I recently saw someone on Twitter ask for advice on how to deal with a deficit in executive function. Executive functions are the mental skills and faculties that allows a person to focus, work, handle emotions… you know. Be “productive.”
When I’m fully focused and engaged with a task, whether it’s work, music, or writing, all of my stubbornness is brought to bear. Nothing can tear me away. It doesn’t matter if the task is boring or complicated, I latch on and start burning mental energy. Sometimes I finish what I’m working on before I exhaust my stores. Other times, I don’t, and then things get interesting for me.
Long periods of hyper-focus are not the only way I can destroy my ability to function. Sometimes reading the news can sap my will, or sometimes a combination of bad diet and lack of sleep will leave me unable to form words or make decisions. The last year and half have been full of times where I could barely bring myself to get out of bed.
Work can wait sometimes, but only for a little while. Some days, as much as I might internally resemble the ashy remains of a forest fire, I can’t take time off and I have to earn my paycheck. During those times, I’m forced to trick myself into some semblance of productivity.
The first weapon in my arsenal: lists. I write lists on a whiteboard, in Notepad, or on a scrap of paper. The items on the list are small, simple tasks. Similar to what I talked about yesterday with goals, I make sure the tasks are narrow and well defined. If the tasks are too general or broad, I’m probably not going to accomplish them, and the exercise does me no good. Every time I accomplish one of these tasks, no matter how small or minor, I put a checkmark next to the item. I don’t cross them out. Over time, I want to be able to read the tasks I completed as I watch the checkmarks grow. Every time I place a checkmark, I get a little shot of endorphins, which powersNex me into the next item on the list.
Strategy number two: music. This doesn’t work all the time, and I can’t listen to music for every task. I find it difficult to write and listen to music at the same time, for example. I can program to music, though, and I can sometimes write technical documents with music playing. The music distracts the part of my brain that is being least cooperative, the part that wants to lean back in my chair and just watch YouTube for a few hours. If the music is particularly upbeat, I often find myself bopping along or singing, and my mood improves.
Next item: find a partner. This can take different forms. Sometimes, it’s as simple as asking for help. Not every task can be passed on or handled by multiple people, but sometimes just having another person around allows me to borrow some of their mental energy. I’m not going to ask someone else to write my story for me, but I might see if some other writers want to join me for some sprints. I can’t always pass some of the programming I do onto someone else, but there are some developers I can share my screen, letting me describe the application to them and engage a different part of my brain.
Those are my main strategies for dealing with a lack of energy or motivation. It is important to know when not to push. If I’m feeling burned out because I’ve been working a lot of hours at a high level of intensity, it’s time to become a sloth for a little while and not do anything. I have pushed through burnout before and it wasn’t good for me or the people around me. The quality of the work produced during that time suffered.
As has been said many times, be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. Sometimes you need to push. Other times you need to sit down. Getting those times mixed up can lead to damage, and longer periods where it’s really hard to do anything.
If we were talking about physical activity, and someone complained about leg cramps and shortness of breath after running a half marathon, it is unlikely you would advise them to push through and keep running. Mental burnout is similar.
I’m not sure I’ve said anything new or particular interesting about this topic. By this time I’m sure we’ve all been there, and one way another, we’ve all had to learn the lessons I just described. It helps me to type it out again, though. Sitting here tonight, after a really intense work day, I’m thinking it’s time I turned off my brain for a while and focused on recovery.