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Executive Dysfunction


So the last thing I wrote was a huge angry rant about the Insurrection. Since then, I’ve settled into my new home and my new state, my toddler weaned off breastfeeding, I’ve been vaccinated, I’ve hung out with family, and I started working out on a semi-permanent basis (which is like semi-regular, but kind of from the opposite direction). My parents got to visit over the summer and I have been writing every day. My SO has been telling me about bullet-journaling for a while and at first I thought it would be Work. I don’t have the time or energy to work on things. But he asked me to read a book on it (The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll – Excellent) and since I place a lot of importance on other people reading what I recommend, I did. And I’m glad I did because it took something that seemed nebulous and time-consuming into something I could use. If you’re not familiar, bullet journals are just normal journals but instead of line each page has a dotted grid. This allows you to be more flexible with how you use the journal. You can stick to lines, you can make graphics and lists and get artistic or keep it very simplistic. Mine is more the later. Anyway, if you look up bullet journals on Pinterest, you’ll see what I mean. The first thing I had to do was decide What I Wanted to Journal (daily log, books read, crochet projects, yarn inventory, potty training, migraines, meal planning, and work outs). It seems like a lot, but the journaling has really helped, though it’s kind of funny looking back at my early logs as compared to what I’m writing now. I used to get 2-3 days to a page and now I’m lucky if I get a day finished in less than a page. It’s been a really convenient receptacle for my memory and a place to order my thoughts, prepare for important events, and in general vent my frustrations in a safe space. Don’t get me wrong, I like having this space but it isn’t private and it isn’t supposed to be. Everything I put on here is meant to be read, even if I risk upsetting people. The daily minutiae of my life is not only boring, it’s my life.

I titled this “Executive Dysfunction” for a reason, of course. A while ago I came across a Tumblr screenshot on Pinterest about how to manage executive dysfunction, which is when you know you should do something but you simply can’t. Now, this post was aimed at people with ADD/ADHD, which I am not, but it resonated with me anyway. With ADD/ADHD, executive dysfunction can be crippling especially because neurotypicals *refuse* to understand. They say I can’t do something and the response is inevitably “don’t be lazy, just do it.” It’s not laziness. It is the brain literally being unable to connect the impulse to the action. And it is very debilitating because you have to life hack your way to an atypical solution because to NT people there’s only one solution which is to just do it. That’s like telling a blind person to see by just opening their eyes. It doesn’t work that way. One post I saw was discussing dental hygiene. Person A knew she had to brush her teeth, that it was very important for her health, blah blah blah. But she loathed doing it every day and that made it this Mt Everest she had to face as part of her daily routine. She’s telling this to Person B who asks her what exactly about the task bothers her the most and after some thought, Person A says it’s the toothpaste. She absolutely abhors the taste of mint. So Person B reminds her that kids toothpaste comes in all kinds of not-gross flavors and is STILL TOOTHPASTE. *lightbulb* Another one I saw was someone who was constantly late and instead of getting all flustered or setting a million alarms, she just put a clock in every room in her house.

The thing to take away from this life hack is that this approach is not limited to people with executive dysfunction. We are all very different people who face all kinds of obstacles in our lives so the last thing we should be doing is approaching those obstacles the way everyone else does. This applies to every aspect of our lives: dieting, education, careers, exercise, parenting, hobbies, E V E R Y T H I N G.

Haven’t you ever worked at something and seen no progress and then given up because you just don’t have the will-power or determination or genes or whatever? You look around and see that this works for everyone and somehow isn’t working for you, right? We live in a society that loves to stalk the successes of other people and shame ourselves for not achieving more, even when we’re looking at people who have trust funds and personal trainers and nutritional dieticians and stylists and publicists and good genes to boot. There’s that American Fable of the guy who dropped out of school and became a billionaire by inventing something in a garage, all very impressive. Except when you find out that the start-up for that invention was funded by their millionaire parents.

I decided to look at one of my obstacles through the lens of executive dysfunction instead of laziness or procrastination. I am fat. I gained 50 lbs when I was pregnant, lost 25 of that when I had the baby, and then during the pandemic ballooned back up to my baby weight. This isn’t something that happened overnight or anything, and I’ve been in a gradual decline in physical health since leaving the Army because I swore never to run again and I simply couldn’t stick to a workout routine. I’d try getting gym memberships and doing classes, thinking that if I was paying to workout I’d be more motivated to keep it up. Nope. I tried at home workout where I just planned a routine for myself. Nope. I bought work out clothes and weights. Nope. I started again and again and every time, when the manic push was over, I’d go back to sleep or skip it just today and then tomorrow and then it’d be weeks and weeks and months of nothing. Then years of nothing because I was too tired from having a newborn then a baby then a toddler. Protip: You will never get past the tired from having the newborn. If you didn’t have the time or energy before, you won’t have it after because you won’t get fully rested until they’re grown and by that time you’ll be twenty years older than when you decided to put it off until after the baby.

