the whole Executive Function cycle plays out again in miniature for each potential action inspired by an emotion. 

Some part of Alice is prioritizing, again and again, what she should do based on what she feels. Potential actions are checked against expected outcomes, and if one of those is expected to lead to a sufficiently positive outcome, it becomes much easier to switch to doing that in a “path to least resistance” way. So long as she’s not suppressing any of her emotions, each potential action has the opportunity to be balanced against each other and fully explored in relation to her goals and preferences.

The more time she spends simulating outcomes and reminding herself of what actions will actually lead to good or bad ones, the more the emotions inspiring those actions will shrink or grow, and the most compelling ones will shift her motivation to align with them.

There are a number of ways to engage in this sort of Emotional Control. Using some form of Internal Family Systems to treat each emotion as a part of yourself that can explicitly dialogue can help flesh out your expectations and resolve conflicts between them. Using something like Premortem on the expected failures can help you feel more confident in “harder” actions. Or you could just imagine all the bad things that could happen if you make the “wrong” choice… though I don’t particularly recommend that one.

In this way “Discipline” can be seen as a mental habit of using techniques and mental frames to reinforce motivation to take actions your meta-self endorses. Alternatively, Discipline can be seen as a form of “trusting” your past self’s model of what certain actions will result in, short-cutting the need to re-examine each emotion’s potential action in the moment… a sort of anchor-emotion that’s ever-present and can be defaulted to because it has deep roots in expected positive outcomes.

So, to show a bit more clearly what this can look like… you know the drill by now, but let’s flip it so we can go into more detail as needed, since the wide range of strategies available in this space make higher levels of Emotional Control look more and more different from a generalized baseline.

An Alice with very low Emotional Control would likely just follow the action generated by the emotion she feels the most strongly, not too differently from one with very low Impulse Control. If two or more emotions are roughly tied, she might feel paralyzed until some positive feedback loop or new stimulus edges one out over another.

An Alice with low Emotional Control is capable of at least noticing that she has different emotions/desires that she could ideally choose between. She might once in a while be able to remind herself explicitly of the things that make one choice better than another, either through imagining bad outcomes or, a bit more ideally, some form of regret-minimization.

An Alice with moderate Emotional Control is capable of a (quick) pro-and-con type evaluation of each emotion-inspired-action-plan. She can model some expected outcomes enough that she might notice if she really would benefit from a brief break or snack, or if working for a few more minutes will lead her to a better point to take a break in. She could even use a light precommitment tool, like 25-minute work timers, to give her mind an easy touch-stone for strengthening the emotions on the side of continuing to work.

An Alice with high Emotional Control is prepared for these sorts of reflections, knows the rough shape the emotional dilemma will take for her, and has some tools at the ready to explore her options and decide which action to take. She might already have done enough IFS to jump straight into a quick conversation with each part, or maybe she has a motto or mental habit that she uses to get in touch with certain emotions over others.

And an Alice with very high Emotional Control deviates even further from a general model.  Maybe she’s deeply practiced in letting her emotions speak in an unconstricted way, such that she can evaluate each and decide on what will lead her to feeling the most fulfilled. Maybe she just runs down each emotion she feels, imagines the outcomes of each, then decides from there. Maybe she doesn’t really feel strong emotions in most circumstances, so deciding between them is easy. Or maybe she feels particularly strong emotions from expected rewards of doing work, and so it’s easy to stay within the action-space that will likely lead to that. Or maybe some combination of all of the above and more, or something else entirely.

I would be remiss not to mention the Dark Side of Emotional Control, which is more what the name implies; a form of resolving conflicting desires through suppression, fear, bullying, and other general forms of self-coercion. These strategies generally develop when people are young and in coercive or competitive environments that train them to ignore emotions that aren’t instrumental to the goals they’re most rewarded for pursuing.

These strategies, useful though they can be for succeeding on short timespans, tend to have diminishing returns or leave people burnt out eventually. Exploring how people sustain high productivity for years led me to the second crystalized bit of insight: Sustainably productive people spend most of their time doing what they find enjoyable, meaningful, or necessary

When a goal or course of action doesn’t feel like any of those things, it eventually becomes very difficult to “control” the emotions that compel you toward things that do, and no amount of external motivation makes up for that gap.

