Episode 11: How Do You Teach Executive Functioning? The Personal Brain Trainer Podcast

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How Do You Teach Executive Functioning? 



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Full Transcript for Episode 11

Welcome to the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast.

I'm Dr. Erica Warren and I'm Darius Namdaran and we're your hosts.  Join us on an adventure to translate the scientific jargon and brain research into simple metaphors and stories for everyday life.  We explore executive functions and learning strategies that help turbocharge the mind. Come learn how to steer around the invisible barriers so that you can achieve your goals.  This podcast is ideal for parents, educators, and learners of all ages.

This podcast is brought to you by Bullet Map Academy. We have free dyslexia screener app called dyslexia quiz.  It's a fun, engaging and interactive app.  Try it now.  Just search for dyslexia quiz on the app store and see how your score differs from your friends and family.

This podcast is brought to you by www.goodsensorylearning.com where you can find educational and occupational therapy lessons and remedial materials that bring delight to learning.

Finally, you can find Dr Warren's many courses at www.learningspecialistcourses.com .  Come check out our newest course on developing executive functions and study strategies.

So, what's the topic for this week, Erica?

I'm really excited about this one. We're going to be talking about building a routine for improved executive functions and memory.

Really building a routine for improved life.


So, this ties into the last episode where we went through lots of different techniques was at 12.

We did It was 1212 techniques for building executive functioning.

Creating a daily routine is a way to take care of yourself, present your best self to others and to reach your ultimate goals.

And it's also great for establishing priorities, limiting procrastination.

And it provides a structure that builds positive habits that can generate momentum that will carry you on the days when you are feeling rather apathetic and unmotivated, that’s what I love about a routine, right?

It just becomes that no brainer.

And when we build those routines to automaticity, these actions become those habits and require that little thought or effort which we all want right, particularly when there are things that really help us to be stronger like exercise or eating well.


So, the first question that I thought we should discuss is why does a routine help executive functions in memory?

So, the question is how does a routine do that?

I think it's one of those things that again makes things the no brainer where you don't have to really think about it, you don't have to really be writing everything down because once something is a routine and it starts to build that habit, you're just able to do it without thinking about it, like brushing your teeth.

What's that phrase habit?

Make it man or something like that?

What does it go?

Like an old-fashioned kind of phrase, something like that that my grandfather or my grandmother used to say, but you know, habits really do, they're so important, basically what they're doing is reducing cognitive load instead of always be front of mind, figuring out exactly what you're doing next etcetera.

You've delegated that all down to becoming an automatic habit, right?

And the thing to note is that it's the routine that helps to build that habit.

So, if we can say all right, I'm going to commit to this routine and at first, it's going to be a little uncomfortable and you may not want to really do it, but each time you do that routine, it tends to get easier and eventually it can become a habit.

And so, if we're trying to establish a change in our life, having that routine is often the first step to building a habit.

And the next thing I want to talk about was how long does it take to build a routine?

Well, that that's a really good question because sometimes we get a bit demoralized when we don't reach the expectations of, oh, you know, I've been doing this for days and days and days and I've still not developed this habit and it's not the same for everyone, is it?

Because I've got a number of students in bullet map academy where you can do something repeatedly for 100 days and the kids still not got it, but it takes 100 and 20 days and they know how to do it when they think intentionally about it, but it's not automatic or a habit yet.

And people's levels of automaticity are, are different.

I think there are some people who just start doing something and they become automatic at it quite quickly and uh other people who it takes a long time to take on a habit.

And it has advantages because you don't pick up bad habits that quickly because you lose them very quickly.

And if you're really intentional and say, right, this is going to be my habit.

You end up finding a suite of really good habits if you're really intentional about it.

But how long does it actually take to create a new habit?

Then, you know, there are common rumors going around that it's 21-28 days, but actually I found a study from 2009 from the European Journal of Social Psychology.

And it actually says that it's between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit.

That's a big range, right?

And The study concluded that it takes about an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.

So, what that boils down to is that there's some things that are easy to establish it as a habit.

