Executive Function Part 2 Hacks and Workarounds

You have waited long enough. Part 1 covered definitions and causes of issues with executive function. Without further ado, here’s executive function part 2: 

Executive Function Part 2: Hacks and Workarounds

I hesitated to use “hacks” here because I don’t want you to think I’m not taking executive function dysfunction lightly.  Finally decided that it was a short and plain way to say “stuff that works” and decided to keep it. 

If you’ve been following along with this series, you know that I am relying heavily on the research of Adele Diamond to bring these ideas to you. All mistakes and misunderstandings are my own. From her research, Diamond identified four major categories of ways to improve executive function regardless of what is causing dysfunction. They are:

4 Proven Ways to Improve Overall Executive Function

Repeated practice.

That’s right. When your mom said “pick up the instrument and play” when she brought home the dreaded clarinet or tuba or violin, she was right. Practice, practice, practice. Memory begins to get stored deeper when you repeatedly put knowledge in your working memory and manipulate it. When you practice ignoring external signals that are interrupting your thoughts, you improve your resistance to those signals. When you get in the habit of using a planner every day, you get better at using it. If you start doing one new thing you were afraid to try each week, starting new tasks gets easier. 

Executive Function Pt. 3: Forming Habits

Physical fitness.

Oh, come on now. I can hear you groan from here. I wouldn’t bring it up if there weren’t lots of research behind it, because I know that for a lot of you (us) physical activity comes with a lot of fear and doubt, and pain. Work on muscles, aerobic fitness, and flexibility all contribute to improving executive function. That doesn’t mean you have to run marathons or be a gymnast or weight lifter, only that whatever you’re doing, do a bit more of it, and do it more consistently. This has been found to improve things significantly even for seniors with dementia, so, hey, maybe a bit of sweat isn’t a bad thing. (Of course, there are exceptions, so please, please, please consult your doctor).

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Language learning.

I sometimes wonder if the average European is healthier in part because the average European is bi- or multi-lingual. I mean, universal health care probably has something to do with it, but… Anyhow, yes. Learning a language improves executive function. As a reminder, “language” is not only limited to spoken and written languages. Roughly the same neural centers are activated in learning sign language, computer coding, HTML, mathematics, and music. So pick a new language or “language” to learn, and feel your brain getting “stronger”

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Incremental increases in difficulty:

Make what you’re doing a little bit harder, pretty much every time you try. Think back to learning how to spell. One week you were spelling three-letter words, then four. Pretty soon you could sound out two-syllable words and started learning the rules for the various language interlopers in the English language so that you could (sometimes) remember the difference between they’re, their, and there. Whatever you’re trying to improve about your executive function, keep stretching, every day. 

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executive function part 2 General Strategies for Improving Various Executive Functions

Note: Several of the executive function part 2 exercises call for trying the exercise for three months. The reason for this is that it takes approximately that long to create a habit. Work on one habit for a month or two, see if you can start another without dropping the first, and if not, finish the three months with the first habit before starting the next. Try to have them build on each other. 

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mindfulness practice: 

There is a lot of excellent science behind a regular mindfulness practice, where you spend anywhere between a few minutes and a half hour or more each day in a mindful state. We’ll talk later about mindfulness in the context of DBT, but today I’m talking about mindfulness in the traditional sense of exercises in being still and aware. 

Exercise: For three months, set an alarm for right before you go to bed, or right after you wake up, and spend three minutes doing “foursquare breathing”.  Click the link for a helpful video to get you started. (not mine, this time) 

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set a timer: 

For things that you’re struggling to do, set a timer for five or ten or twenty minute,s or an hour. Do as much of the task as you can in that time, then take a five or ten, or twenty-minute break, rinse and repeat. The traditional “Pomodoro” technique calls for 25 minutes of work to five minutes of rest, but you do you.

Exercise: Every day for three months, choose one thing that is hard for you to do, and do three “mini-Pomodoros” of at least ten minutes of work, and five minutes of rest toward the task. 

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This means picking a day (once a week or month is good) to do a group of similar tasks together. Combine this with using the timer, above, if that works for you. So, suppose you need to do reports. Plan a workday to several similar reports to keep your brain on one “track”. Or at home, if you need to sort clothes between keep, donate, and trash, do everyone’s on the same weekend, rather than worrying about other tasks. Each task will build on the last and make the whole thing easier. 

Exercise: Pick a day every month to have a “chunking” day. Maybe get others in your household involved, and everyone (or just you!) gets a pizza or a movie party afterward. 



When you have something big you’re trying to do, from finding a job to designing a new whatsit, see it before you build it. This can involve simply closing your eyes and imagining the steps, for simpler things, to using mindmaps, a journal (or bullet journal) or planner, spreadsheets, or a “vision board”. There are likely to be lots of scratchy, scribbly notes and half-finished thoughts, and dead ends. That’s good. It means the process is working. 

Exercise: Buy or “crib together” a planner, paper, electronic or some combination. On a fresh page or file, name your project, and every day set a timer for five or ten minutes and add something to your plan. Or take something away. Or make up wild ideas. 

Priority Lists: 

People mess up with listing their priority lists either when they write them on something that gets lost or when they make them too long. Don’t include things you’re already good at getting done. Only write down the things you need to get better at doing or need to do one time or infrequently. 

