Intro:

When I was first diagnosed as Autistic (in my late 40s) it was presumed that I was one of those rare Autistic people who had strong (perhaps even better than average) EF abilities. Later, after spending more time with me, it was discovered that I actually do suffer from weak Executive Function. This is exciting because despite this (now obvious) weakness, I had managed to somehow be so productive with my time that I could out perform even NT people. This post/page is dedicated to the time management strategies that I have honed over my years of working in corporate America. Without these strategies (tools/disciplines), I am virtually non-productive at anything except for the thin that is my current special interest.

Like exercising, everyone "knows" that a disciplined approach to EF is good for them. But also like "exercising" it is hard to start and even harder to keep up without a very thorough understanding of "WHAT" to do and "HOW" to do it (make it habit). This article talks about the what and the how. Remember that any new habit that you attempt to incorporate into your life takes on average of 6 weeks to develop into a habit. Be prepared to fight through some resistance, forgive of mistakes, and persist for the long haul. Once you make the 1.5 month milestone it gets much easier. The three components to making a new habit work are the "how" the "what" and the "commitment" to the end goal.




The Ever "in flux" Skills!

I want to start this module off by stating that despite decades of experience and work on EF skills (and my underlying health), that I will still have bad EF days. I do not really have any “magic bullet” way to stop this from happening but I do know that if I am prepared for the possibility of it happening, that I can get through these days better. The detailed task lists assure that I have some sort of approach to the day. I make sure to have contingency plans for every task. I give myself more time on these days and take a lot of time to breath and relax. It all starts with me being aware when this is happening and ends with me acknowledging that it is okay (accepting) versus trying to fight it. If I refuse to either see it coming on or refuse to accept it, I will melt down or shut down trying to fit it. This way is so much better.


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I am able to learn/focus when I take care of myself as a person and as an Autistic person. I am severely disabled by something as small as a head-cold. Long-term weakness in ANY of these 3 blocks will decrease overall EF skills and increase the “bad” symptoms of AS (processing issues, rigidity, stimming, need for isolation). To an NT person this will look like I am MORE autistic. (Parents take note) If I want to achieve optimal overall EF abilities, I need to focus on the whole picture. Increasing EF skills (by implementing tools/disciplines such as creating and keeping lists) will boost confidence and allow better advocacy. Increasing EF skills can also help with anxiety and depression.


In addition to these major personal/physical building blocks, I would be remiss if I did not mention working environment. When I am working in a cubicle, it is always helpful for me to have earplugs in to keep noise out. It is also very helpful for me to wear tinted glasses and even glare proof lenses. I petition to have the lights directly over my cubicle removed or dimmed. I also have a ZERO clutter rule about my desktop. Having noise, bad lighting or clutter will impact my productivity. Most of these things are very easy to fix or advocate for so go ahead and do that if you can.






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When I watched my Father have the stroke that ultimately ended his life, I had no clue the wild adventure that moment would set me on. Had I known, I am sure that I would have felt much more fear than grief. The months that followed this event were surreal in so many ways. The most remarkable realization came the days after my return to work. My body was numb with grief but other than that, I felt fine. I was hoping that returning to work would somehow help me return to a more normal state of emotion. Instead my return to work caused a tailspin as I went in day after day only to struggle each day to read even 1 email (of the 40 or so I have to process a day). I did everything I could think of to shake this and to get back to focusing but a few weeks of complete non productivity despite my desperate attempts at work, and I finally had to admit to my boss that I was no longer able to do my job.



For the past two and a half years I have been working on getting my abilities back to a place where I could be brilliant again in my work. There is a saying that goes, “How do you eat a elephant?” The answer is “One bite at a time”. The point is that the task is big but a smart person will realize that the task is big and take it one day at a time towards the end goal. The problem with this philosophy is that this only works if one has some level of executive functioning skills going on. When the brain is not processing sequence or connections, then the elephant becomes overwhelming and the amygdala takes over all reasonable processing in the brain. (the “famed” amygdala hijack)



So YES it takes persistence BUT it also executive functioning skills. Skills that Autistic people often lack or have some weakness at least. The good news about this is that there has been so many wonderful tools and techniques developed for our ADHD brethren that we can simply leverage to beat the amygdala hijack and to actually get things done. The other good news is that with these tools, we can come back from these Autistic Burnout situations at least sometimes!




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The Order of Things:


Okay let's get started with the "how" and then the "what". This slide sets up the order of importance (in my opinion) of the specific tools, disciplines or methodologies that I use (see next sections). Pomodoro technique alone can be a very powerful too but if I do not have a prioritized list broken down into manageable (actionable) tasks before I start my day, the Pomodoro is wasted on me getting started or trying to figure out WHAT to do. The Pomodoro technique is more about the “how”. I need the “what” first. The lists, the mind mapping and the prioritization give me the “what” part. The more relevant and up-to-date the list is, the more productive I am in my Pomodoros.


