How to organize a scatterbrain

The shelf of a refrigerator with various items of food on it plus an ordinary set of house keys
There you are sitting at your desk. You glance at the clock: 2:45pm, plenty of time to complete this email, you think, before you have to go to that important meeting at 3pm. You finally click on the send button and check the clock: 3:05pm, you’re late. Happens to us all, but for you, is it all too frequent? 

Or you might find yourself standing there, staring into the refrigerator trying to recall exactly what it was that you came to retrieve. We’ve all been there. But for some it can happen multiple times a day along with a seemingly eternal search for keys, wallet, phone or glasses all of which you may occasionally discover in the refrigerator instead of the milk carton that’s slowly warming on your countertop. 

These are just a couple of examples that might indicate a weakness in a person’s executive skills. This post is about how executive skills, stress and my ongoing project all fit together.

What are executive skills?

You might have already heard of “executive functions” or “cognitive abilities”. These refer to our higher order processing that allow us to empathize, control our emotions, plan ahead, make reasoned decisions and basically get shit done. If you search online for any of these, you’ll find a number of definitions with different names and multiple ways they are sliced into categories.

Executive skills, defined by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare in their excellent range of “Smart but Scattered” books (Dawson & Guare, 2016), refers to the list of 12 cognitive ability classifications that I have settled on for my work and for this blog post:

Response Inhibition - This is all about thinking before acting (“Engage brain before operating mouth”, my Dad used to say to me, all too often). If this is a strength of yours you can “delay gratification” and stick to a task until the end or you can resist blurting out what just popped into your mind until you’ve thought it through. If it’s a weakness you may have a tendency to stick your foot in your mouth from time to time. You might also switch tasks continuously as new ideas occur to you leaving a trail of unfinished tasks in your wake.

Working Memory - This is the ability to hold on to useful information while you are getting things done. If this is a strength of yours you can do a thorough job, dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. You can maintain a list of the steps of a task in your head and work through them until complete. If this is a weakness you can make careless mistakes, forget important things that you were only just told and lose track of where you got to in a task.

Emotional Control - This is the ability to handle situations and not allow them to be turned into strong emotions. If this is a strength of yours you don’t allow obstacles to irritate, frustrate, anger or sadden you and you can be calm in an emergency. If this is a weakness you might get angry and have a tendency to point the finger. You might give up on tasks because of how they make you feel.

Task Initiation - This is the ability to dive in and get started on something. If this is a strength you have no trouble beginning a task whether it’s easy or tough. If this is a weakness you might procrastinate regardless of how bad that makes you feel, especially for tasks you see as mundane or challenging without being exciting.

Sustained Attention - This is the sustained motivation required to concentrate on a piece of work. If this is a strength of yours you can see tasks through to the end without becoming easily distracted. If this is a weakness you get bored quickly and you can’t help looking for stimulation elsewhere.

Planning / Prioritizing - This is the ability to break down a project into a series of detailed tasks and identify what’s most important now. If this is a strength of yours you tend to know what you are going to do before you get started. If this is a weakness you tend to dive into a project without being adequately prepared, attacking the most exciting parts of the project instead of working out what’s involved and assessing what are the most important elements.

Organization - This is the ability to maintain order. If this is a strength of yours you know where all your things are, you stay on top of tasks and have a clear idea of where you got to at any time. If this is a weakness you can regularly feel lost or drowning in the clutter of your life. 

Time Management - This is the ability to sense the passing of time and the duration of tasks. If this is a strength of yours you have an innate sense of how long things might take and you are generally on time for your appointments. If this is a weakness of yours you can sometimes cram too much work into too short a time and you are regularly either too early or too late for your appointments.

Flexibility - This is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. If this is a strength you can take it in your stride if things don’t go according to plan and change your approach. If this is your weakness you may become frustrated when your plan doesn’t work out the way you hoped and find it tough to alter accordingly.

Metacognition - This is the ability to review your own strengths and weaknesses and connect your own actions with outcomes. If this is a strength of yours you are capable of regular introspection and you can track your own progress through a learning task. If this is a weakness of yours you are less able to see your own strengths and weaknesses and therefore less likely to take advantage of them when performing an activity. 

