Executive Functioning Systems

EF Management Tips and Tricks – Part III
Time, Memory & Organization Systems
to Develop into Habits

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
PART THREE: In support of The Executive Functioning Series

The Quick Review:

In the introduction to this 4-part article, I went over some of the concepts underlying the systems approach and why it works.

Essentially, systems and habits help us conserve cognitive resources for when they are really needed.

I added the caveat that nothing works for everyone any more than ONE SIZE FITS ALL very well.  For those of you who have the motivation and time to figure out how to make an “off the rack” outfit fit you perfectly, be sure to skip past the literal interpretation to read for the sense of the underlying principles.

For the REST of you: if you can’t “sew” and are disinclined to take the time to learn (since most of us have trouble keeping up with what we are already trying to squeeze into our days), remember that I offer systems development coaching, and would love to put my shoulder to your wheel.

The quick warning:

I want to warn everyone yet again that few of my clients ever really hear me the first dozen times, so don’t be too surprised when the importance of some of these Basics float past you a time or two as well.

The sooner you make friends with the concepts I’m sharing – and put them into place in a way that works for you – the sooner life gets easier, more intentional, and a lot more fun.

FIVE Underlying System Basics

Found in Part-2:
Feed Your Head
2. Structure is your FRIEND
3. Nothing takes a minute

In this section:
4. Write it down (any “it”)

Concluding in Part-4 with:
5. PAD your schedule
PAD-ing: Planning Aware of Details™

Remember to remember as you read the principles to come:

MOST of you will probably need to tweak to fit as you incorporate the principles into your life (and/or take a second look at systems and work-arounds you already have in place that have now become habitual). If you really want to begin to experience the level of personal effectiveness you say you want, take a close and open-minded look at principles that have a 25-year track record of helping.

If you start to feel resistance,
let ’em simmer in your brain’s slow-cooker for a while.

As long as you don’t actively resist (as if YOU are the exception, fighting the ideas or ruminating over the thoughts that yet another person simply doesn’t get it), you will be one step closer to getting a handle on that systematizing to follow-through thing.

So let’s get right back to it!


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4. Write it DOWN (any “it”)

More than any other system basic, this one tends to generate “push back” — almost as if the very idea of making a list or writing a reminder note were an affront to the intelligence of the entire human race.

Can this marriage be saved?

Early in my practice I worked with “Mark,” a young husband, for several years. Toward the end of our time together he was amazing, but I wondered for some time if he was ever going to “take the coaching” to be able to take off like the rocket he became.

Week after week he continued to come to our calls bemoaning the fact that he had dropped out yet another item that was important to his boss or his wife. Nothing earth-shatteringly MAJOR was forgotten, but the cumulative effect undercut his professional reputation (and made his wife crazy!)

But would he write it down? No he would not.

He would, however, give me a blow-by-blow description
of why he didn’t need to and what worked “better” for him.

I would explain patiently – again – that even if his memory were flawless, using cognitive bandwidth to keep items “in his head” rendered those resources unavailable for tasks of intellect that could NOT be “offloaded” to paper.

I would gently remind him of the “evidence” that his memory was NOT, in fact, flawless, and would try ONE MORE WAY to explain how and why the simple act of writing things down could transform his effectiveness in the eyes of two people he really hated to disappoint.

He would decide – yet again – that it would be “better” to enter items that needed to be recorded into his PDA (Personal Digital Assistant – before cell phones).

Week after week he bemoaned the fact that he didn’t always have TIME to enter things into the PDA, or he couldn’t always check his PDA, or that he got distracted while he was entering items into his PDA and failed to set that handy-dandy reminder alarm — I’m sure you get the idea. I’ll bet you can relate, too!

When “Jeannie” learned she was pregnant the same week his boss promoted a junior employee “over his head,” things finally came to a crisis point.

“How will I be able to trust you with a BABY if I can’t even count on you to return from the store with the items you said you would pick up?” she sobbed.

“I don’t want to feel like I have to take care of TWO children — I want a husband I can count on to help me raise the ONE on the way.

And how will we LIVE if you lose your job?”

I’m sure you can imagine most of the rest of the “discussion” that took place as Jeannie threw her belongings into a suitcase.

Yep! Hormones in an uproar, she had reached her breaking point.

