Finding motivation, planning steps to complete an assignment, organizing work, initiating work, sustaining focus, metacognition (awareness of our thoughts), managing time, shifting between activities, controlling impulses—these are all examples of “Executive Functioning Skills.”
These skills are essential skills for anyone to get through school, work, and activities of daily life from personal hygiene to maintaining relationships and regulating emotions.
Have you ever noticed that you don’t think as rationally when you’re really upset? Being able to “get stuff done” is dependent on our executive functioning skills, which might be impaired if we are anxious.
If one has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) the deficits in these skill areas are a key symptom of the disorder.
The coronavirus pandemic is causing greater anxiety and taking away the support and structure that many people, particularly those with ADHD, need in order to thrive. This means more problems in executive functioning and a greater need to practice these skills.
As a therapist specializing in treating anxiety disorders and ADHD, I spend a lot of time working with my clients on improving their executive functioning skills. The fact is, when we have trouble getting stuff done, the pile-up eventually makes us feel anxious. The anxiety often further undermines our executive functioning in what can become a vicious cycle of avoidance. I coach my clients on how to lean into dreaded tasks and knock things off the to-do list, not only for their success in school or work but for their own mental health.
Everyone will vary in what helps them get organized and focused—the key is to try out different tools. Then, select the ones that are useful and repeat them until they become habits.
Here are ten strategies to improve productivity:
1. Use a planner and/or checklist.
Don’t rely on your memory. Come up with a system using a planner or a checklist of tasks that are in order of short-term (today), medium (this week), and long-term (this month or longer.) This can be online or on paper—whatever is most visually appealing and logical for you to follow. Stick to it every day.
Check each night to see what is on the next day’s agenda, check each morning for that day, schedule in times for doing work or for studying, and schedule your own due dates for outlines and drafts.
Check things off as you go and notice how satisfying that is.
2. Try 5/10/15 minutes of organizing daily (with a timer)!
Organize either right after work, school, or after you had dinner. Tidying up is a routine, not something to do after things get messy. This means organizing your desk, workspace, backpack, binders, and replying to emails—whatever needs cleaning up every day.
3. Use sensory stimulation to help focus.
Start to observe whether you do better with or without music, using a fidget, sitting still, or using a yoga ball to balance and bounce as you work. People with ADHD often need more stimulation in order to focus. So if you or your child need to listen to music while doing work, that isn’t necessarily a distraction. Find the right amount of stimulation to get you in the zone for focusing.
4. Warm-up before a tough or boring task.
Do physical exercise like jumping jacks or burpees to get some adrenaline going. Also, be sure that you’re moving around on your breaks. Adrenaline helps you focus.
5. Time yourself (and your breaks).
Estimate time to complete a task, or a chunk of time you want to stay focused working on it, and set a timer.
Try using an app like Forest (highly recommend this one for anyone who gets distracted by their phone) or other apps that time you and keep you on task.
Take breaks, but also keep those to a set time if you have work that still needs to get done.
6. Chunk bigger assignments into smaller parts.
If you have ADHD, though this might sound familiar for anyone having trouble with productivity during the pandemic—you can focus intensely for a long time if you’re really into something, but with other things, your attention span is much shorter—and that’s okay.
Instead of seeing this as a problem, see it as doing sprints instead of a marathon. If it is a boring task or a long task, chunk it: pick a small number of pages to read at a time, or one small step to do at a time, then take a short break and come back to it.
7. Use a mantra.
Choose a productivity/motivational mantra and use it, all the time. Examples: Just do it, Get it done, I’ve got this, or Check it off the list. After repeated use, this becomes a mental cue for focus.
8. Rely on positive reinforcement, not shaming.
The more you pay attention to successes, even small ones, and on the times you have felt focused and productive, the more you reinforce those behaviors, both consciously and at a brain/neural level.
9. Create accountability.
Tell a friend or parent what you’re working on. Study together, or ask them to edit a draft. Set a time to check in with a teacher to track progress. Having someone to report to increases motivation.
10. Just get started.
If you’re overwhelmed, just start anywhere because starting is the hardest part—the more we avoid starting the easier it is to procrastinate. Once we start something it is easier to keep going! Tell yourself, “I’m not going to ___ (check social media, take a shower, or go to lunch) until…” you start whatever the dreaded task is.