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Productivity apps aka “prosthetic” hot executive functions

Nov 15, 2022

People with ADHD often struggle with executive function. To improve executive function, we need to understand the difference between hot executive functions and cold executive functions.

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Table of Contents

What are executive functions?

Executive Functions (EFs) are how our brains make decisions. There are two types: hot EFs and cold EFs. If you’ve read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, hot EFs are the “fast” part of our decision making apparatus and cold EFs are the “slow” part.

To give you an example, imagine you have spent a while looking for a good restaurant to have dinner next Saturday. You’re busy and so is the person you want to go with, but you both finally find a time to go together after checking calendars for a few days. It’s time to book the restaurant. You open up a restaurant booking app on your phone, find the perfect restaurant and were just about to make a reservation when you notice a previously undisclosed reservation fee of 50$. You equivocate for an instant because the daydream of the delightful dinner warms your insides like the smell of hot chocolate does in Christmas, but in a second you come to your senses, get your thumb away from the pay button, and think “oh, no way, I will just call instead…”.

Which EF? In this scenario, your cold EFs were involved in planning the time and location of the dinner. Your hot EFs jumped in at the end when you were about to buy.

Let’s take another example: you’ve decided you want to get fit. The night before you thought about the route you were going to follow for your first run — the first of many! Your alarm on your phone wakes you up at 6:30am. You reach over to switch off the alarm and as you’re doing that, you see a notification from tik tok — your favourite fitfluencer has just posted a new video about how to train for a marathon. It seems relevant and it’s a bit cold so you tell yourself “I’ll just watch this to get some motivation”…At 8am you snap out of the tiktok daze, look at the time and realise you need to leave for work. The run will have to wait until tomorrow..

Which EF? Your cold EFs helped plan out your run but your hot EFs derailed the plan.

Which EF is best?

The last example might make it seem like hot EFs are always bad but that’s not true. We need hot EFs to respond quickly and especially to handle emotional situations.We need them to know when we can do something automatically and when we should postpone it or not do it at all.

Hot EFs are our CEOs

As our bosses, they decide whether we act upon what our cold executive functions have come up with or not, be it decisions, plans, solutions, or deep moral conclusions.

Timing is of the essence, in other words, hot executive functions can act as our brakes, lead us to postpone certain behaviors, or be the reason we do not respond at all.

Cold EFs, on the other hand, involve all those processes that makes humans “rational animals”. From decision-making to organization, anticipation, and so on. Abstract thinking also falls in there. In other words: cold EFs are what would make us efficient at gathering together a list of restaurants and comparing prices vs quality, and then deciding which one we want to go have dinner at on Saturday.

We need both types of EFs. If we didn’t have cold EFs, we’d always live in the moment and not plan for the future. If we didn’t have hot EFs, we’d always live in our heads and never act on our plans.

When do hot EFs go wrong?

Hot EFs are influenced by emotions. They help us make decisions in the heat of the moment when emotions are running high. Emotional valence is what makes stopping hard in general.

But hot EFs are also essential to regulate social interactions.

People with ADHD have certain theory of mind troubles. It is worth mentioning that some experts think there is no trouble at all, only that impulsivity won’t let people with ADHD actually unfold the social skills they do have. Be that as it may, the interesting fact here is that most people with ADHD do better after training impulse control in several areas of life… which necessarily includes the social realm.

Another example: this time, imagine you need to get something off your chest. A friend said something that you didn’t like a few days ago, so you think that the moment you both get your coffee served, you will let it out. — The second you get your coffee and you are opening your mouth to say «listen, the other day I was very hurt because…» you notice your friend looks down and discouraged. You feel the pulsating need inside to say it, but your instinct tells you something is off with your friend so you hold it and ask «is everything ok?». Your friend says that it isn’t and tears start coming out. In this situation, hot EFs not only help to stop our own actions when we notice something that we need to adapt to, a new priority, but also allow us to process our own frustration adequately in order to be able to actually listen to our loved ones and tune in to their emotions.

Hot EFs help us with social attunement, postponement of gratifications… and, of course, self-awareness and self-monitoring.

What most productivity apps get wrong

Most productivity apps focus on the cold EFs. They’re all about making to do lists, putting tasks in your calendar and prioritisation. For people without ADHD, this approach is effective. However, for people with ADHD, this exclusive focus on cold EFs doesn’t work. Have you ever gotten up, started wandering about daydreaming, and lost track of time? The answer is probably yes. The problem for some people is that this happens regardless of due dates and their desire to get work done… almost every day.

Adulting and issues with self-monitoring simply don’t get along.

You can have all the plans in the world but if your hot EFs aren’t interested in them, you won’t act on them.

This is where the right type of productivity app comes in. They can act like prosthetic brains, helping to rein in the hot EFs and promoting self awareness. In our first example, tik tok grabbed the hot EFs’ attention and derailed the cold EFs’ grand plans. What if another app had jumped in when our protagonist had tapped on that tik tok notification and popped up a notification reminding the user that it’s not time for tik tok first thing in the morning? That little popup would act to boost self awareness and help the hot EFs reconnect with the plans laid by the cold EFs.

Focus Bear is designed for people with ADHD who are aware of their self-regulating, self-monitoring, and inhibitory deficits to progressively make a habit out of working smarter and more flexibly. Most people with ADHD wish to be able to focus and get things done –and many even have the skill to hyperfocus–. Rallying that hyperfocus superpower to productive ends can be difficult. Focus Bear aims to channel your focus when it’s needed and also remind you to take breaks.

Remember: cold executive functions are what makes us smart, but hot executive functions are what allow us to actually act smart when we are smart.

Nov 15, 2022

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