Join 3,553 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Executive Function for 20-somethings
September 16, 2012 6:31 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to improve my executive function as a 23 year old male?

I recovered from an episode with depression a few years ago, and I'm generally better now, but I feel like my executive function, such as ability to motivate myself and apply my skills has not recovered as much as I would like. I basically have less self control and motivation than I would like, if you want the plain english answer, but if you read the wikipedia page, I feel like I'm a little deficient under that umbrella.

Right now, I am in community college majoring in computer science, and I am taking 11 hours, just shy of full time and on track to graduate in a semester or two after this one (depending on available classes once the catalog comes out), and I am working in a retail job part-time as well. I feel like working has helped improve my ability to manage my decisions better, as it's forced me to get used to waking up early (really early, like 4:30 AM) and managing my time in ways that school is not as good at encouraging. Making money is also good reinforcement. I think it also helps that I have a positive attitude about the work and I feel engaged in the job.

However, I am still worried I may be behind other students in my ability to prioritize and manage schoolwork, and I worry about my academic future and future as a whole should I ever face another episode with depression or otherwise have trouble. So far, I am not missing any assignments or anything, but it's only been a few weeks. I have been late a couple times for class by 5-15 minutes, but it's largely been because of underestimating the effect of traffic on my commute, and I'm starting to leave at an earlier time, regardless of how I think the roads "should be." I digress.

I'm already exercising, which I've heard can help with executive function, which strikes me as a bit of a chicken and egg situation, since you need to have some executive function to dedicate time and energy to exercise. I do Couch To 5K, which I did previously a couple months ago to train for a 5K, but stopped shortly after finishing the race. I'm currently three weeks back into it.

I just feel like I'm generally hearing a lot about how "motivation," "self-control," "grit," etc, are turning out to be more important than other natural talents/skills (which I'm sure is true and have always assumed to be true, since you need to apply abilities effectively), but not much on how to develop it other than cliches and worthless expressions like "harden the fuck up." I feel like gamification stuff might be a bit of a red herring, because getting points for doing something feels fun the first week but loses its charm soon after.

In addition, a lot of the advice I find is for helping younger students from a teacher or parent's perspective, while I really want to improve myself now.
posted by mccarty.tim to Education (15 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can you give further examples of situations where you are having/thinking you might have trouble? Is getting started on something difficult or is maintaining your work difficult or both? I've found things like the pomodoro technique helpful for both?

Also, have you checked with your school about resources for this? Time management skills and the like?
posted by wiskunde at 7:09 PM on September 16, 2012


Former 23-year-old male here.

I am in community college majoring in computer science, and I am taking 11 hours, just shy of full time and on track to graduate in a semester or two after this one (depending on available classes once the catalog comes out), and I am working in a retail job part-time as well. I feel like working has helped improve my ability to manage my decisions better

Keep doing this and you'll make it.

However, I am still worried I may be behind other students in my ability to prioritize and manage schoolwork,

You're almost certainly not the best if that's what you mean. Maybe you're not even average right now. So what? I'd argue you shouldn't believe any self-estimation right now without asking a professor, a friend and a relative how good you are at schoolwork. If they point something out, then take specific action to fix it, but otherwise keep doing what's working.

and I worry about my academic future and future as a whole should I ever face another episode with depression or otherwise have trouble.

Yes, that would be bad. That's why it's important to stay the course. You're already doing that, so good job.

a bit of a chicken and egg situation, since you need to have some executive function to dedicate time and energy to exercise.

Generally beginners start with small goals, which give them the confidence (executive function) to try bigger goals. It sounds like you did exactly that, and you can apply that to other things. It's an upwards spiral, not a chicken-and-egg problem.

I just feel like I'm generally hearing a lot about how "motivation," "self-control," "grit," etc, are turning out to be more important than other natural talents/skills (which I'm sure is true and have always assumed to be true, since you need to apply abilities effectively), but not much on how to develop it other than cliches and worthless expressions like "harden the fuck up." I feel like gamification stuff might be a bit of a red herring, because getting points for doing something feels fun the first week but loses its charm soon after.

I'd say you're asking for trouble by wanting to find motivation when you currently are moving. Just keep doing what you're doing.
posted by michaelh at 7:15 PM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two things.

