Executive Function and Mental Load – Guest Post

Today’s post is by our marvelous and insightful postac coach, Dr. Maggie Gover. This is not a postac post per se, but I want you to know more about her in case this speaks to you and you’d like to schedule a consult with her. Learn more about that here.

If you want to see how I’m coping in the almost total absence of reasonable Executive Function, see yesterday’s post, “Come On, Karen, FOCUS.”

Dr. Maggie Gover’s career is dedicated to helping students successfully complete their graduate degrees and then transition into successful professional lives.  As such, she has quite a bit of experience helping students identify industries in which they may be successful and describing their graduate careers in ways that might be attractive to those industries.  While she is most knowledgeable in alternative academic jobs, she has helped students transition into private industry, government, and non-profit jobs as well.  Maggie’s service to students began when she was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California where she served as an intern in the Office of Admissions.  While she was completing her Master’s degree at the University of Oxford she served as a Junior Dean at St. Hilda’s College.  When she was a PhD candidate at UC Riverside she was the Coordinator for Academic Preparation and Outreach and then the Graduate Student Mentorship Program Coordinator, and later the Director of Graduate Student Professional and Academic Development. While she is now primarily an administrator, she is still researching and publishing in theories of new media and 19th C visual sciences.Maggie’s Consulting Philosophy: I am a strong supporter of graduate education and think that society benefits from having those incredibly creative and analytic minds in diverse industries.  I want to help students find careers that are satisfying to them and in which they will excel.  Remember that no career search is easy!  It will take hard work, knowledge, dedication, and perseverance.  However, the great joy of working with graduate students is that they have dedication and perseverance in spades!  You bring that to the table, and I can help with the knowledge.


Are you finding that things take you longer right now? Do you have to read something a few times before you fully understand what it says? Is your motivation tanking? You are not alone. 

In the best of times, working as an academic means that you are exercising a very high level of executive function skill. It is common for people to feel a bit spacey in other aspects of their lives while they are devoting such high executive function to one area. That means you might notice that it takes longer to do other things when you are particularly entrenched in your research.

Executive functions refers to “higher level cognitive skills you use to control and coordinate your other cognitive abilities and behaviors” (https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/executive-functions). They include the ability to organize information, prioritize and sequence tasks, perform abstract thinking, regulate emotional responses, and a host of other higher order skills. 

Right now, we have the added challenge of social distancing and coronavirus taking up space in our brains. Things like planning the day’s activities (for ourselves and our dependents), determining how to obtain food and supplies, converting lesson plans to an emergency remote teaching environment, and worrying about the illness itself are all taking very valuable space in our brains. 

Why does the strained mental load make everything more difficult? Think about your brain like your desk and every task that you attempt is a notebook open on that desk. When the desk is clear, you can easily pull out a notebook and start writing in it. When there are five notebooks out, you might take an extra moment to look through each one before figuring out which one you need. When there 100 on the desk, it will take you a while to find the one that you need and you will likely have to balance it on top of other open notebooks to begin taking more notes. So, with every added task, the entire load becomes more cumbersome.

When I think about all of the “notebooks” I am balancing on my mental desk, it becomes evident why every task is taking so much longer than usual. My brain is trying to remember moment-by-moment modifications to stay-at-home orders, the mom’s group post that told me which grocery store finally has a needed item in stock, the meals I have in the pantry for the next week, the five craft ideas for my preschooler I saw on pinterest, the baby’s napping schedule, are we supposed to be wiping down the mail now or not?, the number of minutes of physical activity my kids have gotten and creative ways for them to get more in the confines of our apartment… all while feeding the family three reasonably healthy meals a day and constantly cleaning up. If you make your list, I am betting you will see that you are using a herculean amount of brain power. 

Hopefully understanding this can help you give yourself some leeway. But, how do we move through this to stay as productive as possible? Here are some tips and tricks you may want to try, if you haven’t already:

1. Keep a notebook or task list handy so that you can write down things as you think of them. This might be reminders to yourself, grocery lists, to dos, etc. If you aren’t trying to remember lots of diverse things, you might be able to concentrate more fully on the task at hand. Then, dedicate a few minutes each day to organizing those notes so that nothing gets missed.

2.  If you don’t have one, try to initiate a daily mediation, yoga, guided breathing, or mindfulness practice while we are in the midst of coronavirus. Allowing yourself time to clear your mind and focus on nothing is like putting all the notebooks away and starting with a fresh desk. If these methods don’t work for you, maybe try taking a daily walk in nature (if that is available to you) or even listening to some of your favorite, relaxing music. 

3. Transition time is a concept that deserves its own post, but I want to touch briefly on it here. Transitioning from one type of work to another requires your brain to perform some mental agility. Just like you wouldn’t go from sitting on the couch to running a 100 meter dash without warming up and stretching in between, you probably won’t be able to move from performing a close reading of an esoteric work to grading an exam or crafting with your four-year-old without some transition. If you do, you may find the second task, the one without an adequate warm up, suffers. For me, I find myself a bit snappier (lacking emotional regulation) if I transition too quickly between disparate tasks. So, recognize the need for precious moments or seconds in between tasks to regroup. 

4. Look into your past and determine what motivated you before. Try to implement those motivational measures now. So, for example, I find that I always have a burst of increased intellectual activity after I speak with one of my collaborators. I try to speak with her once a week and I try to schedule it for a time when my husband will be able to watch the kids after so that I can get some writing done. 

I hope these are helpful. What are other ways you have found to help stay productive? 

I wish you health and contentedness during this challenging time. Cheers!

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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