Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition found in the diagnostic and statistical manual that affects both children and adults. Among the many challenges associated with ADHD, difficulties with executive function are particularly significant.

Executive functions refer to a set of cognitive processes responsible for helping a person get things done. This blog post will explore executive function skills and discuss strategies to improve them.

The Link Between Executive Function and ADHD

A group of sticky notes with the words set goal, work, stick to it and reach dd, designed to improve executive function in individuals with ADHD.

Executive functioning refers to a person’s ability to plan, prioritize, and reach goals. It encompasses several skills, including;

  • response inhibition (or inhibition control)
  • working memory (keeping things in mind for a short period of time)
  • emotional regulation (or self-control)
  • flexible thinking (also involves problem-solving)
  • sustained attention (paying attention)
  • task initiation (or self-motivation)
  • planning or prioritizing (knowing what needs to be done and when)
  • organization (keeping things where they should be)
  • time management (an awareness of time and how to use it)
  • goal-directed persistence (the ability to achieve goals)
  • metacognition (or self-monitoring)

Knowing how to reach goals by improving executive function, helps anyone with executive function disorder feel confident about their ability to handle the ups and downs of life.

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Executive Dysfunction Explained

While not an official diagnosis, executive dysfunction refers to the difficulties those with ADHD experience in various aspects of daily life.

Some executive function challenges include the following symptoms which are noticed in daily activities;

Procrastination Challenges

Procrastination has many underlying executive functioning roots. It often is manifested in the inability to complete tasks, or difficulties with self-regulation. A person who struggles with this might also find it hard to prioritize tasks, meet deadlines, and manage their time effectively.

Typically this is a result of decreased dopamine to the prefrontal cortex, which results in difficulty feeling motivated to get started on projects or tasks. The urgency that accompanies a deadline increases dopamine in the frontal lobe, bridging that natural motivation gap, and giving a person the motivation they need to get started and complete it.

Those who experience these executive functioning issues often feel stressed and overwhelmed. To minimize this habit, a person must learn how to build up motivation in other ways, without relying on the pressure of deadlines.

Many clients find this process liberating. Watching themselves start and finish projects before a deadline, without stress feels empowering.

Decision-Making Challenges

Adults with executive function disorder may experience difficulties with decision-making, as they may have trouble considering all available options, weighing the pros and cons, and making informed choices.

a man facing a blackboard with a lot of intersecting lines to showcase decision-making challenges

Many clients in leadership positions find delays in this executive function skill to be daunting. It negatively impacts a person’s ability to effectively lead, or live up to their potential.

One client was able to improve her decision-making skills significantly by batching most of her decisions in the morning when she felt the least amount of stress and the most alert. She intentionally set aside time to make decisions about projects or tasks before taking action on them, which helped her to feel even less pressure. As a result, she found herself making more decisions throughout the day, and feeling less drained by them.

Those who struggle with the executive function skill of decision making may also find it difficult to initiate tasks, not knowing where to start, or how to navigate the process of something that feels daunting.

Impulse Control Challenges

One common executive dysfunction in ADHD is poor impulse control. Individuals with ADHD often struggle to inhibit immediate impulses and engage in impulsive behaviors without considering the consequences.

One client saw this in her own life in the form of impulse buying for emotional regulation.

Noticing this pattern, and knowing it was part of the way a typical ADHD brain works, helped her to be more mindful of the underlying cause, and find other ways to regulate her emotions without relying on the temporary excitement of buying new things.

This strategy became part of her mental health maintenance system, helping her see when she had trouble managing emotions, she had tools to rely on.

Attention and Working Memory Challenges

Individuals who struggle with the executive function skill of working memory may have trouble sustaining attention on tasks, easily becoming distracted by things that feel urgent or important at the moment.

A yellow sign that says "pay attention" on a blue background, designed specifically for individuals with ADHD.