At risk of being too preachy, this is why I believe, as noted in the previous posts, that knowing what you want and why is an important part of a healthy Executive Function pipeline (not to mention a generally happier life).

People are full of various wants and needs, on a minute to minute basis or on a year to year one, and each of those wants and needs are emotionally driven. Understanding how to integrate and manage those various emotions and wants is an integral part of aligning your goals with your actions.

Suggestion 4

Notice how often you check-in with yourself, and practice doing it more often.

There are a lot of different kinds of mindfulness practice out there. Most meditation is the most popular, a way of bringing awareness into our body and thoughts, while things like the Alexander Technique try to help people expand their awareness outside of themselves. Anything that helps people pay attention to their moment-to-moment experiences better, or understand and become familiar with the loops their thoughts can end up in, can help people improve Self Monitoring. The sequence on Naturalism is largely about noticing what your attention and thoughts are doing, and this video by Duncan Sabien does a good job of explaining another version of it. Posts tagged with “summoning sapience” tend to be about this, such as Val’s article on the Art of rationality.

Take a moment again, right now, to “pop out” of reading this article. You’re almost done, but still notice that you’re reading it, and ask yourself if you want to be reading it. My prompting you to do this might lead to you noticing other impulses you have, other things in your awareness, other drags on your attention. But you also might just notice your own thoughts, reading over these words, and your reactions to them. All you’re doing, when you improve your Self Monitoring, is learning how to notice certain types of thoughts or sensations that trigger this more often.

Maybe it’s discomfort in your body, or a leg or arm that’s falling asleep. You could use environmental cues, such as alarms or visual cues around you (printed out pictures, sticky notes, etc) can also help train the mental habit… though I want to stress caution in anything that leads to Self Monitoring that is largely anxious. The alarm should be a gentle chime, the visual cue should be a picture of a reflective lake, or even just a small mirror hung on your wall… if it’s hard to imagine the vibe, here’s Midjourney to lend a hand:

The purpose of self-monitoring, overall, is not to feel like you’re constantly vigilant or on edge, but rather to notice when you’re on autopilot more quickly so that you can decide whether you want to deliberately. A calm, embodied “What am I doing and why am I doing it,” more a notion than the actual words. Not “oh my god why am I doing this why aren’t I doing THAT instead what’s wrong with me…”

If you’re having trouble not having that be the tone of the check-ins, that leads us to…

Suggestion 5

Understand your emotions better, and find a constructive frame through which to understand and relate to them.

Internal Family Systems is something I recommend often, but The Art of Accomplishment podcast has good models for this sort of thing as well, and there’s a good Clearer Thinking tool on it too. My elevator pitch for the space in which they intersect is something like:

Understand that your emotions/desires/impulses each exist for a good reason. That does not mean that they’re automatically “correct,” but it does mean that trying to ignore or banish them entirely is not the healthiest way to deal with whatever is causing them to arise. Instead try treating them, and yourself, since that’s what they amount to, like a friend, one whose feelings you can validate and support without letting them overwhelm you.

An exercise you can try now:

  1. Notice if you have an inner narrator that’s harsh or judgemental or bullying toward any emotions or desires you have. Is there something you’ve been criticizing yourself for lately?
  2. Consider how you would talk to your best friend, romantic partner, or a child if they talked to you about a similar problem they were having.
  3. Write a short message to yourself using the same language you would use.

I plan to write more about how we relate to our emotions and how to understand them better, and will update this post with a link when I do.

The last part of this series will cover the last 3 aspects of Executive Function

Part 3: Working Memory, Organization, Flexible Thinking

Or you can refresh yourself on the previous posts:

Part 0: Executive Function 101

Part 1: Planning & Prioritizing, Task Initiation

 

Procedural Executive Function, Part 1

To most people, Executive Function is a confusing, mysterious thing that only really comes to attention through dysfunction, particularly mental health disorders like ADHD or depression. Questions of how it works, or how to get more of it, are treated as similar to questions of how to get more “motivation” or “willpower.”

I’m here to tell you that’s nonsense, and that you can think of executive function in a procedural, explicit way that makes it easy in most cases where you fail to do something you “want to do” to track what’s going wrong and why.

