When Your Prefrontal Cortex is Closed For Business Due to the Pandemic

by Melissa Smith - Mon, 10 Aug 2020

Bear with me while I set a bit of context for today’s topic. First, let’s talk about executive functioning. That’s the set of skills you use to make decisions, prioritize, and plan your morning, your day, and your life. Maybe you have some days where you are absolutely on fire, knocking important things off your to-do list, left and right. And maybe you’ve got other days where you can barely make out your to-do list, much less make progress on it. Hold onto that thought while I veer off for a little more context.

I’m working with a startup that’s developing emotional intelligence apps for kids (and adults, as applicable) with disabilities, particularly kids on the autism spectrum. One member of our group is Dr. Christie Sosnowski-Bowen, a fantastic child psychologist who has specialized in kids on the spectrum but sees all sorts of kids in her private practice. A side benefit of having a psychologist in our group is that we’re all able to speak a little more openly about our own struggles, especially throughout COVID. A couple of weeks ago, I was describing some issues I was having with my executive functioning, and Dr. Christie dropped some knowledge that completely changed my perspective. She can explain in much better than I can, but I'll give it an oversimplified whirl.

That executive functioning ability? That’s controlled by the prefrontal cortex portion of your brain, nestled right up next to your forehead. You’ve also got a part of your brain called the amygdala which handles emotions and motivation. The amygdala is, uh, responsive. Very responsive. And bossy. It takes over when the stakes are high, cutting your prefrontal cortex out of the picture.

So when you’re having a crap day where every decision seems to take a monumental amount of effort, your amygdala has taken control of your brain’s steering wheel. Pandemic-related grief, anxiety, and fear or just being on the receiving end of an internet troll, all of these things can send your amygdala running to the rescue and taking over control. And let’s just say the pandemic and American politics have got all our amygdalas running back-to-back marathons. So how are you supposed to tackle work while your amygdala is fired up… again?

Here are three strategies to get you through your Amygdala Days. There’s plenty more we could talk about, but if you’re having an Amygdala Day, then more than three strategies are going to short-circuit you.

Outsource your Executive Function. Buddy up with a coworker (or your spouse, in a pinch) and ask them to point you towards a single item on your to do list. When you’ve finished that one, ask for another, and so on. Repay the favor when they have an Amygdala Day. You and your buddy should also help break massive tasks (i.e. prepare the quarterly report) down to some manageable substeps. This may sound hokey, but my spouse directed me to do things on my list on Saturday, and it was one of the best days I’ve had in ages. Ah, the glorious freedom to not have to decide what to do.

Roll the dice. This is an especially good strategy for weekend days, but it may also help on work days. Make yourself a numbered to-do list and then roll dice (or use a virtual dice roller) to pick which item to work on. The underlying assumption here is that the order in which you do things doesn’t really matter… it just matters that you get started so that you’re not paralyzed by indecision.

Narrow your focus to three tiny things. I’ve covered this strategy before in the newsletter about working when you’re anxious and distracted. This is a great strategy when you know WHAT you should be working on, but you can’t get your mind to settle enough to start focusing. So break off three tiny things that would move your project forward. They can be as easy as ‘Bold list headings’. They just need to be easy enough that you can tackle them. It’s sort of like creating a breadcrumb trail in front of you to get yourself out of the forest. Just stay focused on the breadcrumbs. When you’ve done two or three, add more. Keep your list short so you never get overwhelmed, and you’ll be out of the forest in no time.