EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING SKILLS: DEFINED
Executive function skills are the organizing and management systems in your brain. They comprise a set of cognitive processes that help us manage, plan, and regulate our behavior in order to achieve goals. These skills help you plan, organize, focus, sustain, and complete tasks. Executive functioning plays a key role in our everyday lives since it takes us from wanting to do something to actually getting it done. The role of executive function is similar to the role of an orchestra conductor. The conductor coordinates all of the different instruments to make the music flow beautifully. Without the conductor, the whole orchestra would be impacted and the music would not flow or sound as beautiful.
The part of the brain that controls executive functioning does not fully develop until age 30, and some studies show that executive functioning development in those with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be up to 30 to 40% delayed. Even when this part of the brain is fully developed, ADHD can affect and interrupt many of these executive function skills. These interruptions can often lead to stress and strain relationships, affecting both your home and work lives. This article will provide an overview of the top eight executive function skills interrupted by ADHD, and provide some strategies to help you overcome these interruptions.
Most Common Executive Functioning Skills Interrupted By ADHD
There are several ways that ADHD can get in the way of your executive functioning. Below are the top skills that are often interrupted by ADHD:
Focus is incredibly important to complete any task, no matter how big or small. ADHD adults often struggle with maintaining focus on their everyday tasks. If you find yourself distracted by things and thoughts, struggle with going back to the task after being interrupted, and miss important information, ADHD may be interrupting your ability to focus. This inability to focus can lead you to get stuck in cycles of thinking, seeking distractions, and generally avoiding the task at hand.
Emotional regulation is a key executive function that keeps our emotions in check. People with ADHD often have difficulty regulating their emotions and impulses. If you experience mood swings, and find it difficult to curb impulsive behavior or delay gratification, this executive function may be impaired. A lack of emotional regulation can lead to impulsive behavior, poor decision-making, and social difficulties.
Time management skills help get every essential task done. Adults with ADHD often struggle with managing their time. If you have trouble estimating time accurately, prioritizing what needs to get done, and meeting deadlines, you may have difficulties with this crucial executive function skill.
Prioritization and Organization
Adults with ADHD often find it difficult to figure out which tasks to prioritize. Additionally, you may find it difficult to organize yourself and your workspace to get everything done effectively.
If you find yourself procrastinating on different tasks, you may have difficulty in the skill of task initiation. Individuals with ADHD often find it difficult to begin a task, especially those tasks that are boring or overwhelming.
Self-Motivation and Persistence
Once you begin a task, do you find it difficult to follow it through to completion? If so, your self-motivation and persistence skills may be impaired. Individuals with ADHD can find it difficult to sustain their attention, especially for tasks that are not inherently stimulating or rewarding. It can also be very easy to get distracted by external or internal stimuli.
Do you struggle to remember important details? Individuals with ADHD may have difficulty holding information in their minds. Additionally, it is very common for ADHD adults to forget instructions, overlook details, or lose track of time.
Metacognition is an awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. Individuals with ADHD may have difficulty monitoring their own thinking and learning, and may not be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, or of effective strategies for learning and problem-solving. With ADHD we often hear the conversation in our head much louder than the dialog in any given situation.
STRATEGIES TO IMPROVE EXECUTIVE FUNCTION SKILLS
To help you navigate the executive function challenges brought by ADHD, below are some strategies:
1. Work On Strategies To Help You Focus
Learning to focus has everything to do with your ability to inhibit distractions. This is the main job of your pre-frontal cortex. With ADHD, it’s hard to inhibit. So to help you stay focused, you can try to break up big tasks into smaller components to help make them more manageable and less overwhelming. You can also give yourself a deadline for each task. This can help to motivate you to get the task done. Additionally, some people with ADHD find having a body double helpful to improve their focus. You can ask someone to sit near you, which can help you focus on completing the task at hand. Make sure to check out my article on body doubling!
2. Practice Regulating With Mindfulness Strategies
Mindfulness can be really helpful in regulating emotions for adults with ADHD. In a way, regulating has everything to do with your ability to stay present in the moment. Meditation can help you practice letting go of ideas and thoughts. Additionally, you can try easy, short mindfulness exercises like the one here. Yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and other relaxation techniques can also help in regulating your emotions.
3. Work Consistently To Manage Your Time
Managing your time effectively can seem like a daunting task, because time management is a ‘category’, that is comprised of many, many different executive functioning skills. With ADHD, we tend to lump time management into a simple task, but it’s indeed very complex. It’s all too easy to get carried away with the next new time management app. And, while time management tools can help you, they need to target the meta-skills you need to be helpful.
For example, some people struggle with estimating how long tasks take, while others have a lousy grip on their time horizon for a given day or week. Of course, you can set a timer for specific tasks to keep you on track, but there are hundreds of executive functioning skills at play. If you need working memory support, automatic reminders help, but if you need to ‘see it’ use a paper planner. Many ADHD adults concoct their own way of doing time – and your way may be unconventional, redundant and repetitive. BUT, if it works for you, keep going. Time management is a process and it’s not a ‘task’. So working on this one executive function can be super helpful to support you in every facet of your work and life.
4. Find Ways To Organize Your Tasks That Help You Prioritize
To help you prioritize your tasks, you can think about classifying each task based on its importance and urgency. To get yourself organized, you can try creating a system for organizing your physical or virtual documents, such as color-coding or labeling. It can also be helpful to clean up and organize your workspace regularly. Make sure to check out my tips on organizing office paper here.
5. Shorten Your Delays Prior To Starting Tasks
Getting started is often the most difficult part in completing any task. It can help to create a routine for yourself to help you get started more easily. Additionally, setting a reward can motivate you to get started and complete each task on your to-do list.
6. Work On Perseverance
Tenacity and the ability to see things through is directly associated with dopamine. So, when your internal energy and attention bank are depleted, following through on each task is difficult. To gain perspective on your struggles, track your progress towards each specific goal by tracking your attention and interruptions. This one technique is incredibly eye-opening for my clients. When they begin to ‘see’ interruptions in their attention, they develop a keener awareness of how hard it is to complete things with constant interruptions. Set yourself up for concentrated working blocks – and then set electronic or physical reminders to help you complete each task. Help yourself by gameifying tasks and ‘beat the clock!’. Lastly, checklists are a great way to keep yourself on track and motivated!
7. Create Strategies To Support Your Working Memory
Remembering details is hard when you have ADHD. You can begin by practicing memorization exercises, such as memorizing a phone number, to get your brain used to remembering things. It can be helpful to keep a planner or notebook handy to write important information that you must remember.
8. Press Pause And Zoom Out To Practice Metacognition
To help you improve your metacognition, you can begin by reflecting on your behavior and performance to help you improve in the future. Lastly, make sure you are listening and absorbing feedback from your friends, family, and coworkers in order to improve your future performance.
Using your executive function skills can be very difficult with ADHD. ADHD makes it hard to complete your work and home tasks and can leave you frustrated and defeated. Executive function impairment can also leave you feeling ashamed when you are unable to accomplish your goals. Implementing the strategies outlined above can help you improve your executive function skills. To further improve these skills, you can try my Executive Functioning Quick Reference Guide and Self-Assessment Worksheet. This guide and worksheet help you assess how your life experience intersects with each executive functioning skill that can be interrupted by ADHD.