Stress and executive function

One thing that is a major challenge for me, especially now that I’m (mostly) managing my own schedules is how stress makes my executive function skills evaporate.

In the past week, I’ve: missed 3 important appointments, 1 party I promised to attend, and 3 meetings.

I forgot to register for summer session until the secretary for my program emailed me and asked if I was dropping out.

I am unable to focus on studying for more than 5 minutes except when I focus so strongly I forget to eat anything all day until 4PM.

I’ve missed every class of a seminar course this month.

I double-booked a party with my martial arts responsibilities, when I’ve been attending martial arts on the same time and day for the past five years. How do you forget something you’ve attended at that time and day for five years?!

I’ve forgotten to get milk for three days, and forgotten that we’re out of milk for 3 days, and am thus starting a dry cereal bowl collection in the fridge because it hasn’t occurred to me once to put the damn cereal back in the damn box.

And I put my damn shirt on inside-out this morning.

I’m so fucking scattered that I need my partner to help me stay on task when I’m cooking lest I burn the place down by doing something foolish like sticking a jar of oil on a hot burner. Which has been done by me before when I was this stressed.

My shit, it is not together.

This has been a case study of what stress can do to a person’s executive function.

Sleep problems and executive function

I wonder how many people with executive function issues have sleep problems due to it. I probably will do a follow-up post after I’ve had time to do some reading and research. This post is purely anecdotal.

For me, there’s a difference between insomnia and forgetting to sleep.

Insomnia is knowing I need to sleep and wanting to sleep because I feel like crap but not being able to sleep because anxiety or hurt or meltdown or what have you. I do get it sometimes, and it sucks. 

Forgetting to sleep, on the other hand, is why I’ve operated on <4 hours of sleep every day for the past five days. “Hmm, I should go to bed soonish. One more episode of House of Cards first wouldn’t hurt, though.” *four hours later* “Shit, is it one thirty already?!”  It’s low body awareness (don’t notice I’m tired) coupled with preserveration (binge watching a show I just discovered and enjoy) and a lack of awareness that the clock, which is right by the TV, is showing a later and later time on a work night. 

Sound familiar to anyone?

Predicting the consequences

My whole life, I’ve been prone to doing things that “should be obvious” how they would backfire and/or result in something bad. Some would get frustrated with me, believing me but aggravated that such a “smart kid” could do such “stupid things”. Others would disbelieve me for that reason, saying that I must want to cause them trouble and therefore I deserved to be punished harshly.

The truth is that, when I’m doing something that’s going to backfire, I often have no idea that it will. Even if I’ve done something else that backfired in a similar way already. As an example: One time, I ran out of laundry soap. Now, I was out of clothes, I hate hand-washing things, and I didn’t have time to run to the store for laundry detergent. I got the bright idea to use dish soap instead. The resulting mass of bubbles erupting from the laundry machine took me three hours to clean up and caused some damage to the laminate flooring. That my default response to shock is to giggle did not help me in trying to smooth it over with my roommates at the time.

Flash forward four years later. This time, I’ve run out of detergent for the dishwasher. I think, “Dish soap is dish soap, right?” 

Same mess, different room. Thankfully, the roommate that was home at the time found it funny and so was not offended by my shocked giggling.

Now, had I been living with my parents at the time of the Bubble Incidents, they would have exploded at me over it, assuming that I did the second one intentionally – after all, I saw what happened with the laundry machine. I should have been able to predict what would happen with the dishwasher. Especially since I’m a chemist and should therefore know that the response of foaming agents to a given amount of shear does not change depending on what device they’re in.

So, believe me when I say, at the time that I did it, it honestly did not occur to me that I would be about to cause Bubble Incident 3.0 (the first Bubble Incident happened when I was a kid. It involved 4-year-old me, a hot tub, and unfettered access to bubble bath). But this is a common theme for me: I do something intending to get Result A, not anticipating that Consequence B will result and be something I don’t want. I’m bad at predicting unwanted consequences. I think this has to do with how bad I tend to be at extrapolating from previous experience in terms of social and practical “hands on” sort of situations – which is funny because finding patterns is something I find very easy when I’m looking at reams of data, but much more difficult when I’m considering, say, what makes an acceptable substitute for butter in a recipe or how the heck I’m going to do a household repair that I’ve never done before.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is: Even if consequences seem obvious to you, they might not be to me. And if, like me, you have a hard time with this, spending thirty seconds on Google before you try that substitution that seems brilliant to you is likely to save you a lot of time, energy, and unpleasant surprises.