This can result in a person trying to do the dishes, then remembering that the trash needs to be taken out, which then reminds them that the garbage can in the bathroom needs to be emptied, etc. After 30 minutes of completing tasks that felt relevant, the person will enter the kitchen, see a full sink of dishes, and feel discouraged that they didn’t finish the one task they intended.

While this can feel like a problem with distraction, it’s important to recognize, as discussed earlier, the underlying condition is rooted in working memory deficits.

One client struggled with his morning routine, which took longer than he intended, resulting in him being late. He began using an app to track time spent on each step of his morning process. It allowed him to bypass memory, putting less strain on his executive functions each morning.

Inserting external accountability measures like apps, timers, etc. can be helpful to improve consistency.

Planning and Organization Challenges

Individuals who struggle with executive function difficulties may experience challenges in planning and organization. They may have difficulty breaking down long term projects into manageable steps, and establishing effective routines that can be maintained consistently.

A calendar, sticky notes and a clock set against a soothing blue background are tools to assist individuals with ADHD in overcoming planning and organization challenges,

Oftentimes, adults who have struggled with these higher-level executive functions like these, for long periods of time have a hard time believing that change is possible for them.

Clients at EEC often begin the process saying “I can’t be consistent with anything” or “Planners just don’t work for me.”

As time goes by, these same clients, with our support, are able to rely on their own executive function strengths to build systems that work for them, making consistency feel easier.

One client in particular said “Keeping up with my calendar felt hard and busy at first, but after doing it, I feel like it makes everything else so much easier! I’m doing more, and feel so much less stressed! It’s worth it.”

Often the effort of trying something new is minimized after a person sees their own success with that particular system.

Self Reflection Challenges

Many adults find it difficult to effectively reflect on what works, and what doesn’t work to help them regulate emotions, complete tasks, and perform specific skills in ways that feel meaningful.

Too often it feels easier to throw out a system and start another one, hoping the next one will bring solutions to any ADHD struggle they may be encountering. Reflecting, instead on which aspects of a particular system work, and which don’t work, can help a person be more consistent, and improve overall mental health by believing in themselves.

Overall, executive dysfunction in ADHD significantly impacts daily functioning, work performance and relationships. Recognizing these difficulties is essential to develop the executive functions needed to feel successful, and effectively manage their executive function deficits.

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Improving Executive Functioning

While executive function difficulties can be challenging, there are strategies that can help improve executive functioning skills. Here are some of the many effective approaches coaches within EEC use to support clients with executive function challenges:

  1. Establish Routines and Schedules: Creating structured daily routines and schedules can provide a sense of organization and help individuals with ADHD better manage their time and tasks. Breaking larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps can also aid in maintaining focus and motivation.
  2. Utilize External Supports: External aids, such as calendars, planners, visual schedules, and reminders, can be valuable tools for individuals with executive function disorder.
  3. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation: Engaging in mindfulness exercises and meditation can improve self restraint, and enhance self-awareness. These practices allow individuals with executive function disorder to better manage distractions and regulate their emotions.
  4. Develop Strategies for Task Initiation and Completion: Breaking tasks into smaller, more manageable steps and setting specific goals can assist individuals with executive function disorder in initiating and completing tasks. Utilizing techniques like time blocking or the Pomodoro Technique, can help improve focus and productivity, especially for complex tasks.
  5. Enhance Working Memory: Working memory, a form of short term memory can be improved through neuroplasticity. By exercising the brain, new connections are formed, improving it’s capabilities.Strategies such as visualization, minimizing oral instructions, and using mnemonic devices can aid in improving memory.

Executive functions are commonly challenged for those with ADHD. However, individuals with executive dysfunction, or ADHD can improve these skills through various strategies mentioned here, and the support of a qualified professional, including an executive function coach.

We’ve seen many clients improve their executive function skills and their ability to reach personal goals by using their strengths to develop strategies that help them overcome executive function difficulties.

We’re happy to help at any stage in your journey!

Call us now to discover your own potential for improving your own executive function skills. Schedule a free consultation today.

Let us help you find confidence, see your strengths, and work through any executive function issues that get in the way of daily life.