executive function

A very moving incident occurred in my practice a while back. James, a young college bound student, came into my office with the face of a lost puppy, an expression of disappointment with a hint of self-loathing. Here is what he told me…

After having a disastrous spring semester last year, James tuned a new leaf by seeking help from a professional (a neuropsychologist) to address his disorganization, time management problems and chronic issues with underachievement. Since we started working together, we had been discussing the process of goal setting, evaluating plans, and assessing consequences of inactions. It looked like he was on a path of upward movement.

With great hopes for the future, James registered for classes for the fall semester by carefully choosing those that would not only promote his learning but aid in management. He selected professors after evaluating their “ratings” as suggested to him. He managed to choose classes that would facilitate his Executive Function skills. For example, later classes or classes with labs or interactive elements would be more complementary for his learning style. After making the appropriate selection, the next step was to make an electronic payment and the classes would be confirmed. After slacking off by checking email, James received a notice from his school with a “weird” note that his balance was zero. At this point, James assumed that it was because the payment had been made in full and the zero balance implied no payment was due.

As it turned out, later that night at (12:20am to be exact!) as he was casually scrolling through his school notes again, James was alarmed by an email with the subject line “You Are Now Dropped.” Unfortunately, James never made the electronic payment!

Using discussion as a vehicle to promote thinking, reasoning, and problem solving with James, I introduced the concept of “Recover as Soon as You Discover,” a process of redirecting failure. I explained to James that “I will never run into a glitch” is more of a myth or even a fantasy rather than a practical expectation for an ADHD individuals. Since the prefrontal cortex not only governs our ability to set goals, make decisions, and respond, it also regulates emotions by tempering reactions to failures, upsets, and interruptions.

In an ideal situation, assuming that the best outcome will result from a good game plan is a great way to prepare for an immediate or long-term future success. However, a better strategy for success is to anticipate potential glitches and devise novel ways to address them. One such novel or psychologically sound way to develop this habit is to practice saying to yourself, “No, I will not be defeated by this failure.” People who have experienced more successes than failures are better skilled at this habit. If you have experienced repeated failures in planning, organization, and time management then it is possible for you to feel terrible about yourself and not trust your optimism for using a better planning process tomorrow. If you have no insight, then you believe that such planning glitches, hitches, or faux pas will not repeat. Tempered emotional responses to repetitious, yet unpredictable, glitches will quickly hone your ability to restore organizational methods. This kind of planning rhythm is essential to keep going. Always remember that failure is an option and it is best to recover as soon as you discover!