Removing the Shame: Understanding and Exploring Executive Dysfunction

This is a follow on piece to: My Shameful Secret: I’ve Always Believed I’m Lazy

With the UK lockdown has come a lot of changes for me — both personally and professionally. Back in March 2020 I moved all my lessons online overnight, and after a month or so, I had to massively reduce my teaching hours due to screen tiredness and being emotionally drained. This combined with some students leaving for various reasons, got me quite worried about my financial situation.

However, at the same time, my company (OmniArts GB) was growing. Within the first few months of lockdown, I’d set up three new online groups, and moved our two in-person groups online as well. Alongside that, I saw the opportunity to formalise the mentoring I already offered to students, plus I was exploring my queer identity more, dealing with my new ADHD diagnosis in May 2020, and becoming more and more vocal about activism online too.

Without realising it, I hit overwhelm, and I froze.

A person with long hair wearing a white dress and red tights is curled in a seated fetal position with their arms over their head.

Finding My System

As I started thawing out (supported by DK, my therapist, plus the increase of my ADHD meds), I found myself wanting to plan things better. I realised I had been trying to continue working the way I always had, but I’d never had this many things to do, thoughts to process, and feelings to understand all at the same time before.

I found myself looking at the templates I’d created for the business mentoring I was just starting to offer. On this side of overwhelm it seemed so obvious and easy to use them for my own work. I was a little sceptical, having tried what I thought was every possible option for planning and organising a to-do list, but as I got stuck into my templates, sticky notes, and lists, I found one thing that was different.

I wasn’t trying to force myself to find one way to work. It wasn’t either/or, it was both — it was everything! Although I know everyone works differently, I realised that I’d still been trying to find which box out of the many that other people presented was my way of working, instead of building my own.

I’d fallen into the trap of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ because I subconsciously believed that I couldn’t find a solution for myself, even though I believed everyone else could!

I’ve often been told I overthink everything, or give too much detail. I’ve been led to believe that less is more, and you should be able to streamline everything with shorthand and acronyms. I’ve jumped from one system to another my whole life, trying to find the right one for me, when really — they all are!

A brown notepad with the words “My brain has too many tabs open”. To the left is a mug of a drink with cream on the top. They are sitting on a cream chunky knit surface.
A brown notepad with the words “My brain has too many tabs open”. To the left is a mug of a drink with cream on the top. They are sitting on a cream chunky knit surface.

If One Doesn’t Work, Don’t Take It Away — Just Add More Options!

Here are some of my systems. Sometimes I use any number of them in tandem, and sometimes I drop some of them for months, with the knowledge that I can, and will, come back to them when they are the right system for that moment.

(I originally wrote this a few months ago, so for your interest, I’ve put the ones I’m currently using now in bold, and the ones I’ve not used recently in italics. I’ve found this particularly interesting because some systems that have been a staple for years — like my physical diary — have become obsolete at the moment, whilst in lockdown.)

  • A physical diary
  • Various sticky note timelines and lists — here’s a few I cycle through using:
    - the layout of an average day
    - main date goals for the next few months
    - monthly overviews
    - Tasks for different areas of my work and life, with different colour/shape sticky notes
  • A ‘task list’ spreadsheet with conditional formatting to categorise tasks with columns for: priority, date it’s due for, % complete, and more
  • A document entitled “organise my life” which has headers with subheaders and more subheaders where needed to break my “to-do” list into categories
  • Various documents similar to “organise my life” for specific projects that are big enough to warrant their own document
  • A weekly spreadsheet with my regular work in a day to view calendar layout and a “this week to do” task list
  • A weekly grid spreadsheet with limited spaces for tasks that I fill out each week and adjust as I go, which also has spaces for meal ideas
  • A “task breakdown” spreadsheet, adapted from a Google sheets Gantt chart template
  • Alarms on my phone
  • An online system that keeps track of students lesson times, notes and payments
  • A spreadsheet and a word doc for tracking things like times I sleep/take meds, and what I eat, do, and feel each day
  • An app for tracking what I did each day, what I ate, and how I felt. This also has goal-setting options, so I’ve set up my meds as goals!
  • Accountability reminders from friends

Through creating all these different options and linking them together, rather than forcing myself to try and find one thing that works for me, I’ve found a balance with them all. Some of them I use regularly, and some I create and then don’t look at for a month, but I don’t berate myself if I don’t use one regularly — I know it will either become obsolete, or I’ll revive it at some point when it feels like I need a bit of a shakeup.

Something else that is important to mention here, is alongside allowing myself to use multiple systems, I’ve also embraced the fact that sometimes I just won’t get things done. I’m learning to understand that this isn’t a failing on my part — it’s just how my brain works.

A day (or a week) where I re-organise my system isn’t wasted time. It’s what I needed. Time spent on something without a deadline when there’s a deadline looming for something else can be okay. The thing that makes it not okay is when I berate myself for not doing the thing that was ‘the priority’.

One of the ADHD Twitter accounts I follow made a post a while ago where they shared the fact that their car boot had been full for years, and they’d finally cleared it out, and the annoying thing was that it had taken them less than 20 minutes, and why could they not have done that at any other point in the last few years? I relate to this frustration with yourself so much! The reason this particular post stuck with me though was because of the comments. The sentiment that was echoed again and again in the comments was:

“But you couldn’t have done it before now. Your brain needed that time to process and work through things in order to reach the moment you were able to break through the executive dysfunction and do it.”

I understand that it can be frustrating when you want to do something, but for some reason, you just don’t, and you don’t understand why. But the point isn’t that you don’t know why you can’t do it. The point is that you can’t do it. That’s not your fault, and getting annoyed at yourself for that is just going to make you feel bad.

What will help is thinking about what you actually need, rather than trying to force yourself to do things the way other people do.

If you found this interesting or useful, I’d love to know! Do you have any systems that work for you? Have you always struggled with keeping organised? Has your approach to keeping on top of things changed over the last year? Let’s open a conversation!

Queer. Neurodivergent. Business Mentor. Singing Teacher. Alternative Educator. Passionate about intersectionality and helping make the world a better place.