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Technique 1 - Lists:




“Eating an elephant one bite at a time” is not something I could do without a good deal of executive functioning strategy. The most basic (and I will argue most important) of all executive functioning exercises/aides is the list. Just like many things, there is no right or wrong answer for how you do lists. It only matters that you do them. The right way of keeping lists for you is not the right way of keeping lists for me. Many people argue that lists do not work for them. I believe that lists do work for everyone but these folks have not yet found the way to make them work. Many people do well with highly visual and/or tactile task or list systems. If they attempted to do list tools on their mobile device it may not work.

I keep my own tool usage very simple. I honestly do not have the EF skills to even go out and look at all the options that are available for keeping lists. I get all lost in playing with the software and never find a “tool” that is better than a simple notepad concept. For my work lists, I use MS OneNote for my “To Do” and “Done” lists with a line between the two. Every night before I leave work, I go to my list and add things I may have forgotten, I check off things that are done and I highlight the tasks that I want to try to complete the next day. I am an evening kind of person so my mind works very slowly in the morning. By updating in the evening, I set up myself for better productivity in the morning. I can just come into work and start hacking away on the tasks that are in the list. On days I do not do this method of disciplined order, I will come into the office at 8:00 but not even really start any meaningful work until 10:00 or later. On days I have my list set up, I am productive at 8:30 or 8:15. (it always takes me some time to transition into work after I get to the office)



Starting lists (if you have never done it before) is just like any other discipline. (like starting a fitness program) It will take some time to make this exercise a habit. Studies show that it takes about 6 weeks from the time you start a new thing until it is something you are able to just do. Starting is easy. Just start documenting (in whatever tool/method you want) the things you need to do. For example, if I was given the task to eat an elephant, I would break this down into manageable chunks and add them to my list. I would add, eat the ankles, eat the ears, eat the trunk, etc… And if those were too big to do in one day, I would break them down even smaller until each tasks represented something I could actually accomplish in one day. (Beyond that I break them down into time slices but this is for the “Pomodoro” slide) Once you have a big list of things to do, it is time to categorize or prioritize them. Just doing these steps on a regular basis will really boost productivity for people who have weak EF skills. Parents can model using lists so that kids just use them as a “given” in their own lives.




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Once an actual list is created (again not getting fancy but just jotting tasks down somehow/somewhere) THEN the process of Prioritizing or categorizing can happen.

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Technique 2 - Mind Mapping:



Mind Mapping is just a really great tool that will help you to break down those really big tasks. It also is useful for putting obtuse or otherwise disjointed pieces of information in a more connected way. If you do not know about it, you should try it. Take one big task that you have to do but are unsure where to start or how to do it. Put it on a white board space in a circle. Start drawing out the tasks around it that have to be done to complete the objective (big task) Tasks can be children tasks or parent tasks to one another. Again here, don't get too bogged down in the details of possibilities or times or what not... just get the tasks down. Then you can sort them.

There are lots of free software to do this mind mapping stuff and a lot of articles about it. I tend to not bother much with the formalities. I just like the idea of putting down the picture/flow of the task in order to figure out the pieces..




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Technique 3 - Pomodoro Technique:


Once the lists are all in place with manageable tasks (see “mind mapping” slide), I am ready to take care of time management. One of the most powerful techniques ever invented (in my experience) for focus and transitioning is called the Pomodoro technique. Again here I use a completely free software to do my planning and timing. There are MANY apps to use and apps for Android and iOS and the pcs. The one I use is found at PomodoroApp.com. Each day (at the start of the day) I take my red highlighted tasks from my “To Do” list (see the “lists” slide) and for each of those tasks I estimate how many 25 min intervals (or Pomodoros) that task will take. I map that into my timer. In my sample here, the task called “write XML code for AEC model” is 4 Pomodoros or about 2 hours of time. If I chose to start with that task I will click on that one and click start which will put me into the 25 min countdown or Pomodoro. The rule that I keep is to not allow myself to be disrupted during this work time. When the countdown is done a 5 min timer pops up and starts counting down signifying my break. The rule here is that I break. I am not perfect with following the rules but I try to be as perfect as possible. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Try it and see…. J

There is argument about the 25 min thing and coding. Some days, I do set my Pomodoros to longer than 25 min because the coding is a bit too complex but research shows that the mind weakens after 25 min of hard focus. I used to think that was a load of garbage but I have been doing this technique long enough to now agree that the 25 min intervals are more powerful than the 50 min ones. Even for coding.



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These 4 things pretty much summarize the total strategies that I use to make myself be the most productive Autistic person I can be even when performing work that is not in my current special interest or not what I really want to do.