February 21, 2023

Understanding Executive Functions - Problem Solving

Part 4 in the Executive Function Series is here, and I’m focusing on problem solving. This includes “fun” elements like planning, organizing and prioritizing that many ADHDers struggle with.

The truth is, while those of us with ADHD may be good at solving big, complex problems, facing the breakdown of smaller situations can be a real challenge. In Episode 199, I share info from articles, books, and direct feedback from people in my group coaching program to help you understand why problem solving is so hard and what we can do to tackle it head-on.

Problem solving shouldn’t be scary. It’s supposed to manifest like mental play, or a game of chess, with our brains simulating multiple scenarios with choices and actions and helping us decide the best course of action.

Listen in on my basic tips for approaching and solving a problem, and don’t forget to check out my FOCUSED group coaching program to receive tools to keep you on track with accomplishing your goals.

Here is the article I mentioned in this episode.



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Kristen Carder

Welcome to the I have ADHD podcast, where it’s all about education, encouragement and coaching for adults with ADHD. I’m your host, Kristen Carter and I have ADHD. Let’s chat about the frustrations, humor and challenges of adulting relationships working and achieving with this neurodevelopmental disorder. I’ll help you understand your unique brain. Unlock your potential and move from point A to point B.

Hey, what’s up? This is Kristen Carter and you’re listening to the I have ADHD podcast episode number 199. I am medicated I am caffeinated and I am ready to roll. I just said the words episode 199. Didn’t I? Oh, my gosh. Can I just like sneak past that without making a big deal? Not sure about that. I am a Chinook 100% Like falling over at the fact that I have effectively released nearly 200 episodes. Wilds but we’re not there yet.

So let’s move on. How are you? How are you? How are you? My listener? I am so glad that you are here. I am grateful that you decided to press play on this podcast. I know there’s a million podcasts actually, I think there’s more than a million fighting for your time and attention. And I am so glad to have you here. I procrastinated as per usual, and so I’m getting this podcast in right before my Thursday deadline. This series has proven to be quite difficult for me. It’s hard, but I am persistent, y’all. Persistent, AF. And so here I am with another episode in our series on executive functions. Today we’re going to talk about the skill set of problem solving. And this includes things like planning, organizing, and prioritizing. And it’s a whole thing for us. But before we get rolling, I want to read for you a beautiful podcast review that explains exactly why I’m doing this executive function series. And here it is. It’s from freaky Fritz and it’s a brand new review. They say I’m just starting to explore what I believe maybe ADHD at 52.

After a very short conversation with my doctor, I filled out one page of questions was given a prescription and shooed out the door, no other information was given. Thank you for helping me break down all of the things that I’ve been dealing with forever. This is why I am doing this series because for most of us our experience is that we have a very brief interview, we are perhaps given a prescription and we’re shoot out the door. I think because our clinicians don’t actually know very much about ADHD, no offense to all of the clinicians, I love you so much. But most clinicians do not know much about adult ADHD. And so that’s why we’re doing this series on executive functions.

Because ADHD is a disorder of self regulation and executive functions are the skills that allow us to regulate ourselves. So thank you freaky Fritz for this amazing review. If you’re loving this podcast, please consider just giving it a little tap a roo on that five star rating. And if you have the executive function available to you, I would love I would love for you to write a review. That’s so kind but if you don’t have it, just that five star rating is so so, so important.

And I want to say Spotify listeners I see you. I see you and you are creeping up on the Apple podcast listeners, like Spotify listeners have 1.2 ratings already. And so well done. All of my Spotify listeners I love you so, so much. Okay. Let’s just take a moment to review. What are executive functions and why do they matter. Executive functions are the skill set that work together to help you execute tasks and pursue goals. They’re what allow you to get stuff done. Essentially, there will allow you to adult, all of the things that go in to making it possible for you to feed yourself. Keep your house relatively clean, purchase food, work at your job, manage your children.

