Maybe She’s Born With It, Maybe It’s Executive Dysfunction

As I’m writing this, I’m two days behind my deadline for it. I could certainly give some very understandable explanations for this that people would probably sympathize with – I’ve been busy (working, competing in several events, spending time with friends, reading a new book series…), the weather has been alternating between beautiful and atrocious, etc etc etc… but if we’re being honest, I procrastinated it and then forgot.

Procrastination gets a bad rap because it’s associated with the idea of “laziness” and is seen as simply choosing to delay doing an unpleasant task. And, sure, sometimes procrastination is consciously choosing to delay an unpleasant task (glances over at the “clean the bathroom” part of my to-do list) but it’s often not that simple. Procrastination can be a part of a larger struggle known as executive dysfunction, which includes difficulty with planning, problem solving, memory, task initiation, motivation, focus, task completion, etc.

Most everyone has experienced one or more of these issues at some point or another, but the various struggles under the umbrella of executive dysfunction are particularly common for trauma survivors and as symptoms of many different mental health issues (including but not limited to anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, PTSD/CPTSD, etc). Despite how common it is, this issue is particularly shame-laden in our culture that prioritizes and rewards productivity above most everything else.

In a society that glorifies “the grind” and “the hustle” and in various systems that necessitate productivity–everything from being productive at work to being productive in taking care of things at home–it’s easy to very quickly feel ashamed and embarrassed for struggling with any form of executive dysfunction. (And don’t even get me started on all the social media “influencers” who are so eager to tell you that your struggles are just a result of you “not working hard enough,” as if you’re not already out here exhausting yourself trying to stay on top of it all.)

I of course understand that to a certain extent we DO have to get things done and there ARE unavoidable consequences if we don’t, so I’m not here to say that it’s no biggie and we should just stop worrying about it. What I AM here to say is, I think we need to rethink how we talk/think about/approach executive dysfunction, because judgment and shame are terrible motivators and only serve to make us feel worse about ourselves. Anyone who knows me can attest to my strong belief that self-compassion is the name of the game, approaching our struggles from a standpoint of curiosity and compassion rather than judgment.

Because executive dysfunction struggles vary so much from person to person, and because different causes and contributing factors impact how we might best manage them, it’s difficult to just provide a simple list of “things to help your executive dysfunction” – the specific strategies someone with ADHD might find helpful may be different than the strategies someone with depression might find helpful, etc. However, I do have a couple general guidelines that I think can be the foundation of whatever individual plan or strategy may be helpful for you to manage your particular struggles around this:

  • As previously mentioned: self-compassion and understanding. Check in with yourself (judgment free) about the various things you’re struggling with – how am I feeling about this thing I’m struggling with, what’s going on for me that’s making it difficult? Am I anxious, overwhelmed, confused, triggered, uninterested, uncomfortable, under-resourced, etc… knowing what’s underneath a struggle (rather than just a blanket “laziness” label) helps us see and understand what might be helpful in managing it.

  • Push back on perfectionism and all-or-nothing mindsets. I know, WAY easier said than done. But there’s a reason phrases like “perfection is the enemy of progress,” “better late than never,” and “done is better than perfect” exist. This also means pushing back against unreasonable/unrealistic expectations and pushing back against the societal ideas that your value and worth as a person is based in your productivity. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)

  • Break things down into smaller pieces, and then break them down again. If the thing you’re struggling with is going to take 5 steps, figure out step 1 and then figure out what the first HALF of step one is, and start there. Big picture/long-term goals are great, but can also be overwhelming if we don’t keep our eyes on just the piece directly in front of us.

  • Don’t be afraid to get creative! Sure, things like “buy a planner,” “set reminders,” and “make lists” are great advice but don’t underestimate the value in “silly”/fun/unconventional strategies, too! If a cutesy little plant-watering app on your phone helps remind you to drink more water, that’s great! Or maybe thinking about your to-do list as challenges and side-quests in a video game helps. Maybe you’re a therapist who competes with yourself in a game of “how many progress notes can I write in between periods of watching a hockey game and can I beat my high score from last time” (that last one is purely hypothetical, of course). If it works, it works.

  • Know that it’s okay to ask for help. Whether that’s asking your therapist to help you strategize for how to manage your executive dysfunction, or asking a friend to help keep you company and focused while you get things done, or asking for additional support/accommodations at work or school, you deserve the support you need to feel happy and successful.

If nothing else sticks with you from this post, please just remember that struggling with executive dysfunction (in whatever context, for whatever reason) is NOT a character flaw, it’s NOT your fault – and you’re NOT alone in it.

Midwest Center For Personal & Family Development