Overcoming executive dysfunction: Tips for getting things done

Executive dysfunction can be caused by a number of different factors, such as stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue. But don’t worry-there are ways to overcome it and get things done! Here are a few tips: break down your goals into small, manageable tasks, establish a routine and stick to it, create a positive environment for yourself, and find a support system. With a little effort, you can regain control and be productive again!

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What is Executive Dysfunction and what causes it?

Executive dysfunction is a condition that affects the ability to manage time, tasks and emotions effectively. It can be caused by a number of different factors, such as stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue, but it is most commonly known as a side effect of ADHD.

Symptoms of executive dysfunction can vary depending on the person, but some of the most common include trouble planning and organizing, difficulty completing tasks, and problems with focus and concentration. Sure sounds like our dear old ADHD! What makes Executive dysfunction its own thing, however, is the fact that a certain overwhelm overtakes your brain; the one thing(big or small) that you’re not able to do due to executive dysfunction is usually keeping you from doing anything else.

Executive dysfunction overwhelm

Ever had a to-do list and decided to do the most annoying or intimidating thing first? If you’re reading this, I’m gonna guess that it went about as well as when I tried it.

I couldn’t do that first thing, therefore I did none of the things.

Sound familiar? It is unfortunately a very common ADHD + Executive Dysfunction trait. If we go by the psychological point of view, it is important to note that our brains are physically not made for Executive Function. Just like habit-making and automatic sequences of actions (or routines, I guess), Executive Function is mostly rooted in the subconscious. I’ve mentioned that the neural pathways of neurodivergent brains are physically different than neurotypical brains in a different blog post, and the same problem is affecting our Executive Function.

But don’t worry, I’m not saying you’re doomed to fail!

But, like most things, it’ll be more complicated than necessary. Cue violent eye roll.

Overcoming executive dysfunction

There are a few key ways to overcome executive dysfunction and get things done despite difficulties with planning, organization, and executive function skills, and there are some ways that have been mentioned often that need to be debunked.

First, breaking down your goals into small, manageable tasks is NOT the cure-all that neurotypicals think it is. If I break down my goal, I end up with a very long list of bite-sized things to do…

that I’m still not gonna do.

That very long list CAN help focus on one thing at a time, but I have to admit that seeing dozens of tasks does not exactly help my overwhelm. My original end goals can usually be divided in 4 or 5 key points, but if I break everything down…

It’s a lot of small tasks.

If you do want or need to break down your end goal, you can. However, I highly suggest not doing it all at once. Taking my end goals as an example, try breaking down one key point into more tasks, and leave the other 4 alone for the time being. You’re not working on those, so they don’t need your attention right now.

Pick your battles, and pick fewer than that, thank you very much

Another little debunk of mine is the need to establish a routine and stick to it as much as possible, “to help your brain know what to expect and when, making it easier to focus.” Back to the aforementioned physical differences in our brains, let’s not try to fight the executive dysfunction subconscious AND the routine-making subconscious at the same time.

Neurodivergence is already Hard-Mode, I am absolutely not into the idea of DEATH MARCH.

With executive dysfunction, the main goal is to avoid what I like to call the “Big Nope.” That’s what happens when you get so overwhelmed by that one task that you brain just refuses to do anything at all.

There are a few ways to deal with the Big Nope:

You can push the task back so it doesn’t stop you from doing the other tasks (most of the time, I understand that some tasks have to be done first for a reason)

You can ask for help. I once spent 3 days stuck on the idea of dishes until I told my partner. And he went and did the dishes. What blocks you may not be blocking someone else. Make sure to return the favor when you can!

You can practice productive procrastination, which means juggling a few different things that you don’t really want to do… but now that the task at hand really sucks, you may find the other ones more fun.

You can try to just get up and do the thing. It’s difficult, I don’t have much success with it, but I am still mentioning it because it should be mentioned. Sometimes all there is to do is shut off the brain and mechanically start on the first step.

Remember that it’s really rare that a person doesn’t have any sh!tty tasks to complete. the Big Nope doesn’t happen in every person, but the reality is that we don’t always want to do the things we need to do.

It’s not about the task at hand, it’s about your mindset

Before you roll your eyes at me, I do want to say that a positive, less-chaotic environment is a good thing. So is positive thinking, or at least, not-negative thinking. You don’t need to put yourself down, and you don’t need to listen to that inner monologue that keeps telling you that you suck.

I do like the concept of mindset reprogramming and how thoughts, sentences and specific actions can make your life better. For example, the positive environment means surrounding yourself with things that inspire you and make you feel good. When you’re in a good place mentally, it’s much easier to be productive. Being in a proper mindset is an entire other blog post subject though.

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