All of the skills that allow you to adult are the executive function skills and they include self awareness, inhibition, working memory and emotional regulation, self motivation, and problem solving, which is what we’re talking about today. Now, for an adult with ADHD, it’s really important for you to know that these executive function skills are impaired, they never developed properly in your childhood and adolescence. And so if you feel like you don’t really act like an adult, if you feel like the simple tasks are really hard for you, if you feel like when you compare yourself to your peers, you’re just like, why am I the one that can’t get it together? It is not because you’re lazy, it is not because you’re a bad person. And it is not because you are not smart. It is because your executive function skills are deficient, right. And that’s really important that you understand that as an adult with ADHD, this disorder is so much more than an inability to focus, it is so much more than that.

What the problem really is, is that we have an innate ability to regulate ourselves because our executive functions are deficient. So self awareness, inhibition, working memory, emotional regulation, self motivation, and problem solving. And today, we’re gonna be talking about problem solving. Now, this executive function is a skill set that involves planning, prioritizing, and organizing. So when we talk about problem solving, in general, we’re talking about the skill set of planning, prioritizing, and organizing. I’ve also heard others lump in things like cognitive flexibility, and decision making. So that’s all kind of like, in there, and I remember we talk about, okay, we, I, I talk about executive functions, like managers in a company. So if we talk about six different managers in the company, and they all work together to help the company achieve its goals. Problem solving is the manager that oversees planning, prioritizing, organizing, decision making cognitive flexibility, but what we’re going to be talking about today is planning, prioritizing, and organizing. Okay.

Now, this has bugged me for a little bit. When I hear that problem solving is something that adults with ADHD are deficient in. It bugs me because I know that sometimes I find solving complex problems really easy. One of the reasons why I’m so successful in business is because I’ve been able to solve a lot of complex problems. And I know this is true for a lot of you listening. So I want to kind of unpack what I think are the things that we actually struggle with.

So if you’re like balking at the idea that problem solving is an executive function deficiency. I’m with you on that. But through my research for this episode, here’s what I’ve realized. We can be really, really good at solving big complex problems. But what we’re often bad at is solving the simple problems. So as a company leader, I know what needs to happen. Big picture, I know the vision, I know what conversations need to be had, I know what processes need to be put in place. But if you were to ask me to actually put those processes in place, if you were to actually ask me to execute on that, I’d crumble, that would be so hard for me, that would not be a good job for me.

I wonder if you relate to this as well. I can see the big picture from a bird’s eye view. And I can know exactly what needs to happen. But there’s no way in heck that I am going to be the one who’s going to be able to actually make it happen. We had some staff turnover recently. And I was able to see the issues from the top down, address things head on, have empathetic conversations and make big decisions based on the company’s visions and values. But when it came to solving the problems of like moving forward with a new hire, creating processes and standard operating procedures, documenting everything clearly. And the nitty gritty of the day to day, I was useless, totally useless. That required too much planning, prioritizing and organizing. So here’s my theory, have a theory. From what I know this is a Christian Carter original.

Here’s my theory. Problem solving is only a problem when it’s related to planning, prioritizing and organizing when it’s related to the nitty gritty details of planning, prioritizing and organizing. But when it comes to the big picture visionaries zoomed out problem solving kinds of things. A lot of us adults with ADHD really excel at this. Now I pulled my focus members because I was really curious, like about the validity of this theory and Here’s what a few of them had to say. Not all of them resonated with it, but a lot of people did. Caronia said, yes, absolutely. I could fix the world’s problems but can’t manage my own because I don’t know where to start. Alexa said, Yes, I would agree with that. If I think about a roadmap, I can identify the overall goal and outcome. However, the milestones and breakdown of how to get to those milestones completed are the most difficult for me.

Michael said, yes, if I can initiate problem solving mode, I can usually get big picture ideas figured out. After that it’s out of my hands if it actually gets done. Katie said, totally agree, I created a fabulous online course but the day to day tasks of building it. And now keeping up with students is difficult.

Alex says, I don’t know. I think problem solving is a weakness for me in either realm. Once I get going on it, I can organize, prioritize and plan with the best of them.

