Executive Functioning: Why These Skills Matter
What is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning is a set of skills known as the "predictors of success." We need these skills to "function" at our best. I call them the "Essential 11". The skills are flexibility, awareness, self-control, emotional control, organization, task initiation, working memory, time management, sustained attention, prioritization and planning, and goal-directed persistence.
Executive Functioning is necessary to lead a fulfilling life since it impacts us personally and professionally.
~ supports us in managing our daily tasks
~ boosts our problem-solving ability
~ fosters efficiency in learning and working
~ promotes healthy relationships
~ keeps us on track so we can accomplish our long-term goals
~ prevents overwhelm and stress
Difficulties with Executive Functioning
Lacking even one skill negatively impacts our lives. A person's intelligence, talents, and education cannot make up for deficiencies in executive functioning. To be a peak performer, you must address any weaknesses in these skills.
Each of us has at least one EF weakness. Individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder struggle with five or more of the essential skills. We all benefit from identifying the area(s) we need to improve and learning ways to strengthen that skill.
My EF Weakness: An "Ah-Ha" Moment
Here’s a personal example to show how weaknesses in executive functioning impact our relationships.
A while back, I disagreed with a person that I respect. Even though it was a minor issue, we became upset. The matter was unresolved. It wasn't the first time we failed at communicating. I wondered if we were repeating a pattern. After thinking about what occurred, I realized we both had a go-to response when frustrated. I tended to become defensive and overly sensitive. He became rigid with a "my way or the highway" attitude. How different our discussions could be if I had more emotional control and he had more flexibility! With this insight, I learned the benefit of staying calm so he has time to consider my point of view. Even if he doesn't validate my opinion, I can move on - agreeing to disagree.
Individuals have different levels of development in each of the eleven skills. We can think of each skill's strength as being on a continuum.
As you read, see if you notice a similar weakness in your life. Then, you can focus on ways to strengthen that skill.
Poor emotional control shows up differently for different people. For some, their repetitive negative thoughts create great anxiety, hindering them from doing what’s important or impacting their performance. For others, the lack of emotional control shows up as a short temper, anger, or rage. Poor emotional control can disrupt our relationships and level of achievement.
The E+R=O principle (Event + Reaction = Outcome) helps to get a handle on our emotions. It’s not the event but our reaction to it that causes a particular outcome. The stress we feel is not related to the situation but to our perception of it. Also, naming the emotion, (frustration, hurt, disappointment, fear, loneliness, worry, or guilt) is another strategy for clarifying what’s behind the upset. Add to these the well-known advice – Pause and Breathe.
Without flexibility, our daily life is unnecessarily frustrating. Rigid thinking, perfectionism, and lack of the ability to give and take set us up for disappointment and relationship problems.
Flexibility is an openness to alternative ideas, the ability to change when needed, and the acceptance of the right of others to do things differently. Life runs more smoothly when we learn to pause before rejecting someone’s idea, consider other people’s feelings before making a decision, and allow for mistakes – ours or others.
Getting Things Done - Prioritization, Task Initiation, and Persistence
We live in a crazy-busy, ever-changing world, which means each day can seem like a juggling act. If we fail to prioritize, our actions can quickly sabotage our goals. Doing busy work may feel productive, but it accomplishes little. Giving ourselves too much downtime limits our work time. Focusing on another person's to-do list usually means we’re not paying attention to ours.
People who prioritize are proactive. They take time to decide what needs to come first. They establish routines and habits so their day flows. They avoid being overstimulated, distracted, and interrupted. Prioritization requires planning, discipline, and boundaries.
“I don’t feel like doing it now" is the catchphrase expressing the sentiment of couch potatoes who avoid exercise, would-be dieters who complain about their weight, and people who continually delay beginning their work assignments. For them, it is hard to feel motivated about starting tasks that they consider dull or difficult. This leads them to put off things that need to be done. With each postponement, it’s more difficult and more stressful to begin.
There are options to overcome the resistance to starting tedious or difficult tasks. Timers and apps help create structure. Using reminders, establishing a new routine that piggybacks on another activity, partnering with a buddy, and choosing a reward as a motivator can help. Often, getting started creates the momentum to get the whole job done.
Some people are OK with starting something. For them, following through is difficult. Consider the wasted time, energy, and cost to people who need more persistence. They quit jobs when frustrated, leave projects partly done, and sign up for expensive courses they don't complete. Their self-esteem, careers, and relationships suffer as they fail to fulfill their expectations and obligations.
Finding the right system, support, or incentive can get you to the finish line. Chunking a project can make work seem more manageable. By strengthening the persistence muscle, people can complete what they started and enjoy the accomplishment.
