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Oct 05, 2023

Do you ever find yourself putting off tasks until the last minute, misplacing your belongings, or always running late? These are all signs of Executive Function challenges that many people deal with. Fortunately, we have a handful of tips and strategies that teach you how to improve executive function skills. But, first, what even is Executive Function anyway?

Executive function (EF) is a term used in neuroscience and psychology to describe a set of cognitive processes that regulate, control, and manage other cognitive processes. These functions are basically the "CEO" of the brain, overseeing tasks such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, and emotional regulation. It's a bit like the conductor of an orchestra, ensuring every section plays in harmony. Now, just as an orchestra is vital for a flawless performance, executive function is key for navigating life, no matter our age. 

Let's dive into the world of EF and learn how these skills can be improved. Here are the topics we'll unpack:

  1. What is Executive Function?
  2. Types and Examples of Executive Functions
  3. Signs of Executive Dysfunction
  4. Tips to Improve Executive Function

What is Executive Function?

Whether it's planning a project, making decisions, or staying focused amidst distractions, strong Executive Function skills are crucial. Picture trying to listen to a radio with a fuzzy signal. Things can get confusing and frustrating, right? Weak executive function skills can create similar disruptions in daily life. The good news is, like any set of skills, it’s possible to improve executive function and EF can be nurtured and enhanced. Everyone's journey with EF is unique, and recognizing its role is the first step towards fostering it. Here's how you can work to improve yours. Here's how these skills are used every day:

  • Planning: Deciding what time to set the alarm to ensure there's enough time for a morning workout, breakfast, and a shower before heading to work.
  • Organizing: Making a list of items needed for the week, grouping them by the sections of the store.
  • Emotional regulation: When receiving constructive criticism, rather than reacting defensively or with disappointment, processing the information and using it for personal growth.
  • Decision making: Deciding between two favorite restaurants based on factors like current mood, the last time you visited each place, or which one might be healthier.

You might be surprised to know that the seeds of EF skills are planted way earlier than you might think! Ever noticed a baby trying to imitate facial expressions or playing peek-a-boo? That's their working memory in action, as they recall and mimic what they've observed. As kids head to school, their EF skills continue to develop. They start managing tasks, following multi-step directions (like getting ready for school), and even begin to plan ahead, whether that's thinking about packing toys for a playdate or saving their allowance to buy something special. Decision-making takes center stage when entering the teenage years, as they begin navigating social relationships, academic challenges, and more complex life situations.

So, whether you're marveling at a baby's giggles during peek-a-boo or navigating the vibrant energy of a teenager, know that there's a world of cognitive development happening beneath the surface.

Types and Examples of Executive Functions

Think of Executive Function skills as the control center of your brain, almost like the director of a movie, orchestrating all the scenes and making sure everything flows smoothly. Here’s a breakdown of these skills and how they're used:

  • Working Memory: Imagine your brain holding onto several balloons, each with a piece of information. Maybe it's a task someone asked you to do, or a problem you're solving. Working memory is your ability to hold onto those balloons without letting them fly away until you've used the information. Working memory controls abilities like juggling information, multitasking, learning, and problem-solving. Ever walked into a room and forgotten why? Classic working memory hiccup!
  • Inhibitory control: Think of this as the brain's personal security guard. It's all about holding back and making good choices. Inhibitory control is what helps us stay focused, think before acting, and be socially aware. It's kind of like our brain's "quality control" department, making sure we don't always act on our first impulse.
  • Cognitive flexibility: This skill is all about how easily you can switch from one mindset to another. Cognitive flexibility controls our ability to switch gears (move from one task or thought to another), problem-solve, see and understand diverse perspectives, and learn new things. This function is the ability to bend and not break when life throws its curveballs.
  • Emotional regulation: Consider this your inner peace negotiator. Emotional regulation controls how you manage and express your feelings in a way that's appropriate for a situation. It's what stops you from throwing a tantrum when your favorite ice cream flavor is out of stock.
  • Task initiation: This is what helps you kickstart tasks or activities without procrastinating. Task initiation controls our desire to procrastinate, taking that first step to begin a task, starting something new, and overcoming feelings of being overwhelmed. It’s not about finishing or doing things perfectly—it's all about getting the ball rolling.
  • Organization: This is what helps you keep track of things, manage your time, and categorize information. Organization sorts and categorizes information in your brain, manages and allocates time for tasks, and prioritizes tasks.
  • Planning & prioritization: This helps you decide on steps to reach a goal and determine the order in which to tackle tasks. Planning is basically your brain's way of drawing out a roadmap. It helps you decide the route, stops along the way, and what to bring. Prioritization is figuring out what's important and needs to be tackled first. These two work hand-in-hand.

