Sometimes I do a good job of getting things done, but sometimes I could do better.
For that reason, I’ve been reading about executive function.
Executive Function and Child Development (2013)
The following text is from p. 8 of Executive Function and Child Development (2013):
“In recent years there has been a surge of interest in the concept of executive function. Barkley (1997) describes executive function as self-directed mental strategies that (1) occur during a delay in responding to an event; (2) serve to modify the eventual response; and (3) improve the future consequences related to the event. Barkley and others have posed theories that explain how these mental processes organize and order our behavior, allowing us to direct our actions through time toward a goal.”
[End of preliminary excerpt]
“Executive functions,” the text on p. 8 of the above-mentioned book notes, “involve mental processes such as the following.”
In the text that follows, also from p. 8 of Executive Function and Child Development (2013), I’ve added the headings. I’ve also added notes to myself, in square brackets.
1) Working memory
Working memory: holding several pieces of information in mind while we try to do something with them – for example, understand and solve a problem or carry out a task.
Generally, I do quite well with working memory.
[End of comment]
2) Response inhibition
Response inhibition: inhibiting actions that interfere with our intentions or goals.
This is an area where I can improve. The WOOP procedure – wish | outcome | obstacle | plan – is helpful in this regard. My task is to keep track of how I’m doing, when I seek to implement the above-noted procedure.
I notice there is a part of one mind that is keen to leave aside all other projects, at least for a while, and proceed with whatever project – e.g. the immediate writing of a blog post – that captivates my mind, at a given moment, even when there is a backlog of other projects (in this example, I refer to other blog posts) that I have undertaken to complete.
A person can either focus on the other projects, that are already under way, or also take on the project that has most recently taken hold of one’s attention.
In the above-described scenario, the executive function of the mind has the capacity to make a decision. What I’ve decided to do in such a scenario is to write a brief draft of a post and then to go back to the backlog of projects that await to be completed.
The processes I describe bring to mind two metaphors concerned with ships at sea. At times, when I have thought about the task of changing how I go about doing things, I have likened it to the process of changing the direction of a ship at sea. It can be done, but it requires a bit of work. The other metaphor serves as a cautionary tale. One of my favourite metaphors, from my teaching days, was from a book about curricula that I read as an elementary school teacher. The book describes certain past large-scale curricular projects in these terms:
Picture the launch of a new ship, at a harbour. A ceremony is held. A bottle of champagne is broken across the bow of the ship. The ship sails away. You see it as it disappears at the horizon. Good-bye ship. The ship is never heard from again. I thought that was a valid, evocative image of many past attempts at the introduction of new curricular initiatives. They would appear and they would disappear, until a new one appeared, and again disappeared, like a new ship heading out from the harbour, never to be heard from again. Well, that’s the challenge; that image conveys the challenge that one faces when fundamental change is the objective of one’s project.
The concept of discipline comes to mind as well. In military history, discipline has in the past (as in the British military during the British empire) been enforced through floggings and executions); in school systems in years past, discipline has been enforced through corporal punishment (as in the use of the strap, applied to the hands of a student, a practice that used to occur even in primary classrooms). There are other forms of discipline, of course, including the variety known as self-discipline.
As I write about these topics, I am aware that different levels of mind – in a sense, different aspects of mind – are at play in a person’s consciousness as the day proceeds – as a person’s life proceeds from day to day, year to year, decade to decade. It’s useful to have one part of the mind assume the executive function, to take on a key strategic role.
[End of comment]
3) Shifting focus
Shifting focus: interrupting an ongoing response in order to direct attention to other aspects of a situation that are important for goal attainment.
This is an interesting concept. I’m adept at shifting focus by way of shifting from one project to another (engaging in multi-tasking), in cases where it would be beneficial, instead, to stick to the project at hand. In general, once I have developed some momentum with a given project, and am engaged in bringing into completion, I do well at keeping all of the relevant aspects of a situation in mind. Momentum involves the opportunity and capacity to work at a task in a sustained way, without interruptions, for extended periods of time.
