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Outsourcing Executive Functioning: The Magic of the To-Do List

Updated: Aug 4, 2022

One of the simplest and quickest ways to increase your executive function is to outsource some of your tasks. Outsourcing tasks from our brain helps us out in many ways. First, it decreases our cognitive load, the amount of data we are attempting (and often failing) at storing in our working memory. Just trying to hold everything you have to do today in your consciousness simultaneously, how exhausting! Second, it allows us to plan for and track bigger tasks, such as building a website, that we can't do in one sitting. These in turn free up cognitive resources to engage more fully and mindfully with the present task at hand, and additionally allow us to suspend and resume work on a task as needed.

In 2022, we have so many things our brain's are trying to keep hold of. Comparing what I need to do now to what I imagine I might have on my to-do list 100 years ago, not to mention 12,000 years ago before human's settled down and began farming, helps me to see how much help not just me as someone with executive functioning difficulties, but everyone in our modern age(!), needs to do. For example, on a day this spring when I was attending my masters program, finishing up my thesis, seeing clients, and trying to fit in some personal time, the things I might need to hold in my head were:

  1. Finish reading for class today

  2. Provide comments on peer's thesis by next week

  3. Finish conclusion section on my thesis by Friday

  4. Submit 1st draft of thesis on Friday

  5. Set up time to meet with thesis advisor next week

  6. Meet with a client at 10am

  7. Meet with a client at 11:15am

  8. Meet with a client at 3:15pm

  9. Meet with a client at 4:30pm

  10. Do notes for each of these clients

  11. Check and respond to work email

  12. Check and respond to personal email

  13. Email a client's psychiatrist to coordinate care

  14. Finish an intake form for a new client

  15. Begin treatment plan for a new client

  16. Fill out release of information forms for a new client

  17. Text my partner about plans for tonight

  18. Text a friend about plans for later this week

  19. Plan breakfast

  20. Plan lunch

  21. Plan dinner

  22. Plan tomorrow's lunch

Gosh, just looking at that list I feel overwhelmed and exhausted. And that's just what I thought of off the top of my head. No way I'm able to do all those things in one day!

Except... I did. Every day. For a whole school year. So... how?

Luckily, as I write this we are living in the 2020's (or, I could also argue, unluckily because part of the reason we have so many things to do is because the internet and our smart phones increases our capacity do do things!) So, we have many, many ways we can organize right on hand in the tiny, powerful computers most of us bring with us everywhere, our cellphones!

You can put everything on one big list, but I recommend if you have multiple responsibilities having multiple lists. I still remember sitting down at a booth in a diner one afternoon for lunch with my mom and dad and my mom pulling out this worn-looking piece of paper (this was pre-smart phones) with at least a 100 different items written in absolutely tiny letters on the page. I watched as my mom scanned the list, looking for something her mind was telling her she needed to do, but that she couldn't remember. As she kept scanning the list, she started becoming frustrated that not only could she not remember the thing she had to do, this tool that she had created for herself was not working as she wanted it to! She was trying to support herself with executive functioning through using tools to outsource her cognitive load, but she was misusing this tool, and so it was actually increasing her cognitive load rather than decreasing it!

(In my work as a therapist I've seen that difficulty with executive functioning can run in families. This may have a genetic component, and it definitely has a family-cultural component. Executive functioning is both a result of the ways our minds work and of the executive functioning skills we are taught, mostly through the modeling of our caregivers.)

This is helpful for a few reasons. First, looking at a list with literally everything you have to do can be very overwhelming! And as those of us with executive functioning difficulties know, sometimes just the overwhelm is enough for us to start freaking out and procrastinate. So splitting it into separate lists helps us do one of the basic executive functioning skills, split things into manageable enough bits.

Working on one project at a time is generally helpful for our working memory and our overall wellbeing (just remember, multi-tasking is a myth), but it's also helpful to compartmentalize our tasks into different buckets or times of day so that we also have explicit time to rest. Down time is so important for our wellbeing. If work tasks bleed into our downtime we're going to be more tired and overwhelmed because we haven't gotten to fully recuperate, and, you guessed it, our executive functioning is going to decrease because we have less resources to do this resource-heavy activity.

Another reason this is helpful is because maybe there's different places that it makes sense to store different lists. For example, during my internship, all of the data for my clients is HIPAA protected and so I needed to use a HIPAA protected website to store my to-do lists. This is a pretty specialized cased, but in general, it makes sense to have to-do lists in places where they are easily accessible based on whatever project you're working on. Then, you don't have to be switching between different places as much! (such as between your comp and phone, or between multiple windows or apps on your computer). An added bonus is that you can set reminders from each of your to-do lists that will only appear in your life when you're able to accomplish them! It can be overwhelming for those of us with executive functioning difficulties to see a pop-up, don't forget to email so-and-so in the middle of dinner on a weekend night!

Of course, if we have too many lists this can get overwhelming in itself. "Ugh, where did I store that list of emails I have to respond to, and oh no where is that list of documents I need to collect for taxes!" So I recommend sitting down and putting some thought into how many lists you want to have. And then, play with it! This isn't a one-and-done thing. We learn ourselves by trying things out. There's no 'right' way to do this, what works for us is unique to us, and you are the best expert on what's going to work for you. And it also may change over time; as you change, as your responsibilities change, as you switch jobs, and even as you improve your executive functioning! So put some thought into it, try it out, adjust, and try again. Be a scientist about this!

I think the BIGGEST thing I can recommend here, especially for those of us whose executive functioning difficulties include feeling overwhelmed by the number of tasks and/or find ourselves simply forgetting something we had to do is to WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN. Just do it. Just write every single thing that you have to do down on a page.

I learned this technique when I had lyme disease and my working memory was down to that of a goldfish, 3 second. If I didn't write something down, it would be gone. No doubt about it. But guess what? As a neurodivergent person that was true for me even once I healed from lyme. Maybe not 3 second, but things just didn't seem to stick in my brain.

And you may be thinking, well I write most things down, isn't that good enough? Not if you want to try this technique it's not. First of all, how do you know what you did and didn't write down? What if you forget one of the things you didn't write down, but don't know you forgot it because, well, you forgot it. Then, what about the stress of trying to remember if you forgot something? For me that can be really stressful and take up a lot of my mental energy. And think about how much easier if you just have a rule of writing everything down. Even if you think you'll remember it, write it down (in a to-do list, calendar, etc.). Just write it down. Then it's there. And guess what, you've completely taken an entire task out of your life, you never need to remember what you need to do again! It's all there. Everything.

What a huge relief.

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