So, if you say, Okay, I'm going to have a glass of water with my breakfast every day, that's a fairly easy habit to establish.

But other ones like exercise, they're a little bit more difficult to establish and often take more time.

And then, of course, there are other ones that are probably much more complicated than that.

So that's the range 18-250 for so for the ones that are really difficult to establish, you really have to get into that routine and slog through for close to a year before it really establishes itself.

Yeah, and it's interesting as you've been talking there, I'm kind of thinking there is a difference between a routine and a habit big time and we can use them interchangeably, but they're not completely exactly the same habit is something that's very internal and the routine can happen as a result of a habit or because someone else wakes you up in the morning and makes you do things or you've got a fitness coach or whatever, you kind of got that external aspect of creating the routine.

So, you can have an internal aspect of creating a routine or an external habit of creating the routine and that's probably why so many people go for like fitness coaches and things like that because they maintain that routine until it becomes a habit.

Yeah, that's great.

And I love what you said, and I think it's a great idea for us to go a little deeper into the difference between internalizing and Externalizing.

So, when you're internalizing, it's kind of that inner decision, right?

Or if it becomes a habit, it's a subconscious decision, and the question is what's behind that, what is behind that internalizing?

And I think that goes back to kind of the pieces of working memory that we talked about in a prior episode and when you break down working memory, it really boils down to your inner voice and visualization.

So visualization, meaning your ability to create pictures in your mind and your inner voice is just that little voice that speaks to us in our head, it can be positive, it can be negative, but when we are trying to establish a routine so that we can build a habit, those are two internalizing ways that we can keep ourselves on track, using that inner voice to coach us and keep us going and we can use that inner voice to counteract maybe even a negative inner voice we have and then in contrast, we've got that ability to picture things that can help us in our routines where we kind of picture are routine, we might picture what comes next, that can help us to create that inner environment to keep us on our routine.

One of the things that we've always tried to do in this podcast is to take the theory of this and make its visual or into an analogy or into some sort of practical thing we can imagine.

Is there an analogy for this?

Can you think of an analogy for this for internalizing Yeah.

And routines and all of what we're talking about.

What kind of analogies do you generally use yourself to kind of explain creating a routine, maintaining a routine and habits.

So, if we go back to the idea of a routine, a metaphor to describe routines, well a routine is really just the replication of doing the same thing over and over again.

Mine's kind of reminds me of Groundhog Day, you know, where you're reliving the same thing, although in fact in that movie which probably wasn't a great example, he does something different every day, he doesn't really follow a routine, does he?

Because he has to break out of that and find a new way of doing things.

But I think I don't know a metaphor to describe it.

It's really just the repetition, the daily repetition of certain things that you want to do that is going to make you better or stronger.


So, kind of like a hamster wheel of just doing the same things over and over again.

Hamster wheel is not very inspiring, is it Erica?

That's what I was thinking, it doesn't feel very day isn't inspiring.

Hamster wheel isn't inspiring.

I think it's like there's something that I'm just searching for right now which is like what is it that can help you visualize or relate a metaphor that can really connect to the value and the power of routine and habits.

I mean it could be a song, you know that you sing every day, it's a repetition.

So, it makes me think of the book that I read, but I think it was James Gleick in his book Chaos and within the Chaos theory.

They noticed that when they zoom in that everything is may made up of the same thing, that it's a repeated pattern when they look at nature, which is actually chaos and they zoom in on it, they actually see that there's a visual pattern and then if you zoom in again, it's the same visual pattern.

So, it's a matter of creating kind of this pattern which is more appealing.

If you're decorating your walls, you're going to put a pattern on your walls because there's something appealing, visually appealing to a pattern and a pattern is attractive in a song and a pattern.

It can be very beautiful in a poem.

It creates a meter or a beat.

So maybe that's a good way to think of a routine and that's a more attractive way of thinking about a routine as almost as a repeated melody.

That's very beautiful.

Yes, I love it.

