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Executive Function: What Is It and How Does It Affect Us?

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

Executive function is vitally important for everyday living and yet is something that most of us take for granted. Those in the neurodivergent community usually face struggles associated with managing tasks and goals, organization, adhering to time schedules, managing emotions, as well as other goal-directed behaviour. Overcoming these struggles usually requires self-directed education.

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive function comes in many forms. Many people who are familiar with executive function think of it in terms of planning and organization, but it goes beyond that. Anything from remembering where you left your car keys, to planning out your day, to manage emotions, and changing plans when there are setbacks all require certain skills to perform. The ability to perform these types of skills fall within the following areas:

1. Problem Solving/Planning: How we contain and manipulate information in our heads has a direct effect on how they are executed to solve or manage real world problems.

2. Organization: The capacity to create and maintain a system to keep track of information.

3. Time Management: The capacity to estimate how much time one has, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits and deadlines. It also involves a sense that time is important.

1. Self-Motivation: Creating motivation that doesn’t rely on any external validation or reward systems is pivotal for most people in holding themselves accountable and self-disciplined.

2. Emotional Self-Regulation: Managing appropriate emotional responses to certain situations requires skills in processing our own emotional states and how we choose to respond to the world around us.

3. Verbal/Non-Verbal Working Memory: Nonverbal memory can include retaining information using abstract or visual representations of our ideas, or ‘pictures.’ Verbal memory encompasses the internal dialogue or ‘self-talk’ which we engage in with ourselves.

4. Self-Awareness: Also known as metacognition or the ability to take a birds-eye view of oneself in a situation. The manner in which we direct attention towards ourselves or our ability to perceive ourselves clearly and accurately.

5. Response Inhibition: The capacity to think before you act, or to resist the urge to say or do something allows us the time to evaluate a situation and suppress our actions if they are inappropriate for a situation.

6. Attention: The ability to sustain attention to a situation or task despite distractibility, fatigue, or boredom.

7. Task Initiation: The ability to begin projects without procrastination, in an effective or timely fashion such as not waiting until the last minute to begin a project.

8. Flexibility: The ability to revise plans in the face of setbacks, new information, changes, or mistakes. The ability to adjust to change in plans without major distress for children.

9. Stress tolerance: The ability to cope with uncertainty, stress, change, and performance demands.

Executive Skills Questionnaire —Peg Dawson & Richard Guare

What Does it Look Like to Struggle with Executive Function?

There is not always a clear cut and dry answer to this question as many people vary in the severity and types of problems they experience. Many people have strength in some areas of executive functions and gaps in others. However, here are some things you may notice if you struggle with executive function:

● Regularly losing items such as keys, phone, or other important items needed for the day.

● Frequently being late.

● Losing your train of thought mid-conversation or interrupting somebody mid-speech.

● Having trouble following step-by-step instructions.

● Struggling to get started on a task or project.

● Trouble meeting deadlines or missing them altogether.

● Difficulty in prioritizing tasks from most to least urgent.

● Easily frustrated, irritable, and often called “too emotional” by others.

● Blurts things out then feels embarrassed afterward.

● Difficulty with change, new situation, or new ideas and often called “stubborn”.

● Unable to multitask like write an email or text and listen to someone at the same time.

● People often think you’re “not listening”.

● Trouble getting chores done around the house.

It is worth noting that this is not an exhaustive list of all the possible difficulties experienced by those who have problems with executive functioning. Some people will only struggle with a few of these issues while others will be able to relate to a large number of them.


What Can Help Executive Functioning Challenges?

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in combination with medications to treat conditions like ADHD has been shown to be effective including difficulties such as stress tolerance, emotion regulation, time management, task initiation, organization, and planning. Therapy can help improve self-awareness and flexibility and coaching is very effective for motivation and skill building.

Many people aren’t aware that their problems are related to executive functioning. It is never too late to educate yourself on personal learning and development. Information can help in understanding the basics before approaching professionals. Many people today educate themselves before they approach their doctor, a counsellor or coach, community support, or talk to their family and friends.

The improvement of executive functioning is a lifetime journey that takes commitment and patience, but the rewards are very much worth it.

If you’ve been struggling with executive functioning issues, you can contact me by clicking on the contact page to book a FREE 15-minute consultation.

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