Executive Function Reading List

A todo list

I have ADD. I was not diagnosed until my 40s because my family and I had some ideas about what ADD was and meant. This is not a problem, because frankly if I had been diagnosed as a kid, I would be genuinely worried about what they would do about it. But I was bright, and able to fake it, and over the successive years I have built up habits and infrastructure to shore up all the problems that ADD causes (and to leverage the advantages it brings). I have also been lucky enough to have a wife who gets this and is supportive beyond all reasonable measure.

This would be more or less the beginning and end of it, but as it turns out, I also have a son. He is amazing. He is clever, kind, creative, analytical and has a heart as big as all outdoors. He also very much has my ADD.

I am eternally grateful that he is growing up in a time where this is something that is much better understood and supported. There are resources available for him that I couldn’t have imagined as a kid, and more than anything I want to do the same things for him that I’ve had to do for myself – shore up the problem areas and leverage his strengths. I could write at length about all the things this entails (since a large part of it requires realizing that my solutions will probably not be his solutions), but this list is all about one specific thing I’ve done to this end, and that is buy a boatload of books, and I figured I’d share what I’ve found.

He is not yet 10 at the time of this writing, so I’m going to divide this list into 3 categories: books that have worked for him, books that I am hoping will be useful to him over the next few years and books that have been useful to me as an adult.

Books for the Kid

My Day is RUINED!, by Bryan Smith – This is a kids book, part of the Executive FUNction series, about flexible thinking and dealing with things that go wrong. It’s all very straightforward, and it’s something I picked up as an experiment because I wanted to get an Amazon order value up to improve shipping speed. I had not expected much, but the little dude glommed onto it. He devoured the book, and we immediately saw some behavior changes in line with the book. More critically, it gave him and us the words to talk about flexible thinking. We talked to the little dude about why he liked it so much, and his explanation was that it wasn’t telling him things, it was a story about a kid who had the same problems he had. This was such an overwhelming success that I promptly logged back onto Amazon and ordered every other Bryan Smith book I could. Spoiler: They make up a lot of this list.

Mindset Matters, by Bryan Smith – The focus of this one is on a growth/improvement mindset, which the book presents as a “get it done” mindset. Again, the lessons and the language very clearly stuck, and the little dude has stopped saying “I can’t do it” and instead been saying “I can’t do it yet”. That may not seem like a big deal, but the little dude is usually the person most likely to get in his own way when it comes to worrying about what he can and can’t do.

A small thing that I also appreciate – the protagonist of this one is a girl. To my son, this didn’t even merit comment, but he is more enlightened than I. To me, it was something I appreciated because the Executive FUNction series has a male protagonist.

What Were You Thinking? By Bryan Smith – Another Executive FUNction book, this time about impulse control. As with the other books, it follows the template of a strong example, modeling good behavior and giving tools to talk about it. That said, this one was well received, but this was less of a hot button for us, so its impact was not as noticeable.

If Winning Isn’t Everything, Why Do I Hate To Lose?, by Bryan Smith – I had not expected this one to be a big winner, since the little dude is not so much into sports, but WOW did this one make a difference (in retrospect, while he’s not a sports guy, he is 100% a gamer). Again, sympathetic example, good modeling, useful language. The little dude glommed onto it and we’ve been able to reference it on family game nights and it’s absolutely cut off a number of potential bad scenes.

Is There an App For That?, by Bryan Smith – The subtitle of this one is “Hailey Finds Happiness Through Self-Acceptance” and I was profoundly cynical about this one. The topic seemed a bit overly feel-good, and I utterly cringed at the tech-adjacent title, but it just goes to show how wrong I can be. While I can’t speak to impact, this one is absolutely one of his favorites to read.

It Was Just Right Here!, by Bryan Smith – We literally just got this one, so we haven’t read it yet, but I admit that with ADD brain, I am REALLY curious.

Other Books

I’m still exploring this space, and I am in the process of putting in an order for some books by Julia Cook because they seem to be in the same space. Also, Smith has one more book, Kindness Counts, which is the one I haven’t picked up because that is a theme that has been hammered on from many angles for the little dude (it’s a school theme) and I don’t want to burn him out, but I’m sure it’s probably pretty good too.