First of all, don't compare yourself with other students and whether you are or are not behind them. Set your goals based on your own abilities, always setting the goal such that it's a do-able challenge rather than an insurmountable one. Goal attained, move the goalpost out a bit further. This is how you motivate yourself. Set a goal that's difficult to achieve but attainable, feel awesome when you get there. Feel motivated to achieve a little more.

Second. I've heard it said (and I kind of believe it), that willpower and self-control are finite resources - you get some each day, but you must be wise in how you expend those resources and on what goals. With this in mind, sit down and list all the things you currently do, and would like to do, and prioritize them. Don't beat yourself up if the thing at the very bottom of the list doesn't get your attention; you are focusing on other things right now. Remember, it's not about doing everything, it's about being strategic and smart about where you apply that energy.
posted by LN at 7:15 PM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, if this reaches a clinical level the answer is stimulant medication.

You could always try some caffeine every few days, I hear it helps some people with these kinds of things.

In terms of the overall stuff, practice is honestly very helpful and it's slow going, but it works.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:19 PM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Exercise increase dopamine. Dopamine helps you concentrate and have good moods. If you are having trouble finding the time to exercise, get a treadmill desk and walk on a treadmill when you are doing your studies. I still have to get myself one. Treadmills can be found on craigslist for 100$.

Of course, remember sleep is very important for people w/ executive functioning problems like you and me. I also make sure to get some sun everyday and fish oil and of course caffeine. Theobromine (found in chocolate ) gives me a different (better) source of brain energy. You can try it, but I do it without sugar as I tend to notice sugar and simple carbs make my brain work worse. Basically, if i have to sit down and do some math for a while or any mentally taxing task, 2 tablespoons of baking cocoa with some Stevia (sweetener) works. It is amazing. It gives me a less anxious sort of energy. Other people like yerba Mate and tea.
posted by eq21 at 8:05 PM on September 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Establish routines and schedules so that you work within a clear framework and take the pressure off yourself a bit. If you can say "okay, it's 2pm so it's time for half an hour of revision", it's much easier than saying "gee, exams are coming up and I hope I'm gritty enough to do some revision oh hello couch."

And make sure you set actually attainable goals, there's nothing less motivational than failing to reach a target no matter how unrealistic it was to begin with,
posted by robcorr at 8:51 PM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Concerta (basically time-release Ritalin) has completely transformed my life over the past four months. Most of my problems were related to deficiencies in executive functions (related to ADD). YMMV.
posted by bpm140 at 10:03 PM on September 16, 2012


You might find Cal Newport's advice helpful. (His earlier blog posts are about being a student, while later ones talk about life in the work force).
posted by oceano at 10:13 PM on September 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Excuse me but you are getting up at FOUR fucking THIRTY am and asking about motivational problems? Look if you weren't sure how to make the rent at the end of the month but waking and baking at around 2PM then posting to metafilter. THAT's lack of motivation.
posted by yoHighness at 6:39 AM on September 17, 2012


I'm generally hearing a lot about how "motivation," "self-control," "grit," etc, are turning out to be more important than other natural talents/skills

Sorry for double commenting but I feel that's the crux here. Who or what is making you underestimate the effort you are already putting in? (Which commenters here seem to agree is appropriate to say the least?) Sounds to me like maybe other people are passing on their own insecurity to you by talking about "grit" a lot. I think it's really the ones who are just quietly chipping away at their work every day who you should look to emulate. "The race is not for the swift but for the sure" as the cliche goes.

Positive habits save a ton of willpower as your brain gets used to it. "Oh it's 4 o'clock when I always make tea and start reading a textbook making notes for an hour." Takes almost zero willpower as opposed to "It's 4 o'clock and now I have to figure out what to do for the next step and then do it." Those positive habits plus making a mini to do list for the day in the morning. Put by-dates on to do items (needs to be done by Friday do it Wednesday). If you record the time things take to do then you know in future how much time to budget for them (like you're learning with your commute). ... I feel like these recording, listing things are all aspects which are in gamification but which people have done in prioritising and time management before anyway.

Also, study skills classes, if your college does them then take them. Lastly IMHO it isn't the super hardworking ones who get furthest but the ones who figure out how to do it most efficiently.
posted by yoHighness at 7:00 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


What led to the depressive episode? I'm not asking for an answer here, but the cause-and-effect, to the extent that there is one, might be relevant. I found myself in a similar situation as you during school, and I continued to take counseling in a proactive sort of way. I felt like there was a chance I would slip and have another "episode," this time screwing up something really critical. In the end, I went to counseling and after a few weeks the sense we both had was just kind of, "well, I seem to have things under control." Still, I don't regret going. My point is - consider counseling. I'm not advising that you go, merely reminding you that it's an option, especially if your school provides it. Counseling may not be the trick, but if I were you I would want to understand on an intellectual and emotional level why you became depressed.
posted by victory_laser at 7:11 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, you sound pretty good at getting things done already, actually--have you considered whether your worry about this might be a manifestation of anxiety?

