A Very Important Note: Executive functioning skills usually revolve around neurotypical standards of how one should behave and perform. Though I believe we should live our lives based on our own set of standards, I also recognize that we live, work, and play in a neurotypical world. Executive functioning skills matter a great deal to some people, and less to others. But they are the basis for most of the clinical manifestations for ADHD and thus are worth examining for now in terms of diagnosis.
If you look at a large website design project, which may include creative designers, user experience designers, developers, and a project manager, you can think of the project manager as the equivalent of your brain’s executive functioning skillset.
The project manager (PM) is responsible for organizing all the other members of the web design team. The PM decides the timeline of the project, and they determine what tasks will happen in what order, and who will do them. They may check in frequently on other team members throughout the project to ensure they are on task. They are also responsible for getting all deliverables turned in on time.
Like an internal PM, your executive functions basically organize you to get through the day. They are the mental skills that allow you to get your work and chores and errands done.
Executive functions get you started with tasks, keep you on those tasks, and help you finish in what may be considered an appropriate amount of time, per neurotypical standards.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is frequently described as a condition that revolves around disordered executive functioning. The lack of these skills is the explanation behind so many of the most common ADHD manifestations in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V).
Executive Functioning Skills
There are a lot of articles out there about executive functioning, and any of them may include a different number of them. We’ll focus today on six functions.
They are described below by common things you might hear from someone who has difficulty in each area:
|Planning, Organizing, and Prioritizing|
“I have trouble preparing for upcoming meetings, events and activities – even if I have enough time”
“I don’t know what I should start doing first on a task list, so I don’t do any of it”
“I have trouble starting a task or activity, even if I know I’ll feel better once I do it”
“I just don’t have any motivation to do the things on my to do list”
“I want to do this thing, but I can’t get started”
“I always say the first thing that comes to mind”
“I usually act on my first impulse”
“I don’t always think before I do things or say things”
“I try hard but I can’t keep my attention focused on any activity for too long”
“My attention is constantly being diverted by other things”
“I don’t like when things change without advance warning”
“If I’m focused on a task, I get very frustrated when someone interrupts me”
“I’m frequently late to appointments because I forget that it’s on my schedule”
“I have a chronically bad memory – it’s like I can’t remember anything, even if I write it down!”
From this table, you can probably see how one could struggle so much in daily life under neurotypical expectations if they experience difficulty with any or all of these skills. But what does each skill really entail? Let’s look at each of them in more detail.
Planning, Organizing, and Prioritizing
This executive function covers one’s ability to look into the future and see what needs to be done to get to a completion point. A birthday party is a great example to describe this skill.
In order to plan the party, you would need to consider all of the variables involved for the future event. You’ll need to plan where it’s going to happen, who will come, and whether there’s a theme. It would help to be able to picture the event happening successfully in your mind. Planning is the what.
To organize the event, you have to be able to understand and group these event-focused decisions together. How can we book the party location, and what factors will go into that task? Organizing is the how.
To prioritize the task list, you might ask yourself in what order should the tasks occur. Which tasks are reliant on other tasks and when should they happen? Why do some things happen before others? Prioritizing is the why and when.
Difficulty with planning, organizing and prioritizing may show in the following ways:
- Feeling unprepared for things like meetings or interviews
- Not being able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information
- Not being able to estimate the amount of time to complete a task
- Difficulty getting started on a task because you don’t know where to begin
- Routinely working on things that are unimportant and nonurgent
- Getting frustrated by a task list
- Forgetting to plan for key parts of events or activities
Activation is related to the brain’s motivation center. It’s the ability to get started on a task, whether it’s seen as stimulating or not. To do any task, the brain has to feel motivated by it. There has to be an implicit understanding of what positive things will come from completion.
If you can’t activate, it may be difficult or impossible to get things done – at work or around the house. People with ADHD often have difficulty finding the motivation even to do simple things because they can’t visualize the outcome.
Struggling to activate even on “easy” tasks, like picking up a dirty shirt from the floor and putting it in the hamper, can lead to a great deal of frustration. Why does this occur?
The brain essentially makes decisions to do things based on whether or not there will be a reward at the end.
A neurotypical person may see the shirt on the floor and think about how satisfying it will be to pick it up. So, they pick it up and put it in the hamper.
A neurodivergent person may see the shirt and see blurriness. They don’t see themselves performing the action of picking up the shirt; they don’t see the steps it will take to get from floor to hamper; and they don’t see the satisfying reward at the end.
People with ADHD often require a great deal of external motivation because they don’t have an internalized rewards center.
Difficulty with activation may show in the following ways:
- Consistent task avoidance
- Trouble with keeping a habit or routine
- Not showing up to planned activities or events on time
- Not responding to texts, emails or phone calls
- Unwanted messiness at one’s desk or work area, or in the home
Self-inhibition involves our ability to limit our impulses. Having self-inhibition means that you don’t act on your first thought or impulse. Instead, you reflect on whether it’s the best course of action. This reflection may take a few seconds or minutes but it’s the key component to control.
When you struggle with self-inhibition, you tend to do or say the first thing that comes to mind. You may not consider the consequences.