You're intentionally creating a pattern with things and that's the beautiful part of this is the intentionality that the whole idea of executive functioning skills and working with that is having this higher order thinking, cognitive flexibility, but also that intentionality to direct your will in a particular way.

And you're using this pattern to keep you in that loop of the direction you want to go.

One of the things that I found really useful over the last year is I have a picture up on my wall that I created in about half an hour, which is a dream board kind of scenario.

I've now got an iPad, so I can just drag photos off.

Safari, drop them onto a page, crop them a bit and move them all around.

And I've got little pictures of things that I find are really important to me and I want to remember that they are important to me.

And sometimes if I write down my goals, which I do, I write down very explicit goals.

But to remember the goals, I don't often reread the goals to remind them, but I look at the picture that reminds me of the goal.

I've got pictures of people that I want to be with.

I've got plants and boats and business goals and all sorts of different things.

So sometimes having, how would that fit into routine?

Because I find I look at, I stick it up on my wall, I print it, I stick up on my wall and I look at it nearly every day and it just triggers those things.

What's your take on that in terms of routine, I don't have a formal routine to go through my goals.

I have this kind of informal, it's on the wall and it just reminds me so I think I wouldn't necessarily call that a routine, I think a routine has a certain sequence and a certain structure, but you could build a routine, I suppose that doesn't have a defined structure or defined sequence, but I think would be a lot harder to move through that on a daily basis.

I find that routines work best for me when I schedule a particular time and I make a commitment or I create a certain sequence and say okay, I'm going to do it in the sequence any time I don't define a sequence or a time the routine tends to fall apart for me, for me, that's really helpful.

Yeah, I like that, that's really helpful.

I find that quite frankly, really quite hard personally to do because I'm not naturally automatic at these things, I don't maintain processes easily.

So, I often find I externalize my routines by leaving visual cues and reminders, you know, like my toothbrush is out.

So, it reminds me to brush my teeth rather than away.

Although that's now a complete routine on 51, I can manage that one, but that's just an example of it.

But you know, there was a time where I would sometimes forget to shave, but then when I leave the razor in a certain place, I see and I go, oh gosh, yes, I better shave, I use these visual cues to keep me in a routine.

What's your take on that?

So, once you have established a routine and it's become a habit then you can have kind of visual markers to remind you.

But I think if you're trying to build a new routine, a new daily routine, I think it's very important to define at the very least the sequence at the most an established sequence with a particular time stamp.

Well let's go into now.

We've talked a little bit about internalizing and moved away from that, but I'm going to pull us back to that.

Let's talk a little bit about Externalizing.

Externalizing is where we use external forces to help us to build that routine.

And you had mentioned, you know, using coaches or mentors, but there are also some technology tools that we can use, like I love to use google has a calendar, but I love to use google, keep any kind of calendar that's on your computing device.

I also use my amazon echo all the time for reminders and it gives me a reminder at a particular time of day or right before an appointment.

So, it's really nice with all the technology these days, it's been really, really helpful for me to be able to give myself those auditory cues.

It's interesting, you like visual cues.

I like auditory cues but it really comes down to looking at the individual and thinking about how do you process best and if you're trying to establish a routine support that routine with what works best for you, whether it's a visual and auditory aid tactical aid, but there are all sorts of a technology aid, a hand written aid, you know, maybe you just want to have a schedule out in front of you or you do the bullet map approach, which is definitely be used to establish a daily routine.

I really like how you're talking about first.

You need to know what the, what the thing is you want to do planet break up into steps and this into a process.

I think once you've got that kind of process then you can start becoming intentional about using these external cues.

I think that's what I've really learned from you today.

Erica is that I suppose maybe I'm relying on external cues a little bit too randomly, you know, Oh yeah, I'll come across that and that will remind me and that will spark me but to have this intentionality that at a certain time I'm going to do this that and the next thing and I want to make that strong routine that becomes a strong habit and I'm going to use google calendar or reminders to stimulate me and remind me to do that.

Yeah, I mean you're, the problem with having those auditory reminders for me is it can actually interrupt me.