So here I am, ten years out of the military having gone from being pretty in shape to woefully out of shape. My wedding ring doesn’t fit. I get winded going up the stairs. I had to buy leggings because I couldn’t face buying bigger jeans. And every time I looked in the mirror, I saw some fat woman where I used to be. I’m not being dramatic, there is a complete disconnect between how my brain thinks I look and how I actually look and it is physically jarring sometimes. I’d like to sit here and say that I love myself anyway, that the shape of me doesn’t dictate my quality. That is true. I’m not fishing for compliments and I’m not body shaming. I am heavier than I want to be and that has a lot more to do with my mobility than anything else. I mean, yes, my vanity is hurting right now, but I’m a grown person so I can deal with that. But guys, have you ever tried to keep up with a 3yo? They are aaaaallllllll energy (that they steal from us) and there is no explaining that Mommy’s heart is fit to burst if we don’t take a break from running laps on the back porch. And that’s just now. What about in a few years with team sports? What about in a decade when we want to hike mountains? What about when they need help moving into a new house or watching their 200lb great dane puppy or just want to go on a walk to their favorite coffee place just down the block? I can’t here and risk losing my kid because I simply can’t keep up.

But *still* the motivation to get up and doing eluded me. Despite all the self-loathing I was feeling, I still couldn’t get past this obstacle: I don’t stick to workout routines. I get motivated one day and then in a week or two it fizzles out. Every time, regardless of what I tried. This time, instead of just going with something and hoping I stayed motivated enough to stick with it, I started asking myself WHAT IS STOPPING ME? Basically, what are my excuses? I want to be healthy, I want to lose weight and fit into my jeans, so why don’t I just do it? Aw, there we go. I have always thought of it as that simple equation. I know what I have to do so I should just do it. The human brain is never that simple and shame on me for using the same tired playbook on myself. It’s not that easy, it never is, and there is NEVER just one way to do it so there’s no such thing as “just do it.”

Here is what I did: I made a list of what’s stopping me.

  1. I’m too Tired
  2. I’m too Sore
  3. Migraine
  4. Apathy
  5. Boredom
  6. Toddler

Then I countered each obstacle.

  1. I’m too Tired – You’re up anyways, why not (I have to wake up with my son and he’s always up by 9:00)
  2. I’m too Sore – Stretch, take your time
  3. Migraine – yoga or just stretching, take care of yourself
  4. Apathy – yoga, stretch, or meditate, DO SOMETHING
  5. Boredom – lots of variety
  6. Toddler – Only do workouts that don’t require a sitter

I looked at all my excuses and found a contingency plan for them. My kid is a big obstacle because I can’t just workout only when there’s someone to watch him. That’s an obstacle that can easily turn into a well maybe I’ll skip today since the hubby can’t watch him. Besides which, I want him to see me working out because eventually he’s gonna need that habit, too. Is it annoying to have to pause the workout sometimes because he wants his cereal or he wants to sit on my back during a plank? Yes. Do I still think it’s important that he sees me establishing healthy habits? Yes. I workout in the morning after we’re up for the day. I don’t wake up at dawn or whatever because NO. I have enough bad nights and dumb early mornings thanks to my kid, I don’t need to do it to myself. And if I can only workout at stupid early times then it’s not going to happen. I did 6am PT for 6+yrs, I’m not doing it now. The workout itself was another important obstacle. When I really thought about it, I knew I couldn’t be a gym rat. I don’t like the performance of it, as it is a performance for me. I have to get the right clothes and shoes and look like I know what I’m doing and I spend the whole time fixated on what other people are seeing me doing because I am a narcissist and I can’t imagine them NOT looking at me. It’s distracting AND it gives me another opportunity to nope out of my workout. I’m trying to find the way of least resistance and if I have to get dressed, brush my teeth, get in the car and get to the gym, that’s 4 different moments where my brain could say well, maybe I’ll skip today and just get donuts. Stream-lined routine is I roll out of bed, get the toddler to the potty, throw on a sports bra and workout shirt over my pj pants, and grab a pair of socks in case I need shoes for my workout. Figuring out the routine was actually the easy part. I didn’t want to go full P90X or Crossfit because obviously if I can’t move the next day, that’s another excuse not to workout. Instead, I found a website (darebee.com) that has free workout programs that you can print out. I found one for 30 Days of Yoga which was perfect since my goal was Establish a Routine first, get fit second. That killed the “too sore” excuse as it was a beginner course and hardly anything that would challenge me, even after being out of shape for so long. Yoga, I might add, is just a wonderful way to get moving. I will never be the person twisted into a pretzel, but I can touch my toes now and I have a simple routine I can run through that is just stretching so I don’t have to worry about sore muscles the next day or sweating or anything. I don’t know how it is at losing weight or anything, that’s not what I used it for. But if you’re looking for an intro to working out that is low-stress, low-impact, and in general very soothing, go for yoga or ballet. Just keep it to beginner classes and keep in mind that inflexibility is absolutely NOT an obstacle.

