EXECUTIVE functioning







Consider the following dilemma:

Too much to do


Not enough time to get it all done

Is it possible to have too much WORK to do, and still function productively, with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control?

Consider WORK to mean: anything that you want or need to be different than it currently is.

There is one thing we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all here. We can give…our attention to the opportunity before us.

– Mark Van Doren

When we set our sights on a desired outcome…

We create and identify with things that aren’t yet real on all the levels of our current experience.

What are the questions that bring about the desired change?

  • What does this mean to me?
  • What do I want to be true about this?
  • What does ‘done’ look like?
  • And what does doing look like?

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”

– Albert Einstein

So, how would you create a enough distance from your thoughts so you can take yourself away from being you – with all your prejudices, and tendencies to see things a certain way – just long enough to entertain an alternative perspective?

  1. Psychotherapy, including Socratic Dialogue
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Expressive writing
  4. Exercise
  5. Lifestyle techniques like having more attention place on good things in your life rather than your problems
  6. Attentional techniques  that create distance from your own thoughts.

Float like a butterfly,

Sting like a bee.

-Muhammad Ali

  • Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax
  • The sweet spot between pressure and relaxation is known as many things
    • Mind over water
    • Flow
    • Sense of staying on top of it.

Rowers have a word for this state where you have relaxed state where you achieve a lot, some call it being in the zone where you are just so efficient. Rowers call it Swing. Recall the pure joy of riding on a backyard swing: an easy cycle of motion, the momentum coming from the swing itself. The swing carries us; we do not force it. We pump our legs to drive our arc higher, but gravity does most of the work. We are not so much swinging as being swung. The boat swings you. The shell wants to move fast: speed sings in its lines and nature. Our job is simply to work with the shell, to stop holding it back with our thrashing struggles to go faster. Trying too hard sabotages boat speed. Trying becomes striving and striving undoes itself.

-Craig Lambert in his book “Mind over water: Lessons on life from the art of rowing”

What if your memory isn’t broken, but it just needs a break?

What if you can leverage your memory better?

Most people end up using their brains as their organizing system…

  • although the highest performers (e.g., thinkers, organizers) don’t
  • the sheer volume of what they have on their plates overwhelms what their mind was designed to handle

The Belgian scientist Dr. Heylighen’s has spent years analyzing insect behavior:

How do relatively brainless creatures produce phenomenally effective results.

“An external Mind”

  • An intelligent system (think McDonald’s-like automation)
  • based on pattern detection
  • that prompts your attention (and faculties) to take the next step in the direction of your desired outcome
  • you think about the what specifically needs to be done for the next step at the right time and context, without being burdened with other thoughts

We humans have a need for completion/resolving tasks AND to make sense of things/find meaning in it all (even if there is none)

  • Bluma Zeigarnik (1927) discovered that you are more likely to remember a movie’s details if you don’t finish watching the ending.

What are some of the unfinished business (“Open loops”) in our lives?

  • e.g., to be loved, raise good children, career goals, household chores, self-improvement, hobbies, etc.

Are you aware that it is more taxing to have unfinished business on your mind?

  • More studies have shown that we are hampered down by the burden put on the mind to keep track of things we’re committed to finish, without a trusted plan or system in place to handle them.

Do we really need to complete these Open Loops to get them off of our minds?

  • What is needed a trusted plan that ensures forward progress will happen – we do not need completion.
  • as long as the reminder of this trusted plan is parked in a place that we trust we’ll look within a reasonable amount of time.



Between the time you woke up today and now, did you think of anything you needed to do that you still haven’t done?

  • Have you had that thought more than once?
  • Why?

What’s the point of keeping something on your mind, and making no progress on it, unless you like having that thought.

  • It only brings your attention to the fact that that is not yet done (an Open Loop) and adds to our feeling over burden.

If it’s on your mind, your mind isn’t clear.

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open for everything.

-Shunryu Suzuki

We need to use our minds to develop a system to get things off our minds.

  • A system to:
    • Collect all the open loops in our lives
    • Clarify the scope of our commitment and what we have to do to fulfill it
    • Reminders organized in a system that we review regularly

Where do these Open Loops lie?