Signs of Executive Dysfunction

Pinpointing signs of executive dysfunction is crucial for understanding ourselves and others better. Let's unravel the subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs of this cognitive phenomenon and shed light on how it can present itself in our daily lives. While the term "Executive Dysfunction" might sound quite formal, its effects are actually personal, affecting pretty much everything we do on a daily basis.

In your personal life, Executive Dysfunction can create struggles with understanding and managing time. You might frequently lose track of time, be habitually late, or have difficulty estimating how long tasks will take. Your academic or work performance can also be affected when Executive Dysfunction makes starting projects or assignments become a difficult task. This isn't due to laziness, but rather the inability to kickstart a process. Emotional regulation challenges can come up in relationships, leading to mood swings, impulsive reactions, or difficulty coping with emotionally charged situations.

Here are some general signs of Executive Dysfunction:

  • Problems  with time management
  • Difficulty beginning tasks or switching between them
  • Lack of emotional control
  • Memory problems
  • Inflexible thinking
  • Poor organization and planning
  • Difficulty multitasking

While Executive Dysfunction affects people of all ages, the signs can be a lot different and sometimes even easier to identify in children. Here are some signs of Executive Dysfunction in children:

  • Difficulty beginning homework or chores
  • Throwing tantrums or acting out when things don't go as expected
  • Struggling to remember information learned in class
  • Turning in homework late or frequently underestimating their academic workload
  • Difficulty staying on a schedule at school or home
  • Difficulty finding creative solutions to problems

How To Improve Executive Functioning Skills: 10 Tips

Whether you're aiming to become the master of multitasking, or simply want your daily chores to feel less chaotic, Executive Function training will strengthen your EF skills. Here are 10 practical strategies that that you can use to improve executive functioning skills.

1. Chunking

When faced with a colossal task, it can be daunting. Tackle it by breaking it down into smaller, digestible chunks. Think of it as turning a mountain into manageable molehills. Remember, longer doesn’t mean better. Break tasks into 20-40 minute increments with 5-10 minute breaks between each study session. Breaking down the task into smaller pieces helps the brain digest new information and can help approach tasks with less dread and anxiety.

2. Mindful meditation

It's not just a fad—it works! Studies have shown that consistent meditation helps in enhancing focus, improving memory, and regulating emotions. Even a quick 5-minute daily session can make a significant difference. Even when we’re able to have some downtime after work or in between classes, we may find that it’s hard to quiet the multitude of worries that race around our minds. Typically, this means setting aside ten minutes a few times a week to sit down, close your eyes, and focus on the sensation of the breath and present moment. Although this seems simple, it may actually be the most powerful tool on this list, as countless studies have shown that regular mindfulness meditation actually decreases the size of our amygdala - the area of the brain responsible for the emotions of stress and anxiety.

3. Visual aids

Embrace calendars, planners, and to-do lists. Visual aids help structure your thoughts, ensuring tasks don’t slip through the mental cracks. Visual representations of chunks of time can often be more useful than just seeing time and tasks listed. Digital calendars give us the ability to color-code time blocks, making it easier to quickly understand the different commitments you may be responsible for. Take advantage of included features such as text reminders for appointments, color coding of different types of events, task lists with due dates, and the ability to schedule recurring events. These calendars can be shared with family members and other accountability partners.

