Are you often running late? Do you feel like there is not enough time in the day to get through all of your responsibilities? Do you find yourself regularly forgetting your keys? Do you have trouble focusing on things for too long before boredom creeps up on you, making it seem impossible to finish tasks on time? Do you find yourself procrastinating doing things that you know you need to do and wasting valuable time? If you answered yes to any of the above questions then you need to work on developing your executive life skills.
Executive life skills are management and organisational skills that include planning, problem solving, decision making and management of time and information. Executive life skills are important and will vastly improve both your work, academic and personal life. Executive function is what enables us to manage our time, navigate various tasks simultaneously and meet important deadlines. Without having good executive life skills you will ultimately feel disorganised, overwhelmed, anxious and stressed as the pressures of every day life stifle you and prevent you from performing to the best of your ability.
Eleven Components of Executive Function
Neuroscientists have identified eleven core components of executive function. Building and maintaining strong executive life skills involves considering and working towards mastering each of these areas and reflecting on how they influence your life. Through addressing these individual components and strengthening your executive life skills in each of these areas you can vastly improve your life. These components are outlined below.
Response inhibition involves both knowing when to act and considering how to act. Often responding to situations too quickly can result in stress, anxiety and regret as you later realise that you did not behave appropriately, or that you could have reacted in a more positive way. It is important to be able to learn when to inhibit your responses, so that you do not act solely based on impulse, emotion or temptation. Through learning to take the time to carefully consider your actions before responding, you will be able to break addictions and patterns of poor behaviour.
Working memory is an important component of short term memory that deals specifically with information processing. Working memory is utilised to perform tasks and solve problems. Working memory allows you to draw on past experiences and information and apply it to a present situation, as well as enabling you to retain information and apply it to similar situations in the future.
Having a good sense of emotional control allows you to regulate your emotions so you do not feel overcome and overwhelmed by them. Often emotions can cloud your judgement, so developing a sense of emotional control enables you to see things clearly and rationally regardless of the emotions that you are experiencing at the time. Having a sense of emotional control means that your actions are consistent regardless of your emotional state, and that you are able to work through negative or uncomfortable emotions in a productive manner.
Having a sense of flexibility is a crucial element of a successful and positive life. Being flexible means that you can adapt to change and make the most out of new and challenging situations. Having a sense of personal flexibility means that you are able to review and change plans in the presence of unexpected obstacles.
Sustained attention is the ability to focus on a stimuli even in the presence of distractors and boredom. Sustained attention is an important life skill as it allows you to achieve your work and academic goals, as well as improving your communication skills and your relationships with others as you learn to become more present.
Task initiation refers to beginning a new task without a tendency to procrastinate. Being able to initiate new tasks without major interference or setback is a valuable skill that will affect your life significantly. Putting off tasks and responsibilities or delaying them is a poor habit that will ultimately increase levels of stress and anxiety. Task initiation is directly related to productivity. If you are able to quickly and effectively manage and begin new tasks your life will be much more productive in all area’s.
Planning and Prioritisation
To achieve your goals you need to be able to engage in a certain level of planning. Planning involves considering your options and deciding on the best course of action. Life is often full of various responsibilities, in order to achieve what is most important in your life you should be able to prioritise your responsibilities, ensuring that the majority of your time and attention goes into those tasks that are most urgent or valuable to you. Part of developing executive life skills involves accepting that you can’t do everything, and then being able to identify and work towards the things that are most important to you with careful planning.
To enhance your productivity, you also need to create a consistent and meaningful system of organisation that works for you personally. To ensure that you are not forgetting deadlines write down all of your commitments and responsibility in a diary, planner or calendar. Your work and living spaces should also possess a high level of organisation so that you are able to find things when you need them, rather than consistently wasting time looking for things. To achieve this, ensure that all of your things have a designated space, banish clutter and get in the habit of putting your things away after you use them.
Time management involves exercising control over the amount of time you spend on each task. Possessing good time management skills are important in all aspects of work and every day life. To effectively manage your time a certain degree of planning is necessary. First, consider how much time you have as well as how many tasks you have to complete. Remember to factor in things such as breaks and leisure time so you do not burn out. Then, allocate an approximate time frame to each task and then try your best to stick to it. Often people fall into the toxic habit of leaving everything to the last minute, and then wildly racing to complete things before the deadline. This habit will add unnecessary stress and tension to your life and will prevent you from performing to the best of your ability. To produce good work, maintain good relationships and achieve a healthy work-life balance good time management is vital.
