Executive function is a set of mental skills that help you get things done. It is the ability to do all that it takes in order to keep your mind on what you are doing to execute a goal. Executive functioning allows us to activate awareness, self-regulate, establish goals and make long term plans, and help us stay in charge of our learning and actions. Who we are, how we organize our lives, how we plan and how we then execute those plans is largely guided by our executive system. It is the awareness and directive capacities of the mind, considered the “orchestra conductor” or “CEO” of your brain. These skills are controlled by the area in the brain called the frontal lobe.
Executive function abilities include:
- Maintaining attention
- Controlling impulses
- Keeping free of distractions
- Engaging in mental planning and problem solving
- Maintaining flexibility
- Time management
- Setting priorities
- Executing a task
Often adults with executive function problems are considered lazy and unmotivated, but this is far from the case. In fact, individuals with executive dysfunction try really hard to get things done. When individuals have issues with executive functioning, any task that requires planning, organization, memory, time management and flexible thinking becomes a challenge. This can affect their ability to work, maintain relationships and do things independently. It makes it difficult to keep track of time, make plans, complete tasks in a timely manner, to multitask, to apply previously learned information to solve problems, analyze ideas, and to look for help when needed. While some adults have learned some tricks or strategies to help them compensate throughout the years, many continue to fail to meet their responsibilities on a daily basis and run into trouble with their spouses, finances, or employers.
What does executive dysfunction look like?
- Difficulty getting started on a task
- Does things quickly, or incompletely
- Trouble paying attention and easily distracted
- Loses train of thought when interrupted
- Has trouble making decisions
- Difficulty multi-tasking
- Often misplaces reports
- Issues with organizing materials and setting schedules
- Socially inappropriate behavior
- Difficulty controlling emotions
- Difficulty processing, storing and retrieving information
- Trouble planning for the future
What is the treatment?
Cognitive behavioral therapy can provide mental tools to help an individual with self-monitoring thoughts and behaviors, organization, and teach social skills in order to appropriately respond to social situations.
- Write it down
- Know (and accept) your limitations
- Educate yourself
- Have a coach – to help with organization
- Make check lists and to do lists
- Set time limits
- Set alarms
- Use planners/calendars
- Take step-by-step approaches to work
- Rely on visual organizational aids
- Organize work space
- Minimize clutter
- Ask for help
Written by Lauren Feiden, PsyD