To do that, I’m going to break EF into 8 parts that I consider roughly sequential in how people experience “deliberately doing something,” from start to finish, to point out pitfalls and how they can be dealt with.

I call it Procedural Executive Function.

Before starting, it’s important to take an extra moment to specifically emphasize that this is a process with multiple steps. Part of what I hope people learn from this is to better understand which aspect of the process is blocking them when they feel stuck with their own executive dysfunction.

So if I focus on a certain aspect of the process and share a perspective on how to help ensure that part goes smoothly, that doesn’t mean the assumption is everything will go fine as long as that one aspect does. For some actions you take, the whole process will go smoothly. When it doesn’t, the part that trips you up will likely change depending on personality, diagnoses, the type of action you’re taking, or just the context of your life at that moment.

We’re first examining these parts individually so that we can then examine how they interact more systematically; no part of this process should be taken as a final, normative word on how your own inner workings must look. But I hope it will be helpful nonetheless.

If you’re still confused and want an even wider frame, and haven’t read the intro post yet, now might be a good time to check it out.

(As a final note, I won’t talk about medical solutions to Executive Function, as it’s outside of my area of expertise. I hope to add more resources for that at some point.)

Planning/Prioritizing

The first step of any intentional act can be called the “notion” to act. Notions themselves are involuntary, often vague, and not particularly compelling. They’re just an idea, summed up generically as a thought like “oh, that’s a thing.”

This sometimes comes with a should attached. “I should study” or “I should throw out the trash.” But the more neutral version is simply a could. “I could get a drink” or “I could watch some  TV.” It can also be nonverbal; just an image of something, maybe with a vague sense of desire or worry.

Once the notion occurs, a few things might happen automatically (that is to say preconsciously):

  1. Our mind discards the notion, sometimes so quickly that a few moments later we might not even remember having it.
  2. Our body starts acting on it, such as by walking to the fridge or alt-tabbing to a web browser.
  3. Our imagination starts to plan out how we might do it, or simulate what doing it might be like, or envision what the outcome might be.

We often become aware we’re doing the 2nd one as we do it (though it can take a surprising amount of time), and then decide if we want to continue or not. If the thing is enjoyable enough, it might be hard to stop. This will be covered more in future articles.

The 3rd one, if noticed and latched onto, can then be continued consciously. This is the first point at which intention enters play, which makes it the first relevant step of executive function; by definition, something is only a result of executive function if it’s intentional.

It may seem strange to count “what you decide to do” as part of executive function, but this is why it’s important that Planning and Prioritizing are grouped together; before you decide how to do something you must decide whether you actually want to at all. And your reasons, context, and frame for prioritizing something is all upstream of how “motivated” you will feel to overcome the various other challenges that might come up during the process, including the actual initiation of the task.

So how do we do that?

It’s difficult to make a full list of things to prioritize for; there are multiple entire frames you could use before you even start listing things, such as short term vs long term, or selfcare vs productivity, or explore vs exploit. Or you can divide your life up into different areas and goals, such as Health, Work, Leisure, and Love and then decide what to prioritize based on which is lowest, or which feels the most valuable in the moment.

Whatever the category or specific thing being prioritized for is, the first step to avoiding executive dysfunction is recognizing what feels, for lack of a better word, alive. That can mean “fun,” even if challenging, or “compelling,” even if scary… these are just a couple of the many words we use to refer to specific emotions that make up the umbrella term “motivation.”

Motivation comes up all the time when talking about executive (dys)function. Sometimes it’s called “willpower.” Other times people refer to its absence, “akrasia,” when they wonder why they’re struggling to do things they, ostensibly, want to do.

But this is why distinguishing actual “wants” from feelings of “shoulds” is important. There will always be more notions to do things than things you end up having time to do, and always more “shoulds” that you will feel pressured to follow than the ones you endorse doing.

Again, prioritizing is crucial to executive function. It’s how you avoid not just decision paralysis on one hand or regret on the other, but also how you avoid motivation traps (simply not caring enough about the thing to do it, despite feeling like you need to). Trying to do something that doesn’t feel alive is similar to getting a car from one place to another without enough gas; the less you have, the more you’ll have to push.

So what does it mean to prioritize based on what you “want,” in a world that’s so often full of things you “have” to do just to survive, or maintain basic quality of life?

