Dec 052013

“I never seem to finish what I start.”

“I run out of time so often.”

“Everyone gets there early or on time, but I’m usually late.”

These are a few of the concerns I’ve heard from clients who have difficulty managing their time, who may be stressed because they can’t accomplish what’s expected of them.  Being able to organize one’s work, prioritize tasks and budget time are the cornerstone of cognitive processes called “executive function.”  As one develops through childhood, adolescence and into the adult years, mastery of these skills becomes a necessary ingredient for success in school and work.  Not being able to complete tasks, missing appointments or arriving late often sidetracks individuals who are otherwise intelligent, talented people.  What lies underneath these functions that makes it so hard for some people?

I’ve written about these skills in some of my previous blog articles: “Why Is My ‘To Do’ List Like Chasing The Impossible Dream?” and “It Seems Everyone Can Multitask, Why Can’t I?”  I invite you to read these articles as well.  But there are some key points I’d like to explore  further in this entry.

As we mature, the direct instruction we receive in terms of managing our time fades out:  we don’t have parents or teachers who tell us where to be and when to have things completed.  However, we have social, personal and employment guidelines that govern our behavior, sometimes rules more unspoken than those of earlier years but nevertheless important, even more critical in our lives.

Why do some people have so much trouble with time management?  Underlying the ability to manage one’s time are important skills: being able to prioritize tasks, set realistic time frames, and make predictions based on past experience.   The person who has difficulty with executive functioning falters on planning and using the skills I’ve just mentioned.   Too many times poor skills in this area leads family, friends and bosses to think that an individual is lazy or inconsiderate, which is often the exact opposite of reality.  The person who doesn’t manage his/her time well usually wants to be successful but doesn’t have the tools to do so.

On a positive note, these skills can be developed at any age and need to be part of every successful individual’s life.  The “broken clock” can be fixed by cognitive therapy that focuses on prioritization, realistic predictability of time required for tasks, and organizational skills.  Murphy’s Law, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” holds true for issues of time.  Sometimes it’s not so bad being early, not cutting so close to the clock — when the unpredictable happens.  But knowing how to function in order to survive Murphy’s Law remains a challenge for people with executive function difficulties.  The first step is recognizing the problem, then acquiring strategies to solve it.


Check back next week for more thoughts on executive function, speech and language and communication skills.

Jul 302013

In our fast-paced, electronic-driven society, our minds race from idea to idea, our eyes flit between computer screen, cellphone and tablet.  Nearly every active person, teenager through adult, feels the pressure to pay attention to more than one thing at a time — to multitask.  Performing multiple things at a time has become the skill to master in the 21st century.

But does multitasking even exist?

From the 1990’s to the present, research has questioned whether the human brain can perform more than one task at a time, whether it is possible to learn new material while engaging in multiple mental activities simultaneously.  Cutting edge scientific studies indicate that the brain cannot perform multiple tasks simultaneously, even with extensive training.

So what really happens when we try to multitask?

Current theories on cognition (the basis for executive functioning) support the idea that our brains are constantly switching, pausing and refocusing continuously as we move from task to task.  In reality we don’t pay attention to two or more things simultaneously but switch between them rapidly.

Are we gaining anything from this rapid mental activity?

Studies show that switching from task to task in the attempt to multitask results in far greater errors.  On top of that, research has proven that this switching takes far longer — sometimes twice as long– as compared to working on tasks sequentially.

Do we lose anything from trying to multitask?

Consider one mental activity that is linked to multitasking:  continuous partial attention, a process that involves skimming the surface of data and picking out relevant information before moving to the next idea.  When you engage in continuous partial attention, you study information at a superficial level.  By continuously shifting and refocusing your attention, you become accustomed to skimming but not studying anything in detail.

The drive to do more than one mental activity at a time seems to reduce our ability to focus and complete tasks thoroughly, as well as making it take longer.  By trying to do more than one task at a time, we actually impair our cognitive ability to maintain focus.

So why try to do more than one thing at a time and end up not doing anything well?


Check back next week for more thoughts on executive function skills, speech and communications.