Short term v. long term organization

Organization has been something I have trouble with for all my life. My very first school report cards include comments about my organization, and I remember getting chided for losing stuff more than other kids while still in preschool. This is something that surprises and confuses people who know me well.

You see, I’m very good at organizing things.

Except when I’m not. And then I’m a fucking train wreck.

When it comes to putting order to chaos, to systematizing a set of data, to seeing patterns and sorting things into categories, and to similar work, I am very good at organizing. I am the person who other people run filing systems past at work. I am the person that other people go to for designing systems to be easy to find, logical and sensible. I do it in writing, when I formulate arguments for papers and proposals, on my computer with my system of filing scientific papers, and so on. I know how to set things up in a way that makes sense. Even when it’s a job that would drive most others up the wall with tedium, I get a quiet satisfaction out of bringing order to the chaos. I enjoy it.

But when it comes to keeping things neat on a day to day basis, and other organization tasks that require keeping track of small things or remembering to do things that aren’t easily put into a routine, like doctor’s appointments and running unexpected errands, we leave “strength” territory and enter “train wreck” territory. 

Other people can’t understand how I can be so good at organizing things, yet so bad at keeping myself organized. I’m not really sure I understand it myself, except that I’m pretty sure it’s executive function related. But, to make a long story short: the set of skills used to see patterns, and make things conform to those patterns – i.e., those used to make a one-time organizational effort – are completely different to those used to keep track of appointments and clutter and suchlike. People bundle both skill sets under the heading of “organization” and assume it’s the same thing, and then can’t understand why I can be so good at it until I’m a train wreck.

There’s different types of organization. I’m good the system-design type and the follow-routine type, but very bad at the keep stuff neat and keep track of things types. This is why I can beautifully organize all my books alphabetically and by subject… and then over the next few months/years, entropy will take over until the organization is destroyed, until the lack of organization ticks me off again and I re-organize.

And don’t tell me that if I do “a little bit at a time,” it’s easier.

It’s not. If it was easier for me to do it your way, don’t you think that I would?

Revisiting labels: Why “labels are harmful” is bullshit

So, I’ve posted before on why “labels are harmful” is harmful. Now I’m going to talk about why it’s bullshit. This is a re-write of a forum post I made once, edited for typos and clarity.

One of my biggest irritations is people who tell me I shouldn’t label myself. “You trap yourself in a sick narrative,” they tell me. “It changes how you think of yourself – you’re not you, you’re a sick person once you label yourself. It’s not helpful.”

To which I say, in a very heartfelt manner: That is fucking ridiculous.

Allow me to explain: People who have problems with labelling seem to have a magical thought process that if the label isn’t there, the illness, disability, or what have you it exists to name will disappear. Don’t label yourself as sick and you won’t be!

This, quite frankly, is bullshit.

When my lung function was pooped out at 40% of my normal at max and I was having >30% peak flow variability in a day, I was really sick. Realizing that it was a relapse of my childhood asthma and applying a label to my illness didn’t make me sick. I was already sick. And not having a label for my sickness didn’t make me magically well. I was, as I said before, really sick. What applying the label did is give myself and medical professionals I was working with a handle on what was wrong. I could (and did) search journals for info about asthma and for info about comorbidities to worry about and possible conflating illnesses to rule out. It also gave us an idea of where to start with medication, and where to go for our plans B, C, D, E, F, etc. It wasn’t all sunshine and daisies after we got the right label applied to my illness (I had trouble with a doctor who didn’t believe that the first-line treatment wasn’t helping, and eventually I had to switch doctors because of it), but it gave us a place to start from.