There’s no easy answer to this, as your wants are to some degree a reflection of reality. There may be some activities that just are more fun than others for you in the territory. There may be some outcomes that just are more scary than others for you. There isn’t anything wrong with recognizing this.

But we understand reality through models, and our maps of the territory can change as we gain new knowledge. Some activities turn out to be more fun than we at first think they are, either with experience or with the right knowledge of how to do them a different way, and our motivation to do them increases. Other times we reframe our expectations or experience of an activity, and it becomes more or less motivating based on the attitude we take, or the predictions we have, about it. Genuinely believing that failure is just an opportunity to learn and grow makes activities with uncertain success less daunting to try, but of course this is more difficult the stronger the negative consequences are.

This may seem obvious to some, but it’s worth spelling out that this means our ability to simulate what will happen if we do something, or don’t do it, is actually fairly important for how motivated we feel to do it. If you can’t clearly visualize the steps from where you are to where you want to be, it’s much easier to end up feeling stuck, lost, or adrift.

(For those with aphantasia, the alternative process might be similar to what you do when thinking of something in the future you’re excited about; I’m not sure how analogous this is, and would love to hear from anyone who has trouble with mental visualizations, or see research on whether there’s a connection between the two)

We can also find more clues to why things might be emotionally difficult to do by looking at the reverse: habits.

Endorsed or not, we tend to feel no particular rush of motivation or painful akrasia when doing habits because, in order for an action to become a habit, we’ve done it so often it has become predictable. There’s no chance of failure, and no need for thought to ensure a particularly good outcome.

(Probably worth noting, it seems that some people really just don’t form habits, or at least the threshold for forming habits is much higher for them such that the closest thing they experience to being able to do things on autopilot while thinking about other things is something like “walking” or driving.” This is also something I’m curious to hear/learn more about.)

All of which leads me to my first crystallized insight from research:

Executive Dysfunction most often occurs when the next step between where you are now and what you want to do is difficult to imagine, and/or painful in some way.

Task Initiation

This, ultimately, is why a lot of the leading advice for clearing ugh fields are things like “break things down into smaller steps” and “check if there’s anyone you can reach out to for help” and “try approaching the problem from another angle.” It’s also why just talking through a fear and being reassured that the reality won’t be as bad as it seems can help people do things they’ve been putting off.

I suspect it’s also why just having company around can help people get through things they expect to be unpleasant. There’s a sense of ambient safety that comes from being around those we trust to support us, even if there’s nothing in particular they can do about the bad-stuff that we imagine. On top of that, as a separate thing, having pleasant company and conversation can just make unpleasant tasks easier to do.

This might seem really basic, but is worth highlighting as separate from social pressure or worries of how you’ll look to others, which tend to be how people perceive accountability partners or similar. Those can definitely have influence, but for many they’re aversive rather than compelling, and these more positive frames can be more valuable.

But those are all just a few ways to unblock the initial spark/decision/compulsion to do something you deliberately plan to do. If you don’t focus too much on deliberate steps of an action, you might find yourself able to do them more easily by just following notions; “non-doing,” or wuwei, is a phrase often used for this state. Of course, you also might find yourself non-doing something else other than the thing you “intend” to (that’s rather the point).

But that this “cheat” can work at all indicates again that there’s something about deliberate attention and focus that can evoke things which demotivate us, or paralyze us with indecision or fear. Acting before your conscious thoughts can get in the way is, in many ways, like putting yourself in a state of total freedom from consequences; consequences only impact our behavior when we know about and believe in them, after all. This is a great strategy when the risks or consequences aren’t “real.”

Not that non-doing is fool-proof, even if you invoke it and and follow the “right” notion to, say, sit in front of your computer and open your email inbox; once you’re face to face with a difficult email, it might bring your attention back to the things that made it hard to answer them in the first place, sending your attention to something less uncertain or painful. But again, we’ll cover that in a later section.

How does task initiation for any particular course of action happen at all, given all the other possible actions you could take at any given point? What tips the mind in the direction of one over another?

At some level a calculation is being made from evidence accrued about what you want and how likely a given task is to get it for you, set against evidence of risk and consequences of failure.

Credit to a Scott Young’s excellent article on Act-R Theory

So all you have to do is find a way to make something seem more likely to get what you want, right?

