Executive functioning skills 101

Executive functioning skills are the mental skills necessary for monitoring and regulating our behaviors. Thanks to executive functioning skills, we can plan and achieve our goals, stay on task, and otherwise do more of the things we want or need to do. 

Those who read my last article on the CEO and the toddler may have some follow-up questions. One of the biggest questions is, ‘Why some people can easily keep their toddlers in check while others can’t?’. The answer to this question is that those of us struggling to ‘control’ our toddlers have some Executive Functioning deficits.

11 Executive functioning skills

Before we tie executive functioning into your inner CEO’s struggles, let’s outline these skills. Sometimes, identifying the executive functioning deficit is great at alleviating our stress. This is because you have identified the core issue and can, therefore, devise ways of solving it or compensating for it.

1. Motivation 

what lack of motivation can look like [source]

This is our drive to do things. It affects our ability to start tasks and stay on them even when faced with challenges. A deficit in these skills means we may struggle to get ourselves to start on tasks or follow through on them to completion. This is true, especially when they become challenging, boring or when we have internal or external resistance. 

P/S motivation isn’t just for difficult or complex tasks. For example, I enjoy making my bed and love how a well-made bed looks, so I rarely struggle with that. I have lots of motivation to do it. But, I sometimes struggle to read ‘boring books’ (anything that isn’t a romance novel 🙈), so I need more motivation to do that. 

2. Organization

how my workspace would look if I don’t organize it

This is our ability to keep things in our lives in order. You may find that someone is organized in one area of their life, but another area is falling apart. Some people develop unique organizational systems that only they can understand. For example, some people keep things in piles, while others need to keep things where they can see them. 

Personally, I thrive at keeping my closet organized. Yet, my desks are often a whole other issue. I especially struggle to keep my many books, notebooks, sticky notes, and random pieces of paper in order.  

3. Procrastination

How it feels like working against the deadline

Procrastination is delaying or putting off tasks even when they need to be started immediately. Procrastination is more than just laziness. There are many reasons why we may procrastinate, for example, lack of motivation, overwhelm, or even not knowing where to start. 

For example, I knew I wanted to publish this post last week, and so I wanted to have at least finished the first draft on Monday or Tuesday. I finally completed it the next Monday after a lot of stalling and false starts 🙈

4. Time management and planning

How good are you at managing your time? Are you often late? Time management refers to how well you can fit your tasks, events, and responsibilities into your calendar to finish everything on time. Time management goes hand in hand with planning because there is often an efficient way to do things.

Thanks to my calendar, it is relatively easy for me to keep track of my events. However, I sometimes struggle to organize my tasks, so I am doing them in the right order. How motivated I am to complete the task and if I have any internal or external resistance often compounds this problem. 

5. Flexible thinking

Cognitive flexibility asks that you be like water; adaptable, flowing, and resilient.”

Flexible thinking, called cognitive flexibility, is our ability to think about something differently or from multiple perspectives. Flexible thinking often goes hand in hand with set-shifting, which is our ability to do things differently from how we do them. Flexible thinking is very important when we are faced with adversity, changes in plans, or new information.

Many of us have seen the example of a kid who breaks down when their routine is interrupted. This is an example of what difficulty with flexible thinking can look like when it is extreme. Sometimes it can be as simple as not being able to continue working on a task if ‘normal’ parameters are altered. 

6. Self-control or response inhibition

response inhibition involves knowing when to say yes or no to ourselves or others [source]

We no doubt know someone in our lives (or maybe it’s us) who has trouble with self-control. Having self-control implies having the ability to rein in our emotions, impulses, or actions. Lack of/difficulties with self-control can be clear in different aspects of our lives. And it is possible to be able to restrain ourselves in some areas and have less control over others. 

For example, I have a sweet tooth and often cannot resist baked goods. If I am on a diet that calls for cutting out confectionaries, but I eat them anyway, I am displaying difficulties with self-control. 

7. Working memory

Your working memory, a function of short-term memory, is the cognitive (brain) system responsible for temporarily holding information. Our short-term memory is often limited in capacity, and that capacity varies from person to person. The information in our working memory is helpful in reasoning and guiding behavior and decision-making. 

