Executive functioning (EF) is this term that we are seeing pop up more and more in the mainstream media. However, as I learn and talk more about it, I’ve begun noticing some common misconceptions around this topic that hinder growth.
“Executive function skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”
Even though I went to grad school for mental health counseling, I only became aware of the term executive functioning by scrolling through Tik Tok and listening to individuals share their lived experiences navigating executive dysfunction. These stories piqued my interest because the struggles they shared mirrored my own in grad school and daily adulting, struggles that I had just chalked up to laziness or personal deficiencies. My curiosity grew as I learned more about executive functioning and was able to use that understanding to help myself and clients navigate executive functioning struggles more effectively.
As I tend to do when I get immersed in learning about a topic, I began sharing with friends, family, clients, and really anyone who would listen, what I was learning about. Through my discussions, I noticed some common misconceptions people have around this topic and wanted to share some of these because sometimes the best way to understand what something is, you need to understand what it is not.
- Working memory
- Task initiation
- Sustained attention
- Planning and prioritizing
- Time management
- Goal directed persistence
- Mental flexibility
- Emotion regulation
- Impulse control
The prefrontal cortex (PFC), located at the front of the brain behind your forehead, is responsible for these executive functioning skills. The PFC plays a crucial role in managing sensory input and coordinating various functions of the brain. Through its connections, the PFC interacts with regions of the brain involved in sensory input like what we see and hear, emotion, motivation and thought processes, coordinating these brain regions to shape our perception, cognition, and behavior.
Executive functioning skills are not just for executives
Executive functioning skills aren’t just for executives. They are skills that everyone uses on a daily basis. While I’m not sure why the name originated, I think it provides a helpful analogy as to why and how these skills are needed. Executives handle the management of a company. Effective executives set goals, plan, organize, prioritize, and problem solve. They communicate plans about what needs to get done and set priorities and timelines to those they employ to fulfill certain functions in the company. They also work to optimize employee productivity by understanding how their employees work most effectively and help create those conditions.
But these aren’t just tasks for C-suite executives, some examples of how the PFC in everyone manages other parts of the brain:
- When studying for an exam, the PFC helps filter out distractions and keeps the focus on relevant material, allowing us to improve concentration and information processing
- When following a set of instruction to assemble a piece of furniture, the PFC helps to keep track of the steps and remembers the current task while coordinating with other brain regions involved in motor planning and execution
- When considering which car to buy, the PFC weighs the factors such as price, safety, fuel efficiency, and personal preferences, in order to facilitate rational decision making
- When facing stressful situations the prefrontal cortex regulates the part of the brain responsible for making decisions and enabling better emotional regulation and decision making
- When engaged in a conversation, the PFC enables us to interpret facial expressions, understand social cues, and respond appropriately
In the next section we’ll explore various scenarios in which someone might experience difficulties with executive functioning. Trauma to the prefrontal cortex, for example, has been known to have effects on the skills we’ve discussed.
Executive functioning is not just a challenge for those with ADHD
Executive functioning has most commonly come to be associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Those with ADHD and ASD do often struggle with executive dysfunction in at least some aspects because they are neurodiverse, which means simply that their brains function a little differently than the “norm”. (The ‘norm’ being the standard way a majority of people’s brains function and systems we have set up that cater to and perpetuate these standards).
However, executive functioning skills can also be significantly impacted by other mental and physical health challenges and adverse environments and experiences. Individuals struggling with anxiety often have difficulty starting tasks, maintaining attention and working memory as thoughts are constantly redirected to worries and anxieties making it hard to focus and retain relevant information. Additionally, the decision making process and emotional regulation can be compromised as anxiety can lead to excessive worry, indecisiveness, heightened reactivity and difficulty evaluating options objectively.
Depression alters neural circuitry and is associated with abnormal functioning in the PFC, particularly the region of self-consciousness and self related mental processes. These brain alterations and patterns of negative thinking, self-criticism, and rumination, that are associated with depression, can impair one’s attention, concentration, memory, and decision-making skills as well as lower one’s ability to adapt their goals and strategies to changing situations.
The prefrontal cortex is also known to be particularly sensitive to the effects of traumatic experiences. When someone is overwhelmed or triggered by a traumatic event the emotion/fear center of the brain ‘hijacks’ the brain, impairing the prefrontal cortex, heightening emotional reactivity and impulsive reactions, and making it challenging to adapt to new situations. Symptoms of PTSD such as hypervigilance, hyperarousal, and intrusive thoughts can make it difficult to concentrate, assess risk, evaluate options, and process and retain information. Trauma can also undermine the normal development of these executive functions when it is chronic and/or complex, as this chronic and frequent stress signals to the brain that it’s more necessary to focus on developing the brain’s capacity to respond quickly to threats, rather than developing skills of planning and impulse control.
These are just a few examples of conditions that negatively impact EF. Other examples include, bipolar disorder, OCD, schizophrenia, Alzheimers, tourette syndrom, traumatic brain injuries. Additionally, exhaustion, severe pain, stress, drugs and alcohol as well as distracting, chaotic, threatening or unpredictable environments can cause temporary EF issues.
