Executive Functioning in Real Life

AANE Staff and Community Members

Language Note: Over the decades, many different terms have been used to discuss autism. AANE is shifting to identity-first language and the term “Autistic” to describe our community, but  we continue to respect each individual’s choice of language to describe their own neurotype. We believe that sharing a wide variety of stories provides invaluable insight into the diverse perspectives and experiences of our community.

It can take time to find the right strategy to assist with executive functioning challenges. Neurodiverse individuals and LifeMAP coaches share some practical tips and techniques to help prevent executive functioning barriers. 

“To combat present-day issues with executive function and overwhelm, I looked back to when I felt the most productive and in control: high school. I was taking a full load of honors/AP classes, but managed to stay on top of assignments and deadlines using only a pocket calendar and a little assignment notebook.

To implement something similar as an adult, I adapted Ryder Carroll’s bullet journal system in a hardbound Moleskin. Every appointment, task, and deadline gets written down on paper—which improves memory retention and doesn’t expose me to digital distractions. The journal is an easy size to carry with me, and I can make a digital archive of any page at any time.

My bullet journal is infinitely customizable to meet my needs, and over the seven years that I’ve been using this system, it has evolved to support me where I am in the moment. This evolution continues, as I’m now considering new ways to capture and pace my deadlines and tasks and am experimenting with a disc-bound format.

I still have trouble with EF, to be sure, but I’d be truly lost without my bullet journal.”

–Jennifer Willis, author

“I like to have music playing in the background a lot because it helps to motivate me to do tasks and keeps me focused while doing them. It also helps me to regulate my emotions when I’m feeling overwhelmed.”

–Rex, a 16 year-old with ASD and ADHD

“I find that calendar blocking is a very useful strategy to promote organization and time management. Calendar blocking is a system of utilizing your calendar to allocate specific times for tasks and action items, which might otherwise be included on a “to do” list. It allows my clients to visualize their time, not only to account for appointments, classes, and work shifts, but also to plan for specific tasks that must be completed such as homework or chores. It can minimize the sense of overwhelm that a person may feel when looking at a list of tasks or assignments, and empowers the individual to take control over their time by moving blocked tasks depending on energy levels or unexpected interruptions.”

–LifeMAP Coach

“I am a 42-year-old Aspie, happily married, and working successfully in the Technology Industry for more than a decade now. At many points in life right from childhood, I have felt that I have had to work harder with my own customized approaches to accomplish the same things in life compared to people around me. This was the way I found I could be successful and at par in all areas of life including career, family, and social aspects all together at the same time. Just to cite an example, I used to write and rewrite the same list of “personal goals” twenty times per day almost every day as an adolescent in college without doing any real work to finish homework or a project. While it felt very unproductive at the time, I can now see how it helped me propel my mind to slowly shift focus from a dreamy state of unproductive, repetitive thinking to solution-oriented action and success in professional and personal life eventually. I now look at writing as a cognitive tool to improve my executive functioning skills when harnessed in the right way. I also use journal self-reflective writing as a way of reducing my mental clutter and letting go of any negative emotions or self-limiting beliefs. Writing can be a way of manifesting a version of you that you sincerely desire to be in your innermost core if done with persistence and intent. In addition, I have also found activities like meditation, swimming, outdoor sports, and dance to be particularly beneficial for me in raising my exuberance levels, which tends to help me function at my very best and overcome some of my executive functioning challenges on the way.”


“When clients are struggling to remember daily tasks or adopt new, healthy habits, I encourage them to attach those tasks or habits to things which they already do on a daily basis. For example, if they are interested in starting a simple exercise routine, they might post a visual of the seven minute workout on their bathroom door, and run through it before brushing their teeth in the morning or evening. One client who needed to take medication every morning at the same time found it helpful to place her pill box and a glass of water on her bedside table next to her glasses, so that when she put on her glasses she would automatically take her medicine.”

–LifeMAP Coach

“I use three main ‘layers’ to filter tasks.

Layer 1 – Stress List: This is a Google document where I put everything I worry about needing to do or am afraid will happen. This decreases the amount of time I spend worrying, because there’s a plan.

Layer 2 – To-do List:  I use the cross-platform app Todoist to turn the stress list into ideas for actions that will help. If something is really overwhelming, I break it up until each individual part feels easier.

Layer 3 – Calendar: I have a big black calendar and a rainbow of chalk markers, and pick things from the to-do list to schedule for different days out ahead, so there’s time to prepare for tough ones.

Every morning, I look at all three layers and filter things up. Every Friday, I take what I didn’t do in the calendar and move them ahead to try again. Sometimes issues end up back on the stress list again and get cycled through in different ways, and that’s ok. Sometimes there will be a “lightning task” where if I know I can do something immediately in less than 10 minutes, I just do it and skip the layers.”


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