Goal-directed Persistence - This is the ability to set and complete long term goals. If this is a strength of yours you have the will and determination to stick to a long term plan and see it through to completion. If this is a weakness of yours you may avoid setting long term goals altogether or you may find that you get sidetracked or that the goal no longer seems important to you.

Stress Tolerance - This is the ability to cope well when things become stressful. If this is a strength of yours you shine when disaster strikes, you are able to handle multiple obstacles in quick succession and you enjoy the unpredictable. If this is a weakness of yours you prefer predictability and find the unexpected undesirable and difficult to deal with.

Each of these skills typically begin to emerge at a particular age (for example Working Memory comes first at 5-6 months closely followed by Response Inhibition) (Dawson & Guare, 2009) and through practise and play, continue to strengthen until around the age of 25. This does not mean that you cannot strengthen your skills beyond that age, just that the most significant development occurs during adolescence.

Unfortunately the adult self-assessment questionnaire from these books is not public domain and so it’s not possible for me to share it with this blog post. If you are really interested you can purchase the book or audiobook and take a look (or you might have some luck finding one online). Getting an idea of your executive skill strengths and weaknesses can give you a nice new perspective on where you struggle and where you shine. But, be warned, there are limitations, especially as an adult. Your answer to many of the questions might be “it depends”. Your skills can be contextual. You can be very good at organizing one thing but terrible at just about everything else. As time moves on, we naturally develop compensating strategies to make up for our weaknesses and even improve at those skills as a result. For example, in the last year I have found that if I listen to an audiobook, cleaning the kitchen after dinner becomes significantly easier to begin (Task Initiation), to execute (Organization), to not get distracted (Response Inhibition) and to keep going until the job is done (Sustained Attention). As I used this strategy repeatedly and it became a routine, I started occasionally forgetting to turn on the audiobook until I was part way through the cleanup. I still don’t “enjoy” cleaning the kitchen unless I have an audiobook with me but it’s no longer something that fills me with dread.  

You might be able to see that some of these are closely related. A strength or weakness in one might imply a strength or weakness in another. For example a Response Inhibition weakness can often indicate a Time Management weakness most likely because getting distracted and impulsively task switching will affect your ability to assess the amount of time you have spent on any particular task. I personally suspect that a weak Working Memory can encourage better Flexibility and Stress Tolerance 

One final point about executive skill weaknesses: It is extremely common for someone with a strength in a particular skill to be utterly bewildered by someone with a weakness in the same skill. For example, you have no problem getting started on a task (Task Initiation), it’s hard for you to understand why someone else might struggle with it. If your desk is always spotless (Organization), it may confuse you why your neighbor’s is an overflowing mess. Telling someone that it’s easy, that they just need to procrastinate less or be less messy is akin to telling someone who is depressed to cheer up, or telling someone with anxiety to chill out, or telling someone who can’t reach the top shelf just to reach the top shelf. Knowing your own executive skill strengths and weaknesses as well as those of the people around you can be an excellent recipe, not only for making better progress, but also for reducing the friction that can make life less enjoyable. 

How do executive skills relate to stress?

Executive skill weaknesses can be a common trigger for an array of emotions including irritation, frustration, anger, guilt, shame, dread, panic or fear that may generate a physiological stress response in the body. Chronic stress (stress that is persistent or very frequent) can exacerbate or even lead to debilitating mood and anxiety disorders (Sapolsky, 1994).

In my previous post what-is-cognitive-behavioural-therapy, I mentioned the body’s stress response when the amygdala pattern matches an appropriate rule. This rapidly throws the body out of its resting equilibrium, shutting down non-critical systems and sending more energy to the parts of your body that might need to act. When the danger has passed, the body gradually returns to the resting equilibrium a.k.a it’s “homeostasis”. This sounds quite extreme but the reality is that the body can judge the severity of a stressor and release only the level of stress hormones that’s appropriate. Even very minor shocks to the system can release just a little dose of stress. 

In fact, just breathing in is a stressor albeit in a very minor way. Fortunately breathing out is a stress reliever. This is exactly why a short intake of breath followed by a long exhalation can calm you down when you are anxious. This works especially well if you don’t hold your gut in when you do it. Try it, breathe mostly with your belly, spending longer on your exhale, and your blood pressure and pulse rate will drop especially if you are mildly agitated in some way.