In a sense, I am involved with the study of mind – a study of how one’s mind works. This concept – of the study of mind – is a concept that I came across in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course that I completed in Toronto in 2004.
[End of comment]
4) Cognitive flexibility
Cognitive flexibility: generating alternative methods of solving a problem or reaching a goal.
Generally, I’ve tended to build upon ways of doing things that have worked well in the past. At the same time, I’m aware that what has worked before may not work now. I tend, in this regard, to make it a practice to get strategic advice from people who possess more wisdom and experience than I do. And that’s one of the things that has worked well in the past.
[End of comment]
Self-monitoring: checking on one’s own cognitions and actions to ensure that they are in line with one’s intentions.
As with a previous item (above), this is an area where I can improve. The WOOP procedure – wish | outcome | obstacle | plan – is helpful in this regard. My task is to keep track of how I’m doing, when I seek to implement the procedure.
[End of comment]
6) Goal orientation
Goal orientation: creating and carrying out a multistep plan for achieving a goal in a timely fashion, keeping the big picture in mind.
Generally, things work out well for me, in this area, once I’m immersed – once I have a sense of momentum – in some large scale project. The wish | outcome | obstacle | plan procedure can be helpful, by way of improving one’s capacity to achieve a goal in a timely fashion. Keeping the big picture in mind is a separate item to focus upon. That’s where the setting of priorities is a major consideration.
On occasions where I have several hours of work at hand, without interruptions of any kind including stopping to read email, that to my mind is a supreme luxury.
What becomes clear is that in a given day, a finite number of things can get done. That fact has had an influence on my planning, of the day.
[End of comment]
The concepts I am exploring are based on a book about child development. The fact the book addresses child development is an incidental feature of the book. The underlying concept – of executive function – is what interests me. As well, the list of features, of what executive function entails, serves as a map. The map may or may not be definitive; whether it is or is not,definitive, is besides the point. The map is an approximate roadmap; its serves to organize my thinking; that is where its value lies, for me.
An insight that has occurred to me, as I have been working at this post, is that it will be helpful to break some topics, that I address at this website, into a series of shorter posts.
As well, a person is dealing with available time to do things. Projects such as reading of library books and newspapers can be useful and it also makes sense to put such activities aside, in order to free up time. This involves the setting of priorities, as a part of goal orientation.
Through putting aside library books for some time, I can better focus on posts that deal with local history and issues. Those are areas where the opportunities for engagement with site visitors are readily available. The posts that deal with library books are also valuable – valuable for me, as a way of organizing my own thinking – but may not be as engaging for site visitors.
The need for focus – which can be viewed as a part of response inhibition – is of relevance with regard to meetings aimed at moving projects forward. In that context, a July 9, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Why meetings are bad for you — and your business:
Companies are starting to rein in pointless meetings because they hurt the bottom line.”
The article quotes a meeting trainer who says: “Meetings have to have clear outcomes. If you don’t have a clear outcome as to what you want to achieve, then why are you having a meeting?”
Executive function as a mental map has worked great for me, as a concept. I’ve given up borrowing public library books for now, and have cut down on reading other books as well. That has freed up a lot of time. I’ve also made progress in working on one thing at a time, as has been recommended by many people. That too makes a huge difference.
The main task, I have learned, is to decide upon a task, for a given day, or part of a day, and work without interruption, except for brief breaks. An environment – both physical and cerebral – where a person can work without interruptions for a considerable stretch of time, is a real treasure.
Sometimes, when the work is done, I look back to marvel how easy it was to complete the task – often much easier than I would have imagined.
A companion post to the current post is entitled Executive function can have no meaning apart from practice.
A related post of interest is entitled: The research defies what we’ve been told: How We Learn (2014) and The Handbook of Language Socialization (2014).