I have executive dysfunction.
When I was a kid, my friends called me “wishy washy” because I never had a preference about how to spend our after-school time.
Growing up, I never actually chose a career — the decision seemed so complicated. I went to college as an “undecided” major, quit after a semester, and then fell into copy editing in my early 20s.
Now, at 52, single and finally on my own and enjoying my life more than ever, there are a million things I want to do. I’ve made multiple lists and boards to define and refine my goals and visions. The trouble is actually making them happen.
Last year, I finally looked at what had been happening throughout my life — maybe because I’d crossed the “50” line and wasn’t where I wanted to be. I asked myself a lot of questions and took some assessments.
What I figured out was: I’m not lazy — I work hard, and have all my life. I’m not indecisive — I have clear ideas about what I want (sometimes too many ideas). And I’m not unmotivated—I’m so excited about possibilities!
I just have trouble translating that motivation into motion. It’s weird.
What is executive dysfunction?
“Executive dysfunction is a term for the range of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral difficulties which often occur after injury to the frontal lobes of the brain.” (headway.org)
Executive dysfunction can affect many areas of brain functioning, including planning, multitasking, socializing, and controlling emotion.
I haven’t had an official assessment, but I recognize many of the signs. I suffered a near-fatal concussion when I was four years old, so it makes sense.
“Difficulties with initiating, organizing, and carrying out activities”
I find it very hard to “just do it” — get up and go, flip the switch. My default state is inactivity. I can be perfectly happy, for a long time, not doing anything. It has generally taken pretty severe external motivation — needing money or facing a deadline — to overcome that inertia and get me to apply myself consistently to a task.
And even though my life isn’t that complicated, I find it difficult to organize my time, mentally. Just to decide what to do next. I freeze up and end up doing only the obvious or enjoyable, and beyond that, it’s like I can’t make up my mind in the moment. There’s an old parable about a goat who’s tied to a post in the middle of a shed, with two piles of hay within reach, one on each side. The goat can’t make up his mind which pile to eat from, so he dies of starvation. I’m in danger of being that goat.
I’m able to plan. Oh, can I plan. I could show you dozens of spreadsheets and lists and agendas to prove that. I over-plan. I hyper-plan. Because as long as I’m planning, I feel like I’m doing something useful, and the dreaded moment of having to shift into action doesn’t arrive.
It’s like I’m going on a road trip, and I have the destination chosen. I have the maps, with the route marked. I even have the car, and the tank is full of gas. I’m so excited. But I can’t get started. I’m missing the spark.
So over and over, I would do what I could do, which was set goals and make plans. Plans for what I’d do someday, when the car got running. And I never got anywhere.
But I think I’ve figured it out now.
What I’m doing about it
Once I realized that my “problem” isn’t laziness, indecisiveness, or lack of motivation, I could target what exactly the problem really is: the spark.
I need something external to serve the function that it seems my brain doesn’t do very well. To prompt me to move into action. I need it to tell me exactly what to do and when, so that I can jump into activity without having to think about it.
A task manager. It’s as simple as that.
So a few months ago, I picked out a task management app and loaded my current plan into it. I made an agenda for the next day, and mentally set the intention of obeying it — no excuses, no second-guessing allowed.
It works! As long as I have a practical, specific plan for each day — and as long as I take the essential step of checking the app every morning—I can do what I never did before: work steadily and productively toward my goals.
The task manager is filling in for the part of my brain that apparently doesn’t work very well.
And I’ve stopped beating myself up for being “lazy” and low-achieving — which I never really was.
I do very thorough weekly and quarterly planning sessions. Each morning, my app gives me a list of the tasks I need to do, and while I eat breakfast I arrange them into a daily plan. I’m still working out hitches in the system, like when I overschedule myself and then I don’t know what exactly to do to get out of the weeds. For now, I just start over again the next day and try to limit the damage to one day.
For sure, there are deeper influences at work as well — issues of self-worth and deservingness, fear of attention, et cetera — that have been interfering with achievement for me. I notice that if I stick to my plans for even a day, I start feeling discomfort, and I feel like I want to switch off and take a day off. Maybe it’s just a matter of adjusting to my new system and this higher level of effort, or maybe there’s some emotional thing at work, which I’ll have to sort through. But if so, it’s become much more possible to do that, now that I’m actually moving.
So based on my own experience, I highly recommend getting really clear-eyed and granular about what your own specific strengths and challenges are. Sort out what’s really true versus what you’ve just always assumed, or what other people might have told you. Then figure out how to support yourself in the areas where you aren’t naturally strong, or work around them.
Whether it’s a skill, new knowledge, a change in attitude, a strengthened intention, or even just an app, if you can identify exactly what you need — through self-reflection or maybe through experimentation — you might be able to make a breakthrough into much higher productivity. And finally bring your long-cherished goals and plans into reach.
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.