Goal oriented determination is what enables people to achieve their goals even in the face of various challenges and obstacles. It is rare that any significant goal is easily to achieved, so to work towards it you need to have a clear sense of why it is important to you personally. Establishing why your goals are important will help you to persevere regardless of the setbacks you experience along the way. People who possess a high level of goal oriented determination are able to resist smaller gratifications in their pursuit of their long term goals and aspirations.
Metacognition refers to the thoughts that you have about your thoughts. Displaying and implementing metacognitive skills involves a high degree of self reflection and self evaluation. Through being self-reflexive it is possible to identify poor habits and establish more positive ones, allowing you to continually improve. Metacognition involves the capacity to check in on yourself and your internal state and assess and monitor how you are feeling.
Where To Start? Organise Your Life
If you have consistently struggled with executive function, developing these skills will require a complete overhaul of your thoughts and behaviours. Just like any new behaviour, developing excellent organisation skills will be difficult and overwhelming at first, but with time and perseverance you can make good organisation a habit, until it eventually seems automatic. Outlined below are some common and easy to use tips and tools that will help you to live a more organised and productive life.
Using A Diary Or Planner
To effectively manage your commitments and meet your deadlines, you first have to know when those commitments and deadlines are. Regardless of how good your memory is, memory is always vulnerable to forgetfulness and error so it is important to ensure that you are making a record of all of your responsibilities. You might like to invest in a diary to record all of your appointments in, or you may prefer to use the calendar and organisation function on your smart phone to keep track of your commitments. In your diary or planner, make sure that you write down all of your appointments and responsibilities. If you have an important deadline it is also important to write yourself consistent reminders such as “two weeks until final exam”, to ensure that you are aware of all of your responsibilities and they do not creep up on you unexpectedly.
Whatever form of organiser you use, the most important thing is that you carry it with you at all times and use it consistently. Make sure you schedule in everything from coffee with friends, to work and family events. Getting into the habit of using a diary or planner will completely transform your life. You will no longer miss deadlines and feel that you do not have enough time to juggle all of your commitments. A diary is a simple and easy way to begin organising yourself and managing your time.
Another positive habit to start working on that will improve your life, is writing lists. When you are feeling overwhelmed because you have many competing and simultaneous commitments, begin by writing a list of everything you have to do. Once you have written the list, look over it and begin to identify what tasks are most urgent and important and address these first. Once you have completed a task, highlight it or tick it off your list. This will give you a sense of accomplishment, as you are moving through your responsibilities, rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.
Shopping lists are another useful tool that you should focus on implementing. Before you go to the shops, ensure that you write down everything you need. If you go to the shops without first ascertaining exactly what you require, you will often forget important items, or you will end up purchasing a lot more than you initially intended and needed. To ensure that you are not consistently overspending, writing shopping lists is a helpful habit which will reduce the stress of shopping.
The Power of Routine
Getting into a good routine will make organisation seem less challenging. If you take the time to schedule each of your regular commitments into your day and aim to complete these at the same time, they will soon form a habit and before too long you will find that they become effortless. Try to go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at approximately the same time every morning. Once your body adjusts, this will eventually become a habit and through consistency and perseverance you will say goodbye to restless nights and tired, lethargic mornings as you have developed a stable routine. It is also important to ensure that you are getting sufficient sleep every night. Your brain will not be able to perform optimally, make effective use of your time and live your best life unless you are well rested and refreshed.
As well as establishing a consistent sleeping routine, try to incorporate 30 minutes to one hour of exercise each day. Exercise is an important aspect of a healthy life style and can enhance performance. Exercise is also a great way to refresh your mind after a period of intense concentration or focus, serving to increase productivity.
Organise Your Space
To ensure that you are able to maintain a high level of organisation you need to organise your surroundings. Start by sorting through your home and work space and throwing out everything that is broken or that you don’t want or need any more. Next, allocate everything a space. Make sure that similar items are all stored together. Rather than having multiple places in your home or office to store stationary, decide on just one place and endeavor to keep everything together. Make sure all of your clothes are either folded in drawers or hanging in a wardrobe. Do not leave anything on the floor. Rather than waiting for things to become messy and disorganised again, try go get in the habit of cleaning as you go. If you get something out, put it away. If you continue to do this, then you will never find yourself overwhelmed by a messy space again!
