What Does It Mean to Externalize Executive Function?

We keep on using that word. Does it mean what we think it means?

I keep coming back to Mark Watney from “the Martian” (film version, with Matt Damon). When faced with a hostile environment, and limited tools and even more limited biology, he looks at the camera and says:

“In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

Except, in my mind, I substitute “externalize” for “science.” Because I’m not a scientist.

But I definitely am an externalizer.

Always have been.

One of the sessions I’m hoping happens at the ADHD Open Space will be titled “tell me you have ADHD without telling me you have ADHD.”

And I’ll pull out my day runner from high school, something that was introduced to me by my super-cool Aunt (who was also a consultant for people using these new “computers” from a little company called Apple). She and her husband (also cool, and the reason I joined the USMC) called these thick books their “brains” and showed me how they could schedule things out for months, even years ahead, and have people’s contact numbers and addresses at their fingertips, and…well, you know the drill.

The thing is, until they showed it to me, I didn’t. Those little planners were things for people with Big Real Jobs — you know, executives.

And while I didn’t hold that title for many decades, I fell in love with the idea of being organized. My first blog was full of reviews of scheduling software, note-taking strategies, and devices. I used to take notes at the university using the proprietary stylus-enabled alphabet known as “graffiti” (which, as much as I do love Apple, was both a better name and a better system than “scribble”).

My obsession with scheduling, timekeeping, information design, etc. became what I hope was an endearing trait to my loved ones (possibly they considered interventions, instead).

I now understand that it really was an unconscious cry for help from a neurodivergent brain trying to function in a neurotypical world.

But that left me eminently prepared to act with intention.

There are a lot of different models of executive function, but one that I’ve found especially useful is Dr. Russell Barkley’s model of four:

  • Nonverbal working memory.
  • Internalization of Speech (verbal working memory)
  • Self-regulation of affect/motivation/arousal.
  • Reconstitution (planning and generativity)

And taking that list, it’s easy to see the ways my tools compensate for them. How do I externalize? Let me count the ways…

First we have the “planning and generativity”:

  • Current time tracker:
    • Tiimo (app) for easy visual countdowns
    • Due (app) for scheduling tasks within focus blocks
    • Google calendar for appointments and reminders sent to my watch, phone, computer, and tablets
    • Bullet Journal to hand-write a “running log” and have an “indistractible” calendar (i.e., one that isn’t connected to a diversion machine and never needs updating, charging, or backing up).
    • ATracker (app) to record focus blocks and tasks for my day job, which requires I fill out google spreadsheets of my work time each week.
    • Another time tracker form in GoodNotes which is part of the homework for an online creative course I’m taking.

Then we have self-regulation:

  • Environmental controls:
    • Home: white and color LED smart bulbs in key rooms.
    • Heater in my basement office connected to a smart plug.
    • Everything connected to the Home app so I can say “turn on the office” while I’m upstairs getting my coffee and come downstairs to a cozy office.
    • One HomePod, two minipods, and sound-aware phones, tablets, and an Apple Watch, so that Siri can turn things on and off (or provide me with music or timers) on request.
    • In office: Sony noise-cancelling headphones (the really good ones).
    • On the go: Dr. Beats noise-cancelling ear buds (with the hook that keeps them from falling out like an AirPod could while I’m riding my bike so I have to spend an hour trying to find one in the leaves of the gutter until finally giving up and accepting that I now have a useless AirPod.)(hypothetically).

Nonverbal working memory? My phone camera, my pocket notebook and brush pen, and soooooo many drawing and notetaking apps on phone and tablet. Also several different pens & pencils, a roll-on double sided tape dispenser, and a B5 size bullet journal that lets me sketch when needed.

Verbal working memory? Another suite of apps, including several voice recorders, and a 60+wpm typing speed that lets me take notes quickly. Also the privilege of being taught cursive handwriting, which means I can almost be as fast with a pen as with a keyboard.

But aren’t there more executive functions?

If that seems a little simplistic because it leaves out some of the factors in other models, Dr. Barkley accounts for it by the overarching issue being inhibition. He quotes Rabelais, in fact: “…good things come to those who wait.” People with ADHD are more in tune with “the early bird gets the worm” or the other ornithological maxim “a bird in the hand is worth two in the — squirrel!”.

For me, it’s hard to dislike impulsivity — spur-of-the-moment decisions have led to many of the most meaningful and powerful experiences and accomplishments in my life.

But what if, I wonder, I could be impulsive when I wanted to be, instead of all the time?” What might my relationships look like? What might my job performance look like? What might my bank account look like?

There are ways to externalize that too, but they are often about taking things away:

  • The Freedom app, which is the most effective and brutal way to block all the distractions and focus on work.
  • Not putting my cards into Apple Wallet or browsers, or saving my PayPal password in my Password manager, so it takes work to pay for things online.
  • Several social groups, both online and in person, that hold me accountable to getting things done and not doing other things (such as the “Shut Up and Write” group I’m in as I write this, while we all try to get an hour of nothing but writing done on our particular projects.

What do you externalize?

It’s definitely not a perfect system — and I’ll be writing more about it, and talking with others about it, all week. But for now: what executive functions do you externalize? How? And what do you wish worked better?

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