  • Subconscious (Unrecognized) tasks
    • There are many things that we don’t even realize requires a decision/action
    • e.g.,
      • Raising children is a project, including all that is required to do the same
      • Have you thought about the ideal way to give feedback to them?
      • Which sport to put them in?
      • What is the ideal balance diet?
      • There may be many latent Open Loops to be identified and processed to relieve the burden it is imposing on your attention (subconsciously).
    • “The last thing a fish notices is water”
  • Consciously recognized Tasks
    • Anything that is on your radar, for which you have not decided what it means to you, what you’re going to do about it, which resources you’re going to dedicate to them, etc.

Try this for the next 2 minutes:

  1. Write down a project/situation that is most on your mind at this moment.
  2. What would have to happen for you to check that off as “done”?
  3. What is the very next physical action required to move the situation forward?
  4. What is better about the way you relate to this project after completing this exercise?

What changed?

  • Nothing in the physical world changed.
  • The way you engaged with the world vzv. your attention changed.
    • We are no longer thinking about the problem (or how far away you are from your desired outcome)
    • We are now thinking about the next small step (which as it happens will carry you one step closer to your desired outcome)

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

-Mark Twain



We can think about the work of our lives in two dimensions:

1. Horizontally

2. Vertically

Horizontal control

  • Scanning all aspects of your life
    • e.g., Social Life; Career/School; Household/Living situation/Family; Leisure; Spiritual/Cultural/Intellectual/Religious; Exercise/Health; Daily Relaxation Time; etc.
  • How to allocate your attention on the tasks between these different aspects of you (all competing for your time as it were)
  • E.g., shoes that need shining, buying stamps. Figuring out what to do about the presentation tomorrow, deposit that check, make the hotel reservation, cancel the meeting, lunch, wilting plant in the office, incoming text message, pick up your prescription

Vertical control

  • Once you’re parked on something (e.g., a specific work project, like writing this article), how to go deeper so you can put all the chips in the right place and don’t have to think about it again
    • e.g., What I’m going to write, how to write it, how to present it, how will it fit within the greater context of what we’re training our patients to do, and how it will fit within the greater context of how our team members rely on this (how it fits within the organization of the executive function training program, etc.)
  • There is no point thinking about something twice, unless you like having that thought.
    • Know your options
    • Use the knowledge you have at hand, and your intuition (which relates to your values, ideals, priorities [and the opportunity cost of the time spent on this project)

When do I need to see what, in what form, to get it off my mind?

You build a system for function, not just to have a system.

David Allen describes 5 steps to mastering workflow (C-CORE):


  • Identify all the stuff that doesn’t belong where it is, the way it is.
  • many commitments are still in you head…should, would, could, ought to, might-want-to, etc…
  • e.g., Invite brother over for dinner


  • determine what to keep and what to throw away.
  • random lists strewn all about can create more stress than they alleviate
  • e.g., What’s the next action involved in having my brother over…reaching out and setting a date? checking with partner on their availability? Check for potential venues?


  • you put things where they need to go e.g., in a trusted system, that will remind you what you need to do at the right time and/or context
  • e.g., you enter on your GROCERY ACTION LIST that you need onions so that next time you go Grocery shopping (which is on your Calendar for next Tuesday) you are reminded to get it, and you don’t think about getting onions at all until then.


  • This is planting the seeds in a way so that future you is reminded of what to do at the right place and time, without having to think about the desired fruit until the time and/or place to harvest the fruits of these seeds
  • This is work that you have already done in identifying your Open Loops and determining the NEXT ACTIONS associated with them
  • e.g., You decide to make him his favourite dish, fajitas, for which you need the recipe book that stipulates all the ingredients you need


  • This is about applying, and fine-tuning, your system to you life in a way where all the mundane tasks in which you find yourself engaged are transmuted to meaningful work designed to serve higher purposes of your life
    1. How you manage your work (all Open Loops) so that you use your time, energy & attention most efficiently
    2. How you flexibly navigate between scheduling work, doing scheduled work and dealing with unexpected things that show up (an inevitable part of life)
    3. How the above serves the higher purposes of which your life is about
      • e.g., you identified that you wanted to have your brother over as part of your project “Maintain close bond with brother” as you have identified that that resonates with your values

Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.




Allen, David. (2015). Getting things done : the art of stress-free productivity, 2nd Edition. New York :Viking

Lambert, C. (1999). Mind over water!: Lessons on life from the art of rowing. Mariner Books.

Writing: Dr. Taher Chugh

Last update: March 2021