So, what if I'm doing something where I don't want to be interrupted then it actually doesn't really serve me all that well.

Right, so any kind of visual or auditory reminder can actually get in the way of your attentional skills.

Sometimes when you hear something like this, you start or if it's New Year, you start saying right, I'm going to do a whole scale change of X, Y and Z.

And I'm going to have a reminder for this and a reminder for that reminder for this.

You've got all these beeps and so on going and you're trying to solve everything at once.

I think this is probably a scenario where you choose what's your most valuable routine, make sure you establish that, and you go to another one and build that up layer by layer.

Oh, I tell you something that I developed for myself that I think you'll like on this one and it speaks exactly to what you're talking about.

So, what I do is I have these little magnetic strips okay with little squares on them with icons on them to remind me to do certain things in certain places.

So, I've got one at my front door and there's four little things and I slide them along when I've done them.

And so, it's got my bag, it's got my tablet, it's got my laptop and it's got my pack lunch to go out and for the day and I got all of those in my bag and I got my keys.

And so, I just go yes check, check, check, check.

I normally have them but sometimes I miss one of them.

Oh, thank you.

That's good and it's a critical thing if I go out the door and I don't have my wallet or my keys and so on.

I'm going to have to drive back, it's going to get in the way etcetera.

And there's other things that are like that in different locations.

And one of them, for example, was when I was taking medicine some antibiotics and I'm terrible at remembering to take the tablet and with those things you've got to take them consistently to the end to get the full benefit of it.

And so, I created one of those and I could just that physical act of sliding something across saying, oh, I've done it, it reminded me I did it or it reminds me of still to do it and I've not done it.

And so often having it near where I have to do that action in the location of the action is crucial for me.

Where did you get this device?

I invented it.

Oh, that's cool.

Well perhaps you should market it because that's a really, really great idea.

And I love the fact that it's, it's one thing, right?

So that you can just start it over every day, you just lie them all back to the start position.

And there's something about that too that I like because it's tactile as well.

And I guess you could, I'm visualizing, I guess I could create that in, anybody could create that in many different ways.

And I think that's a really cool idea.

I think Children would really enjoy something like that as well.

So having that ability to do it and you can do like check boxes and stuff.

But I love the sliding piece.

I think that that makes a lot of sense to me.

That's really cool.

I really like that.

And this ties to your number of days.


So, when I had four items to do to walk, look out the door, built up that habit really well.

So eventually I was like, I don't actually need this anymore after probably about, let's say 80 days.

But there was another sequence that I had, about 10-12 things I had to do at night to lock up.

So, we had ducks and if I didn't put the ducks away, the fox would kill them.

I had to put the ducks away, we had to put the tort toys away.

We had to put the chickens away.

We had to lock this door, lock that door, put the dishwasher on and all of these kinds of things that every single night I was rethinking have what, what have I got to do next?

What have I got to do next, etcetera.

And I would just go straight back to this thing.

And so yeah, done that, done that.

Oh gosh, yes, I'd better put the dishwasher on, Yeah, done the dishwasher, locked the back door and so on and I'll go to my wife, and she said, have we done the lockdown?

And I've got, I've definitely done the lockdown.

She said, did you swipe everything and I'm like, yeah, everything's swiped, so it's double checked as it were.

So, you've got a physical reminder that it has been done rather than, oh my goodness, did I lock the door or not?

Because sometimes you can forget.


What's wonderful about a swipe system like that too is because it does communicate with other people in the family and it's something you could even put on, say, your refrigerator where you could just have these swipe tools and then, yeah, if someone's going to bed, they're like, oh, I wonder if blah blah blah did this, They can just see that it's done.

The trick is that always getting every morning swiping everything back to the beginning so that you can make sure that you don't miss a day because it was yesterday's swipe.

But that's really cool.

I love that now.

But what I would like to do next is I'd like to talk a little bit about the strategies on how to establish a routine.

So, um I think the first thing that you have to do in order to establish a routine is you have to make that commitment, you have to make a commitment and have the desire to build it to some kind of automaticity or habit.

