How to Improve Executive Functioning
Whether we’re aware of it or not, humans make many day-to-day decisions unconsciously. From hitting the brake pedal when you see traffic up ahead to dodging a cyclist on the sidewalk, up to 90% of our daily decision-making is unconscious.
However, many decisions in our academic and professional lives require more thought. We rely on executive functioning to exercise good time management, make informed decisions, store information in our memory, and practice self-control. When an individual’s executive functions are impaired, it can have negative repercussions in their personal, social, and professional lives.
What Is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning is defined as “a set of cognitive processes and mental skills that help an individual plan, monitor, and successfully execute their goals.” These skills are referred to as “executive functions” that can be classified into four primary subgroups:
- Working memory
- Attentional control
Executive functions originate in the prefrontal cortex of the human brain and affect a person’s ability to successfully perform various tasks, including:
- Paying attention
- Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
- Understanding alternate perspectives
- The ability to complete tasks
- The ability to start tasks
- Regulating emotions
- Impulse control
While executive functioning skills develop in early childhood, they can continue to develop until into an individual’s mid-20s.
Disabilities That Can Impair Executive Functioning
The exact cause of impaired executive functioning is still unclear, although ongoing research has revealed useful information and answers to help treat affected individuals. Currently, are two known chronic conditions that can impact executive functioning:
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that often develops in childhood, although symptoms can persist into adulthood.
ADHD is considered a learning disability that can impair cognitive processes, particularly communication between different areas of the brain. ADHD has also been linked to impaired behavioral and motivational functioning and mood regulation.
Research shows that some brain structures in children with ADHD are smaller than the brain structures of those without an ADHD diagnosis, as the frontal lobe in children with ADHD often develops later in life compared to their peers.
The frontal lobe of our brain is essential for higher cognitive processes, such as memory, impulse control, speech, motor skills, decision-making, language, and social skills. This can lead to common symptoms, including (but not limited to):
- Impulsive behavior
- Excessive talking
- Poor time management
- Difficulty multitasking
Executive Function Disorder (EFD)
Executive function disorder (EFD) is a chronic condition that causes an individual to struggle with planning, problem-solving, and other executive functions.
Like ADHD, executive function disorder impacts the brain’s frontal lobe. This makes it difficult for affected individuals to exercise the critical skills required to navigate everyday life, such as setting and achieving goals, exercising self-restraint, and evaluating information.
While EFD isn’t currently an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, although similar symptoms appear in related conditions (such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder).
3 Core Exercises to Improve Executive Functioning
While it can be difficult to navigate life with impaired executive functioning, it isn't impossible. Various practices can help an individual improve their executive functions and improve life skills—even those with a learning disability or neurodevelopmental disorder.
Like any other skill, executive functions can improve with effort, time, and commitment. Keep in mind that what works well for one individual may not work as well for another. It's important to stay open-minded and customize solutions to create the most optimal system for your personal goals.
Keep reading to learn 3 core ways to strengthen executive functioning and improve your overall quality of life.
#1. Learn how to manage your time.
It’s important for those with impaired executive functioning to implement a system that allows them to make the best use of their time. Consider these common time management tools that affected individuals incorporate to improve executive functioning:
- Use a calendar. Those who prefer a tangible way to track their time can opt for a physical calendar. Individuals who are more technologically inclined may want to make use of their built-in smartphone calendar or download helpful apps to strengthen their time management skills.
- Use a planner. While calendars are an excellent way to track and organize “big picture” items, using a planner can further refine your organization, planning, time management, prioritization, and other skills related to executive functioning. Fortunately, there are infinite customization options for both calendars and planners, meaning that you can explore various styles, designs, layouts, and sizes until you find one that works best for you.
- Set up alerts or reminders. The majority of smartphones, tablets, and computers have built-in features that allow consumers to set alerts or reminders. Many individuals benefit when they choose to make the most of this free resource, as it can help them remember tasks and obligations while staying on track.
#2. Prioritize tasks on a regular basis.
Creating a regular to-do list is an excellent habit, but writing down tasks is only half the battle. To actually benefit from to-do lists, we must first execute the items listed. This is far easier to accomplish when we practice effective prioritization.
Prioritizing content in your planner, calendar, or to-do list ahead of time can prevent you from feeling burnt out or overwhelmed later on. At the very least, it can help you feel mentally prepared for whatever the next day holds, as opposed to being surprised with a forgotten responsibility or prior commitment.
Prioritization can be achieved through various methods. Consider the following examples:
- Label items as “urgent” or “non-urgent.” Try to cross off a certain number of each on a daily or weekly basis.
- Use a numerical system to rank tasks. For example, label items #1-3 and use higher values to represent high-priority items.
- Use a color-coded system. If you’re a visual person, consider buying stickers in various colors to represent each task’s priority level. You can also use digital labels to assign different colors to tasks on a phone or computer.
- Pencil tasks into your calendar at the start of each week. The specificity of planning ahead and scheduling tasks ahead of time can help ensure that tasks are completed.
These practices can vary based on personal preferences. For example, one person may be more successful when planning out their daily schedule in detail, while others may benefit from planning weekly or monthly schedules.
#3. Eliminate “all or nothing” thinking to reduce difficulties with task initiation.
People with impaired executive functioning not only struggle to complete tasks, but may have trouble initiating tasks to begin with. The inability to start projects can stem from various symptoms of impaired executive functions, such as:
- Trouble following step-by-step instructions. Impaired executive functions can lead to difficulty in establishing directions or sequences of steps.
- Procrastination. People who struggle with executive functioning can procrastinate for various reasons, even when they are fully aware that they need to start a project. Affected individuals may find themselves initially overwhelmed by the enormity of the project as a whole, or wrestle with compulsive or perfectionistic behavior that prevents them from starting the task.
- Distractibility. When attempting to initiate or make progress on a project, impaired individuals may struggle to stay on task. Certain steps for one project may lead them astray to tackle another project. For example, imagine a person who decides to tidy up their workspace before beginning a new task. They then realize their printer is out of toner, which they’ll need for the project; they jot down a reminder on their to-do list, which leads them to discover an overlooked bill wedged in the desk drawer; they go online to pay the overdue bill, only to find themselves buried in unread emails that impose additional tasks to complete.
- Motivation. Those with less strong executive functions often struggle to stay motivated when tackling unstimulating tasks, assignments, or activities. A lack of interest in a certain project can lead to difficulties in focusing and making progress on the task.
A common reason that many people with impaired executive functioning struggle to start and complete tasks is the tendency to engage in “all-or-nothing” thinking. This is a cognitive distortion that can result from impaired executive functions.
For example, imagine a person responding to an important email. This seemingly simple task may require more time and effort from a neurodivergent person for the following reasons:
- Mental inflexibility caused by impaired executive functioning can lead the person to hold themselves to perfectionist standards that are too challenging to meet or unobtainable altogether;
- Time blindness can warp the person’s sense of time and prioritization, preventing them from completing the task for the sake of moving on to the next;
- Impaired emotional regulation can lead the person to feel distressed, frustrated, anxious, and/or unable to move on to the next task if their email response doesn’t meet their standards; and/or
- Impulsivity can lead this person to abandon other responsibilities for the sake of finishing the email, even if they didn’t intend to spend so much time on it.
Whether you suffer from impaired executive functioning as a result of ADHD, EFD, or related condition, you may be eligible to receive disability benefits. Don't sacrifice your quality of life by failing to seek the compassion, care, and resources that you rightfully deserve.
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