Since becoming a parent, I've gotten a whole new outlook on life. If you're a parent, you're probably laughing and nodding along. When we take on a new role, it often comes with education. Parenthood - not so much. Well, there were classes, but to be honest, it's a lot of on-the-job training.
First up, parenthood is a major brain drain (duh). It's gotten me thinking a lot about one of my favourite topics - executive functioning.
Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that help you get things done. It includes skills such as planning, organization, working memory, and problem-solving. These skills are important for managing tasks, staying on track, and completing goals. Executive functioning can be affected by a variety of factors, such as age, mental health conditions, and certain medications (I can also say that it is affected by sleep and learning to keep a tiny human alive!).
Sometimes I refer to executive functioning as 'the cognitive load.' All of the planning, organizing, and problem solving - not only for yourself, but for the people around you - can be a really heavy load to carry. Luckily, there are a few strategies that I've been utilizing that you may find helpful too.
Here's an example of an everyday executive functioning task. Let's say you have an event to get to, such as a birthday party. It starts at 1:00 PM but it's across town. You'll need to eat/feed your family, complete basic hygiene, and get everyone dressed. You plan to leave at 12:40 PM, so it's all got to be done before then. Just when you think you've got it all figured out, someone requests 'fancy braids' instead of a standard ponytail and the whole plan has to shift. Oh, and you forgot to wrap the present. Is the car filled with gas?
The next time you have an event or activity to get to, see if you can map out:
_ things that need to be packed;
_ 'must do' tasks before leaving;
_ time it takes to get ready;
_ time it takes to get there;
_ what time you should start getting ready.
To model and teach this skill, map it out either verbally or visually for your family. Once you know when you are leaving, consider setting a visual timer to count down how long you have. Check-lists, either written or in picture form, might be necessary.
Another strategy that I often recommend, and use, is cognitive off-loading.
Cognitive off-loading is a behavioral strategy that involves relying on external sources for memory and decision-making, such as technology, rather than relying on our own brains. This strategy is often used to reduce stress and mental effort, as well as to increase efficiency. Examples of cognitive off-loading include using GPS to remember directions, using a calculator to do math, and using a search engine to find information.
I love a good To Do list (both physical and digital), and still rely on a paper planner to organize days, weeks, and months. In my new role as a parent, I've utilized apps and technology to remember when I last fed the baby. This lets my brain focus on more important things, like responding to emails and remembering how to speak to adults.
Think about the tasks that you could off-load: appointment reminders, family calendar updates, or even chores (Chore Monster App).
Now that you've got that to-do list created, where are you going to start? Setting priorities is another important executive functioning skill.
There are a few different ways to prioritize tasks, so pick what works for you:
1. Start with what's easiest. I like this strategy because it makes me feel like I've accomplished something right away. This may motivate you to keep going - or you might reward yourself with a break.
2. Prioritize in order of importance. This can mean starting with the task that has been weighing on your mind, or that you complete the activity that someone keeps pestering you about.
3. Look at any timelines. Do you have a soccer game tomorrow, so the uniform needs to be washed tonight? Is the bake sale next week, so the cupcakes can wait?
4. Make a logical route. If you're out and about, maybe you plan your errands according to their proximity and a course that makes the most sense.
5. Step-by-step. Have a big chore that needs tackling? Break it into chunks and then order each of those tasks.
Parenthood is no joke, and it not only takes up physical and financial resources, but cognitive ones too. Leave a comment if you've got a brain hack for the rest of us.