“If I want to be great I have to win the victory over myself…self-discipline.” – Harry S. Truman
The pandemic has thrown most of us into a tailspin. It has disrupted our comfortable and familiar routines. We have had to adapt to continually changing restrictions, conflicting news about the virus and economic volatility due to the lockdowns. There is so much to keep track of it’s hard to focus. We feel drained mentally and emotionally.
There is a key to not only surviving but thriving in these uncertain and chaotic times. It’s in your brain and it’s called your executive function.
What is executive function?
Executive function is the organizing and regulating system that gets the best out of your brain. Just as an executive manages different departments within an organization and put plans and actions into effect, your executive function does the same with your brain.
Everyone is born with this executive function capability yet we all differ in our ability to use it. In effect, through the executive function, you are the CEO of your life. Whether you can successfully plan your course and navigate the obstacles to reach your goals depends on your executive functioning.
With all the overwhelm, distraction and loss of routine we are experiencing daily, you need this Inner CEO to be in tip-top shape. The executive function is valuable for everyone whether you are in a formal corporate position, an entrepreneur or a creative type. Ideas can be great and plentiful but it’s the successful execution of that idea that makes the difference between merely surviving or gleefully thriving.
The more you get to know your executive function skills, the more comfortable it will be to capitalize on your strengths and apply strategies to fortify any weaknesses in this area. Awareness and habit change strengthens executive functioning. Since the behavior change benefits are immediate, you will naturally want to continue them, leaving your old habits behind.
There are three areas of executive function to explore. They are working memory, flexible thinking and self-control. Here are what they are and why they matter.
Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind over a brief period. When you need to remember what to pick up at the grocery store, you rely on short term working memory. When you are trying to solve a problem, you depend on this limited memory capacity to juggle all the relevant information until you find a solution.
With the pandemic or any unfamiliar and chaotic situation, you are forced into stretching the limits of your short term working memory. The result of all this strain is stress. An excellent way to offset this strain on working memory is to establish as many routines as possible. The less focus you use for smaller tasks and decisions, the better. Save your short term working memory to handle more significant decisions and tasks that might come up at a moment’s notice. When you consistently write grocery lists or jot down the key factors of an important decision, you free up your short term memory and experience less stress.
Flexible thinking is your ability to move from task to task or think about multiple concepts at once. Mental flexibility helps you learn new things quickly, be more creative in your problem solving and adapt and respond to new situations more effectively. Pre-pandemic, flexible thinking was already crucial in the workplace. According to the 2018 IBM Institute for Business Value Global Country Survey, the willingness to be flexible, agile, and adaptable to change was the #1 behavioral skill needed in the workforce.
The circumstances of the pandemic are forcing us to adapt and be more flexible than ever, which is good. What creates the exhaustion is our resistance to being more flexible. When it feels like every area of our lives is being turned upside down, it is easy to become rigid in our beliefs and assumptions. Instead, you could try to accept alternate viewpoints as possibilities and see how that feels without committing to anything right away. Try to embrace all the change and disruption as a refreshing opportunity to practice mental flexibility rather than an exhausting challenge.
Self-control is the ability to quell any impulses that would undo commitments to your goals. It also involves the capacity to delay gratification so you can hold out against short term temptations for long term successes. Finally, it also consists of the ability to regulate your emotions so that you can acknowledge how you feel and at the same time choose rational responses despite your feelings.
You can manage your impulses, delay gratification and regulate your emotions with self-awareness. Once you pause to notice your impulses and negative emotions, you immediately have more power over them. You can pause to reframe the situation in your mind or to use self-talk to rationalize better behavior. When you pay attention to impulses and emotions instead of acting on them, you create the leverage to take more positive action like walking it off, talking it out or journaling it away.
The pandemic and its effects are going to be with us for a while. Although I look forward to the new year’s potential, the lingering effects of 2020 will not go away unless we take responsibility for how we manage ourselves.
You can do it. You can emerge your Inner CEO and develop your executive function for more effective brain management and a renewed vitality. Don’t wait for the pandemic to be over to be in charge of your life again. Practice now for a better and brighter 2021, no matter what the pandemic does.
Work Your Inner Genius. Take a look at the following suggestions to strengthen your executive function.
- Working memory: A picture is worth a thousand words and is a lot less work for your brain to process in the moment. Think of something that you want to do. Instead of trying to keep tabs on dozens of instructions about how to do it, visualize the outcome you want. When you create one clear picture, it’s easier for your working memory to access the information it needs to make the best choices for that outcome.
- Flexible thinking: Think of a recent judgment you made about something that happened or a question someone asked you or a statement they made. Try to be more flexible with your judgment and see it as one interpretation of many. Practice considering as many alternate interpretations as you can. Look for multiple answers to a question or multiple reasons for a statement instead of the one you assumed at first.
- Self-control: Think of something that makes your blood boil. When you reach the point of lashing out at the injustice of it all, try taking a few deep breaths and paying attention to the sensations in your body instead. If you can allow yourself to be aware of these sensations in your body without doing anything about them, they will most likely dissipate or weaken. As they do, you have more control over your response. You can act in a way that aligns with your commitments and goals, instead of reacting impulsively just to be rid of the strong physical sensations.
Thanks for reading. Til next week,