An AGILE Approach to Improving Executive Functions

Underdeveloped executive functioning skills can undermine not only work performance and productivity, but also quality of life and general wellness. Fortunately, these skills can be enhanced and solidified with practice and a well-structured, stepwise development process.

Many people struggle with organizing their workflow, managing their time, planning strategically, getting started on difficult tasks, staying focused, and managing stress. Underdeveloped executive functioningskills can undermine not only work performance and productivity, but also quality of life and general wellness. Fortunately, these skills can be enhanced and solidified with practice and a well-structured, stepwise development process.

The AGILEmethodology helps people to improve their executive functioning. It includes five steps: 

Assessment

Goal setting

Implementing

Learning from experience

Expanding

Individuals can use this methodology on their own, or along with an executive functioning coach or mentor. Here is a concrete illustration of how a client leveraged the AGILE process to overcome major work challenges and enhance his overall functioning:

Daniel is a senior product development manager at a software firm. His strong technical and interpersonal skills helped to attract investors and propel the company’s success. But as the company grew rapidly and Daniel’s work demands skyrocketed, executive functioning deficits reared their head. Daniel had trouble remembering appointments, keeping track of multiple daily tasks, and managing his e-mails effectively. He became so distracted and overwhelmed that his performance noticeably declined, putting the company’s continued growth and his own general well-being at risk.

Here is how the AGILE process helped Daniel:

Assessment:An executive skills assessment via structured interviews with Daniel confirmed he had significant deficits in working memory, time management, and sustained attention. The assessment process helped both client and coach identify the tasks that left him most vulnerable to executive functioning decline. If an individual like Daniel doesn’t have access to a professional coach, he or she may recruit other trusted individuals (such as a counselor or mentor) to assess the situation and identify stumbling blocks to success. Focused self-reflection and keeping a journal about challenges also can help people like Daniel to see the difficulties in manageable chunks.

Goal setting:Daniel and his coach together set specific goals for each element of his executive functioning difficulties. Again, individuals like Daniel can accomplish much of this on their own and/or with the support of others around them.

  1. Working Memory:To manage his tasks, Daniel decided to try using a smartphone to-do list app. Previously, he listed his tasks haphazardly on scraps of paper. Now he would keep them in one portable device, catalogued under specific project headings. This would make compiling, retrieving, and reviewing tasks much easier. 
  2. Time Management:Daniel would use his calendar app consistently to schedule meetings and record deadlines. He also would take the crucial step of scheduling important tasks in advance. He would schedule these the night before, picking a start time for each task and estimating how long it would take to complete. Scheduling tasks also would be central to overcoming procrastination. To reinforce it, he would have his calendar prod him with audible alerts when it was time to begin a new task. As a final measure, he would place visual cues—Post-it Notes, small white boards—in places that would be easy to see.
  3. Sustained Attention:To reduce distractions, Daniel would view e-mails three times per day at scheduled times and set aside blocks of uninterrupted time during the week for planning product launches.

Implementing:Daniel took a few days to set up his to-do list app and to get his time management routine going. He scheduled a follow-up session in two weeks to gauge the plan’s success. Follow-up coaching sessions provided an accountability structure to help Daniel stay on track with implementing the processes to reach his executive functioning goals. Individuals without a coach may find other “accountability partners” (such as colleagues or administrative assistants) and leverage smartphone technologies (including well-chosen “alerts”) to help them implement the goals.

Learning from experience:Daniel easily learned to use his calendar and to-do list app, but when he started trying to schedule tasks, he hit a wall. After a long day at the office, he was too exhausted to plan the next day. So he revised the approach. The night before, Daniel listed important tasks in whatever order they occurred to him. In the morning before going to work, he organized and scheduled them. By dividing planning into two stages, it was easier for Daniel to begin the night before.  

Scheduling e-mail in-box visits helped Daniel focus better on work. During product launch planning sessions, however, people barged into his office with requests or a desire to chew the fat. So he took a seemingly simple step: During planning sessions, Daniel closed his door and put a “busy” sign on it. At first, some people ignored the sign, and Daniel struggled to enforce it because he didn’t like saying, “No.” But because he was now more conscious of his time, he valued it more. He soon summoned the strength to guard it, even if that meant inconveniencing some colleagues and direct reports. Daniel’s persistence with this approach eventually helped to shape others’ expectations and they stopped trying to interrupt him when he needed time and space to work on his own.

Although Daniel made regular use of his calendar for appointments, he was still late to some meetings because audible alerts weren’t always getting his attention and visible cues worked only when he was in his office. The solution was to enlist the help of his office assistant, who texted him reminders in advance of key appointments. This three-prong approach proved effective.

Expanding:In the course of this process, Daniel adopted a proactive mindset toward self-improvement. Far from being dependent on a coach, he was inspired to look, on his own, for new ways to improve his executive functioning. When Daniel realized he had trouble taking notes and capturing information on the fly, he replaced paper and pen with a powerful note-taking/information-filing app. When his ability to concentrate was hampered by the chaotic state of his office, he cleaned it up and even reorganized large parts it. When extra work started getting dumped on him, he arranged a meeting with his boss to renegotiate work responsibilities —a diplomatic “no” to encroachments on his time. Throughout, Daniel was applying what he had learned to new challenges, thereby expanding the reach of his executive skills. Because he now pushed himself to discover solutions independently, he realized the true aim of the AGILE process: He had become his own executive functioning coach. 

Stefan Kalt, Ph.D., completed his graduate studies in philosophy at Boston University. He went on to teach Humanities and Social Sciences in Boston University’s “Great Books” Core Curriculum, where he facilitated in-depth discussions about the central texts of the Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. He later trained at the Center for Executive Coaching. With this background, Kalt helps clients apply rigorous and creative thinking to their leadership, professional, and executive-function challenges. For more information, visit: https://leadingmindsexecutivecoaching.com/stefan-kalt/or e-mail: stefankaltphd@gmail.com

David Brendel, M.D., Ph.D., is founder and director of Leading Minds Executive Coaching, LLC. He is a Professional Certified Coach of the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a Harvard-trained psychiatrist practicing in the Boston area. Brendel empowers his clients to enhance their careers and personal lives by making essential mindset and behavior changes. For more information, visit: https://www.leadingmindsexecutivecoaching.comor e-mail david@drdavidbrendel.com

 

 

 

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