Whether or not you’ve heard the term “executive function,” you use these vital skills constantly throughout your daily life. In fact, these skills control and regulate just about everything we do.
In this article, we're focusing on the basics of executive functioning: what it is, how it affects people in their everyday lives, and what happens when these skills are impacted. Plus, you’ll learn 7 practical ways that adults can improve executive function skills.
What is executive function?
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), executive function is an umbrella term used to describe a group of cognitive processes that are interrelated. That means they work together to help us plan, organize, make decisions, perform tasks, control our emotions, and communicate with others.
Put shortly, executive function skills are how we think about, process, and control our behaviors. They include our ability to:
Manage our time
Regulate our emotions and behaviors
Plan, organize, and prioritize tasks
Stay focused and follow projects through to completion
Empathize and understand different points of view
Have a strong working memory
Executive functioning develops shortly after birth, continues to grow during our childhood and teen years, and improves throughout adulthood. As we age, executive function skills often weaken.
The ability to plan, manage, organize, and prioritize tasks and activities enables your life to run smoothly, both at home and at work.
As you can imagine, executive function skills are essential for adults to live a productive life. The ability to plan, manage, organize, and prioritize tasks and activities enables your life to run smoothly, both at home and at work.
Take your job, for example. You likely need to remember your tasks and organize how you will complete each one on time. You have to stay focused during meetings, while listening to customers, or while writing emails. And if the task is difficult or something goes wrong, you have to remain calm and ask for support from your coworkers or manager without tempers flaring.
What are the main executive function skills?
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key parts of executive function. Think about how each of these skills plays a role in your daily life, whether at work, at home, or when socializing with friends and family.
Planning and prioritizing: This involves making decisions and figuring out the steps to reach a goal.
Time management: This skill helps you control the amount of time you spend on specific tasks and activities. It includes estimating time and setting aside time to complete tasks efficiently and meet deadlines. Time management plays a huge role in how productive you are!
Organization: This skill helps us arrange our ideas. It involves creating and using a way to keep track of things.
Working memory: This is a skill that allows you to hold on to information in your mind and use it while completing a task. For example, when cooking, you use your working memory by remembering how much of each ingredient you need while simultaneously performing each step in the recipe.
Self-monitoring and metacognition: These skills are related to self-awareness and self-evaluation, including the ability to monitor your own learning and performance.
Response inhibition and impulse control: This includes your ability to think before acting and control your impulses and behaviors.
Emotional control: This skill allows you to identify, understand, and manage your emotions as well as change your emotional state as needed to complete tasks. For example, say you’re completing a large project at work. Then, you get an email that says something you need will be delayed. This may make you feel frustrated, worried, or even angry. However, your emotional control allows you to adapt to the situation and level your emotions to continue on with your work day.
Task initiation: This is your ability to start a task, efficiently and on time.
Flexibility: This is the ability to adapt to new situations, change plans, and create new approaches as needed.
Goal-directed persistence: This is the ability to focus and follow through on a goal to achieve your desired outcome.
Stress tolerance: This skill is related to how well you handle stress, demands, and uncertainty.
An example of how executive functioning works in everyday life
Phew, that was a lot! Now let’s look at an example of how executive function skills play out in your daily routine.
Let’s return to the example of cooking a meal. To be successful while doing this seemingly simple task, many cognitive processes have to work together.
First, you have to plan the entire process by selecting your recipe, making a shopping list, organizing ingredients, and so on.
You have to manage your time by coordinating the timing of different dishes to ensure everything is ready at the same time.
You also have to keep track of multiple tasks, such as monitoring cooking times and recalling ingredients (using your working memory).
Cooking requires attention to detail (how hot is the stove?), problem-solving (what if you’re missing an ingredient?), and flexibility. The list goes on and on!
What causes poor executive function?
Some people are simply born with weak executive function skills. However, people with ADHD, depression, anxiety, or autism are at a higher risk for problems with executive functioning.
Issues with executive function can also be caused by:
Neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia
Psychiatric disorders such as OCD
Signs of executive function disorder
It’s clear that executive function skills are critical to our everyday lives. What happens when these skills are affected or weakened?
When a person experiences a breakdown in any of these skills, at any level, it is called an executive functioning disorder or deficit. If this happens, you may notice you have difficulty completing functional tasks, such as following a sleep schedule, meeting work deadlines, or managing your medications. These difficulties can affect your performance at work and your overall quality of life.
Here are some more examples of executive function problems:
Difficulty planning and/or prioritizing may make it harder to know how to start planning a project, whether it’s a work assignment or a birthday party. This affects the person’s ability to be as productive as they need to be, and it may be frustrating for friends, family members, and co-workers who are counting on them.
Organizational skills can also be affected. A person with poor organizational skills may seem “scatterbrained.” They may have a hard time following directions and keeping track of their possessions and paperwork.
Poor multitasking abilities is another sign of executive function weakness. A person may have a hard time focusing on two or more tasks at the same time, which can make life challenging.
When a person experiences a group of symptoms affecting their self-regulation, planning, focus, or time management, a diagnosis of executive function disorder is given.
The impact of this disorder varies for each person. It depends on factors such as other diagnoses they have, the cognitive demands of their home and work environments, and the support that’s available to them. For example, an adult with a job that requires fewer executive function demands may be able to easily complete work tasks. However, they may have more difficulty with life tasks, such as paying bills, managing medications, or coordinating their child’s activities and appointments.
How speech therapy can help with executive function challenges
As with many other disorders, early identification and treatment are essential. Speech-language pathologists, also known as speech therapists, play a vital role on the health care team for a person with executive function disorder.
Speech therapists are actively involved in the screening, assessment, and treatment of people with executive function deficits. Therapy typically includes a combination of approaches. The speech therapist can directly treat the executive function problem, while also teaching the person strategies to help them be successful in their home, work, and community. The goals of speech therapy are tailored to the individual needs of each person.
7 ways to improve executive function in adults
Now that you’re an expert in executive function, you may be wondering what you can do at home to support yourself or your loved one. Here are some practical tips for improving and supporting executive function skills. These are the types of strategies a speech therapist can help you incorporate in your daily life.
1 Make a “to-do” list or checklist
Some people have trouble completing tasks on time because they just don’t know where to start or what to do first. An organized to-do list can be tremendously helpful in improving your time management.
Whether it’s a note on the fridge, a whiteboard in your room, or a color-coded journal, keep a list of everything you expect to complete–household chores, work projects, other tasks–and when they’re due. You can even break down each task as “important” or “non-urgent.” This visual aid can help you feel more in control. You’ll also get a feeling of satisfaction when you mark something off the list.
2 Use a calendar
Track important dates and appointments on a calendar. You can use a daily, weekly, or monthly view–whatever works best for you.
3 Create a routine
Consistency and routine help with predictability and structure. This supports your planning and organizational skills.
4 Simplify and chunk
Limit the number of activities you try to do at the same time, which will help you focus. And break down tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. This will make it easier to understand and complete instructions.
5 Take notes
Write down important dates, details, reminders, and/or rules in a designated place, such as a notebook or on your phone. Make sure to keep it organized!
6 Use reminders
Whether it’s a sticky note, calendar reminder, or an alarm on your phone, reminders and alarms can help keep you organized and on time.
7 Make small changes to your environment
Adjust your environment to help you focus. Try minimizing distractions and creating a more organized space that will support your attention.
If you or your loved one has concerns with executive function skills, speak with your doctor and reach out to a speech therapist. Our speech therapists can work with you and your family to choose goals that fit your values and have the most meaningful impact on your life.