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Blog: Chronic Disorganization

The word "executive" conjures up an image of a CEO sitting at a desk with authority over other people. The executive doesn't do the hands-on work, instead, the executive activates, coordinates, integrates and moderates the work of others. The executive function of the brain refers to higher-order cognitive functioning that activates, integrates, coordinates, and moderates other cognitive functions. It's like a conductor of a symphony. The conductor doesn't play an instrument but rather makes sure all the musicians and instruments work together to carry out the musical score.
Executive function is the mega-cognitive function that governs execution, what I call getting from 'here' to 'there.' The 'there' might be:
* achieving a goal
* completing a task
* solving a problem or
* making a decision.
People who are chronically disorganized often have issues with execution. We know this because in the wake of their lack of execution are remnants of projects, incomplete tasks, visual cues to attend to tasks and stuff left behind when a decision is not made or carried out.
Another classic example of weak executive function is not being able to establish systems, for example, to deal with incoming mail, outgoing store returns, on-going projects, or a system for capturing the onslaught of new tasks to perform. Sometimes chronically disorganized people can't seem to get their mo-jo going on system-making.
A person whose executive function may be lacking tends to behaves in a way that is considered ''future-blind." Planning towards a goal requires us to maintain "�a mental image of destination,'' according to Dr. Anthony Bashir, a specialist in communications disorders at Emerson College in Boston. To do this we have to use our working memory, another aspect of executive function. Working memory is kind of like a scratch pad. It temporarily holds onto information that you will soon act upon. Chronicallly disorganized people often complain of seeing stuff to put away, making a mental note to do so after lunch, and then completely forgetting, or putting a rental DVD in the car to return and then driving past the store without ever returning it. Information vanishes from the scratch pad of working memory more quickly in people with deficits in executive function.
Before you go running to a neuropsychologist, there is much you can do to strength your executive function.
Organize Your Stuff
Assemble a Project File when you take on a complex task to complete. Pull together in advance stuff you'll need all in one place. These days you'll need a virtual project file and a tangible one. Include notes, ideas, resources, checklists and documents, stationery supplies, reading materials and anything else you might need to do the project.
Every goal, task, or project adds information, paper, data, and time commitments to your busy life. Clear the decks. Eliminate old projects, redundant papers and unneeded documents from your desk. Give yourself a running start without having to search around in zillions of electronic files or stacks of paper.
Come up with a routine for transitioning from one workday to the next so that you have a maximum flow of work with a minimum of mental effort. Allow time at the end of the workday to wrap up. Put your files away. Update your notes. Do a brain dump. Check your calendar for the next day. Pull the files you might need. Jot down notes that focus on the most important three things to do the next day. Get the ball rolling on those things before you open your email.
Use as much technology as you are comfortable with. Technology tools for planning, scheduling, keeping track of tasks and contacts, and organizing notes and documents are like working memory prostheses.
Organize Your Head
Organize your head by creating a "brain dump" list. It can be a rough list of things to do, ideas about research to conduct, people to talk to, questions you have, stuff to buy � anything you have rattling around in your head. A broad outline, a rough table of contents, or a simple list can get details out of your head and free up your working memory.
Try making a mind map. A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged graphically around a central key word or idea. Go to http://www.collegedegree.com/library/college-life/99-mind-mapping for examples.
When something has changed with a project, stop and re-adjust. If the project is floundering and not meeting milestones, stop and get it back on course. If the report is suddenly due sooner, stop and figure out how to make that happen. Stop to think, consult, and plan anew.
If you lose your way, or the project becomes unfocused, or the clarity of the assignment fades, or you're distracted and can't get back on track, take a break. Walk outdoors, breath clean air, drink water, stretch or exercise, and don't obsess. Sometimes things become more clear by walking away from them rather than hammering away at them.
Organize Your Support
Get the support (personnel) you need to be successful at whatever you are taking on. Can an administrative assistant keep you on schedule? Can your spouse help with clerical work? Do you need to meet with people to clarify the assignment or brainstorm? Is a coach in order to keep you accountable to your goal? How about a professional organizer to get your stuff organized?
When Executive Dysfunction Needs Professional Attention
The concept of executive dysfunction is pretty new, has many diverse signs and can be rationalized as fatigue or stress. Unlike students or people with learning disabilities who might have teachers or others looking out for signs of executive dysfunction, an adult in the workplace or in the home has to determine how problematic their level of functioning is before seeking assessment. Get more education by reading Getting from Here to there at www.squallpress.net under Special Reports. Google Executive Dysfunction for even more information. Don't hesitate to ask for help if you are chronically unable to get from here to there, you are having performance problems at work even though you know you have what it takes, or the onset of executive functioning-type issues is sudden or severe. Assessment is done by a neuropsychologist. You can locate one at the American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/ or the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology, http://www.theabcn.org/. Treatments for executive dysfunction are very diverse and can include skill remediation, coaching, counseling, occupational therapy, and in some cases medication.

posted on: 3/29/2008 11:00:00 AM by Judith Kolberg
category: Organizing Challenges

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Chronic Disorganization

by Judith Kolberg

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About Judith:

FileHeads Professional Organizers founded in 1989, is a business-to-business professional organizing firm providing time management , office organizing, and productivity consulting. Company-wide training, keynote speaking, and custom teleclasses are available as well as individual organizing sessions. Chief organizer, Judith Kolberg, is an award-winning professional organizer, international author and speaker. FileHeads is regarded as one of the nation's foremost authorities on the special organizing needs of chronically disorganized and AD/HD individuals.

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