I also just ordered a copy of Franklin Covey’s 7 Habits of Happy Kids and I’m not entirely sure what to expect. The Franklin Covey organizer system is quite famous, but it’s never been my thing, and it feels like a very cynical product. However, Many years ago Franklin Covey put out a set of little books on business ideas that were targeted at little kids and were given out with Chick-Fil-A kid’s meals. And as preposterous as that idea may seem, I found one of them in a used bookstore and it was great. It was a little book about collaboration and teamwork that I loved, and if they were something that I could buy, I’d be hunting them all down. So, this order is an optimistic hope that this will be as good as those were.

Books for the Future

These are the books I’ve picked up that haven’t grabbed him yet, but I’m hoping will as he gets older. Some of them are technically at his reading level, but I frankly think he responds better to the “younger” books because they don’t feel like work to him.

Important qualifier: There are a ton of books in this space that are for parents, but I am not super interested in those. I am sure a lot of them are great and useful, but my focus here is books that are for my kid,

See You Later, Procrastinator and Get Organized Without Losing It, by Janet S. Fox – These were actually the book that got me started on this whole process, because it began with me thinking “Getting Things Done made such a huge difference for me, I wonder if they have useful things like that for kids” and these were the first/best ones I found. It’s practical, reasonable stuff, and lead to my picking up a few other books in the series, including How to Do Homework Without Throwing Up, Cliques, Phonies, & Other Baloney and Speak Up and Get Along!.

The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondō – You may have heard of the book this is based on (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) as it achieved enough fame to be adapted to a Manga. I fully admit that buying the Manga is a shameless ploy to attempt to capture the kid’s attention, so we’ll see how it goes. The book is decent – Clean Sweep (see below) is more to my taste and is a little more nitty-gritty, but the principals of not being owned by your stuff are ones I really hope to instill upon my pack rat of a child someday.

Other books I have picked up but have no opinion about yet
Books I technically should pick up but I have not because I am secretly convinced that they are car crashes (but would be happy to hear that I’m wrong)

Books of Mine

Getting Things Done, by David Allen – I cannot overstate how big a difference this book made for me. It is not flawless – the system as a whole can be too much, Allen’s corporate-speak can be grating, and this was really written for executives with no real grasp on technology. But despite that, it has given me mental and practical tools which I can frankly say are life-changing. If you’re leery, feel free to read some articles (there are lots) and grab the book if you want more depth. And, honestly, if you only read the first 3 or 4 chapters of the book, you will get most of what you need. Note: I linked to the first edition (blue cover) because it’s a better read than the new edition (orange cover). The new edition doesn’t change much, but in attempting to speak to technology and GTDs own success, it steps away from what made it great. It’s not bad, but the blue book is better.

Work Clean, by Dan Charnas – This book is amazing, then really bad, then amazing again. So, it’s a net positive, and it merits a mention on this list because it touches on things that I haven’t seen addressed in other productivity books. The gimmick for this book is that it takes the lessons of professional chefs and their idea of mis-en-place – the thoughtful arrangement of all the things you will need to do your work – and applies it more broadly to productivity. Some of the advice just misses the mark, and some of it comes across like a guy who has discovered “women’s work” as if no one has ever heard of it before. But the good stuff? It’s great, and it is especially great for situations which are more about throughput than creativity. Not to say things aren’t applicable to both, but a lot of productivity books are a little precious about creativity and don’t acknowledge that sometimes you just need to grind out the work. This is good for that.

Thinking in Bets, by Annie Duke – So, it’s a book about cognition by a professional poker player, but don’t let that deter you. This is a fun, compelling read that uses poker to illustrate a lot of well-known principles of behavior and cognition. This is a rich field, and there are absolutely other books that can provide deeper dives on the topic (Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Thaler’s Nudge or Ariely’s Predictably Irrational are all great) but Bets combines approachability and practicality with a wide overview of many topics, and it’s a great starting point for a lot of areas where you might need to come to terms with your own brain (it is also the reason that I a teaching poker to my child, because he excels at chess).

The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande – I can unreservedly recommend anything Gawande writes, but this one, in particular, is specific and useful in its focus on the things that checklists are valuable for, with the biggest lesson being that you can be super smart and super capable but may still want a system outside of yourself to check, specifically because you’re so smart and capable.

