The Role of Executive Function for Overall Health & Wellness

The Role of Executive Function for Overall Health & Wellness

Posted by Lora DiCarlo on Apr 14th 2021

Tell us if you’ve heard this one before: there’s a task on your to-do list today, something important. It could be big or small, as long as it’s something you know you should do today. But for whatever reason, you can’t seem to start. Maybe the dishes suddenly seem incredibly important, or the cat needs to be brushed, or there’s a text or a phone call to make.

Before you know it, half the day is gone and you haven’t handled the task yet. It feels overwhelming, and maybe you even push it to tomorrow.

Or, you may be the kind of person who misplaces things a lot. The kind of student who always forgets the textbook or your laptop charger, or maybe you forget your packed lunch before heading to the office. Even at home, you may forget where you put things often.

Sound familiar? These are all common issues with folks who aren’t great at executive function. Executive function is an important skill, and being unmotivated to start new tasks, procrastinating, losing track of time, losing or misplacing objects or forgetting things even when they’re important are all signs your executive function skills aren’t where they should be.

Executive function disorder, or issues with this important skill, are closely related to ADHD, depression and other mental illness. It’s a skill that can be trained and improved like any other, but to do so, you need to first understand what it is.

What Is Executive Function?

WedMD describes executive function as “helping you get things done,” and says “these skills are controlled by an area of the brain called the frontal lobe.”

Executive function skills can be divided into two groups. The first is organization, or gathering details and using them to evaluate problems and situations. The second is regulation, or taking stock of your situation and changing behavior to respond accordingly. This means executive function relates to your ability to complete tasks and stay on task, as well as regulate your emotions, behavior and internal dialogue.

Executive functioning skills help us:

  • Analyze tasks
  • Plan how to complete the task
  • Prioritize tasks in a logical way
  • Estimate how much time will be required to complete a task
  • Make changes to complete the task if needed
  • Meet deadlines, be on time and be prompt
  • Keep track of personal belongings
  • Manage motivation to start tasks
  • Use words and self-awareness to change how you feel
  • Remember things that aren’t written down and guide behavior based on internal dialogue

Executive function disorder can affect any or all of these skills. While it’s always a good idea to talk to a doctor, therapist or other expert about medical and emotional problems, websites like ADDitude Mag, a publication about ADD and other executive function issues, have helpful self-placement tests for adults to determine if your executive function is suffering.

ADDitude Mag also states that executive functions begin developing in early childhood and fully develop around 30. People with ADHD can be delayed in development by up to 40 percent, making them more likely to struggle with long-term goals.

How Does It Impact My Life?

Executive Function Disorder (EFD), or executive function deficit, means you have serious trouble with the skills above. It’s not synonymous with ADD or adult ADHD, but many times, executive function deficits overlap adult ADHD symptoms or are part of a larger problem, and it comes with real consequences.

People with executive dysfunction often struggle with handling frustration, have difficulty beginning and finishing tasks, switching tasks, staying on track, self monitoring, and prioritizing properly. This can result in losing jobs, getting passed over for promotion, struggling with relationships and conversations, or severe financial penalties like reduced credit scores and fees associated with filing taxes late, neglecting to pay fines, and more. People with EFD can also struggle with reading comprehension, perfectionism, weight loss, and so much more.

In short, EFD makes the daily tasks we all have much more difficult, and can impact our lives in really negative ways. While there’s no medication specifically for EFD, nor is there a “cure” there are treatments and skill-development programs that can help.

What causes EFD?

To treat EFD, it’s helpful to understand what could be causing it. Medical News Today says that some common causes are:

  • ADHD
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Autism
  • Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • Traumatic brain injuries

EFD can also be temporary, which Medical News Today says could be caused by:

  • Exhaustion
  • Severe pain
  • Stress
  • Distracting environments
  • Drug use
  • Alcohol
  • Severe boredom

Even if you don’t have mental illness, adult ADHD or a brain injury, EFD can be caused by a number of environmental factors. Stress, distracting environments, exhaustion… don’t they sound acutely familiar?

While so many of us are living through a collective trauma—think COVID-19, political and civil unrest, revolution, injustice, racism, sexism—it’s easy to see how this problem can affect us all to a certain degree. So what can you do?

Treating EFD

The National Center for Learning Disabilities says that we can improve executive functions by:

  • Taking a step-by-step approach to work.
  • Relying on visual aids to get organized.
  • Using tools like time organizers, computers, or watches with alarms.
  • Making schedules, and looking at them several times a day.
  • Asking for written and oral instructions whenever possible.
  • Planning for transition times and shifts in activities.
  • Creating checklists, and estimating how long each task will take.
  • Breaking long assignments into chunks, and assigning time frames for completing each one.
  • Using calendars to keep track of long-term assignments, due dates, chores, and activities.
  • Writing the due date on the top of each assignment.

Other experts on ADHD say that keeping things organized and tidy is especially helpful, and that reducing clutter makes it easier to keep track of belongings. Bullet journals are really great for tracking tasks and prioritizing properly and also assist in organization.

While EFD is a major problem, and perhaps more common than we think, the good news is there are ways to address it and develop skills that help us get ahead in life, circumnavigate delayed development, and generally get more enjoyment out of life.

If you suffer from EFD, remember that there’s nothing broken or wrong with you, and that our society tends to value productivity over personality which is not super helpful. While you may choose to tackle some opportunities for growth and assimilate into that culture a bit more comfortably, also recognize your unique brain for what it is: a complex system that helps you achieve and learn new things every day.

Give yourself some credit. If you weren’t ready to improve and learn, you wouldn’t be reading this article in the first place. You’ve already taken the first step—great work!