4. Establish routines

The brain thrives on patterns. Set consistent routines, be it for sleep, meals, or work. Over time, these become second nature, reducing the cognitive load. Establishing daily routines can create a sense of stability even if there are many unknowns in our lives. Children and young adults particularly thrive when they can follow daily routines that remain more or less the same. Although routines require some work up front, the payoff can be huge. You will find that your family is on top of things, less stressed, and more cooperative.

5. Limit distractions

When working or studying, create an environment that minimizes distractions. This might mean turning off non-essential notifications, creating a dedicated workspace, or setting specific times for breaks. This also includes eliminating multi-tasking, when possible. When working on a specific task, try to solely focus on that task. If it helps, set a timer for a realistic amount of time to get as much done on the task before taking a break.

6. Self-reflection

Spend time reflecting on your actions, decisions, and emotions. Understanding why certain challenges arise or recognizing patterns in behavior can offer insights into areas that need strengthening. Self-assessment nurtures insight toward where we are versus where we want to be and guides what actions we choose to bridge the gap. This sets the stage for effective goal setting. It often feels easier to quickly move on after a disappointment but taking a pause and debriefing can be the difference between making better choices and repeating the same mistakes in an endless loop.

7. Set clear goals

Having clear and achievable goals can provide direction and motivation. It also allows for better planning and prioritization, enabling more efficient use of time and resources. First, consider the reason for the goal. Most goals come from a place of wanting to better ourselves - focusing on our challenges or areas we need to improve. Remember, we must see the need for our goals to truly want to accomplish them. Check out these 6 steps to successful goal setting.

8. Reward yourself

Learning how to operate the brain’s automatic processing can help make tasks a lot easier. But, as anyone who has set a new goal knows, you can’t create a new habit merely by wanting to. The trick is to pick the right cues and rewards to help your brain feel enthusiastic about achieving the goal. The cue is the thing you see or smell or feel that makes you start the habit, while the reward is what you feel after completing the habit. It's important to reward yourself for completing even the smallest steps toward a larger goal. A reward can be anything from a 5-minute break to getting that new pair of shoes you've been eyeing.

9. Explore different ways to learn new information

Learning is a multifaceted process, and people have diverse ways of assimilating new information. The most traditional learning styles are reading or writing information. But, if you're a visual learner, try using infographics, watching videos, or even drawing. If you prefer a more auditory approach, listen to a podcast to learn a new skill (check out Focus Forward for EF tips)! It's beneficial to understand your own preferences and then combine various methods for a holistic learning experience.

10. Seek professional guidance

Executive function coaching, like what we offer here at Beyond BookSmart, provides personalized strategies tailored to your unique needs, giving your Executive Functions the boost they deserve. If your challenges feel extremely complex, it's always a good idea to get a medical evaluation to determine if there are any other underlying diagnosis that may be affecting your EF skills.

For parents, implementing these strategies in your child's life can seem like a daunting task but consider things like creating checklists together and celebrating small achievements along the way, asking open-ended questions that prompt them to think about their choices and feelings, and modeling calm problem solving techniques when conflicts arise. Remember, patience and consistency are key. Every child is unique, so it's important for parents to approach these strategies with flexibility, adjusting based on what works best for their child's individual needs.

Executive function is essential for a plethora of daily tasks and overall life success. By understanding its core components and integrating practices that target and strengthen these areas, you can pave the way for better cognitive health and improved daily functioning. Remember, like any other skill, improving your executive function requires time, practice, and consistency. Start small, stay dedicated, and over time, you'll see tangible results. 

 

What is Executive Function Coaching?

About the Author

Justice Abbott

Justice Abbott is a Content Marketing Associate for Beyond BookSmart, contributing to the marketing department’s efforts to promote executive function skills as a pathway to confidence and personal success. Prior to joining the Beyond BookSmart team, Justice was as a Marketing Assistant for Germono Advertising Company, working closely with small businesses to redirect their social media marketing efforts and increase brand awareness. She’s earned her Bachelor’s Degree in English from Towson University, with a writing concentration.

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