Agency: A Foundation for Executive Function

The topic for Hoagies’ Gifted blog hop this month is executive function—you know, those wonderful skills like impulse control and self-monitoring that enable us get things done. The topic caught my attention because, like many in our hyperconnected world, I’ve mused at times that I seem to have developed ADHD—enough to look into what ADHD actually is and realize that my off-days are not of the same order of magnitude (which is to say, if you actually have ADHD, I sure don’t claim to have good advice for you).  But I’m far from the only person I know to have followed this train of thought—and having an O-B-A stellar type brain can add to the challenge.  Giftedness and ADHD look similar to an untrained eye, though a critical distinction between the two is that the gifted generally have no problem completing tasks if they care about them.

In the past few years—that is, since moving to a city, getting involved with an activist organization, and making friends who actually live close enough that I can see them regularly—I’ve had to level up my executive function just to make it through the week.  And that made me realize that there’s something fundamental that I need to stay on track: a sense of agency.  In other words, I need to believe that I have the ability to initiate, execute, and control my behavior to reach my freely-chosen goals.  When my sense of agency erodes, my executive function drops off the cliff with it.

My personal nadir of executive function was in the fourth grade, when we had to write state reports.  As it happens, my family had recently visited Chicago.  With its shiny observation decks and boat rides down the river, I thought Chicago was the neatest place I’d ever been—and since Chicago was in Illinois, I was determined to call dibs on what was obviously an amazing state.

chicago-skyline

With apologies to anyone who lives in the rest of Illinois…well, when the report turned out to involve a lot more corn and a lot fewer skyscrapers than I had envisioned, my interest totally evaporated.  I remember sitting out at a table on our front porch doing anything but working through thee pile of information I had obtained on the agricultural production of Illinois, with my poor mom trying to gently convince—and when that didn’t work, coerce—me into doing it.  Mom still brings up the Illinois report to illustrate that I wasn’t always the good student people thought.

Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things since fourth grade.  When I find myself needing to dedicate time, energy, and attention to the analysis of cereal production, here are some tricks that usually help me avoid the call of shiny objects:

1. Claim the freedom to say NO whenever possible.

This should really be Number Zero, not Number One, because the goal here is to avoid analyzing cereal production in the first place.  It’s when I feel trapped and overwhelmed—when I find myself having agreed to write reports on not merely Illinois, but also Maine, Mississippi, and Saskatchewan—that I find myself frittering away time.  There’s this executive skill called inhibition that’s supposed to mean that we resist shiny objects and focus on the task at hand.  But when I cede too much control to external demands, my brain seems determined to escape the trap I’ve set for it.  And I can’t really blame it, because if I’m constantly inhibiting impulses to work on my most valued projects because I said yes to too many other things, it’s no wonder my executive skills have gotten all tied up in knots.

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Having the freedom to accept or decline a task is fundamental to agency.  Recently, I printed out this flow chart by Aurora Remember and pinned it to the wall above my computer to help me remember that, as an adult, I usually do have this agency.  Kids, on the other hand, generally need to be granted this freedom.  Most of them spend their days in traditional schools that tell them what they have to be doing at any given time.

Which leads to a corollary question that’s relevant to both kids and grown-ups: are you over-scheduled?  Executive function drops when you’re burnt out, and stress wreaks havoc with your working memory!  I’m guessing that’s why we call it recreation.

Sometimes, of course, saying no is not an option.  I myself picked Illinois for my report, after all, and we ought to live up to our commitments.  So what else can we try?

2. Find a way to care about the task.

You know, after years of knocking downstate Illinois because of that report, I have come to wonder whether I might have given the state a bad rap.  I mean, Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, right?  And who doesn’t love Abraham Lincoln?  (Don’t answer that.  This post is a break from the dark side of politics.)  My point is, there’s surely something there that could have piqued my interest.

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As it happens, my class was given a list of topics to write about that was about as bland as can be.  I didn’t ever imagine that I might have been able to inject some personal interest and creativity—an act of agency!  Once the skyscrapers were ruled out, I did not see any value in the task, period.  But did anyone actually forbid me to write about skyscrapers?  Maybe I could have worked in a section on Chicago, since I had been so excited about it.

Nowadays, I often find myself working on projects that are important to groups I belong to, but that I wouldn’t have chosen myself.  In that case, I visualize—and the visualization is really helpful, as it makes it less abstract and therefore easier to believe in—something that will result from the task that actually is in line with my personal goals.  I play it on a mental loop if I have to.  It helps me really, sincerely care about the task, and caring strengthens my focus.

3. Don’t overachieve.

So what if the teacher says, This report is about a state, not a city, so I don’t want to see anything about the Sears Tower.  WRITE ABOUT CORN!

Sometimes you can do the minimum needed to accomplish the task and still accomplish the task.  I’m not saying do it badly.  I’m saying you don’t need to be a perfectionist in everything.  This is hard for a lot of gifted kids, though in the case of the Illinois report, this is the option I ultimately took.  (Mind you, it would have been more effective to decide on this option from the start, rather than stalling for ages.)

In the end, it’s a balancing act, and learning that done is often better than perfect can help achieve that balance.  I’d also add that doing something to a sufficient level of quality because you want to involves agency, while slaving away to meet a ridiculous standard imposed by nebulous authorities existing only in your mind does not.

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4. Preserve time for activities you truly care about.

