By Patty Laushman
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be naturally organized, goal-oriented, and focused, while others struggle with these skills? The answer lies in executive functioning, a set of cognitive processes that govern an individual's ability to regulate their thoughts and actions, manage their emotions, and make decisions in a future-based, goal-directed manner.
These skills are crucial for achieving success in various aspects of life, such as academic performance, career success, and social relationships. When these skills are delayed or impaired, it can adversely impact diverse aspects of day-to-day life.
Setting goals and achieving them, prioritizing things you need to do over things that are more enjoyable, keeping our living spaces tidy, planning ahead, following through on the steps needed to complete projects on time, and managing your social life can be challenging. Even things like getting out of bed, getting dressed, taking care of personal hygiene, nourishing your body, and getting out the door on time all rely on executive functioning to do them successfully.
Executive Functioning and Neurodivergence
Many neurodivergent people, particularly those with autism and ADHD, struggle with one or more executive functioning skills, which can have a deleterious impact on their quality of life. Unfortunately, they are often accused of being lazy or unmotivated, but there are real brain-based reasons behind their behaviors. It’s not that they won’t do certain things – it’s often that they literally can’t – at least not yet.
There is no typical profile of executive functioning challenges. Some people may experience mild executive functioning impairment, such as having challenges in a single area of executive functioning such as working memory. Others may experience problems across multiple domains and experience significant impacts.
It can be absolutely maddening when a person has obvious strengths in certain areas but then struggles in others. These are the people most likely to get accused of laziness. Add to this a varying capacity to function day-to-day based on the environment in which someone is operating, the need to mask, or recent stress, and even the individual themself may wonder if they are, in fact, just lazy. If they can do something one day but not a week later, it can cause confusion for themself and those around them.
It doesn’t mean they have to stay that way though. Navigating neurodivergence with executive functioning skills challenges can be difficult, but once you identify exactly where the challenges originate, it suddenly becomes possible to find strategies for overcoming the challenges and improving your quality of life.
In this blog post, I'll define 11 executive functioning skills, describe what each are responsible for, and give specific examples of what it looks like when someone struggles with these skills. Hopefully, this will help you pinpoint where your challenges originate so you can find solutions that help you thrive!
Defining a problem is the first step to finding a solution, and improving your executive functioning skills or putting specific accommodations in place can be a game-changer. So, let's dive in!
The 11 Executive Functioning Skills
Planning is the ability to set goals, develop strategies, and create a roadmap to achieve those goals. Effective planning requires an individual to break down complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps, prioritize tasks based on their importance and urgency, and allocate resources efficiently. Good planning skills enable an individual to stay organized, focused, and making progress toward their goals.
A person who struggles with planning may have difficulty organizing their thoughts and breaking down complex tasks into smaller, manageable steps. They may struggle to prioritize tasks based on importance and urgency, leading to missed deadlines and a lack of progress towards goals.
2. Time Management
Time management refers to the ability to use time effectively to accomplish tasks and goals. It involves prioritizing tasks, setting realistic deadlines, and allocating time appropriately for each task. Effective time management skills help individuals avoid procrastination, work efficiently, and meet deadlines.
A person who struggles with time management may struggle to allocate their time effectively and may frequently miss deadlines. They may have difficulty prioritizing tasks and tend to procrastinate, leading to last-minute rushes to complete tasks – or missing deadlines altogether.
3. Task Initiation
Task initiation is the ability to start and sustain a task without being distracted by other stimuli. It involves overcoming procrastination, resisting the temptation to engage in other more fun or interesting activities, and initiating tasks in a timely manner. Good task initiation skills help individuals stay productive and achieve their goals.
A person who struggles with task initiation may have difficulty starting and sustaining a task. They may be easily distracted and find it challenging to focus on a task, leading to incomplete or abandoned projects.
Organization is the ability to arrange information and resources in a systematic and efficient manner. It involves creating systems for storing and retrieving information, keeping track of deadlines and appointments, and maintaining a
clutter-free environment. Good organizational skills help individuals stay focused, reduce stress, and improve productivity.
A person who struggles with organization may have difficulty keeping track of information and resources. They may struggle to create systems for storing and retrieving information, leading to missed appointments and deadlines, lost items, and a cluttered environment.