Time is a non-renewable resource. We can't buy or borrow time. Some people lose hours of their day. They lounge around, surf the Internet, or spend an excessive amount of time doing what’s fun and easy. On the other hand, some people overbook their calendars, setting themselves up for disappointment when they can’t do everything they hoped to. Also, time blindness and underestimating the time needed for work, chores, and travel results in stress, feeling rushed, and being late.
Good time management takes planning. Consider the available time and put priorities at the top of the To-Do List. Only make commitments after consulting your calendar. Creating a schedule, improving time awareness, and being realistic are ways to maximize your time.
Living haphazardly causes anxiety. Even getting out the door in the morning can be challenging if you have to search through clutter for papers or needed items. Finances suffer if due dates for bills pass unnoticed. Disorganization can interfere with the completion of work. Sometimes, things are repurchased because the original can’t be found in the mountain of stuff. Stuffocation overloads the senses, creates stress, and impacts relationships and finances
Here are some tips for organizing your space. Donate or toss unnecessary items. Organize one small area at a time. Get someone to help and make a day of it. Once things are organized, set up new systems to maintain the organization. If the overwhelm remains, consider hiring a personal organizer, cleaning service, or bartering an exchange of chores. You deserve to live in an environment that fosters your sense of harmony and increases your focus.
The fancy name for the executive skill of awareness is metacognition. Metacognition can be considered the How am I doing? skill. Poor metacognition is not knowing what most people around you know. You feel blindsided about missing a deadline, shocked by a poor evaluation, and surprised about a person’s reaction because you missed the social cues.
Metacognition encompasses staying aware of how you are doing. The awareness provides feedback concerning your thoughts, feelings, triggers, performance, strengths, weaknesses, behavior, needs, and strategies. That information guides you on what to do next - continue, get help, change your thinking, take a break, or try something different.
Distractions are everywhere. When we are alone, we can be distracted by our thoughts or devices. When we’re out, audio and visual stimulation can hinder focus. We multi-task, daydream, and get distracted by worry. Sometimes, when it's most important to be attentive, we fail to do so. We misinterpret what we hear because we only half-listen. We miss the important details because we scan instead of paying attention to the full text. We get in car accidents because we aren't watching the road. Inattention interferes with our learning potential, communication, and productivity.
If your modus operandi is "continuous partial attention, stop to consider where your attention is truly required. Create an inner and outer environment that fosters sustained attention. Clear your mind of distraction. Set the intention to stay focused. Customize your work environment to remove anything that will tempt you to stop working. The payoff is the efficient completion of what you are working on.
Lack of self-control shows up as impulsive, risky, or self-defeating behavior. Sometimes, it's like being on automatic pilot - a case of acting without thinking. Other times, we forge ahead, knowing we're not acting in our best interest. We choose what we want now, even though it will harm us in the future. Two examples of poor self-control include refusal to comply with medical recommendations that we know will help and acting in ways that endanger our safety, like speeding. Overindulging is another problem. Reckless spending, irresponsible gambling, drinking to excess, and engaging in risky sexual behaviors demonstrate poor self-control.
Self-discipline is choosing what we want most over what we want now. We’re willing to rein in our immediate impulses and desires, so we have the things we value in the long term. We behave in a way so we progress to our goals and prevent setbacks. The benefits of self-control are financial stability, health, harmony, and life satisfaction.
Oh no, I missed the meeting! I can't find my phone again. I don't remember you saying that! These statements often relate to working memory. Working memory is the process of holding information for a short time. A pattern of forgetting appointments, losing things, and not remembering what was said are examples of problems with this executive skill.
Fortunately, there are many ways to support working memory. Stay focused – keep your attention on what you’re doing. Also, remember Ben Franklin's advice, "A place for everything, everything in its place". Create consistent drop spots so you don’t have to track where you put something. Stay in the moment. For example, think to yourself, "I’m parking the car in section C in the first row." Use a planner, calendar, and alarms as reminders. Taking time to set up support will save you frustration in the future.
A Goal for Everyone - Improve Executive Functioning
Mastering yourself is true power. - Lao Tzu
Now is the perfect time to improve your executive functioning. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, the eleven skills will smooth your transition as you take on added responsibilities. If you’re older, you can benefit from greater productivity and harmony. If you have ADHD, improving your executive functioning will empower you to manage the frustration and challenges of the condition. For those considering getting help from a coach, check out the Frequently Asked Questions.
You can predict your success by clicking on the link below. Complete the short survey and read the tips on starting on the path to better executive functioning.
Executive Functioning Checklist and Tips
Predict Your Success
Irene Caniano is a former teacher and experienced coach specializing in executive functioning, productivity, and ADHD. Most of her clients are in their twenties. She offers short and long-term personal coaching. Irene is the author of Design Your Happiness: 9 Essential Elements to Create the Life You Want. Her mission is to help young people enjoy satisfying, successful lives.