3 ways to become happier, more productive, and more intelligent using executive functioning.
I know, I know… the title of this article looks hyperbolic and attention grabbing, but please just bear with me and you’ll learn some valuable skills and information. In psychology and cognitive science there is a mechanism called executive functioning.
This mechanism is associated with the pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that controls judgement, rationality, and attention (a few pretty important things that I’ll reference throughout the article). Essentially, executive functioning is a self-regulatory system that allows humans to:
- Plan ahead (The one time you actually outlined your paper? That’s executive functioning at work.)
- Resist impulses with long-term thinking ( the voice in your head that’s saying “don’t have that next shot, Sheryl. You have work in the morning!”)
- Solve new and challenging issues
- Adapt behavior depending on the social situation
- Focus attention (rip your gaze away from facebook and start on your medium article)
These are some very important abilities! Lacking these can lead to some negative and potentially dangerous behaviors like:
- Not contemplating the consequences of your actions (impulsiveness).
- Decreased creativity, focus, and performance anxiety.
Given the fast-moving, high-stakes workplaces that rein today, these consequences could wreak havoc on your work-life balance and personal relationships.
So how does one cultivate their executive functioning abilities and avoid the negative cycle of procrastination/anxiety/low performance? I’ll break it down into some simple steps.
- Teach yourself a new skill
Instead of watching Netflix or browsing social media in your free time, learn a new skill. This can be anything! A few good examples of skills that are healthy for your brain are:
- Learning a new language
- Picking up a new instrument
- Starting to play a new sport or game (etc. basketball or chess)
While these are three suggestions, the new skill you pick up can be almost anything that requires learning a new concept, rules, or movements. Here’s a wonderful article by Benjamin P. Hardy that goes into depth on how to learn new skills effectively.
Learning new skills gives you exercise in focusing your attention, and allows you to experience benefits of applying your executive functions to new things (we all thoroughly enjoy the first song played on a new instrument, even if it’s usually pretty crappy).
Mindfulness is a practice with a wide variety of benefits. It reduces stress, improves mood, and most importantly, enhances executive functioning! A common misconception of mindfulness is that you have to sit in silence for a long-ass time, but that’s really not how it works. Mindfulness is about fully engaging with the current moment and contemplating the stillness of the mind. One can enter this condition while walking in the park, riding the bus, or just hanging out at your house. Just pay full attention to your breathing, how your feeling, and what is around you. This may be difficult for some at first, so here’s another article going into depth on how to practice mindfulness.
When practicing mindfulness, it’s very important to note that you don’t have to force your focus on your present moment and breathing, but to allow your thoughts to roam to those things while gently focusing your awareness on them. I think we’ve all had that moment where we become lost in our thoughts. Mindfulness is about becoming aware of your thoughts from a different perspective and studying why they may be occurring instead of losing yourself in the flow of thinking.
Mindfulness is like superfood for your brain. It’s benefits are many and increasingly well studied. It helps you to focus your attention, become at peace with your feelings, and self-regulate when faced with a slew of overwhelming emotion. You have to earn these benefits, however, by practicing mindfulness at least 10 minutes a day.
3. Break tasks down into simple steps.
Ever been paralyzed when facing a large, difficult task? It feels like if you start you won’t get anywhere, and that you’ll never be good enough to handle the whole task. Trust me, I’ve been there many times before.
To escape this mindset, sit down and map out what the process looks like in a series of subtasks before getting started. Many people (including me) forget that planning out how they’re going to approach a difficult problem is really the best way to start.
A good example of breaking down a task can be found in cleaning the house. If your house is really dirty, this may be daunting and you never find the time or willpower to tackle it all at once. But if you sit down and plan it out, you will get much closer to solving the problem before cleaning the first dirty dish. Here’s how it could look:
- First, clear the counters. Everything that needs to be cleaned, throw in the sink. Throw away/recycle everything else.
- Now since the counters are clean, you can wash the counters.
- After the counters are taken care of, wash everything in the sink
- Now, repeat this process with the floor!
See how once I took a little time to plan my angle of attack, things started getting a lot easier, very quickly? Before, I had to clean the entire house (a complex, daunting task). Now, all I have to do to get started is clear the counters (something simple). Also, notice how patterns surfaced (eg: “repeat this process with the floor”), making it easier to plan everything out!
Now, don’t expect sub-tasking to make you a productivity guru. You may still struggle with performance anxiety, procrastination, and general apathy. That’s ok! You have to accept that these feelings might arise. When they do, contemplate what possible obstacles are causing the feeling and write down a mental map of how you might deal with the obstacles.
Breaking down tasks isn’t a silver bullet for your productivity, but it can do some wondrous things for your executive functioning! It helps you:
- Fully focus your attention on the task(s) at hand, instead of being lost in your anxiety.
- Clearly rationalize about the difficulty of the task.
- Effectively plan ahead and consider things that may go wrong in a productive way.
Want to learn more about psychology and stopping procrastination? Read this wonderful article by Tim Pychyl. Many of the things discussed(present self vs. future self, emotional regulation) tie in very closely with executive functions.
If you commit to these three activities (an admittedly big if), you can reap the benefits of increased focus, stress management, and creativity. My advice is to start with one of the items, and pick up the others when you have gotten the hang of one. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely worth it. Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps you in your journey through life 😃