How many times in your life have you found yourself stuck in a cycle, repeating the same actions over and over to get a certain result but with little success? You might continuously ask your kids to clean their rooms, but they never seem to listen. You might put reminders in your diary, but then forget to check your diary, or leave it at home. In life it is easy to learn from the obvious mistakes: if you’ve ever put your hand on a hot stove you’re unlikely to make the same mistake again. But how often do you learn from the more subtle lessons? For example, how often does raising your voice, using accusatory language and resorting to insults help to address tension in a relationship? Usually using aggression to address problems results in the other person getting defensive and retaliating which could damage the quality of the relationship.
To more effectively manage tension in the future you will need to consider your purpose in these interactions and carefully consider what the best technique might be to help you achieve your goals. We need to know our purpose in interactions such as these and figure out the best technique.
When addressing conflict or challenges you need to
- Know what you want to achieve
- Know what doesn’t work and
- Continue shifting strategies until you succeed
Making Smart Choices
Life encompasses a variety of challenges and experiences. In order to live your happiest, most meaningful life it is important to develop your skills and carefully evaluate the possible consequences of your actions. Often people are attracted to things that create immediate pleasure. However, sometimes this momentary pleasure can result in serious consequences later on. For example, a child may cause a big argument with their parents about having to do something that they don’t want to do like tidy their room. Rather than accepting the feelings of initial annoyance at having to tidy their room, they chose to throw a tantrum. Typically, this tantrum is met with a negative response from their parents possibly leading to punishment and putting a strain on the relationship. Ultimately, the child is still made to tidy their room. So the child had a clear choice: to complete the task without complaint or to throw a tantrum, upset their parents and get in trouble. The choice was in fact accepting a small amount of suffering compared to going through the process of making that suffering grow and grow. Enhancing your suffering through your reaction to it rather than just accepting the initial discomfort is a cycle referred to as the “Circles of Suffering”. It is the way that we avoid small things only to find them grow out of control. We are like this child in so many ways, growing our suffering because we don’t want to put-up with things we can’t avoid. We need to make smart choices and recognise where we do this is life. This goes back to our understanding of the affects of avoidance and how unhelpful strategies can trap us and acceptance can free us and help us let go.
There is always something you can do towards overcoming a challenge in your life. No matter how small the change is, it is a step forward and something to be proud of. Rumination often leads to abstract questions such as “Why do bad things happen to me?”, “What’s wrong with me?” which result in a sense of resignation and a sense that you lack control over your life e.g. “There’s nothing I can do about it”. Constructive thinking is when you look at the problem at hand, and identify at least one tangible thing you can do to tackle (or begin to tackle) it. For example, if you are having problems with a colleague at work, call a close friend so that you can brainstorm solutions. If you are having disagreements with family, consider opening up communication by writing a letter and telling them how you feel.
Creating SMART Goals
General goal: “I want to lose weight”.
S.M.A.R.T. goal: “I will lose 3kg by November 1st through a combination of diet and exercise. I will measure my progress with weekly weigh-ins”.
Of course, you can also set sub-goals to achieve your key goal e.g. “I will cut down my consumption of fizzy drinks to one can per week for at least one month”. Make sure that it is still a S.M.A.R.T. goal!
Take Small Steps
- If a goal seems too big, make it smaller. If cutting down to one can of fizzy drink is too much to commit to, cut back to 2 cans. If doing exercise daily is unrealistic, do it every 2 days.
- Ask yourself: “On a scale of 0 – 10, how likely am I to actually do this?”
In order to effectively achieve our goals, you also need to imagine the potential difficulties and obstacles that might stand in the way of us achieving our goals, and how we will deal with them if they arise.
We need to ask ourselves:
a) What are the possible internal difficulties that may arise? These include difficult thoughts and feelings, such as low motivation, self-doubt, procrastination, hopelessness, insecurity, anxiety.
b) What are the possible external difficulties? These may include things such as a lack of time, skills, money or other physical or external things that may stop you from achieving this goal.
Then, you will need to make a plan for any of the things that you can predict might arise. There may be certain things that you won’t be able to predict and you can deal with them as they occur. However, it is still important to think through the predictable challenges and consider possible solutions ahead of time, so that these things cannot be used as an excuse not to follow through.
If internal difficulties arise in the form of uncomfortable feelings we need to have thought through how we are going to address these things. We already know avoidance is unhelpful, but we need to be able to draw upon strategies of acceptance in these moments. How are we going to open up and allow ourselves to put up with the uncomfortable sensations that arise without running away? It can be helpful to remind ourselves of these strategies before we even start . This is when we need to draw upon many of the MindStudios strategies of acceptance, mindfulness and Positive Mind to be able to stick to our committed action.