It’s All Too Much, by Peter Walsh – Ideally, I’d recommend Walsh’s TV show, Clean Sweep, but you cannot get that for love or money, so his book is a solid fallback. Lots of very practical tools for dealing with stuff.

The Goal, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt – This is the weirdest suggestion, and probably the easiest to skip because this is a business book about manufacturing. Yeah, weird, I know. But while that’s the topic, this is really a book about systems and improvement, and if you get this book, then a lot of modern business (especially anything labeled “agile”) starts making sense, and these tools are incredibly powerful for self-improvement. There is a similar, more modern book called The Phoenix Project, which is also quite good, but I don’t think it conveys the same foundation.


I expect this to be an ongoing list, so I’m also creating a permanent page for this. 

Why Write on the iPad?

This new keyboard configuration is comfortable enough that I set it up and had been doing my morning reading for 10 minutes before I realized I had not actually turned on the keyboard. That’s probably a good sign regarding how comfortable I find it.

It’s on now, of course, and I am thinking a little bit about the implicit question raised by this setup. I have a very nice laptop. It is unquestionably more capable than my iPad for a variety of tasks. It is also reasonably small and portable, enough so that it’s not that much bigger than iPad plus keyboard. So why in the world do I want to write on the iPad?

There’s a question behind the question, which is closer to ‘why have an iPad at all?’, and it’s a fair one, but also one I’ll handwave a little. Certainly, there are practical concerns – probability and battery life are both better – but they are not such overwhelming differences as to make the situation clear cut. At it’s heart the answer is simpler than that: I enjoy my iPad, and I consider that sufficient. The combination of flexibility, simplicity and power delight me, and I like the tablet form factor a lot.1.

But even with that, why write? The device well designed for a host of activities (games, videos, reading) but the fact that I need to buy a keyboard rig kind of indicates that’s not really its focus.

For me, that is exactly the trick of it. The limitations of the form play to exactly what I want.

Here’s the thing: if you are doing something on an iPad, then that is the thing you are doing. Multitasking expands that a bit, so you might be doing two things, but that’s got constraints, and it’s about as far as you’re going to push it.

In contrast, were I to go to my desktop right now, I have more than a dozen apps open, plus a number of passive utilities that occasionally need attention. It is an entirely different world, and when I need to frequently context shift, then the computer makes that very easy. During the workday, when I need to stay on top of several streams, that’s fantastic.

However, when I’m doing work where I need to maintain focus, it’s a problem. It’s too easy for me to look over at another window and see what’s up on twitter, or look something up, or check slack or anything else. Now, this problem is not unique to me. The negative impact of distractions and multi-tasking are pretty well documented at this point. But I, personally, am very sensitive to them. Again, this is great when that’s what I need to be doing, but it’s a real problem in other situations.

This concern is what turns the iPad’s limitations into advantages for me. It is a magnificent tool for doing one thing at a time, and when it comes time to write (or do similar work), then the amount of disruption caused by context switching provides the resistance I need to keep me on task.2I think this is a pretty common situation. There’s a reason that so many writing apps offer a ‘distraction free” sort of interface, and it has a lot to do with users like me.

An Alphasmart Neo, in all it’s technological glory.

(This is an alphasmart Neo. It’s what “distraction free writing” used to look like)

  1. Enough so that, yes, I have very seriously considered a Microsoft Surface Pro. They seem magnificent, and while Apple is kind of puttering along with their laptop offerings, Microsoft continues to do interesting things. For now, I’m not ready to make the switch, and humorously, price is part of the concern. Macs aren’t cheap, but getting a surface with enough RAM than I would not hate it constantly is pretty darn speedy too. If I hit enough of a windfall someday to experiment, I may yet try (or try something like a Yoga) but I’m not there right now. ↩︎
  2. I still have my Alphasmart Dana and Neo in the closet. They are pretty much a keyboard and a small electronic screen that can do NOTHING but type text into memory, then dump it back out later. If I ever need to seriously cut myself off from the world, turn off my phone and just go make words, then I would pack a notebook and the Neo. ↩︎