My opinion about where the challenge lies for me is that my brain needs a lot more time booting up to get into that problem solving state compared to a lot of other people. And lastly, Brandon says, I’ve always said this about myself, I’m motivated and feel like a genius when I think about things holistically. But when it comes to small details and zooming in, I feel like it’s a struggle, and I lose energy. So this is just a sampling. It’s not that this is you know, representative of all of you listeners, but I did want to kind of poll and see are other ADHD ears resonating and, and like feeling the way I feel about this. So what we’re going to talk about today is that nitty gritty, problem solving, skill set of planning, prioritizing and organizing. And whichever way This affects you whether you struggle with it on the nitty gritty details, or maybe also on the big picture things, it’s no problem. Because this is going to be really, really helpful to you. I have a great article that

I’m going to link in the show notes called executive function skills, one on one the basics of planning, written by Amy Sippel. And I found this article to be clear, concise, and really helpful. In regards to this executive function. Essentially, the article says that when we use the skill of planning, with the skills of prioritizing and organizing, we not only have the right information and the right tools, we also know what to do with them to solve the problem. So we have to have the skill of planning and prioritizing, and organizing in order to be able to move forward to solve the problem. And so this looks like identifying the order and sequence to complete a task or activity, identifying a designated place for materials needed to complete the task, creating a structure or order around frequently performed tasks, creating an orderly plan to complete multiple tasks or using an organization tool like a calendar, or a planner or a date book, okay. And as I’m reading those, I’m like, Yep, I suck at that. Yep, I suck at that. This one creating a structure or order around frequently performed tasks. I remember the day that my husband, Gregory Carter said to me, why don’t you put your keys in this one spot every time you walk in the door. And that way, you’ll always know where they are. And honestly, my mind was blown. I was like, what? He was like, Yeah, put your keys right here. Like he like put a little bowl out on the counter, put your keys right here, every time you walk in the door. And then you’ll always know where they are.

I know that is like something that an eight year old learns. But I did not learn that when I was eight. I did not have the privilege of being taught executive functioning skills as a child. And so to be married to a neurotypical man who was kind enough to help me in that moment. I am sure at first I was like, No, I’m not going to do that. That’s stupid. But eventually, I consented. And now I come home and I put my stuff in the same spot every time. Every time. I always know where my purse is. I always know where my keys are.

That is just like that’s new in the last 10 years of my life. The first 30 years of my life were spent losing everything. Okay, that was kind of a side note. Let us continue. So as an adult with ADHD, the skill set That includes planning, prioritizing and organizing is deficient. And that means that it didn’t develop properly in childhood. And now as an adult, you’re operating from a deficit. So when you look at your messy car, and you don’t know where to start and cleaning it, that’s because your executive functions are deficient, and you can’t follow the steps to plan prioritize and organize in order to solve this problem. So if you know that you want to eat at home more often, but you keep ordering and eating out this is partially because your executive functions are deficient, and you can’t follow the steps to plan prioritize and organize in order to solve this problem. In his book taking charge of adult ADHD, Russell Barkley describes the skill set of problem solving as mental play. When we’re problem solving, we simulate a variety of possible options or actions, and we test out each of them in our minds for likely consequences. And then we ideally, choose the optimal solution. But like, do any of you feel like you’re good at that?

I’m gonna read that again. Because that’s, like, I think that’s really, really important. When we’re problem solving, we are simulating a variety of possible options or actions. And we’re testing each of them out in our minds, for likely consequences. And we’re ideally choosing the optimal solution. I’m picturing right now, like a game board of chess, which I have no idea how to play chess. But I know it involves strategy and thinking ahead, and I’m not going to do it, I’m not going to learn it, it sounds terrible.

I don’t want to, but I think it’s because I haven’t developed the skill of playing in my mind to solve problems. Okay. So when you look at your messy car, and you literally have no idea what to do, or where to start, and you’re completely paralyzed, it’s because you’re unable to do this mental play. If the car is the chessboard, and everything in it are the chess pieces, you can’t visualize what to do with that, and you can’t visualize your next step, you can’t make your strategy, you aren’t able to simulate a variety of possible options or actions. For example, there are different options that you could take to execute and solve the problem of your messy car, you could clean out the car in your own driveway or in your own garage, you could take the car to a carwash and dump out all the trash and then vacuum it there.