In small doses, stress is not only good for us it’s actually necessary for our well being (this is why we enjoy “jump scare” horror movies, roller coasters or extreme sports), but when we get stressed frequently or for a prolonged time, it can not only be uncomfortable but make us more prone to serious health issues. 

Imagine your whole team at work has to suddenly drop everything and defuse a critical situation that has just arisen. Tasks that you’ve carefully prioritized as the most important to work on are dropped midway, preventative maintenance is thrust aside, your calm, productive team members suddenly are on the defensive and your carefully assembled plan can be carefully thrown out of the window. Focus is shifted from long-term success to short-term survival and even after the critical situation is resolved there is still a lingering toll on your team. Now, as a seldom occurrence this can be beneficial for the team in terms of experience and excitement, but if this occurs regularly or the disaster is huge, it’s not healthy at all.

And so it is for the body. You need occasional excitement but too many frequent critical situations and your own maintenance plans go out of the window. Short and long term health both physically and mentally can deteriorate as a result. 

As I pointed out in the what-is-cognitive-behavioural-therapy post, we are responsible for how we interpret situations and turn these into emotions, behaviours and physical symptoms. Our own executive skill weaknesses can regularly be a source of frustration and disappointment to us and if we allow these to become strong emotions they can have a negative impact on our mental and physical health.

Simpson’s Stress Cycle

Behold, Simpson’s stress cycle. The culmination of 9 months of study and research on top of 40ish years of being me. The following diagram illustrates how executive skills weaknesses can create challenging situations that may be interpreted into negative thoughts that can produce strong negative emotions which, in turn, can produce chronic stress, which can cause or contribute to mood and anxiety disorders, which might feed back into the cycle by causing further situations. 
Simpson's stress cycle. A diagrammatic representation of how weaknesses in executive skills can cause challenging situations that may be interpreted into negative thoughts, that can produce strong negative emotions that can produce chronic stress that can cause or contribute to mood or anxiety disorders that can further cause challenging situations.

In order to limit stress and minimise mood or anxiety disorders, we need to disrupt this process, and the further back towards the beginning of the cycle we do this, the better. 

Medications are commonly used to tackle mood or anxiety disorders either directly, by altering the balance of neurotransmitters, or indirectly by reducing stress, and chronic stress can be relieved to a degree by meditation, exercise and other mindful techniques. Cognitive behavioural therapy teaches us how to avoid negative thoughts arising from situations that are outside of our control, but how could we reduce the number of challenging situations in the first place?

While avoidance of situations that might produce negative thoughts looks like a great way to disrupt this cycle, this is rarely advised. You pay for the short term relief with a long term reinforcement of the problem (Beck, 2011). For example, not raising your hand to ask a question in class because you are concerned about making a fool of yourself will certainly avoid the possibility in that moment of making a fool of yourself, but it will also reinforce the belief of the inevitability of that outcome. You will make yourself even more reluctant to raise your hand in the future. 

While reinforcement of a fear of spiders by avoiding spiders is not really a big deal unless you absolutely must work with spiders on a daily basis, reinforcement of a fear of something you might encounter regularly and the avoidance of which comes with long term cost to your quality of life is obviously not good for you.

But creating fewer challenging situations in the first place by bolstering your executive skills is not avoidance. If your executive skill weaknesses have unpleasant consequences, then it’s not unhealthy to do something about them. 

In the hustle and bustle of modern life we give daily support to our executive skills with productivity tools including calendars, task lists and note taking apps. Whether on paper or on the expensive piece of glass in your pocket, these help us remember the 20 things we need from the store, deliver us to our meetings in the nick of time, remind us that something still needs to be done, and help us organize and prioritize an abundance of competing concerns.
Simpson's stress cycle (as diagram above) plus what can be used to disrupt different stages. Mood and anxiety disorders and chronic stress can be treated with medication, chronic stress and strong negative emotions can be eased with exercise, mindfulness techniques and meditation, negative thoughts can be tackled with cognitive behavioural therapy and executive skill weaknesses can be eased with productivity tools.

But, as I’ve noted in previous posts, there are limitations to these tools.  