Likewise, not having a label for my attention issues when I was a kid didn’t mean I didn’t have those problems. It didn’t mean that I magically was a well-behaved student in elementary school, that I wasn’t up till three or four in the morning every night in high school with insomnia, that I could get out the door without forgetting at least one important thing, that I could remember to eat if I was absorbed in something. It didn’t make my handwriting neat enough for me to read it (I still have a hard time reading my own writing unless I make an effort to be neat – and don’t even try my cursive), it didn’t make me coordinated enough to not trip over my own two feet in gym class, it didn’t mean that I didn’t have meltdowns where I’d hit people and break things and not know why, it didn’t mean that I could handle the school cafeteria (I often ate in the bathroom in the winter, or outside in the summer because the cafeteria just was so loud and chaotic and overwhelming even when the bullies who would ruin my lunch for shits and giggles weren’t there that I wouldn’t be able to eat), and so on.

It did mean that I knew I was different from the other kids but didn’t know why because my child psych didn’t feel that labels were helpful.

So instead of knowing I’m different because (reason), I was left with knowing I’m different but having all the adults in my life lie to me and tell me that I’m normal and that there’s no reason why this should be harder for me than it is for most kids so if I found it harder it was because I was lazy, stupid, irresponsible, and just plain unlikeable. Sometimes they said it explicitly, sometimes they just heavily implied it.

Labels do not make people sick. They do not cause people’s problems. They exist to put a name to something that the person likely already knows they have. In that way, they’re helpful, because once you have a name for something, you can unlock all of the knowledge in the world about that thing. But first you need a term for it.

Labels do not change peoples’ identities. A person forms hir identity through hir experiences. I identify as an asthmatic not because I’m labelled like one, but because I fucking well have asthma. And thus I’ve been through the hoops of poorly controlled asthma. I’ve been up at three AM unable to breathe. I’ve been blue in the ER. I’ve dealt with obtuse medical staff who are unable to recognize that cyanosis in asthmatic = breathing troubles even if there’s no wheeze. And so on. I call myself asthmatic because I am asthmatic, not because I’ve been ‘labeled’ asthmatic. Likewise with my attention problems.

By contrast, not labeling causes harm. Let’s conduct a thought exercise:

Imagine that you have a weird glitch that makes an important program for your work non-functional. And there’s no workaround. And everyone around denies that this problem exists. Your computer works fine, what are you talking about? See, this completely different program isn’t glitching at all! If you don’t know how to use that other program, you should just ask and we’ll teach you.

So you ask for training, even though you’re pretty sure you’re doing the same thing as everyone else. The training confirms your suspicions. They give you step by step instructions, except on step 3, your program shuts itself off. On the training computer, it works fine, but when you return to your computer, it shuts off again.

People at work are getting angry with you. Why isn’t your work done? What are you doing with your day? Why can’t you work like Morgan One Desk Over? Hir work is always done on time. Etc.

And you try to explain that your program isn’t working. And they don’t believe you, because when you load the program, it looks just fine. It looks normal.

After a while, you’ll collect disciplinary action. And get a reputation for laziness and being a complainer since you’re always whining about that program that works just fine for everyone else. You just use it as an excuse not to work, others will say disdainfully. You’re too dumb to figure out a simple GUI, others will sneer. There’s nothing wrong with your program, so it must be some problem with you why you’re not getting work done. You have a problem with the boss because you’re too negative and don’t get your work done. There’s nothing wrong with your program. There’s nothing wrong with your program. It looks fine. Nobody else has this problem, so what are you talking about? There’s nothing wrong with your program. You’re being lazy. Just work harder.

That’s what it’s like to have a problem others don’t recognize and not know what it is. Only it’s worse, because it’s not a computer program, it’s your mind or your body that’s got something different.

Then imagine your giddy relief when an IT person is called in to help with the printer and you ask hir to take a peek at your program. The IT person realizes that it was corrupted by a power outage a while back and reinstalls it for you. Xie teaches you how to recognize when the program is corrupted, what to do when it’s corrupted, and how to prevent it from becoming corrupted in the future.

That’s what it’s like to get a diagnosis (label) and a strategy to address your issues.

Designing organization systems

So, I’ve decided to change my approach to organization. Not sure when I made this decision, it just sort of happened and then a only recently did I realize consciously that’s what I’ve been doing.

