Decision Making When You Struggle With Executive Functioning

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Executive functioning is so essential to making decisions and processing emotions. In this article, you’ll learn more about it and the 5 ways you can improve your executive functioning skills. 

Executive Functioning Is Essential To Managing Emotions, Procrastination, And Big Decisions

Executive functioning is a skill that can be learned, but it’s hard to learn it on your own- and that’s where a therapist can be really helpful.

So today’s sponsor is BetterHelp. BetterHelp connects you with a licensed mental health professional that can help you work through life’s challenges big and small, all from the comfort of your own home. 

What is Executive Functioning?

Making big decisions with lots of moving parts can overwhelm our brain circuits. Our brains are not quite prepared for the difficulties of the modern world. For our ancestors, their problems were often physical, present, and immediate (should I plant a crop or go hunting today?) For us, we’re faced with choosing among thousands of careers, millions of tasks, and billions of distractions right on our smartphone

Executive function is the mental skill of organizing big pieces of information, it includes working memory which is how many ideas can we hold in our head at once, organization, planning, self-control, prioritization, time management, and flexibility.

For the average person, managing big decisions is already difficult, but the more choices you have the harder it is to make a decision. Barry Schwartz highlights the problem of too many choices in his excellent TED talk.

We are bombarded with so many options, there are over 900 restaurants in my home county. There are hundreds of types of salad dressing in the grocery store. It’s overwhelming. Schwartz shares a study showing that the more options an employee has when picking a retirement plan, the less likely they are to choose one- leading to losing hundreds of thousands of dollars over their lifetime. Evaluating all the options is confusing, overwhelming, vague, and complicated and it’s not present, it’s future-based. Too many choices often overwhelm our executive functioning, and we end up not making any choices at all. 

Ways To Prioritize And Make Decisions

So, how can we support our brain as it tries to process big decisions or complex problems? We provide scaffolds, a structure to help our executive functioning. To prioritize and make decisions. Here’s a couple of ways. 

  1. Limit your number of options when possible Simplify your freaking decisions- get rid of some clothes. Make a photo-guide of outfits. My aunt and her friend had a rolling lunch date. Guess what the hardest part of it was? “Where do you want to eat today?”  to avoid having to decide each Thursday, they just picked a street in the city, started on the south end, and each week ate at the next restaurant to the north. How cool is that? Notice how doing that required them to tolerate the imperfection of not eating at the most perfectest restaurant ever…the food was still fine, but when they limited their options, they were happier. 
  2. To support your working memory-  make things visual- use a flow chart, or write down the options on 3×5 cards that you can physically move around. I’m a huge fan of lists. Make a master list, then star the priorities, take action on just 1 or 2. With my daily to-do list, it’s always on paper, but for work I personally use the software clickup- I’ve got hundreds of ideas for videos, and I just prioritize the ones I’m working on that week. I’m a big fan of physical reminders over digital ones. 
  3. With a complicated or overwhelming decision, like choosing a degree in college, break it down. You don’t have to decide your major all at once. Pick a couple of jobs you may be interested in, get an entry level position and try it out or take a class or two in the subject and see if you like it. Break down these huge decisions into short term tasks. And chip away at them one at a time. A goals coach or accountability partner can be really helpful with this. 

 

I once worked with a 25 year old man who we’ll call Omar, Omar couldn’t decide what career he wanted to pursue. He was currently working at Burger King but really wanted to do something else. Should he join the military? Go to flight school? Get his commercial driving license? Go back to college? But every time he started to think about a new job, he’d get overwhelmed with all the steps, he’d start researching flight school, then worry about the cost, then look at his bank account, then worry about his credit card debt, then realize his resume wasn’t written, and then he’d get overwhelmed and just go back to watching gamers on youtube. He spent over 40 hours a week watching youtube, mostly to avoid that overwhelming feeling of not knowing which career to take and how to start. We talked about it in therapy a lot, we broke down tasks, made lists, organized ideas, he finally clarified that he wanted to get his CDL, but didn’t have his resume ready. For weeks I’d ask him to do that for his homework, he’d agree to do it, but then get overwhelmed. Finally I just brought my laptop to the next session, we pulled up a resume template, and I made him do it right then and there. In about 20 minutes his resume was done and printed. Sometimes we just need to break a task down into tiny steps (but it also helps to have a coach to support you in the process) 

  1. Clarify what’s actually important, Take time to do a values clarification activity. Know what you want in your home, your relationships, your career, get really clear on what is most important to you so that you can let go of the small stuff. When it comes to task management, schedule in a repeating time each week to plan your biggest priorities, and then force yourself to spend 10 minutes every day to clarify the most valuable tasks. Everything else can fit around that. 
  2. Set a time limit. Give yourself a deadline. Make a list. Shorten the list and force yourself to choose within 5 seconds. Don’t look back. Just say 3-2-1 go. People with ADD love/hate deadlines because it forces them to just take action instead of getting stuck trying to organize the action in their heads. 

 

 

Let's Get Better At Feeling

Let’s summarize:

  • Decisions are hard because the number of options is overwhelming
  • It’s hard to make decisions because you’re afraid. 
  • You can develop the ability to tolerate that fear, done is better than perfect
  • You can handle imperfect decisions and still be ok, don’t look back
  • Support your executive functioning by
    • Limiting your choices
    • Making decisions visual
    • Breaking tasks down into smaller steps
    • Clarifying your values
    • Setting a time limit 

I hope that’s helpful. Let’s get better at feeling!

Click the link below to learn how you can process your emotions. 

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