Executive Function Spotlight: Shifting
There’s just something about summer, it almost feels like a mindset. Going swimming, barbequing, long days of sunlight. Schools out for most people, some companies even offer summer Fridays. There is even fashion rule for summer to only wear white between Memorial Day and Labor Day (although this certainly has a questionable past). Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer, with September 22nd being the official end. What does this have to do with executive functions? And, why is it important to understand how our brains react to these transitions?
In this blog, we will go over what cognitive shifting is, why it is meaningful during the shift away from a summer mindset, and some strategies to navigate this shift.
What is Cognitive Shifting?
Very similar to how cars work, our brains can ‘shift gears.’ Cars do this in order to function optimally, and the gears really focus on one task, maintaining RPM at a reasonable level as speed increases. Cognitive shifting is more complex, but, in a nutshell, it comes down to how we are using our brain to accomplish varying tasks. The brain is super complex, but to simplify things, shifting can occur in what we are focusing on (attention), how we are using information (processing), and what we choose to do based on that information (Action). Many scholars see cognitive flexibility as the core executive function that influences cognitive shifting.
So what does this have to do with summer?
Shifting out of a Summer Mindset
As mentioned earlier, things are just different in summer. If you are a student, you don’t have the same schedule of classes, or you may be working a summer job. If you are an adult, expectations may shift in your job or responsibilities. In both scenarios, what we pay attention to, how we process it, and the actions we take are very different. In general, our routines look different. The most important thing to take into consideration is that if you know this is something that doesn’t come easy to you, we need to make an effort to make the shift easier. Using shifting strategies can help smooth the transition for you.
Simply put, previewing is thinking through everything that the shift entails. This can be changing expectations, schedules, requirements, etc. You can do this solo or as a conversation with someone else. As an example, I have not met with all of my clients over the summer, but many are returning with the start of the new year. I have been scheduling everyone in, and talking to my colleagues about how my schedule will be more rigid. These conversations are to help everyone preview the shifts that will be happening. There still will be an adjustment period, but everyone is able to begin preparing for that shift because we have previewed it. For students, it’s important to begin previewing changes in schedules. Are you a student who has a lot of extracurricular activities? Or maybe you are taking some tough courses this year? Thinking about the implications to your free time is a great way to prepare for that shift. Adults: you may need to be preparing for the end of a quarter at work, or maybe the end of the year is your busiest time at work. Thinking about, and communicating, these shifts are a great way to smooth over those transitions.
Shifting is a form of transitioning. Transition research shows that they are inherently difficult because the changes are both internal (in your control), and external (outside of your control). I like to think about transitions as building a bridge. The bridge symbolizes the consistencies and routines in your life. You may have a current bridge (e.g. your summer routines), and you need to build up a new bridge (e.g. transitioning to new routines). You would not be able to successfully reach your goal if you just destroy the old bridge all at once. Instead, a better strategy is to slowly take apart the old bridge, while building the new one up, one step at a time. Smoothing over, or staggering these changes is a way to (1) make the transition less overwhelming, and (2) help with intentionally focus on developing the new routines one at a time. For example, a big shift for students is sleep/wake schedules. Many have free reign over the summer to stay up late, and sleep in until whenever they want. This is a perfect area to begin working on sooner rather than later! Then layer in some reading, or academic exposure to work up those learning parts of the brain. For working professionals, you can start working a bit longer on Fridays (goodbye summer Fridays!), or starting your day earlier. Just because you don’t have to work those hours, doesn’t mean you can’t use them productively to gear yourself up for when demands increase again. Try and tackle one transition at a time, that way you can stagger them in ways that work best for you!