For example, if a friend asks if you like their new haircut and you truly don’t, you might tell them you think it looks bad because it’s your initial response.
Someone with self-inhibition might have considered how to answer the question in a way that could be honest but also not hurt the friend’s feelings.
Low self-inhibition isn’t all rudeness though. People who experience it may be extremely decisive because they don’t spend too much time considering all of the options. This can be incredibly helpful in an emergency situation, or when there’s little time in which to make a decision.
Difficulty with self-inhibition may show in the following ways:
- Talking out of turn, especially in a classroom or office setting
- Interrupting others frequently
- Struggling to resist the urge to do things even if the consequences aren’t ideal
- Strong emotional reactions
- Blurting things out even if they are inappropriate
Attentional control refers to the ability to keep sustained focus on a task, conversation, or activity for any significant period of time. It’s at the core of our ability to do our daily activities and chores. It keeps us on task in a variety of settings at home, at school or at our place of work.
To have attentional control would mean you’re able to listen to a person giving a lecture for an hour; focus on writing an essay for a full evening; do the dishes with nothing to distract you; or even drive any distance while paying full attention to the road and other drivers.
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. However, ADHDers don’t have a deficit of attention. They often lack the ability to control and maintain it.
A person with ADHD may also experience an interesting phenomenon known as hyper-focus. When this occurs, they may be able to remain completely focused on and attentive to a task for many hours at a time. Periods of hyper-focus may come with an increased amount of productivity, but also lead to an inevitable crash. They are not typically controllable and may come on at any time.
Difficulty with attentional control may show in the following ways:
- Not listening, or appeared zoned out, during conversation
- Not fully hearing or absorbing what another person is saying
- Struggling to keep focus on any task for more than a few seconds or minutes
- Jumping from activity to activity
- Getting easily distracted by other environmental noises
Cognitive or mental flexibility refers to the ability to adjust to changes in one’s environment. It can typically be measured in two ways:
- Our ability to hold multiple thoughts in our minds at once
- Our ability to change how we think about something based on new information
Someone who is cognitively flexible would be able to think about many things at the same time and not feel overwhelmed. For example, they might be able to remember a short grocery list without needing to write it down.
They would also be able to pivot in their thinking because of something new they’ve learned, or because of a new expectation that has been set on them. An example of this is being able to consider an alternative route while driving if a street is unexpectedly closed.
In no way is cognitive flexibility a measure of intelligence. It’s a skill that can be improved like any other, but it doesn’t have bearing on your mental aptitude.
Difficulty with cognitive flexibility may show in the following ways:
- Getting visibly upset or frustrated by unexpected changes in plans
- Being overly rigid in scheduling or planning
- Feeling overwhelmed when trying to think about more than one thing at a time
- Struggling to see a situation from more than one perspective
- Having a difficult time switching from one task to another
Working memory is a short-term storage tank that holds the information we need to use to solve a problem or perform a function. Typically, the working memory tank stores new information, and is the first step of the process of transferring that information to our long-term memory.
Imagine trying to learn a complex task with many steps. As you learn the steps, you forget the previous ones. Because they aren’t being retained by working memory, they don’t quite make it to your long-term memory.
The next time you go to perform the task, you can’t recall all of the steps. You know something is missing but the connection of the information is so weak that you can’t bring it front and center.
So, you try to learn the steps again – with the assumption that repetition will make the connection stronger. This time you go to perform the task and you remember some of the steps but forget the ones you previously had remembered.
A weak working memory can make it difficult to learn because the information isn’t properly stored when it first goes in, and is hard to retrieve when it needs to come out. There’s a connection as well to attention – you must pay attention to the information being taught in order to remember and learn it.
This doesn’t mean that people with ADHD aren’t capable of learning. Often, people with ADHD have unique styles of absorbing and recalling information and they simply need to figure out what works best for them.
Difficulty with working memory may show in the following ways:
- Struggling to remember things from only moments earlier
- Having trouble recalling steps to tasks, even those performed frequently
- General forgetfulness
- Having trouble following instructions
- Struggling to recall basic facts during conversation
- Forgetting key events, even with reminders
How Important is Executive Functioning?
From what I’ve outlined here, you can see that executive functioning skills can feel extremely important in one or more areas of your life. But keep in mind that there isn’t just one set of standards to live by. If you have ADHD, you are not neurotypical, and you don’t have to be.
Once you learn about your own executive functioning skills, and where you may struggle, it’s equally important to decide what you want to do with this new information.
How much does it matter to you to be good at all of these things? And why does it matter?
Maybe you’re not a particularly organized person, but you’re extremely creative. Can you find someone who is organized to help with those functions and just focus on your creativity?
Perhaps you have a bad memory, but you’re a great listener. Can you write down things that matter to refer to them later?
Just consider that I’ve only included six skills in this post. That’s six things you might not be great at, but you contain multitudes. There are so many other skills you may excel at that matter to you more!
If boosting your executive functioning skills matters, then consider hiring an ADHD coach! While Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may focus on changing one’s self-image, ADHD coaches tend to focus on changing one’s skillset.
If you’re looking for a coach, you can start with the ADHD Coaches Organization (ACO).
Have some thoughts on executive functioning and ADHD? Come talk to me!