Peg’s Take: Executive Skills in Everyday (Adult) Life
February 22, 2014
by: Peg Dawson
Procrastination is usually not an issue for me. In fact, task initiation is one of my strongest executive skills. But ever since we got this website up and running, I’ve put off writing the blog I had every intention of writing when the whole thing started.
Now, with a new school year looming, I decided it’s time to make good on my promise. Here’s the process I went through to get this going. First, I wanted to understand why, if task initiation is one of my stronger executive skills, I had delayed for so long in updating this blog. I can use the usual excuses—too much to do, too little time, but that doesn’t work because I manage to fit in computer solitaire games and (almost) daily exercise. I’ve even planted a vegetable garden and mopped a few floors along the way—things that involve some tedious labor that one would think I would choose not to do if I could get away with it.
One might suspect that I hate to write and that explains it, but that doesn’t hold water either. After all, I’m the author of several books and while admittedly book-writing can be a painful process when you’re in the throes of it, I definitely get some satisfaction from writing, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. On top of that, for the past 15 years or more I have kept a personal journal in which I have written something every day about my life as I live it and want to remember it. And I write annual Christmas letters and anniversary letters, and take some enjoyment in those compositions as well.
I think it comes down to not knowing what to write. This actually connects to one of my executive skill weaknesses, flexibility. Even if I could come up with one idea for something to say about executive skills, I was worried I couldn’t sustain it over time and keep finding fresh material to write about. Generating new thoughts or ideas on a month in and month out basis overwhelmed me…so I kept putting the whole project off.
So how did I go about overcoming those obstacles and resistances? A number of factors conspired to make this seem like a more do-able project to me. First of all, I took a break from traveling this summer and I kept my work schedule to a minimum. I made some headway with the book I’m currently working on (the folder on my computer that holds the manuscript is labeled The Last Book I’ll Ever Write—but don’t tell my publisher that!), so that left me feeling I had a little breathing room. But I did two additional things.
I began by just making a list of possible topics. That was easier for me once I realized that I didn’t need to write an essay or an op-ed piece. The thought I could write relatively brief commentaries (like my daily journal) freed me up to think more creatively about possible topics. The whole project didn’t feel so hefty any more, so it felt like something I could persist with over time. I now have a list of 10 or 12 different topics that can occupy this space over the coming weeks or months.
Then I decided to just start writing. I got momentarily side-tracked thinking I needed to come up with a title for my posting (another task that requires flexibility—i.e., imagination), so I had to reassure myself that the title would follow the content rather than dictating the content. And then, when a no-show opened up an unexpected hole in my office schedule, I just sat down and put my fingers on the keys of my laptop. If I wrote the whole piece right then, that would be great, but even if I needed to do more work, the writing would have been started—and that’s always the hardest part, even if task initiation is a strength of mine.
Oh, and one more thing. When my colleague Dick and I developed our coaching process (as described in our book Coaching Students with Executive Skills Deficits), we survey the literature to find an evidence base to support our approach. In so doing, we realized that the behavioral literature on correspondence training had something to offer. There is a body of research (e.g., Paniagua, 1992) that demonstrates that if you make a public commitment to engage in a certain behavior or do a certain task, there is a much greater likelihood that you will actually do what you said you were going to do than if you don’t make a public commitment.
Here’s an example of this: say I’m going out to a restaurant with my husband that serves my favorite dessert (it happens to be crème brûlée). If I’m trying to watch my weight and know I’ll be tempted by the dessert I may tell my husband before we even leave the house, “Okay, so I am NOT going to order dessert tonight. I will just end my meal with coffee.” Having made that public statement, I invariably think twice about ordering the dessert, and when the waitress comes by and asks if we want to see the dessert menu, I am more likely to say, “No thanks, just coffee,” than if I hadn’t announced my intentions to my husband in advance.
So I will end this posting in a similar way: my goal for the coming year is to write at least one posting per month between now and next June.
I’m pretty strong in goal-directed persistence, but this public announcement will help me stay on track—and if readers have ideas for future blog postings, please write—I’m always open to new directions to take!
Paniagua, F. A. (1992). Verbal-nonverbal correspondence training with ADHD children. Behavior Modification, 16, 226-252.