The patron saint of ADD Coaching smiled. Mark was able to negotiate a one week stay of execution on the condition that he would write his “promises” into a pocket-sized notebook he would keep on his person, and that the two of them would review it nightly.

That was his fulcrum. Jeannie and Mark are still together, and she reports that he is fabulous Dad to their three kids.

That notebook thing? He came up with it “out of the blue” – imagine that!

Like I said, few of my clients ever really hear me the first couple dozen times, so don’t be too surprised when a few things float right past you too.

We get it when we get it, and not one minute sooner!

WHY it works

First of all, it works around short-term memory deficits in common with ALL Executive Functioning issues.

Human memory isn’t a black and white issue.  In other words, it is not a unitary cognitive function.

How memory works: The Cliff Notes

The brain works with memory in a multi-stepped process, each step dependent on the other — beginning with awareness, which initiates the registration process. That burns up cognitive resources.

  • Events must be registered before they can possibly be remembered – initially stored in those highly volatile, easily disrupted short-term memory banks.
  • In order to remember anything for longer than about 30 minutes, it has to be passed along to more stable storage vaults or it will be impossible for you to access the information later.
  • In addition, the information must be linked for retrieval – which means it must not only be stored in your memory banks, it must be linked in a manner that the information can be accessed when it is requested or when it is needed. If you aren’t prompted to stop at the store, for example, it does no good at all to remember the milk as you walk in the house.
  • Unless our brains determine that the content is relevant to our being, they never pass it along from short term memory buffers to the storage tanks.
  • In other words, your brain makes a decision to store or the item is no more a part of your memory than exactly where you parked your car on an uneventful trip to the mall six months ago.
  • Unless something causes us to focus on an event as it occurs, there is no neurological awareness that a decision to store needs to be made.

Focused attention is fairly essential for all but memories accompanied by a strong emotional state. Chances are good that you aren’t strongly connected to remembering to pick up the dry cleaning – or the milk – on your way home from work.

Even your boss’s considerate heads up that there will be an important client dinner meeting two weeks from next Tuesday isn’t likely to be recalled unless you write it down – practically immediately.

Then what do you do with the theatre tickets to the show your spouse has been dying to see when you realize, when reminded of the meeting the day before, that you’ve double-booked? (And how effective are you likely to be with that client after spending an uncomfortable night on the couch?)

Writing something down focuses your attention on what you just said you’d do.  It adds multi-modal memory hooks: tactile, kinesthetic, cognitive and visual.  If you read it back aloud you’ve just added verbal.  Why would you want to limit yourself to cognitive and audial?

It also forces your brain to slow down, decreasing the chances that the data will get caught up in a metaphorical logjam and be dumped on the shore. Paper reminders stand a better shot of surviving the trip down the stream.

Related Post: Awareness is a factor of ATTENTION!

Second, it slows down the sender

Your brain can only hold so much incoming information at a time before it starts dropping bits and bytes. If your spouse (or your boss) keeps talking after getting you to agree to a request, the new information frequently pushes what was said prior to it right off your brain’s scratch pad.

Most people wait while you are writing.  Worse case scenario, you’ll need to ask them to repeat what they said while you were writing – small price to pay.

Do I have to remind you to write it down so that you can read it?  Probably.  We tend to rush when people are waiting, and it never really serves us.  If they complain, smile sweetly as you tell them how important it is to you to make sure you do what you said you’d do for them.  Don’t explain – smile as you write.

So how are you going to remember to check your reminder? 

Ah, grasshopper, you are not going to rely on that memory again, are you?  That’s why Mark and Jeannie went over his notebook nightly.  Do it right before bed – every night – and take a quick gander in the morning, until it becomes a habit.

AGAIN, the questions for you:

If you’ve already tried any of the techniques suggested in this 4-part article:

  • Were you able to develop the habit of using them?
    How long did THAT take?
  • How did it go? Where were the glitches?
    Any stoppers?
  • Did you make any tweaks you can share?

If you haven’t:

  • What are you doing NOW – and where are the breakdowns?
  • What can you share that already works well enough?
  • If you had to use one of these techniques, which seems most likely to work for you?  How come?

Ring in below, so we can learn from each other —
EVERYBODY has in-sights to share!