Calendars are exceptionally useful for arranging meetings and tracking your local garbage collection schedule. In terms of executive skills, they are a boost for Time Management and Working Memory. However they only boost your Organization and Planning up to the point your schedule begins to become crowded. At that point you compromise your Flexibility, and anything that upsets a packed schedule requires decent Organization skills to fix it. Those with weak Working Memory are the ones most inclined to pack their schedule with mundane things to avoid forgetting them and therefore they take the biggest Flexibility hit. Plus, creativity doesn’t care about your schedule. Wednesday at 10am is not always the best time to have a brainwave so scheduling specific time slots for think-time rarely works well (unless, perhaps, you have excellent Metacognition).

Task lists are a significant boost for Working Memory and they can also be a great help with Organization and Planning / Prioritization. However, as your lists grow, they can be troublesome and less of an aid. A long list of items to purchase at a supermarket might be okay, but a long list of more involved tasks can become an Organization and Planning / Prioritization burden in itself. And if you struggle with Organization and Planning / Prioritization you easily end up with overwhelming lists of things you are unlikely to get done. An overwhelming task list that’s hard to assess at a glance can weaken your Task Initiation and promote procrastination which then messes with your Time Management. 

Note taking apps are also a great boost for Working Memory, Organization and Planning / Prioritization but once again, when you go beyond a certain volume of content you need good Organization and Planning / Prioritization skills in the first place, just to keep your notes in a reasonable order. If not, much of the benefit can be lost.

There are other more specific productivity tools though they tend to just be variations or combinations of the above. One of my favourites is the kanban board. 

My whiteboard with a drawn on kanban board. Three columns: "To do" under which there are two post it notes with "Add the home screen functionality" and "Add gzip compression everywhere", "Doing" under which is "Write blog post 'how to organize a scatterbrain'" and "Done" with "Add an Edit history feature.

This is where you have several status columns, typically “To do”, “Doing” and “Done”. Your task is represented as a card and as you progress with your work you slide each card from column to column until all of them are sitting in the Done column. It’s basically a visual task list with three or more states instead of two (unchecked and checked). Unfortunately we still suffer the same issues as with a task list. Once the content goes beyond a certain size, its utility drops significantly, especially to those without good Organization and Planning / Prioritization skills. 

In short, the boost provided by everyday productivity tools disproportionately helps people who are already strong in those executive skills. There appears to be a large gap in the market for a tool that can better boost the skills of people with executive skills weaknesses.

And that brings me to my project. I’m developing a tool that can grant you the motivation and coordination to make progress on your goals and organize your life regardless of your strengths and weaknesses of your executive skills. The tool can easily be used as a vehicle for therapeutic intervention, like various other cognitive behavioural tools in the market, but it’s so much more than that, drawing from the lessons and techniques of cognitive behavioural therapy to activate you, boost your executive skills and to put you in control of your day-to-day life.

I want the users of this app to be reenergized. To suddenly find they have a zeal for getting things done. And that’s why it’s called Zealpad. And I’ll be telling you much more about how Zealpad works and how it addresses each executive skill in the second half of this blog post in a few weeks time.
Simpson's stress cycle plus what can be used to disrupt different stages (as diagram above) and with an ellipse around executive skill weaknesses and cognitive behavioural therapy and a label Zealpad to show that this is what Zealpad will focus on.


  • Executive skills are cognitive abilities that we develop in the first 25 years of our lives that allow us to get tasks done.
  • We all have varying degrees of strengths and weaknesses in our executive skills.
  • Executive skill weaknesses can lead to challenging situations, negative thoughts, strong emotions, chronic stress and mood and anxiety disorders.
  • Medication, meditation, mindfulness, exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy are all used to treat and avoid these negative effects.
  • Productivity tools can help avoid the challenging situations in the first place. However these are generally less helpful for people with executive skill weaknesses.
  • Zealpad is a new type of productivity tool designed to boost executive skills especially where there are weaknesses and avoid stress and further issues and in the next part of this post I will explain how Zealpad can unlock your zeal.

And, as always, this blog post is not a substitute to professional therapy. If you are struggling, go and talk to someone. It's nothing to be ashamed about. A therapist specialising in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can change your life.


Peg Dawson, Ed.D, and Richard Guare, Ph.D (2016): Smart but Scattered Guide to Success
Peg Dawson, Ed.D, and Richard Guare, Ph.D (2009): Smart but Scattered
Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D (1994): Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Judith S. Beck, PhD (2011): Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Basics and Beyond