Exercise: Every single day write down three things you want to accomplish before the end of the day. This can be as simple as 1. get out of bed 2. drink coffee 3. prepare the coffee pot for tomorrow, or earthshaking, lifesaving stuff. Write it down someplace you won’t lose it. Perhaps an app on your phone, a planner you carry everywhere, or on your refrigerator door or bathroom or bedroom mirror. 


Everyone do-si-do! Grab a partner and ’round we go! Find a supportive friend, co-worker, family member, or a supportive professional, and ask them to help you stay accountable. Return the favor for them. Become exercise buddies, have them over to help you visualize your idea, or take turns helping each other do a major cleaning task. 

Exercise: Make a list of three people you could count on to help you with something on this list even if their help is limited by distance or busyness. Call at least one of them and ask for the help you need. 

create extrinsic motives:

“Extrinsic” is a fancy psychological word for “external” or “outside of yourself”. I keep repeating it in these articles and videos so you learn a new word. When feeling good about yourself or liking the work you did isn’t enough, reward yourself. 

Exercises: There are two here. The first is to make a list of small, inexpensive, and relatively emotionally/physically healthy things you can do to reward yourself on a regular basis for things you’ve achieved. The second is to pick one of those things to reward yourself every single time you complete a goal from one of the other exercises in this article. 

It Isn’t About Perfection

You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to miss days. And you’re going to think something is the perfect solution and it turns out to be a disaster. That’s okay. 

What I want you to do when you mess up is remember that every handmade work of art has at least one mistake in it, whether or not you can see it. I can guarantee the creator can see it. So do three things, no matter how your attempts go:


If your first attempt doesn’t work, change it up a bit. Play with it.


Keep trying. Take a (short) break to calm yourself, and try again. 


Keep growing and learning and move more and more of those brain functions from your pre-frontal cortex (boss brain) executive functions to your lizard brain (basal ganglia) where they become mostly automatic. You want the roots of these habits you’re creating to sink in deep. 

See you next time. Let me know what you think of the video and article in the comments. 

More on Executive Function

You can find part one of this series, Executive Function Pt. 1: What is it? by clicking the link. Executive Function Pt. 3: Forming Habits is next, and it will lead you to the next in the series. To view all of the Executive Function videos as a playlist, go to Youtube (please like the videos, comment, and follow my channel to keep current). To listen to all of the Executive Function audio as a playlist, go to SoundCloud (again, please like the podcasts, comment, and follow my channel to keep current. 

Thank you.

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16 Comments on “Executive Function Part 2 Hacks and Workarounds

  1. I haven’t seen any new posts from Out of My Mind since May 4th, The Shark Cage Metaphor. It appears that the Patreon feed isn’t updating.

    • Jennifer Dowling Liles Clarification. The podcasts aren’t making it to my app. If I look at the raw output from the feed that Patreon gives me, that’s the last I see. If I just go to the website, it’s fine.

    • Jennifer Dowling Liles Here’s the beginning of the raw output from the feed.

      Out Of My Mindhttps://www.patreon.com/jlilesOut Of My Mind’s Private RSS Feed for Jeff ColeOut Of My Mindsupport@patreon.comOut Of My MindyesYesen-USMon, 24 Jun 2019 04:56:51 GMTMon, 24 Jun 2019 04:56:51 GMThttps://c10.patreonusercontent.com/3/eyJ3Ijo0MDB9/patreon-media/p/campaign/1072476/467098d4316344b5bcbf822e4d71e728/1?token-time=2145916800&token-hash=EZXJNcfy4oOved-MjhdWBnji9SlAy-DXY5sYtOTNuNs%3DOut Of My Mindhttps://www.patreon.com/jlilesAudio Post: The Shark Cage Metaphor: Spotting Potential Abusershttps://www.patreon.com/posts/audio-post-shark-26593867

    • Jeff Cole Apparently it’s a known issue. This is what Patreon says: (I also included the link to try if you’ve troubleshooted and still no go)

      Since RSS relies on third-party apps, you may run into a few hiccups while trying to listen to your podcast.

      If new episodes are no longer appearing in your podcast app, please try un-subscribing and re-subscribing with the same link that appears in the Overview section of the creator page.

      If this still doesn’t work, we recommend trying a different podcast app or RSS feed reader to subscribe. If this still doesn’t work, let us know as it may be a problem with the feed itself.

      Here is an article covering different apps that work (or not)
      . https://support.patreon.com/hc/en-us/articles/115005429546-Will-my-podcast-rewards-work-with-my-favorite-podcast-app-

      Still need help? Send us a note

    • Jennifer Dowling Liles Yeah, I’ve tried unsubscribing, and resubscribing. I believe the issue is on their end, as if I look at the raw rss feed, the last thing available is Shark Tank Part 2.

    • Jeff Cole tell you what. When I get a moment this evening, I’ll compare my Patreon and Soundcloud feeds, make sure everything is on Patreon, and resend. Hmmm. It might be because I switched to links because Soundcloud allows higher quality sound files than Patreon. If so, noted and will find a better way.

    • Jeff Cole you’re welcome. I’m just sorry that it 1) took me so long to figure out what the issue is and 2) will take even longer to convert each of the audio files to ones that are small enough for Patreon.