Problem-solving is the ability to identify, analyze, and resolve problems effectively. It involves breaking down complex problems into smaller, manageable parts, evaluating different options, and choosing the best solution. Good problem-solving skills help individuals make informed decisions, overcome obstacles, and achieve their goals.
A person who struggles with problem-solving may have difficulty identifying and analyzing problems. They may struggle to break down complex problems into smaller, manageable parts, leading to frustration and a lack of progress toward solutions.
Flexibility refers to the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and adjust one's behavior and thinking accordingly. It involves being open to new ideas, perspectives, and approaches, and being able to switch between different tasks or priorities as needed. Good flexibility skills help individuals cope with uncertainty, manage stress, and thrive in dynamic environments.
A person who struggles with flexibility may have difficulty adapting to changes in plans or routines. They may become anxious or overwhelmed when faced with unexpected situations, leading to stress and anxiety when faced with uncertainty.
7. Working Memory
Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information in your head over the short term while performing other tasks. It involves the ability to remember instructions, recall information, and use that information to complete tasks. Good working memory skills help individuals stay focused, avoid distractions, and learn new information efficiently.
A person who struggles with working memory may have difficulty remembering instructions and retaining information in the short-term. They may forget important details, leading to mistakes in completing tasks. They may struggle to remember things they are told and need to immediately write them down.
8. Emotional Control
Emotional control refers to the ability to manage one's emotions and react appropriately in different situations. It involves regulating emotional responses, staying calm under pressure, and maintaining composure in challenging situations. Good emotional control skills help individuals maintain healthy relationships, make rational decisions, and achieve their goals.
A person who struggles with emotional control may have difficulty managing their emotions in different situations. They may become easily upset or overwhelmed, leading to conflict in relationships and difficulty making rational decisions.
9. Impulse Control
Impulse control is the ability to resist the temptation to engage in immediate gratification in favor of long-term goals. It involves delaying gratification, resisting urges, and making decisions based on rational thinking rather than emotions. Good impulse control skills help individuals make healthy choices, avoid risky behaviors, and achieve their goals.
A person who struggles with impulse control may have difficulty resisting immediate gratification in favor of long-term goals. They may engage in suboptimal behaviors, such as overspending, substance abuse, or compulsive eating, leading to negative consequences.
10. Attentional Control
Attentional control is the ability to maintain focus and concentrate on a task despite distractions. It involves the ability to filter out irrelevant information, sustain attention over time, and switch attention between different tasks. Good attentional control skills help individuals stay focused, avoid errors, and complete tasks efficiently.
A person who struggles with attentional control may have difficulty maintaining focus and concentration on a task. They may become easily distracted by external stimuli, such as social media or email notifications, leading to difficulty completing tasks efficiently.
Self-monitoring is the ability to reflect on one's own behavior, evaluate its effectiveness, and adjust it accordingly. It involves self-awareness, self-evaluation, and self-correction. Good self-monitoring skills help individuals identify areas for improvement, track progress towards their goals, and adjust their strategies accordingly. It also helps individuals become more self-sufficient and less reliant on external feedback.
A person who struggles with self-monitoring may have difficulty reflecting on their own behavior and making necessary adjustments. They may struggle to identify areas for improvement and tend to repeat the same mistakes, leading to a lack of progress towards goals. They may also struggle with strained relationships.
Did you identify any areas that you obviously struggle with? If so, working on specific executive functioning skills can have a significant impact on your quality of life.
Depending on your age and a variety of other factors, you may be able to improve individual skills. In other cases, using different tools or putting external supports in place can be extraordinarily effective. A highly qualified executive functioning coach or neurodivergent life coach can help you get there! If you'd like to explore this, you can schedule a complimentary consultation to discuss what you're hoping to achieve and we can identify the best fit coach from our team.
In conclusion, executive functioning skills play a vital role in an individual's ability to achieve their goals and experience the kind of quality of life they seek. While these skills may come naturally to some people, others may struggle to develop and maintain them. However, with practice and the right strategies in place, you can mitigate your executive functioning challenges and reap the benefits of a more organized, productive, and satisfying life.