Finding Motivation Through the Brain Fog: Managing Low Executive Function Days
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many folks experiencing executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction can accompany various psychological conditions or injuries; and the reality is, many of us will face some degree of executive dysfunction in our lives (1). Executive functions include our ability to self-regulate, plan and prioritize, and manage working memory, among others. Working memory is simply our brain’s ability to hold different information at one time. Think of executive functions as the managers in the front of your brain that work together to get things done.
Many of the clients I support live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and corresponding executive function challenges. But don’t let the name deceive you. ADHD is more about challenges with self-regulation than attention and focus (2) . People with ADHD also experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) at a higher rate than the general population; even more so for women (3). Depressive symptoms can also contribute to executive dysfunction, making this time of year especially challenging for many.
Periods of executive dysfunction can negatively affect motivation and self-regulation, which can impact our ability to work, take care of things at home, and even impair relationships. And because January is known as the most depressing month of the year, I have gathered some strategies I often use with my clients to cope with periods of low executive function and take care of ourselves the best we can.
- Ease perfectionism — your efforts are enough, especially on hard days. Perfectionism and shame work in a loop; fortunately, this loop can be disrupted by practicing self-compassion and awareness. Perfectionistic tendencies and shame can wreak havoc on motivation and often stops us in our tracks before we even start! Learn more about perfectionism and shame here, and self-compassion here.
- Feed your brain and body efficiently. Our appetite and ability to feed ourselves often suffer on difficult days. Don’t make these days any more difficult than they need to be! Coming up with efficient go-to systems for hard days can include low effort foods that are easy to prepare (bonus points if it’s prep-free!) and don’t require a lot of energy to consume. Consider working with a dietician who works specifically with executive dysfunction to create a system that works for you if you need more support in this area.
- Set realistic expectations for yourself using the “one thing” system: if you could do one thing to help you feel better now, what would that be? That one thing is enough for the day if that is all you have the capacity for. What I find works well for many of my clients is making a list. I know, it sounds simple. But gathering the energy to organize your thoughts alone is a daunting task and often keeps us in a state of task paralysis until we are able to make small movements.
- Start using a blank page and write your tasks and/or worries in no particular order.
- Once you have run out of ideas, take a break and come back to it when you discover more things you may have forgotten.
- Later, begin to prioritize what is on your list
- Start with a low effort, rewarding task. This is something you define. For me, it’s starting a load of laundry.
- Once the motivation ball is rolling, task paralysis starts to dissipate and you can begin higher priority tasks.
- Pro-tip: don’t overdo it. Task hyperfocus is real and can deplete our energy quickly. If you aren’t taking breaks, your brain is not recuperating. Use timers if time-blindness is a challenge for you.
The “one-thing” system is individual to you and may not be a list or prioritization. This is where self-awareness comes into play — get to know what works for you and keep track of these systems to keep them working.
- Social support and body-doubling: we tend to withdraw from others when we feel low and unmotivated. Try your best to reach out to a trusted support person who understands how difficult days affect you. Humans are social beings, and sometimes we can gain energy simply by working alongside someone who is engaged in a task. This is also known as body doubling and can be a useful system for low motivation.
- Refuel your dopamine: this is the fun part. Neurochemicals dopamine and norepinephrine play a major role in self-regulation, reward and motivation. It is difficult to find motivation if we can’t experience reward. Thankfully, we can find dopamine in our environment by following a Dopamenu. This system was coined by Jessica McCabe and Eric Tivers and breaks down helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) choices to increase pleasure and reward. The key here is to get to know (here we are at self-awareness again) what activities work best for you and keep track of these things. For help getting started, check out this template.
You may notice that some of these strategies focus on adopting systems rather than changing thoughts. Using systems to change our environment are often very effective if you struggle with executive dysfunction. This list is not exhaustive but should help to get the proverbial ball rolling on days where the ball weighs a tonne. And although the size of the ball may be out of our control, the systems and supports we have behind it can help it feel less heavy.
SAD can seriously impact our lives. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of SAD, please get in touch with your health care provider and mental health clinician. You don’t have to do this alone.
- Barkley, R. The 30 Essential Ideas Every Parent Needs to Know. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCAGc-rkIfo