Well, yes, except doing that is itself a task that requires initiation, which means it also gets stymied by next-steps that seem unclear or painful. It’s turtles all the way down.

But that’s not to say it’s hopeless; again, what frame you’re thinking of the problem in matters, as does real knowledge about what you want and how to get it, as do incentives.

So here are my practical suggestions, along with all the usual stuff like “reduce friction to doing what you want” and “set up good incentives” and “break tasks down” and “ask for help” and so on:

Suggestion 1: Distinguish what you actually want.

There are four things people confuse all the time, and use the same sort of language to express, despite them meaning very different things:

1) I want to do X.

2) I want X to be done, but don’t want to do it.

3) I want to be the sort of person who does or can do X.

4) I want to be seen as the sort of person who does or can do X.

It’s important to notice which of these actually applies to your circumstances, not just to better figure out what sorts of frames and evidence will motivate you to do it, but again to figure out whether it’s something you endorse trying to do at all.

(It’s also much easier not to beat yourself up over failing to be motivated to do something when you realize that you don’t actually want to, and realize what similar motivations might be crossed with the one you thought you were acting on.)

Always be clear whether priorities are guided by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. I don’t have a source on this, but in my experience and from reports by others it is genuinely easier for a lot of students to do bullshit busy-work when the people asking them to do the bullshit work acknowledge it’s bullshit and take a “let’s just get through this together” approach rather than a “you’re a bad person if you don’t want to do this” one.

Suggestion 2: Review the actual costs/benefits.

There’s something uniquely powerful about letting your thoughts finish. A big part of the value that comes from introspective activities, like journaling, Internal Double Crux, or various kinds of therapy, is that they’re containers that give your thoughts time to reach their endpoints, and your emotions space to be felt and sat with.

Our brains are great at blocking or hiding from unpleasant thoughts. It’s basic behaviorism, reflexive as catching or flinching away from rapidly approaching objects. So when we need more evidence that something is worth doing to feel motivated to do it, we might keep the examination of that evidence from happening without even realizing it if the information comes “packaged” with painful thoughts or feelings.

You never know what might tip the amount of evidence your brain needs to do something past the initiation threshold, so one of the ways that we can “amass willpower” is by putting all the information in front of our System 2 and giving it time to process. This is part of why just talking to a friend about something difficult to do can make it easier, and we can isolate the effect by noticing a similar value from writing out the thoughts about it instead, or doing Focusing on some felt-sense of urgency, or giving space to internal parts to talk to each other. These can all provide different benefits, but what they have in common is that they’re time spent actually reviewing, sitting with, and absorbing the reasons why we want to do something, if you do, or why we’ll be glad that it’s done.

Let your inner sim slide forward in time, not just to the activity itself (which will likely make your attention focus on things that are fun to do moment to moment) but also to the post-act feeling, which may motivate you by focusing your attention more on the “completed a challenge” joy.

Suggestion 3: Prioritize smaller steps.

This planning/prioritizing stage can be a lengthy process or a nearly instantaneous one. Many have had the experience of feeling like they want to do something, or should do something, perfectly visualize what it would take to do it, but are simply/just unable to move their limbs.

In an extreme version of this, I heard from someone who reported that they needed to charge their phone, and the charger was even in reach, but the actual act of moving to get the charger felt insurmountable.

As a form of “break the task down into smaller steps,” I also suggest “prioritize smaller steps.” Don’t just break the task down into “turn off TV, get up, go to the computer, open email, select first unanswered email,” etc. That can be helpful sometimes, particularly for complex or obscure problems like research projects or bureaucratic paperwork, but it’s not priming the motivation generator.

Instead, also focus on how each step is itself valuable to you. You know the positive feelings you get sometimes when you stand up after being prone for a long time? You know how being in a sitting position for too long is bad for health? Let your attention focus on those things, and prioritize the task of just getting up first. You know that feeling of pleasure you get when you check something off a list, or remember that you made some progress on a task today? Focus on those feelings, and prioritize just opening the email and reading it if you haven’t, or starting the draft if you haven’t.

