Executive functions: Willpower, discipline and anxiety

Most of my students are very focused, motivated and responsible. These good qualities often have a side-effect of people pressing themselves too hard or running from inner demons. It is important to find the right balance. For more reading check here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Improving executive functions

By practicing memory and visualization, we improve executive functions. As a result, we not only train the skills that we focused on, but also facilitate improve the related skills. On the other hand, if the related skills are invested in some other issues, we struggle to train effectively memory and speedreading. This is one of the reasons we recommend to our students the keytovision materials.

I quote:

Executive function describes a set of cognitive processes and mental skills that help an individual plan, monitor, and successfully execute their goals. These include attentional control, working memory, inhibition, and problem-solving, many of which are thought to originate in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex  (DLPFC)

OK, you do not need to know where in the brain the executive functions are seated. I do not even bother to memorize it.(the location is in the name, e.g. mnemonic device of direct translation and association: executioner + above+ from the side+ in front of + Cortes… Cortes executed the poor Aztecs…).

Executive functions

What is important: a thin layer inside our brain is responsible for how we act as human beings, and we can influence it quite easily. If this area is under-developed, we may see reduced memory capacity and anxiety. This often means that people who approach us to improve memory often experience anxiety. Improving the memory we reduce the anxiety. The reaction can be measured in functional MRI.

Clearly there are other means of reducing anxiety, including chemical agents, electromagnetic stimulation of the related brain area, and cognitive behavioral therapy.  Even good natural music will work. These treatments paradoxically may also improve your memory…

Who often suffers from executive functions disbalance?

A huge group of students that often report that our methodology changed their lives: students with ADHD. This is not surprising, as ADHD in many cases is characterized by impulsive behavior and executive functions disbalance. What does that mean?

People who train memory sometimes treat ADHD as a side-effect. Pretty cool!

So we simply visualize and memorize some words, and our anxieties, impulsivity and some other less desired qualities “magically” disappear!

Which individuals have problems with our methodology?

Students who do not take 1:1 with Anna have 60% success rate in accelerated learning, and those who take 1:1 have 95% success rate. It took us some time to start characterizing the 5% of students who have issues. Most of them are subject to deep anxiety, often with overcompensation (pushing too hard).

That is bad. Just like we “magically” solve seemingly unrelated issues, we are in turn affected by issues that seem unrelated. A person pressures himself too hard feels deep anxiety, and suddenly sees no progress in memory training. So he pressures himself even more, and then the anxiety kicks in… A vicious cycle…

Stop pressuring yourself…

If you pressure yourself, execute this “simple” process:

  1. Recognize you have a problem. You work harder, do not improve effectively and become anxious.
  2. Replace pressure by gratitude. This is easier to do when you have a teacher: feeling the gratitude to the teacher releases the inner pressure.  You can also apply the gratitude to yourself. For example, you can build a hero story and see yourself as a hero handling overwhelming odds. Be grateful for the courage of trying and not giving up, and for other mental assets you have to succeed.
  3. Acceptance. Anger and resistance become sadness and relaxing. The relaxation part is very important. Often, in 1:1 we bypass the acceptance by humor. Sadness as a less desirable side-effect, as it reduces motivation. This can reduce the pressure, but can also make a student inattentive. Quite often a student takes a time-out of a month to treat sadness before he can focus again on training. We allow this once per training period.
  4. Planning. This time the executive functions work better, as the pressure is removed. So, it becomes easier to keep a less insane lifestyle, allocate resources, adjust expectations, visualize milestones. Before resuming training, the planning step works wonders.
  5. Implementation. At some point, there is a spark of “I am ready to continue” feeling. You should use this motivation and start implementing your plan. If you miss your time-window there may be a stage of relaxation, where you simply acknowledge having the plan and procrastinate.
  6. Appraisal. Evaluate your performance with a focus on positive self-talk and improvement. Basically, this is a practice of continuous gratitude: to yourself, to your teachers etc. It is important as a replacement for pressure. The last thing you want is to pressure yourself.

What extraordinary people might do?

There are things which tend to help, and which are often practiced by successful people. Visualize your role-model and try to copy the behavior. Do not expect 100% success, but use this list to focus you.

  1. Constant planning. Make long-term plans for the next 20 years, including a review of your character strengths and what you want to achieve. Also, review your short-term plans and schedule. Plan some fun.
  2. Ask for help. Politely ask others to help you. Find a mentor. Visualize your future self or role-model and converse with the visualization. Mentor others to learn from your students.
  3. Build up confidence. Give thanks and compliments to others, Give yourself a break. Celebrate small successes. Practice positive self-talk. Use a gratitude diary. Meditate or do sports if you can.
  4. Quit something. Delegate a task. Build up automation. Break contact with toxic people. Practice digital detox. Generate time when you can be bored (and then creative).
  5. Learn. Educate yourself. Share your discoveries. Focus on others. Laugh at yourself. Cultivate outside interests and hobbies.
  6. Lifestyle. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy food. Add supplements/nootropics based on blood tests. Walk outdoors and experience nature.

Ecology and executive functions

Another way to ease the pressure: reduce something that attracts our attention. For example, I have misophonia and sometimes need to go outside when someone eats near me.  The procedure is simple.

  1. Acknowledge your weakness. Not all weaknesses need to be treated. Sometimes we can simply change the environment, take a break, or choose an alternative plan. Facing your weaknesses every day is something that sucks your energy. Is that a good investment?
  2. Avoid toxic people. If you feel your motivation dropping and negative self-talk kick in, maybe this is induced by toxic people. People can be toxic in specific contexts or subjects.  Maybe changing the subject or the environment will make the people motivate you.
  3. Remove temptations. Another thing that sucks our attention. Why there is unhealthy food near the coffee machine? I often take coffee and go with it to another room, just to avoid the temptation.
  4. Visualize long-term rewards and achievements. Quite often this visualization is tangible. Companies often place patents on their walls. Experts often place their diplomas. You typically can control your laptop’s wallpaper.
  5. Remove things you fixate about. I do not like to be reminded of my PhD since I did not continue with an academic career when I had the chance. I do not want to think about it: I am pretty comfortable with my choices and do not want to deal with “what if” thoughts. I do not sign with my title and prefer very humble and simple communication.
  6. Don’t compare yourself with others. Some people need constant competitive impulse but most of us should compete with ourselves. Any competition is a stressor, and we should keep our stressors in check. It is better to enjoy the path and not the destination, and it is better to enjoy the destination than wait for others to arrive after you.
  7. Declutter. Literally clean up the working space and the schedule from interferences. One simple way of decluttering is chunking: then you need to address a single group of objects, instead of a multitude  of objects/



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