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  • Christy A. George, LMFT, SEP

Are You The Absent Minded Professor?

Picture these fictional characters: the absent minded professor, the mad scientist, the eccentric genius. What do they all have in common? They are bright people, with active minds, who are scattered, disorganized and usually have relationship issues due to missing important dates with loved ones, forgetting special occasions, and being absorbed in their projects.

Obviously their ability to think and solve problems is superior, but their ability to function in other areas is lacking and creates chaos in their lives and relationships. They have problems with "executive functioning". Executive functioning skills help us to plan, organize, stay on task, finish what we start, have impulse control and use good judgment. People who have great intellect sometimes have low executive functioning, especially compared to their intellectual functioning. Intellect uses one part of the brain, which develops first, while executive functioning is controlled by a different part of the brain which develops much later. This is something to consider if you know a young person, who has difficulty with executive functioning.

Geniuses aren't the only people to struggle with executive functioning, however. Sometimes people are young and this part of their brain is simply underdeveloped. People may have underlying issues such as ADHD, learning or developmental disorders, depression, anxiety, or PTSD making it difficult to focus, stay on task and remember commitments. Low executive functioning can also present with certain personality traits, or occur because the individual never learned necessary skills.

While gifted people may have an underlying disorder which contributes to their “absent mindedness”, highly intelligent people tend to be extremely curious, or so driven by their need to learn and pursue ideas they have executive functioning problems. For example, they may be so consumed with an idea they are distracted, or are so deep in thought they lose touch with the world around them. A preoccupation with countless ideas can cause brilliant people to have multiple projects going at once, which they never complete. At times, they may have such a great sense of wonder, and use poor judgment to satisfy their curiosity. People lost in thought, or deeply involved in projects may likely loose track of time, causing them to miss deadlines, appointments and to over commit themselves.

Building executive functioning skills, and having a strategy to manage an overactive mind can make a huge difference in a person’s ability to succeed, and can contribute to one’s ability to be high achieving. High achieving people, gifted or not, often have high executive functioning skills.

How can you or your loved one strengthen executive functioning skills?

Here are 11 tips to help you strengthen your executive functioning skills.

  1. Maintain a schedule. Scheduling daily tasks helps people to keep track of their time, and complete what is important. They can also anticipate what is coming next.

  2. Develop routines. Having routines creates habits. Less thought and energy will go into completing uninteresting or menial (but necessary tasks) if they become part of your daily routine.

  3. Keep a digital calendar with alarms and multiple reminders. This works great, even for children.

  4. Make lists. Make lists of tasks to be accomplished, and prioritize the list in order of importance of what needs to be done first. This takes what needs to be done, and helps you to organize it in a meaningful way. Your “have to” list will be more manageable, you won’t forget to do things, and it can reduce your stress because you can realistically anticipate what needs to be done.

  5. Separate large or multiple projects into smaller chunks to avoid feeling overwhelmed, which can lead to avoiding the project altogether. This can also be done with time. Work on something for a set amount of time, take a short break and then go back to it for set amount of time, and take another break. This can help you avoid mental and physical exhaustion.

  6. Document your ideas. If you keep track of your ideas you won’t lose them, and can develop them further at a later date. This will help you to stay focused when working on something else, and could eliminate the need to have multiple projects going at once.

  7. Finish one thing before starting another, whenever possible.

  8. Get things done. If you have time to complete something, just do it instead of procrastinating. It will eliminate the task from your list and lower your overall stress level.

  9. Be aware of your impulsivity and keep it in check. If you struggle with impulse control, like blurting out answers, interrupting others, asking inappropriate questions, inappropriately “stating the obvious”, correcting people, or working on projects you want to do before finishing things you need to, STOP, BREATH (take at least 3 deep breaths with long exhales), and THINK before acting. This will help you to stay calm, and aware of the possible consequences of your actions before you act rashly.

  10. Get enough sleep and eat a nutritious diet. Proper rest and nutrition help your brain to work at its optimal level.

  11. Move around. Getting regular exercise reduces stress, works different areas of your brain and can relieve nervous energy caused by an overactive mind.

With diligent practice, you can improve your executive functioning and more efficiently reach your goals. If you continue to struggle in this area, technology can help, and there are professionals who can teach you strategies and support your efforts.

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