Have you turned off or toned down your executive functioning this summer as you searched for “normal?”
After our COVID-19 spring, I certainly have. My brain has needed to chill as much as possible. And yet, I know that the fall season will be here very soon, full of continuing uncertainties and increased demands from work and schools. All of that uncertainty wreaks havoc in our brains, especially in our executive functioning capabilities.
So, what can we do to support our poor exhausted brains?
As I worked with families and adults this spring, it became glaringly obvious that all of the unpredictability we are experiencing was causing incredible stress and anxiety. For many, this manifested into tears, yelling, anger and depression.
And then something beautiful happened. Over the weeks as we worked through the Seeing My Time program, individuals of all ages began to pull themselves together. I had to ask myself, what was the connecting force creating that shift?
As I soon identified, the bottom line was the need for predictable structure. Consistent, supportive structure takes the pressure off of your prefrontal cortex, your wise executive functioning brain. Offloading all of those “need to’s” out of your brain creates the space and calm to think clearly and make good decisions throughout your day.
Before the demands of the fall season hit, it is time to start setting up structures and predictability. It will help you and everyone in your sphere. I’ve put together some basic tips to help you do this right away.
Write down meal plans. Food is a basic need that will always exist. It doesn’t matter if you are scratch cooking, ordering boxed meals to cook, or getting takeout, you need to know in advance what is for dinner, and who is responsible for doing the cooking, ordering or pickup and shopping. Begin this habit now so that it will be ingrained in the fall.
Share the responsibility of food sourcing and cooking with significant others and get your children involved if you have them. I am a firm believer in teaching our children how to prepare quality food! It is a life skill they need as adults. Put your meal plan on the fridge or in clear sight in the kitchen. Or consider using a shared list-making app like Microsoft To Do so that other family members can contribute to the list easily. Just knowing what is for dinner takes a huge load off of your mind. At a minimum do this for the weeknights.
Get sleep patterns lined up with fall. Summer days are longer and we tend to slip into later bedtimes and wake up times. But sleep is critical for executive functioning! If you have children in school, it is important to begin adjusting them for showing up for morning class, whether it’s in person or via distance learning. Start adjusting sleep schedules in August so everyone is in the “school time zone” by the time school actually starts.
Exercise. It is much easier to exercise during the sunny days of summer. Come fall we may not be able to go to gyms or exercise classes in person. Investigate options that include exercise machines and online classes. I just ordered a set of hand weights for my fall online strength-building class. Exercise is also critical for good executive functioning and adds structure to your day. Make a “movement” plan for your week. It doesn’t have to be intense: even 20 minutes of yoga or a short walk counts!
Look ahead at your week. Pause on Sunday and look ahead at the tasks and commitments of the coming week. Record this in your planner. Have a family meeting to share this information with others so there are no surprise needs that tip the family into chaos. Whiteboards and paper calendars are useful supports for family members to track the plans for the week or weekend. You can view these and other great external executive function support tools on our Cool Tools page.
Make a plan for your day. It is very important to clearly see your tasks and commitments every day. Without this external structure, most brains will just “float” through the day, not necessarily doing what needs to get done. Our planners, for adults, students and college students have special pages designed to give needed structure. These planners come with videos to develop your time management and planning skills. Regardless of what planner you use, keep your day plan visible at all times. If it is out of sight, your tasks and meetings will be out of mind. By the way, this is one of the reasons phone calendars don’t fully support our executive functions – it’s impossible to keep them open all of the time!
Set alarms for meetings. If you end up working remotely, it is easy to hyper-focus and miss meetings. I always set two meeting alarms. One is 15 minutes before my meeting to allow me to wrap up what I am working on. The second alarm is 5 minutes before the meeting. That gives me time to grab a drink, go to the bathroom and log in.
Alarms are critical in helping students show up for distance class meetings. In the beginning, supervise your student as they check online for meetings and set up their alarms. They may need to do this in the morning and in the evening as teachers might change plans over a 24 hour period. It may take a month of supervision while your student develops this habit. The good thing is that once the habit becomes ingrained, it will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Take care of yourself. The impact of COVID 19 is still going to be intense in the coming months. It may take longer than we all want before improved testing and treatments are available. Be gentle with yourself and those around you. Don’t hesitate to use others for help: I urge you to seek out counselors and coaches. If you or your family is especially challenged with executive functioning, consider taking a Seeing My Time course. We have a team of instructors ready to help and offer intensive sessions in August to get folks ready for the fall and all of its demands.
So friends, prepare now to set up structures so that you have the best fall possible. We can do this!
Feel the virtual hugs,
Marydee Sklar is the president of Executive Functioning Success and the creator of the Seeing My Time Program®. She is an educator and author of three books on executive functions, as well as a trainer and speaker. Marydee has more than twenty-five years of experience working with students and adults with executive function challenges.