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IN ANY CASE, stay tuned.
There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

72 Responses to Executive Functioning Systems

  1. Pingback: Putting things on autopilot gets more DONE | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: Time management tips for better Executive Functioning | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  3. Tina Frisco says:

    Your posts are so well-thought-out and elucidated, Madelyn. Knowing that memory is formed through repetition, I always write things down.

    But here’s my problem: I frequently lose the paper I wrote it on. I either misplace it or throw it away ‘by accident.’ I tried using a notebook, but my brain tends to ignore anything that isn’t right in front of me. So I end up with 1,000 post-it notes around my computer.

    Any suggestions? (You have a suggestion, right?) I hope so, because I recently threw away a birthday card that should have been mailed 🙂 ♥

    Liked by 1 person

    • lol, Tina – and the trash went into the mail slot?

      Developing the HABIT of *looking* for your notes is key here. Step by step.

      Try taking all but the most urgent post-its off your monitor (not all at once, you’ll boggle).

      BUT FIRST, get a notebook in a color or pattern that is hard to overlook — NOT white, and not something that “goes” with your house — because the time will come when you will wander it away from your computer and you will want to be able to spot it quickly and know immediately to send it back home. (immediately, right?)

      Fill that notebook with 10 or so of those vinyl sheets that are designed to hold a single sheet of paper. Add a couple of divider sheets labeled with “categories” that make sense with the kinds of notes you usually write yourself (like “pay soon” or “next month” – “calls”- “mail”- whatever!)

      NOW, one by one, take the stickies off your computer and stick them to one of the sheets – fronts only (NO rewriting – you won’t “make” yourself do that again!)

      On your computer, put a sticky with CHECK NOTEBOOK! in bold letters.

      On M-W-F it goes at the top of one side of the monitor,
      T-Th-Sat it goes on the other side.
      Sunday, it goes up top in the center.
      (label the “sides” to remind you until it becomes automatic)

      You are not allowed to move it until you check your notebook, so if it’s on the wrong side, you know what to do, right?

      Do what you usually do otherwise, cluttering your monitor as the day goes by *except* that at the end of the nite, “file” all of the stickies but the most urgent or necessary (and trash any that are no longer needed) — *then* scroll thru the notebook to refresh your memory and move anything that you are going to need soon back to your monitor.

      NOW move the “Check Notebook” sticky. Do this for two weeks – and don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or three. Get back on the horse.

      PAY ATTENTION to what continues to drive you nuts about this system *after* the first week, and tweak from there — but most people are on the way to systematizing if they really do it.

      Hope that helps. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. dgkaye says:

    I loved this M, makes perfectly logical sense. When I was a tad younger I had a memory like an elephant, never had to write down anything, now I live with lists, post-it-notes, reminders and a calendar, lol.

    What you said here is bang on: “Events must be registered before they can possibly be remembered. . .” I know as I got older and had to remember certain things like for example, where I left my keys, I make a conscious note to myself when I lay them down instead of mindlessly leaving them just anywhere, I have to register and compute where I’m putting something so I don’t spend endless hours looking for it.

    And night writing is fun too. When I awake in the middle of the night with a brainstorming thought or something I need to remember for a book I’m writing, I’m often surprised when I go back and read it, often saying to myself, ‘Did I really write this?’ Lol 🙂 xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Christy B says:

    You’re speaking my language now, Madelyn! The language of the written word 😀 I’m a HUGE fan of lists, making notes, etc… and my mind is all the freer for it, not having to carry around more info than I need because it’s there on my list, calendar, sticky note or another place. Great that your client figured out the notebook thing out of nowhere hahah 😉 ~Your humor on that one was great (you are very patient xx) ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  6. -Eugenia says:

    I find if I write things down, I have a better recollection then if I make notes in a device. I can picture how I wrote it on down on paper. This served me well when I took notes for an exam.

    A pro for putting my notes in a device is that they don’t become lost or thrown away as easily.

    This is good information, Madelyn. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point about recollection, Eugenia. Most of us find that to be true, btw, if we’ll give it an honest test. The brain-based explanation as to why is too long to go into in a comment, but it does seem to be true in MOST cases, for a very good reason.