Here’s a success story to contrast with the Illinois report: just before I entered high school, I took a set of characters I’d been writing about for the past year and created a web site about them.  Eventually I built a following of over 100 people who subscribed to my mailing list, waiting for the stories that I posted reliably for over two years.  That’s how I know I can manage big projects with lots of moving parts on a reliable schedule.  Prioritizing a project that I undertook freely helped me develop those high-level executive skills.

Creative projects remain important to me, and when I don’t get do engage in them, I don’t feel like I’m functioning overall as well as I otherwise could be.  I gather that this is fairly common among gifted kids and adults, and can even lead people to feel anxious, depressed, or like they have ADHD.

I’d say that sounds like a case of positive disintegration.

I’ve been using the term “agency” in this post because that’s what came to me when I first started thinking about the topic.  Eventually, however, a light bulb flashed on: agency is nothing more than the ability to act with autonomy and authenticity, two higher-level dynamisms in Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration.  These dynamisms help us reintegrate ourselves at a higher level, in pursuit of our personality ideal.

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Few of us are fortunate enough to “do what we love” as a full-time job, as many of society’s most fortunate and successful advise.  Yes, of course that’s the way to be great—but someone’s got to do the unglamorous labor, too.  Still, to the extent that we as children or adults can fit meaningful projects, freely chosen, into our lives, it can help us get our executive muscles into shape.  If we rarely have the freedom to pursue things that truly motivate us to excel—if we lack agency—then it’s no wonder that the executive skills that enable excellence begin to wear away.

This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
Follow the link for others’ takes on this topic.

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8 thoughts on “Agency: A Foundation for Executive Function

  1. As you know, I went to college in the great state of Illinois, and in my senior year I took a course on “Changing American Geography.” At the end, we took a field trip across “downstate” Illinois, and I had to write a report on a non-Chicago landmark in the state. Now, obviously I was in college by this point, so I had a (slightly) more adult perspective, but I found rural Illinois absolutely fascinating and wonderful.

    I frequently fall victim to the fourth case – not having or making time to do the creative projects you want to do. My work schedule has felt absolutely crushing recently (I worked 9 AM to 8:15 PM yesterday, for example), and it leaves me too exhausted to do much else. I’ve been taking a lot of classes recently and enjoying them, and yesterday one of my bosses told me that having weekly commitments that occur at a set time each week is not compatible with the lifestyle at our firm. I genuinely do enjoy much of the work I do, and I would feel motivated to do it – I just sometimes wish I could do a little less of it.

    It occurs to me that one case that is not covered in this post is when you’re just depressed. Depression makes it difficult to muster up the motivation for just about anything. There also is the shadow of self-doubt, ever-present for some of us. I’ve found these to be the biggest factors in my life that inhibit agency.

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    1. Thanks for this great contribution to the discussion, Dana. Yes indeed, depression’s effect on executive function could easily fill up a whole separate post. You are definitely not alone in that experience.

      As for your work…well, this reminds me why in first sketch of this blog post, I started rambling off about Karl Marx and alienation. I get that there are some jobs where unreliable schedules are unavoidable, but you’re not working in medicine or anything like that. Too many of the sort of jobs that pay well enough to let someone buy a house and pay off their student loans regularly make such demands of their employees, it seems. I posit that there’s no good reason we shouldn’t be able to work just 20 or 30 hours a week…and we’d be better employees if we did.

      And I would go on a field trip to downstate Illinois! I already crossed it once the long way by train and once by car to visit a friend in St. Louis. The car ride brought me right back to the Illinois report, but taking Amtrak through the little towns had quite the opposite effect.

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  2. That is a really good point about the affect that agency has on our executive functions. I’m a little bit ADHD myself (that is to say, I only functioned professionally thus far with a TON of structure in the school system). Now that I’m pursuing my own path, it is a lot more motivating, but also I’m a lot more scattered! Last year when I had to go back more to my school job and into some not so great situations, my brain function went way down for a while. Fortunately, this school year I’ve been in a much better place, and while scattered, I can focus much better when I’m motivated!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Aurora! You noted being scattered but still being able to focus. That’s interesting to me. By scattered, I wonder if you mean having lots and lots of different active interests competing in your brain for attention…and yet, being able to focus by picking just one of them? That’s something I experience frequently.

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  3. These perspectives are very useful! Thanks for this. I too sometimes feel that the Internet has diluted my attention pool and made me less able to focus, but I guess it’s more that I have to find another way of corralling my attention to work in an environment that’s changed since I was more focused. I especially like step 0, saying no, and have written about it on my blog some time back:

    http://juliesondradecker.blogspot.com/2015/05/saying-no.html

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    1. Thanks for sharing this! Hmmm…it sounds like a strong motivation to Make the World a Better Place and a strong drive to create in some form might be related, and unfortunately, they can also frequently collide. No wonder we never have any time. And this isn’t really a skill that gets taught…there’s so much pressure to say YES out there.

      Your comment about the environment changing is a good one, too. I have found myself nostalgic for what for me was a Golden Age of the Internet. It was, specifically, before Facebook. I wonder if that means I should quit Facebook. There are other ways to stay in touch with people and find communities…that’s precisely why I joined this Blog Hop, for starters. Of course, the bloggers all chat with each other via Facebook. Hmmmm. This will take some intentionality. (Good thing I just signed up for a mindfulness course that emphasizes intentionality…but that’s for a later blog post.)

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