So, I think that's the number one thing that you have to be able to commit because if you're, if you've only got one ft in, it's not going to work, you have to be completely committed and decide that I'm going to do this.

And then after that, I think drawing out a plan is really, really important.

And I think you use the bullet map approach and I think something like that could be really useful, but for me establishing it, I need that kind of sequence and sometimes I even need a start time, but just writing it out and what I'll do is I'll post it numerous places in my house to remind me to stay in that sequence.

What do you mean?

What would you post?

Give us an example?

Well, I can remember where I was trying to establish a morning routine and I wrote out the sequence of things, I need to do this again, where I just write out the sequence and I might post it in three or four different places in my house, for example, maybe in the bathroom, so when I go there in the morning, I see it and then maybe in the kitchen have it posted, and then maybe at my desk have it posted.

So that way, when I see it, I was like, oh, did I forget anything?

Did I, do it?

Am I following the right sequence?

But I think that once you build it to a habit, you don't necessarily have to use that anymore.

But it's interesting whenever I take, take those down, it kind of falls apart.

But I think when I take it down, then I'm no longer committing right in a way, there's a part of me that that's uh, one foot's out then, or I'm just not as intentional.

So, you can build something to a routine, and you can, or you can build a routine and you can develop it to a habit, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to stay.

Sometimes you really need that structure to keep it going all the time and to remind yourself and then the next thing we want to break these larger goals into manageable chunks.

So, I think sometimes it's easy just to put something on your list, that's a big goal and it's just a little bit too hard to manage because there's so many little pieces that require you to get there.

So being able to break it into chunks or even if it's a long-term goal where you're trying to get or learn something new, being able to break that into chunks can be really, really helpful.

Another thing that I love to do is set up rewards and I do that for myself all the time.

So, I'll say to myself, okay, I can watch this TV show that I want to watch, or I can do this thing that I want to do, but before I do that, I have to put 10 things away or I have to get this done.

And so, I often tell my students set up your own rewards, do your own behavior modification, so if you really want to get something done or accomplished, it's really important to stop and give yourself that reward, celebrate the fact that you actually made it through your routine, but it's so easy for us not to do that.

Do you ever reward yourself?

Yeah, well not that much actually, it's like giving yourself some gold stars, you know, give yourself a star chart I actually found when I was using my sliders, just the act of moving, it was so satisfying that became a reward for me just to feel that thing slide across and see the tick that was hidden underneath.

That there's something satisfying about seeing that kind of little tick or that star appear for me that was our reward.

It was very simple, but I should get my sliders going back again.

I know right, I'm just about all these things that I need to reestablish and these strategies that we're talking about on, things that I really want to become more routine oriented.

Right, well, we should practice what we preach Erica and how about we go away and establish once tiny little routine that might be a 10-minute routine in our day of a few key processes because I think sometimes that's the trick, isn't it?

I'm just going to make sure within these 10 minutes I do these three or four key things that if I don't do them like that tablets or text my mom or whatever.

There are small things that repeatedly build up to having a big impact and I think I think I'm going to set myself that goal Erica between now and next week to find a 10-minute chunk where I've got a sequence like you say that I've written down and I'm just going to commit to repeating and within those 10 minutes there are key things that are small but make a big difference.


You know and it's funny, you know sometimes we're doing things that we don't really want to do and are trying to establish a routine with things that we don't really want to do because we should be doing them.

But there are certain things that you can even establish into routine that you really enjoy.

So sometimes we are not bringing enough joy into our lives.

One thing that I did a few seasons back which I'm going to reestablish as a routine as soon as the spring comes is every day I would go out into my garden and I would take a picture of a new flower and the first year I did it, I was so surprised I thought I had, oh I don't know maybe 30 different types of flowers.

It turned out that I had hundreds in my garden and it was just so much fun to go out there and sometimes in prior years I had missed the flower altogether by going out each day and taking a picture, I called it the floor de jour and then I would spend it to people that I love and so many of them loved getting their floor de jour, which means flower of the day in French, which I don't pronounce very well, but I need to do that and I know that it's something that I've heard from other people that my mother really misses, that I don't do that anymore.