      I try to convince all of my clients about the importance of putting notes in a DATEBOOK – even a good place to stick all those sticky notes we all seem to be so fond of. That gets around the “getting lost or thrown away” problem. ::sigh:: One more habit to develop. 🙂

      Thanks ALWAYS for reading and ringing in.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. John Fioravanti says:

    Reblogged this on Words To Captivate ~ by John Fioravanti and commented:
    In this new and helpful installment about Executive Functions of our brain, Madelyn Griffith-Haynie explains why we need to WRITE THINGS DOWN! (The caps are for me!) Please, read on…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the reblog, John – and the EMPHASIS (lol). It seems like less of a nudge when you understand *why* it works, doesn’t it?

      I didn’t want to focus on the problems with cell phones etc. in *this* article, but I could have added a bit after the second section of why it works to write things down. (i.e., people generally wait while you jot down a note).

      Um, what happens when you suddenly start thumb-typing on your device in the middle of a conversation? The opposite of patience, in my experience!

      And when you get a reminder from your cell phone (or your computer) and your attention is virtual for a moment, are you more likely to want to get right to the task or do one of those virtual “minute” tasks “while you’re there”????

      There are a lot of things that our devices help us to do, but writing things down is not their strength!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Just when we thought the basics of parts one and two said it all we discover part 3 brings even more to the table. There is a lot of meat here Madelyn and after reading each reading I gleaned more. Thanks for this new layer. It reminds me even after being in the field for close to 4 decades there is always more to learn.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Lucy Brazier says:

    I write EVERYTHING down! Seriously, my short term memory isn’t good and my brain is so full of nonsense (essential for a writer, not so helpful in real life) that I doubt I would ever do anything productive if I didn’t have my notebooks and post-it notes.

    I think people feel that they are stupid if they have to write things down and that puts them off doing it. Not so – it’s just that some brains don’t remember things so well – probably busy brains!

    I love these posts because they give such a straightforward explanation to those problems we all have but perhaps don’t want to admit to. Where would I be without them!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I will print and frame #3… it gets a place on my desk… nothing takes a minute… that’s what it is…and I will keep it in my mind before I have to learn it the hard way again ;o)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. If the story of Jeannie and Mark is real, kudos to you!

    I have designed an ADHD grocery list, color and font coordinated, yet I still have to remind my husband to count items in his shopping cart before he comes to the cash register. It is easier for him if he calls me from a store and walks the store with me on the phone while I am looking at the list.

    He does have a notebook which he forgets anywhere he goes. Fortunately, he is so likeable that people call him when they find it.

    I have an old friend who used to tie knots on his handkerchief as reminders and then forget those handkerchiefs in all kinds of strange places. That did not prevent him from being a prominent pianist with all kinds of awards and distinctions.

    The point I am making is something you very well know: once people at least realize that they HAVE to implement these strategies and make even a minimal effort, they are hugely successful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Mark” and “Jeannie” are indeed real people and the story is essentially accurate. I “collapsed” a couple of details for readability and left out a few for confidentiality, but that is pretty much how it played (and not just with this client!)

      Your last point is very well taken – we don’t have to do EVERYTHING (i.e., incorporate every single work-around every single time). We can be successful with “good enough” in many arenas, as long as we implement strategies for the things that trip us up most often at least most of the time.

      Back in NYC I coached a well-known, highly successful therapist on his mail-handling systems because the one he was currently using was making everybody nuts and slowing him down! It changed his life. Perhaps I’ll share it in a post at some future time. He didn’t become MORE successful as a result, his life simply became easier and his stress/annoyance level went down considerably. AND, the money for late fees and reconnection charges was no longer a line-item in his budget. 🙂

      We ALL have things we need to be able to do what we do. You are smart enough to organize your kitchen, for example, so that finding ingredients, containers, utensils, etc. doesn’t become a perpetual scavenger hunt. And I’ll bet you put things back where they belong – and clean up as you go (or at least after every meal). And I’ll bet you do a lot of that on autopilot because you have developed the habits.

      Some people aren’t aware of how important those systems are – or understand how to put them in place – or need some accountability while they change a few things and build the habit of using them (i.e., get off the “make a mess – spend the day reorganizing” carousel). Some are successful, but none of them are chefs – lol – and many of them battle weight (or budget concerns) because they don’t have systems for easy, economical, healthy eating in place. ETC!!!

      Thanks for ringing in here Dolly.

      Liked by 1 person

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