Executive Functioning and Online Classes

It seems that there are often two types of people in the world- those who like pineapple on pizza and those who do not, those who are better at reading and writing and those who are better at math and science, those who are generally well organized and get assignments done early and those who forget about an assignment due tonight at 11:59 pm and end up starting it at 11:20 pm.  However, it is quite clear that everything shifting to being online may also cause shifts in certain habits and mindsets.  If you find that you were once one of the people who had everything organized in their planner and always had everything done days ahead of time, but have now shifted to being one who forgets about assignments and is struggling to get them done when you do remember, you are not alone.   

If you are struggling with these skills, you may be struggling with something called “executive functioning”.  Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines executive function as a “group of complex mental processes and cognitive abilities (such as working memory, impulse inhibition, and reasoning) that control the skills (such as organizing tasks, remembering details, managing time, and solving problems) required for goal-directed behavior”.  This definition includes multiple skill sets that work together to enhance your ability to get things done, such as schoolwork 

 Many people struggle with these skills on a regular basis.  However, with everything being online, it is much easier to miss deadlines, misinterpret what you are supposed to do for an assignment, or lack the focus needed to sit through a zoom lecture and take helpful notes.  Struggles like these may feel daunting and frustrating, but there are ways to set yourself up for success!  Let’s take a look at a few! 



  • You might have heard this one before but write everything down.  When you write down tasks, make sure you write them down in a way that is beneficial to you.  Some people find it helpful to organize their assignments by the date that they are due.  Others may think that it is more helpful for them to make a list the night before of things they need to complete for the next day as it mentally prepares them for doing tasks that day.  Different methods work for different people, but having tasks and assignments written down will help with seeing what work needs to get done and mentally preparing to do so.   
  • Create a daily routine and stick to it as well as you can.  Like writing things down, having a daily routine will help give you an expectation as to how your day should go.  For example, if your morning routine is waking up at 9:00 am, having breakfast, and then sitting down to do an assignment, it will feel more natural to get something done for classes after you finish your morning coffee and bowl of cereal.  If you get into the habit of completing tasks at a certain time of the day (or multiple times throughout the day), you will be more prepared to get tasks done when that specific time rolls around.   


Task Initiation and Focus 

  • Try not to multitask.  When you are doing multiple things at once, it is harder for your brain to focus on each task enough to get them done well.  It is tempting to try to get as many things done as soon as possible.  However, doing each task on its own will be easier in the long run.  Plus, doing tasks individually will increase the likelihood of each task being done with a higher quality.   
  • Set a timer for how long you are going to work on a task.  Maybe one day you have an essay to write, a discussion board to post, and a chapter you have to read.  Depending on how long the chapter is, you could give yourself 45 minutes to read it and take quality notes.  Once that is complete, give yourself half an hour to write your discussion post.  When you go to work on your essay, give yourself 30 to 45 minutes to write each sectionSetting a time limit will help keep you focused on your task because you know that you only have a certain amount of time to finish, so there is no time to waste.  Of course, if you do not finish an assignment during said time slot, that is fine.  This is just a mental trick to help keep as much of your focus as possible.  With that said, it is important to consider how much time you will realistically need to finish something.  Maybe it takes longer for you to read an article than it does to write a reply to a discussion post.  Fit your timer to your needs. 
  • Set alarms for when you need to start a task.  For some people, the hardest part of doing an assignment is starting.  An alarm will help keep you accountable for sitting down and starting whatever it is you need to start.  Not only that, but if you set your alarm at 10:00 am to remind you to start an assignment at 1:00pm, then you are able to mentally prepare yourself for actually starting, whether that means taking the time before your alarm goes off to truly relax or to prepare what you need ahead of time (such as getting out materials or reviewing information). 
  • Allow yourself to take breaks.  Taking breaks will help you to avoid looking at your computer screen for too long and feeling overworked.  It is easy to think that because we are home, we must get everything done as soon as possible.  However, this can quickly lead to burnout and unnecessary stress (on top of all the other things causing stress right now).  If you need to, schedule in breaks like you would schedule in any other task throughout the day.  Maybe you try to read two chapters of your textbook at 9:30 am and then you have an alarm go off at 11:00 am as a reminder to take a break.  Breaks can allow you to rest and recharge so you can get tasks done with more quality and energy. 


General Tips and Reminders 

  • Take care of yourself.  This situation is likely scary and overwhelming for many people.  It is always important to take care of yourself, and now is no exception.  If you must set alarms to take breaks for eating snacks or stretching or you need to write your preferred self-care activities into your daily schedule, do it.  Taking time to care for yourself is just as important as taking time to complete that discussion post. 
  • Create boundaries.  This was mentioned before, but it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you must always be productive while you are home.  This is not the case.  In any situation, pandemic or not, boundaries for work and relaxation are a must.  If you are struggling with how you will create these boundaries, try asking yourself these questions: 
    • What time of day is reasonable to for me to start working? 
    • When do I need to be done working by to avoid stress and allow myself to unwind?  
    • Will it be helpful for me to use technology during breaks? 


On a final note, do not feel bad for struggling with these skills.  Whether you typically struggle with executive functioning or switching to remote learning has caused this to become a struggle for you, it is okay.  What is most important is that you try your best.  Not only that, but it is crucial to remember that everybody’s best is always changing.  Some days are better than others, and as long as you give your best each day (no matter what that best looks like in comparison to other days), that is something to feel good about. 

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