You could use three grocery bags to separate trash, and items that need to be put away in your house and items that need to be brought back to your office at work. That was mental play, we were able to just play with like, what are the possible options here? And maybe you can think of another option to add seeing the different options in your mind and kind of playing them out? What would it be like to empty it in my driveway? Well, it’s 32 degrees out, am I okay with that? It would be nice to be home and deal with the trash and put my home items away. What would it be like to clean it out at a carwash? That would be fine. I’d need to bring a box or a bag to hold things that need to be brought home. But it would be really great to be able to vacuum it out there. So it lets you think through the different options.

This skill allows you to consider options and decide which one works best. And we’re hella deficient in this skill. Unfortunately, I am so sorry to break the news. Even if you were to make a plan for your car, let’s say you decide on one of the options that say you decide on the option where you’re like, I’m going to take it to the carwash. I’m going to clean it out there and then I’m gonna vacuum it. Essentially, even once you’ve decided on the plan, this task requires problem solving over and over. It’s decision after decision. And let me tell you, this is hard. And this is why we avoid it. It’s pretty simple to just get rid of all the trash in the car. That’s not too hard. But eventually it will get a little more complicated. What do I do with this box of returns from Amazon that I meant to take back but I didn’t and now it’s too late.

What do I do with my kids friends soccer ball that they left in the car when I brought them home from practice the other day. Just typing out those two scenarios made my body feel a whoosh of stress. Because cleaning out the car is not as simple as some people might make it seem. It involves thought it involves mental play. It involves organizing and prioritizing and decisions and now I’m stressed out are you like stressed out? So this is really interesting because now we’ve dipped into the skill of emotional regulation which is another executive function In skill. Now, I’m struggling to regulate myself because I feel shame for not returning those Amazon purchases in time. And if I haven’t learned how to regulate this emotion, and I’ll probably just throw in the towel and stop cleaning out my car altogether. Do you see how we get stuck? Do you see how these executive function skills work together to either help us complete tasks, or if they’re deficient, keep us stuck.

Now, I want to say a word about prioritizing. I know I have explained this on this podcast before, but I think that it bears repeating. And I really, really like this example, when you struggle to prioritize this is very normal for someone with ADHD, a neurotypical brain is going to naturally see the list of tasks or the problem in front of them, and put it into a logical priority order, think about a vertical line going from one to 10, one being the priority, and then a vertical line going down to the least important task, you know, number 10 at the bottom. Unfortunately, the ADHD brain does not prioritize things in that way. Instead, our ADHD brain thinks that everything bears the same amount of importance. And so if you can think about the way that our brain sees tasks, it’s more on a horizontal plane, it’s more level, they’re all at the same level, they’re all at the same volume.

And so what happens is, they’re all kind of asking for your attention, kind of screaming or talking to you at the same volume. And when we prioritize, what we do is we turn down the volume on the lesser priority tasks, and we turn up the volume on the tasks that are a higher priority. This skill is so important when it comes to being able to solve problems. Because if you know that there are five tasks involved with solving this problem, but you’re not sure which task to start with, you will never start. And that is a big reason why we stay stuck. And we don’t solve problems, because we’re not sure which one to start with. So I’m gonna give you what I think is a very basic breakdown of how to solve a problem. This isn’t fancy, it is not life changing, I don’t think, but it is simple and actionable. And you can use it today. First, you have to understand what the problem is Get clear. For example, I need to solve the problem of my messy car. The first thing that I’m going to do is I’m going to break down all of the steps involved in solving this problem.