And I really miss that kind of mindful moment of going out into the garden no matter what kind of day it is.

But just getting out into the garden with me with my two dogs and having that moment to see the beauty of a flower, right?

I think that's fantastic Erica and I think that is essentially we were talking about committing and why and I think the easiest way to commit to something is to commit to something you really want to do.

So, we tend to gravitate to what gives us pleasure or what avoids the pain.

So, we're either avoiding pain or we're moving to pleasure.

We're moving away from pain and we're moving towards pleasure.

And so, if we can find things that will move us towards pleasure or avoid as pain, then we will have a lot more motivation.

That's right.

And we just want to establish again, those habits that help us to shine, help us to be better people, but remember to set up those rewards in the beginning because it can be uncomfortable, the brain doesn't really like change.

And so, if you offer those rewards to yourself something that you really enjoy eating, but you only want to eat in moderation so that you're just giving yourself those little checks, right?

And also, if necessary, schedule, those daily reminders to help you write and then track your progress, tracking your progress is so important because it's so easy to forget where we were.

So, if you are having some success, if you're feeling better if I really enjoyed the Florida your, but I let it go right.

I haven't done it the last couple of seasons and even if when I'm tracking my progress, I could track appreciation.

Like, wow a lot of people really loved the flower today, right?

Or they really commented about how much they enjoy this process and just thinking about it and maybe even journaling about it and then of course if this is a routine that you absolutely have to establish, you feel a great need, but you just can't do it on your own, don't be afraid of getting a coach.

An executive functioning coach is a really great option.

I do executive functioning coaching and it really gives you that added support to get you in the routine if you just can't go there, you know what I mean?

Because sometimes it's too hard to set up rewards or you just can't move through it alone and you need the company, you need someone working with you and it's okay to do that.

This was an executive functioning coaching session.


Thank you very much.

It was really fun.

I really enjoyed this one because I think like if we take your floor does your example, so you committed to a daily routine, you drew out a plan which was I'm going to go out the door, I'm going to take a photo, I'm going to send it to my friends.

You broke that bigger goal of being out in your garden and being more intentional about being in nature and taking time down into a really manageable chunk, which was just take a photo.

You then set up your rewards, which was the feedback from your friends, wasn't it?

That gave you a reward.

Oh thanks.

Erika, very rewarding.

Oh, and then of course, and then I have all these beautiful photographs You do and the photos themselves, track your progress because you can scroll through them and see when there was the last time and you scheduled daily reminders might be a quick beep.

five minutes go take a photo at a set time, four o'clock in the afternoon or whatever or lunchtime, brilliant.

Love it.


Thanks for that example.


You're welcome.

I think I'll definitely reestablished that in the spring.

I kind of made that commitment partially because I think I planted about 1000 new bulbs in my garden.

I had a gardener this last summer that really took help me take my garden to a whole new height.

So, I think my Florida door is going to be spectacular next year.


Well maybe you could uh, if people on the podcast see it and would like to see it, could, can they follow you on twitter or you know, I don't post them somewhere or I don't post them on any uh I only send them as personal texts or emails as emails.

So yeah, that unfortunately I don't post them.

It is a thought.

I will consider it.

Perhaps I can post them on to social media.

But again, I have to keep this routine fairly tight because I can't let it get to be too time consuming.

If it becomes too time consuming and I commit to making it bigger than I can handle, then I won't do it.

Yeah, well this is a really, really fun discussion and I look forward to next week.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that executive functioning coaching session.

The Erica gave us there about the value of routines, how you can set them up, how long it takes the process of doing it, The value of it and so on.

Thank you very much Erika.

That was really helpful to have that conversation.

Thanks Darius, Bye.

Thank you for joining our conversation here at the personal brain trainer podcast.

This is Dr. Erica Warren and Darius Namdaran. Check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the podcast, and please leave us a review and shares on social media until next time.