In other words, seek the positive valence attached to each step of an activity and focus on those to motivate you from one step to the next. If you’re having trouble feeling anything while doing this, note what your body sensations are as a default; if you feel numb in general, it’s going to be hard to feel motivated to do anything, since you won’t have an associated felt-sense (this is likely why depression and low-motivation are so correlated) and thus none of the things you imagine will help you reach the activation threshold.

In that case, do something to help you get re-embodied. For some people this is as simple as dancing; put on some music that makes you move, or just notice your body and feel your feet and sway your limbs. For others it means grounding yourself in your breathing or heartbeat, and expand outward from there.

Cheat Codes

I’m labeling these “cheats” without malice or judgment, simply because I have no plausible explanation for them beyond “they trick your brain into being in another state.” Even the word trick feels perhaps too judgmental, as it assumes that any other state you could change to needs to have some difficult or explicable process. Maybe it doesn’t/shouldn’t, and in any case, it seems worth noting these strategies in case they’re helpful, or to flag them as interesting things to explore in case others have models information to share about why they work they way they do.

Music: The right music can motivate you to do all sorts of stuff. This likely is related to the positive-valence thing; music can often shift your emotional state, and this is a valuable tool in many cases, such as when you want to exercise, or clean the house, or do something that feels scary. I claim a big part of this comes from narrative power, particularly as music from movies or games or anime seem unusually effective, but it’s not exclusive to those.

It’s hard to shift entirely from one emotional mood to a completely different one, so if this seems like it doesn’t work for you, one piece of further advice I have on this is to pick a song that evokes an emotional frame that’s in the direction you want to go while still being in the venn diagram of the one you feel. So if you’re sad, and you know playing a super bubbly, energetic, positive song just makes you feel worse, or can’t reach you at all… instead try a song that’s at least melancholy, but with a hopeful or nostalgic or bittersweet tinge to it.

Totems: Objects can change your mood too; clothing, teddy bears, pictures taped to your monitor, etc. Anything that alters or changes your state of mind can be a valuable tool for enhancing executive function. If you’re having trouble typing in that journal app you keep insisting to yourself you’re going to do, but wearing a bathrobe and writing in a physical book with a quill by candlelight seems more appealing to you, then go for it.

Frames: I claim that frames are, quite possibly, the most powerful and ubiquitous psychotechnology there is, but that’s a claim for a bigger post than this. Meanwhile, my assertion here is that they’re not just very powerful for motivation, but also possibly very dangerous if used in the “wrong way.” There are often many different frames that people can use to recontextualize or view the things they “have” or want to do, and it’s worth noting when the narrative you’re telling yourself isn’t working so you can explore what others might feel more true or reach that positive valence tipping point.

An easy example of this is how many people manage to work quite hard for long periods of time, day after day, because they believe it will advance their career if they do, compared to those who believe they’re working on something vitally important to the world or their values, compared to those who do because they believe there are people directly relying on them to. These are all things that can motivate different people in different ways, whether true or not… and also, all three can be true, but which one someone’s attention naturally focuses on in any given moment might not be the most motivating one.

Gamification: Adding an extra layer of incentives or accountability can be fairly motivating for many people, and may seem less of a cheat, since it can be obvious why it works, but there are some forms of this that still feel “mysterious” to me, such as the idea of a “winning streak” that many apps use to keep people motivated to keep doing something day after day without missing one, even with no extra tangible reward. For many people, being rewarded with recognition of our effort, even if it’s just pixels on a screen from a computerized process, can still affect our expected emotional valence enough that it can tip us over the motivation threshold when we might not otherwise do the thing.

Further Resources

The next parts of this series will cover the other 6 aspects of Executive Function:

Part 0: Executive Dysfunction 101

Part 2: Emotional Control, Self Monitoring, Impulse Control

Part 3: Working Memory, Organization, Flexible Thinking

And there’s a video I’d recommend if you’re looking for another take on Executive Function. It breaks it down into three areas of the brain:

  1. Frontal-Striatal Circuit: Response suppression, Freedom from distraction, working memory, organization, planning. “What” network.
  2. Frontal-Cerebellar Circuit: Motor Coordination, timing/timeliness, “When” network.
  3. Frontal-Limbic Circuit: Emotional Dysfunction, Motivation deficits, hyper-impulsivity, aggression. “Why” network.

