This is part 2 in a series of increasingly numerous ideas about managing executive function. I’m really vibing on this as someone who has executive function difficulties to manage and is a neuropsychology nerd. If you have problems, theories, thoughts or queries – leave me a comment or tweet me? Executive function is fickle when you’re autistic, so I think all sharing how we support ourselves is important.
Here is how I plan and organise my time so I can get stuff done when I’m able to. Some aspects are from other organisation systems and modified in some instances so they work better for my autistic brain. As always, YMMV.
Here we go…
Step 1: Make a list
This is also known as a “brain dump” and is essentially what it says on the box. You sit, with your brain, and you dump it all out. Everything you can think of that you have to do, want to do, appointments, expectations of your time – ALL THE THINGS. However you like to pour stuff out, just pour it out.
This list will not be perfect. You might not remember all the things. That’s OK. When you do remember a thing? Add it to the list. Something new comes up? Add it to the list.
The brain dump is going to go through some more processing to become organised “To-Do Lists.” But, if nothing else, just try the list. It seems to be a sufficient help on its own.
Why? It clears up mental space so you don’t have to remember all those things you just poured out – the list does that for you.
If you carry out a bit more processing, the list will become even more helpful
Step 2: Organise the list
2A: Anything that is something you do every day or very regularly, keep separate (here’s a link to part 1 covering my “Every day” wall list).
2B: Once the every day things are out of the list, some kind of calendar is going to be useful. Anything that has a due date, deadline or set time requirements should be put on the calendar.
2C: Following these two steps, things should now be gaining some structure and sorting themselves into “NOW” and “LATER.”
This is great. By this point, we’ve cleared up mental space and given focus to what we need to do soon, and what we can put off for a bit.
Here’s where we get to the big chunky part, and it’s something that doesn’t come easily, or naturally to us autistic folk.
Step 3: Prioritising and breaking down larger tasks
Seriously – this is the hardest part. Sometimes it’s even hard to do with seemingly small tasks: Stop, think, what do I do first? It’s also super important for things like work, school assignments etc. There are methods, but they’re not explicitly taught because it’s assumed people can do these things, or will pick up on them. Let’s get explicit…
3A: Prioritising – The Eisenhower matrix
At this point, I’m going to give you a link (click here) to a video from Jessica at How To ADHD, who is far more entertaining than me and has already explained this matrix.
Essentially, all tasks can be sorted into four categories
1 – Urgent and Important (do these now, today)
2 – Urgent but not Important (but this is a little bit unclear if you’re autistic. More specifically, it’s not important that you do them or if they’re delayed a bit. Think things like household chores)
3 – Important but not Urgent (those long term goals and large tasks)
4 – Not Important and not Urgent. Most people seem to recommend doing away with these. I find my special interest things (outside of those that are “work”) fall into this category based on a non-autistic priority matrix. I keep a list of these elsewhere and allow myself time for them.
Take your To-Do list from above and figure out where each task fits. Now, you can start working through in order (1’s first, then 2’s and 3’s, then 4’s).
3B: Breaking down larger tasks
If you’re on top of your Urgent tasks and working on something Important But Not Urgent (#IBNU) – FANTASTIC.
If you’re like me, it’s probably a large task that is actually several smaller ones (e.g: Write Essay, due in 4 weeks).
Also, if you’re a bit like me, you won’t quite know what the first step is and that “Write Essay” is going to end up happening in the final two days in hyperfocus and leave you exhausted.
To break it down, I start imagining the steps backwards from the end. So…
- Submit my completed essay
- Make sure every requirement has been met (titles, cover pages, correct font)
- Proof read my essay
- Cross-check all references are included
Wait a minute! WHAT REFERENCES?
Generally, within a few steps of imagining the end point of a larger project, I can find a place to begin. So, the first task for “Write Essay” becomes “Start researching my essay” (to find those references you need). From there, smaller tasks from the beginning to end start to become apparent.
So at this point we’ve got a list, organised into an order we need to do it, with big tasks broken down into smaller chunks.
Step 4: Time Tracking and Colour Coding
This step might not be necessary. I like it and find it useful because I’m managing life with four disabilities where one of those disabilities makes it difficult to do so. This step requires a daily organiser where you can keep track of how you spend your time. I colour code four categories – Personal/Self-Care; Things I need to do for my household; Work/professional stuff; Side project
By tracking when I’m working through certain things, it’s given me data. I LOVE DATA. It’s told me when I have either psychological or physical energy for different types of tasks, allowing me to set up a routine. It keeps me on top of self care and helps me recognise things that might trigger shutdowns (in particular) so I can choose the best time to do those things within my routine.
It helps give me flexibility for days where I JUST CAN’T. Example – Number one intention for the day not going to happen because I’m inert on the couch? That’s OK. Can I shower? Can I eat something? Can I do the things that are urgent today? That’s fine.
Like I said at the start, executive function is fickle when you’re autistic. For all these steps in my overall time management system that help to keep me organised and progressing on things I want to do, they don’t change the fact that self-care tasks of daily living are also a huge success.
So I’ll leave you with the final “Step.” It’s not actually a step, so much as the most important rule.
Step 5: YOU (yes, you) are ALWAYS number ONE on your TO DO LIST.