I ask because most of the people I know with executive dysfunction issues (like ADHD) would have a hard time successfully completing the couch to 5k program without a decent amount of help. You also say that you need executive function to exercise, but it seems like you're already exercising so that doesn't seem like a significant problem for you.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:20 AM on September 17, 2012


Two recommendations from my experience:

- Exercise for strength as well as for cardio. Just sitting in one place for a long time takes a surprising amount of your back and ab muscles, which makes you fidget and get tired.

- I built a "tent" around my desk out of small sawhorses and bedsheets. I put my laptop in there and only the papers that I really need, shut off the internet connection and get it over my head, with a light source overhead. And I put in earplugs. It sounds crazy and I take it down whenever someone is coming over because I'm embarrassed about it, but it has made a huge difference in my ability to concentrate on tasks like extended writing.

My theory is that the desk tent works because (1) it eliminates those subconscious distractions like flashes of light or noise or movement that are like hairline cracks in the porcelain of concentration; you don't always register them consciously, but they create a fleeting break in your attention away from the task which are then enlarged by other stresses and distractions and before you know it you're looking at cat videos and answering questions on metafilter. (2) It creates a space that is dedicated to work, which a lot of people recommend as one of the things that help when people tend to have a hard time starting or drifting off task. The tent isn't really a place where you can comfortably do much else, so you're driven towards productive work.

Also, having the overhead light (or even better, one desk lamp from each side) filtered through the cloth makes for a very pleasant lighting environment, with no reflections or shadows, kind of like a shadow box for photography.

I'm going back into my desk tent at exactly noon.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 8:19 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am 37, and I've had struggles with both depression and motivation my whole life. The two things that have made the largest difference are cutting carbs out of my diet and getting enough sleep. I honestly did not believe the carbs would have the effect that they do, but it's really profound; when I choose to eat a cupcake or fishie crackers or whatever, I can feel the screeching halt my body and brain come to for the 3 hours, and it continues being unpleasant for about a day. When I eat low-carb, it's much easier for me to exercise and not spend all damn day on the computer. I don't know why, but I'm keeping it up.

The other thing I've done is outsource a lot of executive function to my smartphone. I have alarms that get me up, alarms that tell me to clean my house, alarms that tell me to get ready for bed, alarms that tell me to start cooking dinner, alarms that tell me I need to tell my kid breakfast is over and she has to get her shoes on, alarms that tell me she's about to get off the bus. All that stuff that Real Grownups manage to do? I have my phone tell me to do it.
posted by KathrynT at 9:01 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Like some other posters have said, it sounds like you're doing a fine job already of motivating yourself and sticking with projects, and just have a rather normal sense of anxiety about the future, and a healthy sense of ambition.

In fact, I'm worried from the tone of your post that this healthy ambition is causing you anxiety, causing you to discount your present progress and to project your standards for your "future ideal" self onto your current self, which isn't fair or realistic. They are two separate things - I've struggled with depression as well, and clarifying which was which (current and ideal self) and separating them was key to feeling better, for me at least. In that vein, the poster who mentioned to ignore one's (often inflated and unrealistic) idea of other's progress and focus on one's own needs and goals was right on.

Your worries about your executive functioning "not recovering fully" may or may not be true - I imagine from your description that you have been through a lot in the past years and thus have changed, possibly quite a lot.
Recovering in other areas has probably lead to adjustment - what you used to define as "normal executive functioning" could have been unhealthy. So perhaps you have been getting to know your "new" executive functioning, motivation skills, or at least see those old skills in a new light. Or, as mentioned above, maybe you have higher standards now for what is good executive functioning?

Please be kind to yourself and as others said, focus on slow but steady progress. I think the hardest part of getting motivation/ex.function up is starting at all, which you've already done successfully (getting a job, going to college, waking up early etc). Congrats on that! And good luck with school and such.
posted by Pieprz at 9:13 AM on September 17, 2012


« Older My pressure cooker used to gra...   |  Ask advice from Moms (could be... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.