Saturday, 9 August 2014

Ten reasons to love a timer if you have executive function issues

Executive dysfunction has been getting me down lately.  I've been getting things done, in my own halfarsed last-minute up-til-2am holy-crap-this-is-due-when? way, but can't shake the sneaking suspicion that I'd be so much more productive without the executive function aspects of Aspergers and ADD getting all up in my business.

Whether this suspicion has any basis in fact is anyone's guess.  Maybe my alternative NT self is a powerhouse who'd have taken over the world by the time she was my age.  Or maybe she's just as scatterbrained and disorganised as I am.  Maybe she'd get even less done than I do, without the hyperfocus and splinter skills to offset her innate bone idleness.

 A couple of things have really helped me work with my executive function issues.  If I can't see things I forget they exist, so I make strategic use of noticeboards and whiteboards and my internet browser's homepage.  Large, multi-step tasks overwhelm me, so time spent tearing things down into tiny little baby steps pays for itself when it enables me to actually get started.  And another thing I've found really, really helpful is a variety of timers and alarms to remind me when to do things and help me transition from task to task.

ten reasons to love a timer

1.  Waking up and going to sleep

Left to my own devices, I'd probably stay up til four in the morning and then sleep until two in the afternoon.  If that schedule works for you then you go on with your good night-owl self, but for me it's not conducive to working or generally living a life that involves other human beings.  An alarm to get me out of bed in the morning means I can face the day while there's still some day to face.  Another alarm to get me into bed at a respectable hour is just as important, because without it I'll stay up far too late, probably stuck in a rut doing something pointless like watching old QI episodes on Youtube.  (QI is magnificent, but it's pointless because I've already seen them all.  Several times.)  And if I don't get enough sleep, my sensory processing goes straight to hell and my executive function is worse than usual.

I have these alarms set to go off automatically, so the whole system isn't reliant on me remembering to set them.  The morning alarm is on my phone, which is usually on the bedside table while I'm asleep, and only goes off on work days (because I don't really need to be up and about at half seven on days my presence isn't required in the office).  The night alarm goes off every night whether I'm working the next day or not, and is an offline Chrome app that runs in the background on my laptop, because that's usually where I am at bedtime.

2.  Remembering to eat, drink, and other self-care tasks

I don't know if you remember that post where I shared my weight, but it's fairly obvious I don't have a problem with forgetting to eat.  Forgetting to drink water, on the other hand, is a thing with me to the point I've twice upset my kidneys.  But some other people on the spectrum do forget to eat, or take care of hygiene, or some other part of self care.  Visual reminders can help, as can routines - I remember to drink at work, because part of my morning settling-in routine is going to the kitchen and filling a cup from the water cooler - but something that beeps or pings or pops up a reminder is another way to make sure the essential stuff gets done.

3.  Transitioning between tasks

The thing about autistic inertia is that it's not just trouble starting something, but stopping when you're finished or moving on to something else at the appropriate time.  You might know it's time to change tasks, but making that change happen is really difficult without some sort of outside intervention.  That even goes for pleasurable changes, like leaving work to go home.  It's not about not wanting to change, it's not about whether you like what you're doing or don't like what comes next, it's about the actual act of changing focus.  An alarm or timer can help with that, either on a psychological level by signalling the change or by making enough noise or visual distraction that our focus is physically dragged away from the grains of rice we're counting.

I have a Chrome app that acts as a timer/stopwatch/alarm clock and a timer and alarm clock on my phone, but for short periods (say, an hour or less) I prefer to use a mechanical timer that sits on a shelf slightly out of reach from my workspace.  That way I have to physically get up and turn it off.  If it can be silenced with a click of the mouse, odds are I'm going to do that and then just keep working, because my attention and focus hasn't really shifted.  Having to get up and move to make the noise stop - and I will, because noise bugs me so badly I can't ignore it - is much more effective at pulling me out of whatever highly focussed rut I'm in.

4. Scheduling slack-off time

We're human.  We can't be 'on' all the time.  Playing around isn't just goofing off: it's an important part of childhood development and it's important for adults too.  The challenge is finding a balance between farting around and being productive.  Autistic inertia makes that difficult, and so do our obsessions, which can make time spent with a book or game or object feel like time spent with a dear friend or a lover.  (No, really: I've read about some research that suggested the brain chemicals at work when we're in the throes of our special interests are the same as those active in the brains of people newly in love.  Of course, now that I'd like to cite that research I can't find it online.  Sigh.)

Scheduling 20 minutes to check Twitter, play Angry Birds or just pace up and down with your latest earworm means you can get your slacking off out of your system, leaving you refreshed to get on with more important things without leaving you burnt out or feeling deprived.

