Coping with Poor Executive Function and Perfectionism

I saw a post on twitter today about executive function and how it’s affected by mental illness. Essentially, what happens is you have trouble switching between tasks, often leaving things undone. For me, these were important things, and the more uncared for responsibilities piled up, the harder it became to do anything at all.

I saw a few tweets looking for advice on how to cope, so I thought I would share with you all my own method of coping with poor executive functioning and how it’s complicated even further by perfectionism.

You need two things:

  1. A to-do list.
  2. A complete mindset shift.

Easy! Done! End of post! Have fun getting shit done, everyone! Adios!

Okay. Obviously, there’s much more to it than that, and honestly, I’m not here to describe my own mental health with you. However, I do want to share what work I have done to make myself more productive. So let’s get into it.

Have a to-do list.

Make sure the list is written the day before. I like to do this as the last thing before bed. List everything that needs to be done tomorrow. Revisit the list in the morning and if you haven’t already, rewrite the list into the order that makes it easiest to complete. For instance, I will often pair cleaning the litter box with laundry because I have to pass the litter box to do laundry. With more academic tasks, it might work better if you knock out similar tasks in chunks together. For example, if you have 2 research papers to write, do the research for both of them the same day; do the outlines for each of them the next day; and save all the writing for the same day. The reason for chunking things like this is that you experience less internal resistance because your brain doesn’t have to switch from research mode to writing mode in the same day.

The problem with to-do lists.

For me, perfectionism. Perfectionism is an all-or-nothing mindset. A to-do list feels good to have. I feel productive when I make one, but as soon as I do something out of order, or something comes up that makes completing a task impossible, I shut down. I sink quickly into feelings of worthlessness and failure. A long to-do list is overwhelming, and I get overzealous when I try to make short to-do lists, thinking that because something “won’t take long” that I should be able to do it on top of all the other things I’ve already planned. And this is where executive dysfunction complicates perfectionism and starts to spiral me. By that point, I’m never going to feel like doing anything on my list.

Especially if you have trouble with executive functioning, it is imperative that you learn to cope with your perfectionist tendencies.

Start by accepting that you’re not going to finish your to-do list. It’s okay to leave things not crossed off. If you’ve placed times and dates on your tasks, it’s okay to do them sooner or later than those times. If you have put them in a particular order, it’s okay to do them in a different order (I have struggled a lot with that one in the past.)

Lean into it.

I think the most important tip I have is that if you know executive functioning is difficult for you, then lean into it. Take what would hold you back, and instead of working against it, work with it to find a way to get things done that works for you.

There’s always going to be a reason that you can’t complete your plan perfectly. And that’s okay. Work with it, not against it. I think the best strategy for someone who has trouble moving on to new tasks is to keep a minimal to-do list, but if you’re like me and you just keep adding things, no matter how many items you put on your list, circle one or mark it somehow, the ONE THING you have to complete today, and make sure it gets done. Sometimes you can complete 8 things on a 12 item list, but if you didn’t get the most important thing done, you still feel unproductive. Some people can choose three priorities per day, but I would say that even if you do that, you should still pick one thing that really, really must be done, and get it done.

Getting it done.

My most helpful practices have been an active attempt to change my mindset. As Rory Vaden says, it’s not time management—you can’t manage time; you can only manage yourself. Steven Pressfield speaks at length about Resistance, a force from within that seeks to sabotage all of our progress toward our goals. If you’re a writer, I would definitely suggest checking out Steven Pressfield.

Mel Robbins would tell you to take your feelings out of your decision-making. Everyone always says that the way to get more done is to just do more things, but Mel Robbins has the first strategy that I’ve ever heard of that actually helps you “just do” things, and I think it’s worth looking into her book The 5 Second Rule.

A few resources:

Mel Robbins TEDtalk – How to Stop Screwing Yourself Over
Rory Vaden TEDtalk – How to Multiply Your Time
Steven Pressfield Books – The War of Art | Do the Work | Turning Pro

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