Executive functioning struggles is not just laziness
As hopefully is evident, there are a myriad of reasons why certain tasks that rely on EF are more difficult for some than others or at different points in someone’s life. Without this understanding though it can be easy to misinterpret this discrepancy in functioning. We often use the term lazy to describe and critique others and probably more often ourselves. In a society that largely glorifies hard work, productivity and diligence, the label ‘lazy’ is generally a big insult.
The problem with the label of laziness is that it oversimplifies and misunderstands underlying factors that contribute to lack of motivation and energy. It can be demoralizing and discourages individuals from seeking help or making positive changes. At its best the label ‘lazy’ uses shame as a motivator. While shame may momentarily elicit a response in some individuals, it is generally ineffective as a long-term motivator. Shame typically elicits negative feelings, undermines self-esteem and avoidance.
Shame inhibits you from seeing what you enjoy and are good at, it obstructs your insight into what you need, hinders you from seeking help, and inhibits flexible thinking and creative problem solving. Instead of shame, it is more constructive to approach others or ourselves with empathy, understanding, and support to help them identify and address the underlying factors that may be contributing to their challenges.
Executive functioning skills are not automatically developed
While it’s widely believed that our genes give us the predisposition to develop executive functioning skills, this development doesn’t happen automatically as children mature. The foundations for ongoing growth of these skills begins in the first year as babies interact with caregivers and their environment. As children grow and mature, these skills develop through experience and practice. Parents, teachers and caregivers play an important role in setting up the framework for children to learn and practice these skills, giving them more and more responsibility, until they can perform them on their own. Some ways adults do this is through establishing routines, helping to break up tasks into more manageable sizes and encouraging play that promotes imagination, role-playing, following rules and controlling impulses. These skills typically develop most rapidly between ages 3-5, followed by another spike in development during the adolescent and early adult years.
Because these skills seem to naturally develop for many through early childhood and adolescence, it can often be taken for granted that these are skills we should have as adults. This thinking can cause frustration with others and ourselves when things like starting a task, focusing, staying organized, time management, or controlling emotions and impulses becomes inexplicably very difficult. However, as brain chemistry and the childhood experiences that shape our executive functioning skills drastically differ from person to person, our abilities to effectively employ these skills to manage the various aspects of our life is also going to be widely different. While conditions in childhood and adolescents are important in the development of EF skills, Adults of all ages can continue to learn and improve these skills through help and practice.
“At Thrive Ahead Co, we take a particular interest in supporting people with executive functioning concerns as we include it in our holistic and proactive approach in working with our clients. We understand that any obstacles you might be facing are multi-dimensional and require a big picture look at your life. If you or someone you know is experiencing difficulties with executive functioning skills, I will first ask that you are compassionate towards yourself and/or your loved ones. Below I will share some advice as well as tips on actively working on executive functioning skills:
- You’re not lazy! Life is hard and overwhelming at times and there are a number of internal and external factors that contribute to executive functioning issues,
- You had little control over your environmental conditions that played a large part in the development of EF Skills – but you do have some control now to improve areas of struggle.
- You may be struggling with executive functioning tasks but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything disagnosable, it may just mean that you could benefit from reflecting about what in your lifestyle patterns could be contributing to this difficulty.
Kaylie Short is a licensed professional counselor at Thrive Ahead Co., located in the Bucktown neighborhood. Kaylie serves clients not only in Bucktown, but Chicago, and surrounding suburbs and offers a person-centered and trauma-informed approach to holistic care. Leveraging evidence-based therapeutic modalities, she tailors her methods to address individual needs, drawing upon their innate strengths and resilience. Kaylie is experienced with diverse age groups and cultural backgrounds, making her adept at providing support in various areas. Her specialties include offering support for life transitions, support for ADHD & executive functioning, relationship counseling, communication & conflict resolution, perfectionism & procrastination, therapy for grief & loss, anxiety & depression, navigating personal and religious identity, and trauma-informed therapy. Schedule A Consultation Call Today Here
Executive Functioning Resources
- Learn how to improve core executive functioning skills through recommended activities, exercises, and games for different age groups:
- How to Sharpen Executive Functions: Activities to Hone Brain Skills (clickable link)
- Research shows that meditation and yoga may be an effective way to calm the mind and improve focus. The following article gives a brief overview of results of studies looking at the benefits of meditation and yoga for increased attention and focus as well, and the video gives a more anecdotal account of the benefits and practical advice
- How Mindful Meditation and Yoga Can Help Treat ADHD (clickable link)
- Sleep is so important for improving executive functioning skills. The following article explains why it is so important and practical tips to improve these areas.
- If your into podcasts, in the attached podcast discusses the emerging science of attention management and the six super skills that unlock stronger executive functioning
- The following books I found helpful. They contain strategies to cope better with executive functioning challenges and exercises to begin practicing and developing executive functioning skills.
- Brain Hacks: Life-Changing Strategies to Improve Executive Functioning By Lara Honos-Webb, PhD
- Thriving with Adult ADHD: Skills to Strengthen Executive Functioning By Phil Boissiere, MFT
Sources (all clickable links)