Deficits in working memory can show up as someone being easily forgetful. It can also show up as making the same mistakes repeatedly without learning from them. One of the easiest ways to improve our working memory is to write things down. However, it doesn’t always work especially if you cannot remember where you wrote down the things you want to remember. 😅

8. Metacognition

Metacognition involves thinking about your thoughts [Source]

Metacognition, also called higher-level thinking, is our ability to understand and be aware of our thought processes. Some scientists suggest that it may be a uniquely human ability. For example, if a dog is chasing a cat, it will not ask itself why it is chasing the cat. Through metacognition, we can change our habits and query our thoughts. 

Difficulties with metacognition can appear as deficits in other executive functions. For example, let’s say I am on a low-carb diet, but I am craving sugar. Metacognition would lead me to question if I am hungry or if this sweet tooth can be satiated differently. Deficits in metacognition would mean I won’t question my cravings but instead give in, which would look like a lack of self-control. 

9. Emotional self-regulation

Emotional self-regulation: Understanding and balancing our inner ‘Inside Out’ team for a harmonious mind.

Emotional self-regulation refers to our ability to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions in line with our long-term goals. More specifically, it refers to our ability to modulate and bounce back from difficult emotions that may jeopardize achieving our long-term goals. 

The struggle with emotional self-regulation is sometimes referred to as emotional dysregulation. It can impede our ability to interact with others and can affect many facets of our lives. For example, if someone often shuts down or reacts defensively after slight criticism, they may exhibit emotional dysregulation. It may be because they could not moderate the emotions that stem from being criticized. 

10. Focused attention

Everyone struggles with maintaining focus from time to time. This is especially true if the task at hand is difficult, complex, or boring or if there are any internal and external barriers to performing said task. It is common to find that people have an easier time sustaining attention when they find tasks that engage them and interest them. 

For example, it is very easy for me to watch detective series for hours on end or to read romance novels. Switch out the book for a book on neuroscience or even physics, and you’re going to have a much harder time getting me to stay on task. The goal, thus, is to train ourselves to stay actively engaged with tasks that aren’t enjoyable. It’s also how to transition out of tasks that may be enjoyable but not useful when you could be working. 

11. Decision-making and prioritizing

decision making can be likened to a chess match where you weigh options and make choices on pieces to move

We make hundreds if not thousands of decisions every day. Studies suggest that we make more than 200 food-related decisions every day. Decision-making involves weighing and selecting our actions and beliefs among several options. Many of our decisions may involve deciding what actions come first, i.e., prioritizing. Just like the other executive functions, this executive function can be strengthened or weakened by the others

For example, when I wake up in the morning and my alarm clock rings, I have to decide if I will switch it off or not. If I remember (working memory) that I have an early morning meeting, I will likely get out of bed. If I have nothing urgent to do, but I made a decision to start waking up early, then it is my self-control that will stop me from pressing snooze. 

Executive Functioning Deficits

The prefrontal cortex in the brain

The part of our brain that handles most of the executive functions is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is at the front of the frontal lobe just behind the forehead. Some sources suggest that it may not be fully mature, i.e., finish developing until we are 25. Additionally, there are disorders such as ADHD that affect the development of the PCF and lead to late or underdevelopment of the PFC. It is normal to find that someone struggles with some of these executive functions even when they don’t have any disorder. 

Whether your PFC is fully developed or not, we can always take deliberate actions to strengthen our executive functioning skills or supplement any deficits we may have. Doing so would mean equipping your inner CEO with the tools they need to get things done and achieve your goals. 

In summary

Our inner CEO handles how effectively we adult, and they do so by mustering the different executive functioning skills highlighted in this article. Whenever we have deficits in our executive functions, it affects how we act. In future articles, we will expand on each executive functioning skill individually and discuss how we can strengthen them.

In the meantime, have you identified any executive functioning deficits in your life that may be costing you time, money, peace of mind, or freedom? Consider signing up for coaching with me. Head to my service page to learn more about my services. 

Until next time, thank you for reading. 

Feel free to leave any questions and feedback in the comment section.

Happy adulting.

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