So as far as I can see it, this problem just has a couple of steps. First, I need to clean out the car. Second, I need to put things where they belong. Third, I need to vacuum the car. Fourth, I’d like to wipe it down on the inside, because it’s so dusty and gross. Okay, now we’re going to put those steps into order of priority, they’re all going to be yelling at you, they’re all needs to be done. Luckily, this task, this problem has a pretty easy starting point. And that is I need to clean it out. Because there’s no point in vacuuming a messy floor. So the first thing I need to do is clean it out. The second thing I want to do just in case I get stuck, and I’m not able to complete this whole thing, I’m going to put the stuff away that I cleaned out so that I’m not just making a bigger mess for myself. If I can clean out the car, and put the things away where they belong. And I still have time, I’m going to vacuum it. And then if I’m able to do all of those things, I vacuum it and there’s still time and energy left, I will wipe it down. But the most important thing is that I just need to clear the stuff out of my car. I know that’s the most important thing because that is the one step that would change everything. Okay? When you’re trying to decide what the priority is ask yourself, is there a one step that would change everything? If so, do that one first.

Another great question to ask is, is there one task on this list that if I don’t get done, I’m going to beat myself up about? If so, do that task first. Another great question is, is there one task like if it’s for a work project, is there one task that has time constraints on it, like, is there something due at the end of the day? If so, accomplish that task first, okay? Now, when you’re thinking through the things that you need to do the tasks, in order to get the job done and solve the problem, what I want you to always do is double the time that you think it’s going to take. Double it, if you have the capacity to triple it. Okay, triple the time that you think it’s going to take. So if you think, Oh, it’s just gonna take me 15 minutes to clean out my car, it’s not a big deal. I want you to say, Wait a second, I am time blind, I know that I need more time. And so you can triple it and say, 45 minutes, no problem, I can get this done in 45 minutes, then you’re going to externalize the plan. So if this was a longer project that had many steps, I would put the steps in order. And I would put them somewhere where I can see them, okay, because a lot of times we make a plan. And then we forget the plan, because we don’t write it down, or we don’t put it somewhere that we can see. And then we have to do the work all over again of recreating the plan.

And lastly, ask for help elicit the help of a kind, empathetic human with a neurotypical brain that can tell you what the priorities are, what the steps are, I often will ask my husband or my my Hillary, my bestie. I’ll ask like, where should I start with this? What’s the most important thing? Because I struggled to prioritize, I struggled to know which one is the most important. So let me just review what to do when you have a problem to solve. get very clear on what the problem is, break it down into the smallest steps possible.

Put those steps into priority order by asking which one would I get in trouble for not doing or which one would I feel badly about for not doing double or triple the time that you think that it’s going to take to get it done, externalize the plan and put it somewhere that where you can see it and ask for help that maybe should be number one, but it can go anywhere in this order, elicit the help of a kind of pathetic human with a neurotypical brain and if you don’t have any of those in your life, you need to find one, go out and find a kind, empathetic human with a neurotypical brain. Okay, some of you need new people I know we’ve already had that conversation. But I’m just going to put another plug here for getting some new people. Remember, your executive functions are deficient. Executive functions are the skills that work together to help you to accomplish tasks and pursue your goals. Because your executive functions are deficient. adulting is going to be very difficult.

Executive functions include self awareness, inhibition, working memory, emotional regulation, self motivation, and problem solving. Today, we talked about problem solving, which involves the skill set of planning, prioritizing, and organizing. All three of these are going to be hard for you. And so if it is hard for you, you are a normal adult with ADHD who deserves help and support and love and care. And I encourage you to reach out for that so that you can continue to grow. sending you a big big hug. Talk soon, bye bye. A few years ago, I went looking for help. I wanted to find someone to teach me how to feel better about myself and to help me improve my organization productivity time management, emotional regulation.

You know all the things that we adults with ADHD struggle with. It couldn’t find anything. So I researched and I studied and I hired coaches and I figured it out. None I created focused for you. Focus is my monthly coaching membership where I teach educated professional adults how to accept their ADHD brain and hijack their ability to get stuff done. Hundreds of people from all over the world are already benefiting from this program and I’m confident that you will to go to I have adhd.com/focused for all details

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