I’m an engineering student. I just recently changed discipline to engineering. Before, I was a chemist. I still am. I’m just a chemist who’s studying chemical engineering.

So, I’m learning a lot about the engineering thought process, and realizing how it’s similar to but different from the science thought process. In science, the underlying question is usually a “why?” Why doesn’t this reaction work? Why does this related reaction work? Etc. In engineering, the question is typically a “how?” How can I optimize this? How do I get this to work?

Anyone with executive function issues knows that organizing – and staying organized – is littered with hows.

So, I figured, why not apply my engineering principles that I’m learning to organization? Organization can be thought of as a system. I just need to design and optimize systems to help me stay organized. What if I think about organization as not a matter of keeping track of all the details, but a matter of designing systems that keep track of the details for me?

I’ve already used this with success for the laundry (with my laundry sorter and getting changed in the bathroom all the time and using timers). Which, as a side-effect, solved the problem of the floor of my room. I’ve also designed a system for improving my regularity of gym trips, and I’m working on a few others.

So, I just figured I’d chat a bit about my thought process when I set up something like this.

  1. What do I need? I ignore social acceptability here. Which is hard. It’s hard to focus on “I need ____.” when my brain is going, “I should be able to do it like everyone else!” So this step takes me a few weeks, to figure out what my actual need is. In the case of the laundry thing: I need something that will let me keep my floor clean, and I need it to be something I can actually keep up with. Lastly, I need the transition to the new system to go smoothly – there has to be no system-breaking problems with it by the time I roll it out. If I fail the transition, I won’t be able to implement it. That’s just the way I am.
  2. What do I want? I again ignore social acceptability. It’s okay to be selfish! I’m the one who’s going to be doing it! So, here, it was I want a system that sorts my clothes into tops, bottoms, underwear & pajamas so I don’t have to go digging through everything to find what I need to wear. This is not a need, so if it were to turn out that I can either get my floor safe to walk on or I can get the sorting, I’d sacrifice the sorting.
  3. What are my limitations/constraints? So, in this part: Space. My room is tiny. No room for a full dresser (plus, I hate dressers anyway since I fail at folding and so have a hard time getting stuff to fit). As mentioned before, I fail at folding, so it has to be something that wouldn’t need me to master the black art of folding. I’m not going to magically get over my inability to organize and keep track of stuff, either. Nor am I going to remember to go out of my room to put stuff away, so it has to be something I can do as part of getting changed/laundry/etc. And, money-wise, I needed it to be something I could set up for less than $60 CAD because I am a grad student and we get paid peanuts. Finally, I’m not going to figure out how to break my black-and-white thinking regarding changes overnight, so I should just accept that if I fuck up the transition, I will be unable to follow through with it and will need to try out something else.
  4. What do I already have in place? Erm… Piles on the floor. Dirty clothes go in this pile, clean clothes go in that one.
  5. What are the problems with what I already have? Well, ignoring that clothes on the floor take up a lot of space and really aren’t safe to walk on, sometimes it’s hard to tell where one pile ends and another begins, plus my dirty laundry isn’t sorted. For doing laundry itself, I make use of the kitchen timer, which works when my roommates don’t turn it off to be a passive-aggressive about something – what, I don’t know. I know they do it on purpose, but I can’t magically realize why they’re irritated.
  6. Can I build on something I already have? It’s easier to modify existing stuff than it is to build something entirely new from scratch. This is why it takes children two years to learn to walk competently but an adult can learn a new physical skill in a few weeks. Kids learn much faster than adults, but adults have the framework of existing skills that can be modified. Plus, I know my existing strategy is within my wheelhouse of things I can manage. Therefore, it’s far more likely that a modification of the existing strategy will also be within my wheelhouse of things I can manage than it is that something I design from scratch will be. What I will do is take from the strengths of the existing system: Namely, I always change in the same place, and I always put my dirty clothes in the appropriate pile as soon as I’m done. Timers help me remember to change over laundry, but I currently have a problem with roommate sabotage. Finally, when I get around to sorting laundry, I sort it in four groups: Dark colors, light colors, whites and towels. Take that, modify it.

