Executive functioning and being a serial procrastinator
I haven’t written many blog posts yet and one of the main reasons for this is that I struggle with something called executive functioning and so I thought it would be useful to post about this topic to raise more awareness.
Executive functioning is basically a set of mental processes which include planning, organising, paying attention, remembering details and managing time and space. Executive functioning issues affect many people on the autistic spectrum as well as people who have ADD/ADHD and other conditions.
Funnily enough I’m often described as being someone who is incredibly organised and I’m seen as someone who has a strength in planning. Unfortunately this is misleading and leads to people having unrealistic expectations of me and my capabilities. I like to plan things in huge detail because I like to be in control and I like to limit the chances of unexpected changes happening as this causes me anxiety. I do like to think I’m a very organised person, but mostly in quite a superficial way. I like everything to be kept in a specific place and I hate being in an untidy and messy space. It comforts and calms me to be in a tidy space and know that everything is where it should be. If you look more deeply though, at organising my life and time you will see it’s more of an issue.
Here are some of the ways that executive functioning issues affect my life:
Although I know what I need to do, I find it incredibly difficult to actually get going with a task. It helps hugely if I have a deadline, but most life tasks don’t have deadlines and, if they do (such as paying bills), I will inevitably wait until just before the deadline to complete the task – which can be problematic in itself.
I find it helps if I make to do lists, but the problem is that I will put off actually making the list in the first place!
This whole issue might be difficult for people to understand and I think it can sometimes be seen as laziness. Believe me it causes so much stress and anxiety that I wish it was just laziness. Here’s an example: someone will send me an email that needs replying to. Every day I will think about the fact that I need to reply to the email. I will feel anxious about what the other person will think about me because I haven’t replied. I will feel cross at myself for not replying. This will then make the need to reply to the email even more intense, in turn heightening my anxiety. This cycle continues and I find it so hard to break the cycle and just reply to the email although in reality the reply will only take me ten minutes and is hardly taxing.
I’m sure many people will think, “Just do it,” but it’s not that easy. It’s a crippling sensation where I physically feel unable to initiate the task, no matter how simple it is.
At times (when I have a lot of energy) I will become very productive and will make a list and tick off everything I need to do in a short time. This feels so liberating and makes me so happy, but unfortunately it’s also rare.
Ironically, if I actually manage to initiate a task, I then often struggle to complete it. This can be as simple as watching a film to a longer term task such as writing a book. I switch between tasks very quickly and move through hobbies at a ridiculous pace. All around my house you will find various projects that I’ve started but never finished. I get annoyed at myself about this and it has mounted up to where I now have so many uncompleted tasks that it would take years to complete them all.
My working memory is incredibly weak
I can only hold one or two pieces of information in my head at a time and I easily forget things I’m told. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to pass on a message or I’ve been asked to do something and I’ve forgotten almost immediately. I get very annoyed and frustrated when this happens as I feel like I’ve let people down and as though I’m a failure. At work (as a teacher) I forget the same things over and over. I have found some strategies that help such as having a sign in a prominent place reminding me of something or I use the children to help me remember things. For example, I have to have a register monitor in my class or else I will never remember to take the register.
I think this is one of the reasons why I love routines so much as then there is less chance of forgetting things. Every day before work, I do the same things in the same order. If I don’t, I forget things which stresses me out. I run through lists in my mind about what I need for the day by mentally going through the day at top speed and working out if I have everything I will need.
I am one of those people who will go upstairs to get something and will then forget why I went up there and will only remember later in the day what I was meant to have done. I even know a lot of the time that I will forget to do something, which probably sounds quite amusing, but, due to my difficulty in initiating tasks, I struggle to make myself write down a reminder so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – isn’t that crazy?!
Explaining myself clearly
I struggle to verbally explain myself clearly and I know this often frustrates those close to me. When I’m recounting something, I will forget what I’m saying and so pause lots and then repeat things I’ve already said and usually I will end up rambling and the other person loses interest. Luckily this doesn’t often show as a problem at work – I usually only notice it at work when I’m particularly tired and I find I have to make excuses to my class about my brain not functioning properly that day. I also find that I’m more reserved at work and careful about what I’m saying so the ‘real’ me comes out more at home.
I find it difficult to retrieve various words when I’m talking, which is obviously linked to having a poor working memory. Often, when speaking, my mind will just go blank and it can take a couple of minutes for me to remember the word I wanted to say. This is fine when I’m with family and friends as they help me out and will give me time to think, but in a more formal situation (like at work), I am under more pressure to communicate efficiently. One way I’ve learnt to retrieve a word is to go through the alphabet and then often, when I get to the first letter of the word, it will suddenly come back to me. This only works if I have time to think though.
Basically, I leave everything until the last minute often resulting in me being late and I hate being late. You’d think it would be as easy as just starting things a bit earlier but I never seem to learn from my mistakes. I often need a prompt from my husband to get ready to go out as he knows I will be late otherwise.
My attention and concentration go from extreme to extreme. If I’m really enjoying something then I can focus on it for hours without considering anything else. I will know I should be eating or getting ready to go out etc. but I won’t be able to pull myself away from the activity I’m doing.
There are some situations when I really struggle with attention though. My attention issues are related to something called orienting. This means that I have a tendency to focus on irrelevant stimuli and I can be easily distracted.
An example of when this is a big issue for me is when I attend my martial arts class. Often, the instructor will show a particular move that we will then go off and practise. I find it so hard to focus on the move being taught and my attention will wander for the simplest reason – a clock ticking, someone whispering etc. Nearly every time, when we are told to go off and practise the move, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. This is very embarrassing as I then look incompetent and stupid as I have to admit I missed what was shown and get my partner to show it again.
I find that if I have too much sensory input, I am unable to process the information I’m meant to be focusing on. This means that sometimes I will miss what someone is saying to me and so I have to pretend I heard what they said rather than admitting I wasn’t paying attention and getting them to repeat the information.
When at places like the cinema, I really struggle because I can hear every little rustle and whisper and so I end up missing parts of the film as all I can process are the other sounds I can hear.
Also this becomes a problem when reading. Often I will have to read the same passage several times as I just can’t focus on the words I’m reading. This can be embarrassing in class if I’m discussing a text with the children and I haven’t retained what we’ve just read.
I do struggle with depression and this is often due to my executive functioning issues. My feelings of inadequacy and failure make me feel so low at times. I wonder how someone as intelligent as myself can’t just do a simple task and I beat myself up about it so much. It doesn’t help that other people don’t understand about this problem and their comments and judgements can make me feel 100 times worse.
The boredom I often feel also contributes to my depression. The weekends and school holidays are the worst as my routines are often lost and I have a lot less structure. I sit around thinking about all the things I should or could be doing, but just can’t initiate anything. The more depressed I feel, the less I want to do anything and then it spirals out of control.
I am pleased that I have finally managed to sit down and write this blog post. I’ve been wanting to write it for ages but due to some of the things I’ve mentioned, it was delayed. I have found some good strategies to help with my executive functioning issues but I hope I can develop more strategies as this is still one of my biggest problem areas. I apologise to anyone who has ever had a delayed reply from me, had me turn up late or felt as though I wasn’t listening to them – hopefully now you understand some of the reasons why.