After 30 days of yoga, I added a light workout routine from the website paired with another yoga routine. And every time I started a new program, I went back to my journal to log it, which included restating or reassessing my goals. Goals, you ask? What goals? Well, after I looked at my excuses I had to decide what I wanted to achieve. This isn’t some kind of silly dream board or anything, it was a list of real, tangible things I wanted for myself. I want my wedding ring to fit. I don’t want to be winded going up the stairs. I want to recognize myself in the mirror. I want to fit in my jeans. What’s my timeline for these things? Oh, I don’t have one. I don’t have a weight goal or a size goal or anything like that. I’m not bogged down in results because THAT my friends is a TRAP. “I’m not seeing the results I want so it must not be working so I might as well quit.” OR there are results I can’t see and couldn’t be measured by any metric we use even if I could see them. The real goal is the habit, which I can maintain now since I didn’t force it. I didn’t change my routine, I just avoid sitting on the couch for the first 20-30 min of the day. I’m on my 5th 30-day program, sort of. After doing 3 progressively more challenging 30-day programs from Darebee, I was getting a bit of the apathy bug, so I downloaded the Fiton App and created a program off my goals and such. It’s a nice app, which helped me get over my worry about video workouts (always make me self conscious and I was concerned the toddler would want to watch them, too). The instructors are nice and the music isn’t annoying and they don’t have a class full of people behind them doing all the workouts better than me, so it’s kind of low key like having a personal trainer who isn’t judging me.

Have I been 100% successful? Hahahaha no. I’ve skipped days. For good reasons, for bad reasons, for Reasons. I missed a full week in July because I went on vacation. And two weeks ago, I got stuck with a migraine that is STILL IN RESIDENCE. I’m sure you saw one of my obstacles/excuses is migraines, which I started getting with some regularity in my 20s. Sometimes, I can do the workout anyway, especially if it’s yoga or stretching or something. But I can’t just power through if I have a bad migraine and since they’re pretty much a normal part of my life, I have to accept that I will skip workout days because of them and all that means is that I sometimes miss a day. It’s not a catastrophe. It happens and that’s fine. Now, the migraine I’ve had for 2 weeks took me out 2 days in a row last week and is lingering hard this week, so I am actually going to try to see a doctor next week since this is unprecedented and it sucks donkey dong, excuse my French. But, forget all that. It is AUGUST. I have been working out regularly for SEVEN MONTHS. And I have lost barely any weight! I mean, I think, I don’t really check because weight is only one metric to gauge your health. Am I seeing results? No. I still see that fat woman in the mirror. Am I feeling results? YES. I CAN TOUCH MY TOES. I’m not sprinting up the stairs, but I can make both flights with the laundry instead of needing a break between. Has it only been good days? FK NO. I cried during a splits workout because my body simply didn’t respond and I felt so mortified even though there was literally no one to see me. 100% bawling on my dining room carpet because flexibility is my kryptonite. And I did the next workout after that one to make myself feel better AND IT DID.

The long and short of it is, I may not be succeeding at dropping those unwanted pounds yet but I am not a failure by a long shot and it’s because I took this struggle that I had been looking at as a moral failing and reframed it as a brain-body dysfunction and IT WORKED. What I want you to take away from this long rambling nonsense is that when you aren’t meeting your goals, instead of berating yourself you need to reframe the obstacles. “Why can’t I do this?” is already blaming yourself AND labeling yourself a failure. You’re setting up the imaginary ideal of Every One Else Who Can with you stuck at The Only One Who Can’t and that is a non-starter. Try instead “What do I need to do,” then “Why do I need to do it,” then “What is Stopping Me.” Those questions are important because if you can’t enunciate the reasons behind your goals you will never fully embrace them. They’ll always be that great book everyone told you to read but you never got around to it. Your reasons don’t have to be high-minded or altruistic or anything. They just have to be real. Once you get down to the foundations of your why, you can begin to really focus on your why nots (what’s stopping me). And when you figure out your why nots, you can tackle them with strategies that will work rather than what works for everyone else.

My toddler is home from being out with Daddy, so I need to go. Good Luck on your Obstacles!

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