And offers its own list of practical advice with some overlap:

  • Reinforce yourself with rewards
  • Use verbal self-encouragement
  • Take 10 minute breaks between tasks
  • Frequent 3 minutes of relaxation/meditation throughout day
  • Visualize future benefits
  • Engage in routine exercise
  • Drink sugary drinks to keep your mental energy up

Edit: I’ve presented on this at a couple EAGs, one of which was recorded:

 

Executive Dysfunction 101

This is an intro post for the Procedural Executive Function sequence, which is now complete, to help give some general background of how to orient to executive dysfunction both philosophically and practically.

First things first; “executive dysfunction” is not a diagnosis. Executive functions are what govern our ability to plan actions, take those actions, maintain focus on them, adapt to changes, and more subtle steps between.

ADHD is a diagnosis that points to a cluster of common struggles with executive function: working memory, impulse control, and self monitoring. But there are plenty of other diagnoses that can impact one or more of those eight, and of course even things like lack of sleep, hunger, being irritated, disruptive environments, and other stressors can affect them.

So in general when we talk about executive dysfunction what we’re really pointing at is a symptom we witness when someone isn’t able to act on their desires, or on things they think they should do, or on things they think they should desire.

Which brings up the more philosophical question; what does it mean to “fail to act” on a desire? Does someone “have executive dysfunction” if they struggle to complete something they don’t want to do, but feel they have to? What about what they “want to want” to do, but don’t find interesting, even while they can still work on passion projects without issue? Or is it only executive dysfunction if they can’t bring themselves to work on something they feel a strong desire to do, in which case what does “strong desire” mean?

All this makes the question of whether someone struggles with executive dysfunction ill-posed. The better question is “in what domains or in what types of circumstances does someone struggle with executive dysfunction,” followed by narrowing down to which of their executive functions are the chokepoint. Organization? Task initiation? Emotional control?

(I’m also not a fan of “emotional control” as a phrase, as it implies something like stifling or dampening or wrestling with your emotions. This might accurately describe the feeling for some people, but integrating emotions in a healthy way doesn’t have to feel like any of that)

With this more precise understanding, the possible interventions also become more clear. Organization and planning skills can be learned, as can self-awareness and emotional integration. Multitasking and working memory, meanwhile, are harder to improve, and so reducing distractions by adjusting the environment might be more effective.

But most importantly, the question of whether the task is tied to a “want” or a “want to want” or a “should” can itself guide people to better understanding whether their struggle is one that is worth resolving at all, as compared to one that isn’t worth the costs compared to other actions or paths. Many people have pushed through some difficult job or university degree and were glad they did; others regret time wasted and emotional suffering endured for a goal that didn’t end up mattering to them.

Which is why executive dysfunction should not be treated by default as a difficulty that needs to be overcome. Instead it can also be a signal from one or more of your parts that the path you’re on is not the right one for you, and that you might benefit from searching for other, better roads, or even goals.

Along with depression and anxiety, additional factors can exacerbate executive dysfunction, such as perfectionism. The idea that anything tried must succeed, or be done perfectly, often leads to a feeling of dread or hopelessness at the prospect of even starting a task. This is particularly exacerbated by OCD.

Which leads to a general theory of treatment that includes things like exploring motivations and dissolving “shoulds” as a first step before taking for granted that failure to do something is about the person rather than the thing they’re trying to do.

[The above refers to the parts model of the self, and to the therapeutic idea of systematically replacing the concept “should” with less normative framings. A lot of people find these helpful, but they’re not consensus views and they don’t work for everyone.]

Once that’s done, only then is it useful to focus on strategies for breaking tasks down into simpler versions of themselves, finding tools and contexts for improving focus and accountability, and generally working up and down that colorful flowchart up there to improve whatever part of executive function might be rate limiting. For example, since past difficulties can exacerbate this sense of predicted suffering or failure, it’s also important to focus on small, achievable steps that are more likely to succeed and thus increase predictability of success.

To further explore this, I plan to write a series of posts on how to procedurally explore executive function within ourselves so that we can identify the places where we get stuck when we have trouble doing stuff we want to do, and have a better idea of what can help.

Part 1: Planning & Prioritizing, Task Initiation

Part 2: Emotional Control, Self Monitoring, Impulse Control

Part 3: Working Memory, Organization, Flexible Thinking