5.  Breaking tasks down into do-able chunks

If you have a massive task that looks completely overwhelming, there are two ways you can break it down: by action, or by time.  Breaking it down by action works for jobs which are huge but have a definite end.  Say your massive task was building a house, you could break it down into buying land, having plans drawn up, laying the foundations and so on.  Then those tasks can be broken down into even smaller ones - for instance, 'buying land' can become a series of smaller jobs around deciding your budget, looking at available blocks and making offers.  Eventually you end up with a list of small, precise actions like "call Foo McGoo Real Estate to organise a time to inspect 10 Acacia Avenue on Monday".

But if your task doesn't have an end - running a household or business for instance, where there's always one more thing to deal with - then it makes sense to break it down by time instead.  Then, rather being an overwhelming, insurmountable task that stretches out into infinity it's something to do for an hour or two or eight, with a precise end moment in sight that can make it easier to get started.

6. Reminding you what you're supposed to be doing

Most of my jobs - journalism, writing of various sorts, and now something that could be described as marketing - have involved a good deal of web-based research.  The internet's a gift for those jobs, giving you a quick way to check statistics, past ministerial statements or what sort of fibre is used in the finest calligraphy brushes without having to spend days buried in specialist library collections or make awkward phone calls to calligraphy brush salesmen.  But the internet is also an infinite series of interconnected wormholes, where you can never be entirely sure where the simplest enquiry will lead.  That's why it's sometimes handy to have periodic reminders that you're supposed to be writing a news bulletin or a short story, not a thesis on the history of calligraphy brush making.

7. The Pomodoro technique

The Pomodoro technique ties together a couple of time management techniques I've already touched on, but is different enough to warrant its own entry.  The general idea is you divide your time up into chunks of 20-25 minutes, with 5ish minute breaks in between.  You work for 25 minutes, break for 5, work for 25 and so on and so forth with a decent break of a half hour or so after four blocks of work.  (There's a lot more to it, going into things like to-do lists and visualisation, but that's the basic workflow.)

I tend to use longer blocks than recommended, closer to 45 or 50 minutes, because I just can't get anything done in 20.  Then I break for 10, and use that time to get up and exercise, do some housework, or generally do something physical.  I use a timer both to signal when it's time to stop working and when it's time to start again.  Even if it's just a five-minute break, odds are I'll get distracted by something and three hours later won't have made it back to the original task.

8.  Working out how much you can actually do

It's all very well to set a timer for X long, and say you're going to do Y in that time, but is that a fair and reasonable time to give yourself?  Maybe it's just because I suck at estimation, but I can find it quite difficult to decide how long to allot for a given task.  Timing yourself can help - not in a beat-the-clock, see-how-fast-you-can-do-it way, but just getting a clear picture of how long it takes you to do it at your usual pace.  And if it takes you half an hour to have a shower, from the moment you step into the bathroom to the moment you step out again, you don't have to beat yourself up for not doing it in ten minutes.  Maybe there are places where you could save some time, but maybe that's just the speed you work at. If you know that, you know to allow yourself half an hour for having a shower, and not try to squeeze it into a five-minute gap in your schedule.

9.  Tracking how far you've come

There are lots of ways you can measure performance and improvement, and they'll be very different from task to task.  It might be how many items you were able to tick off your to-do list, it might be running faster or further or longer or lifting more weight, it might be producing more work, or at a higher quality, or more quickly.  A timer or stopwatch can help with some of those.

Checking in on your performance matters because it lets you see how much you've improved - that you're getting more done in a given time, or a task is being done more efficiently.  In a world that often feels like an endless parade of one damn thing after another, the smallest achievement is something to celebrate.

It's also a chance to see if something's wrong.  If suddenly things are taking longer or you're not getting as much done, it's helpful if you can identify that and track it back to a cause.  The cause might be internal - you're ill, you're bored, you've just gone through a relationship break-up and couldn't give a shit right now - or it might be external, something that can be addressed and hopefully fixed.  At one of my past jobs, my productivity plummeted when some technical shenanigans left us with two radios playing out of synch in the office, so the sound out of one speaker was a fraction of a second behind the other creating an awful echo.  I was able to track a lot of stuff, from not getting work done to emotional over-eating to panic attacks, back to that change and the sensory issues it caused.  (That wasn't fixed, and I ended up leaving that workplace, but that's a story for another time.)

10.  A sense of control over your time and your life

We often don't have a lot of control over our lives.  But if you can take control of your time and make your own conscious decisions about how you use it, you can feel a little more like you're steering the ship, rather than being tied to the mast while it sails off captainless.  Whether you're in paid work, studying or sorting out your DVD collection, making a decision about what and when and for how long can help you feel more in control of what you're doing.  That in turn can improve your motivation, your attitude to the task at hand, and your ability to get stuff done.