So, once I had what the problem was figured out and my end goal figured out, I went researching. Someone I know has a laundry sorter, and I priced them. I found they were relatively inexpensive – I got mine for about $35, taxes in. I made sure to get one with four sections. Now, I have somewhere to put the laundry when I get changed. Next, I went looking for plastic bins. I found some that were fairly cheap, and got enough for both my partner’s clothes and mine, sorted by pants, tops, and everything else so six bins. I came in a little under-budget, as the bins came to about $20 since I lucked into a sale.

Then I went into troubleshooting what could go wrong before I applied this:

  1. Room is tiny. So, I have to move the sorter elsewhere. Bathroom fits it perfectly, so I’ll stick it in there.
  2. Problem with above solution: I’m not going to remember to carry laundry from my bedroom to the bathroom. So get changed in bathroom instead.
  3. Not a lot of room for bins in current room configuration, but if I move my desk, I can stack them next to my bed. That works.
  4. Roommate sabotage is a problem that needs fixing. I have a timer on an old cell phone I don’t use anymore, why not use that instead of the kitchen timer and take them out of the equation?
  5. Solution to 4 leads to problem 5: The reason why I started using the kitchen timer was because if I used a timer within arms reach of my computer, I’d shut it off without thinking about it and it wouldn’t serve its purpose. So… set the timer across the room, so I still have to get up and move to shut it off. This will work.

Then I applied it. I chose a Saturday to build everything and set up the bins because it’s a lower stress day and I was less likely to get too anxious about it (I still ended up cursing a lot, I admit) and also because Saturday I have enough time to do laundry. First, I built the sorter. Then I sorted the laundry, which made me realize I needed to do laundry, so I started a load. I set the timer up away from my computer, then I sorted my clean laundry into the appropriate bins.

So far, the only breakdown in the system is that I just don’t have enough work jeans so I sometimes end up with, “I don’t have enough dirty laundry to do a load, but I’m all out of stuff safe to wear at work!” And I usually discover that on a work morning. So I will remedy that in a few weeks, when I get the money saved up.

The other systems I’m working on:

  • Prevention of clutter buildup. This one is still in its infancy. I’m still trying to figure out why I have clutter buildup, so I can sort out a solution to the underlying problem.
  • Kitchen countertops: Should be fairly easy – I think all I need to do here is have garbage cans where I most frequently work in the kitchen rather than where they’re most commonly placed. Relatives will try to move them back to the “right” space whenever they visit, but nothing says I can’t just move them back where I want them when they leave. In the pre-implementation troubleshooting.
  • Housework: Not even sure where to begin here. Thinking I need to break it down into smaller problems, but not sure how. Need to think more.
  • Keeping track of school/work stuff: I’ve got some good stuff to build off, here, but I’m already doing pretty well with it, so it’s low on the priority list.

I have to say, thinking about organization as an engineering problem? Way more effective than anything I’ve tried before. For the first time in my life, I can safely walk across my bedroom floor. That’s pretty huge. Doing it everyone else’s way never worked, so it’s high time I chuck their ways out of the window and choose instead to design my own. So far, it’s working.

Who gave me the productivity pill?

I have no idea how I managed it, but, I’ve completed a bunch of stuff early lately.

  • Two work reports (two days and three days early, respectively)
  • Two homework assignments (okay, both only a day early, but still, early is early)
  • Annnnd *drumroll please* my research proposal.

The last of which I’m just freaking gobsmacked over because I finished it five days early.

Five days!

That never happens. Never! Especially not since it was something new to me (I’ve written proposals before, but never for my research, just for someone else who’s bad at writing and needed me to put their thoughts into pretty words for them. I’ve never written one on my own for my stuff).

How the fuck have I ended up on top of the metaphorical ball and how the hell do I stay here?

Allow me to explain how freaking huge this is: In high school, I would’ve been hitting submit about two minutes before it was due. In uni same deal. I used to have to wake up at Oh God Early (think ~2AM, and I was a kid who usually didn’t go to bed till 1ish because I was a night owl for both high school and uni), and pound it out morning it was due.

The procrastination monkey has been on my back pretty much constantly since I was born, is what I’m saying.

But not right now. I’m getting shit done. On time. I am baffled. How the heck did this happen?

How do I keep it up?