Executive functioning is often a crucial focal point when addressing ADHD, yet unlocking its potential can be elusive. In the blog titled “Unlocking the Potential: Strategies and Activities to Improve Executive Functioning in ADHD,” we tackle various approaches to strengthen these vital cognitive skills. From an exploration of different executive functions to a selection of targeted activities and exercises, we provide a comprehensive overview aimed at both understanding and enhancing executive functioning in adults with ADHD. This information-rich resource serves as a valuable foundation for individuals, clinicians, and caregivers alike who are looking to improve executive functioning as a way to better manage ADHD.
Strategies to Improve the Executive Function of the Brain
Improving executive functioning skills requires a combination of self-awareness, targeted strategies, and consistent practice. Here are some effective strategies to help enhance executive function:
Goal setting and planning:
Goal setting and planning is the process of defining specific objectives and outlining the steps required to achieve them. It involves identifying what you want to accomplish, breaking it down into smaller, manageable tasks, and creating a roadmap to guide your actions and progress. Goal setting provides clarity and direction, helping individuals focus their efforts and prioritize their time and resources effectively. It allows you to establish clear targets and milestones, measure your progress, and make necessary adjustments along the way. Planning, on the other hand, involves organizing and sequencing the tasks and actions required to reach your goals, considering factors such as deadlines, resources, and potential obstacles. By setting goals and creating a well-structured plan, individuals can increase motivation, maintain focus, and increase their chances of success in various areas of life, whether it be personal, academic, or professional pursuits.
Time Management Techniques
Effective time management enables individuals to make the most of their available time, ensuring that tasks and responsibilities are completed efficiently and on schedule. It allows for better prioritization, helping individuals allocate their time based on the importance and urgency of different tasks. By implementing strategies such as creating schedules, setting deadlines, and utilizing tools like calendars or task lists, individuals can better organize their time, reduce procrastination, and improve productivity. Time management also helps individuals maintain a healthy work-life balance by ensuring that adequate time is dedicated to personal activities, relationships, and self-care. Ultimately, by managing their time effectively, individuals can reduce stress, increase efficiency, and achieve a greater sense of control and accomplishment in their daily lives.
Establishing Routines and Structures
By establishing regular routines, individuals can establish consistent patterns of behavior that promote productivity and well-being. Routines provide a sense of stability and reduce decision fatigue by automating certain aspects of daily life. They help individuals prioritize tasks, manage their time effectively, and allocate resources efficiently. Routines also contribute to improved self-discipline and self-regulation, as they provide a framework for healthy habits and behaviors. Whether it’s a morning routine to kickstart the day or an evening routine to wind down and prepare for sleep, having established routines helps individuals optimize their energy levels, manage stress, and maintain a sense of control. Overall, routines can enhance productivity, reduce stress, and promote a healthier work-life balance, ultimately leading to improved overall well-being.
Self-Monitoring and Reflection
Regularly assessing one’s progress, strengths, executive functions, and areas for improvement makes them more self aware, promotes problem-solving skills and allows for a more mindful life making everything seem less daunting or overwhelming. Being able to reflect regularly on these things allows for consistent growth and progress.
Improving Executive Function disorder
Addressing executive dysfunction requires a holistic approach that requires being self aware and combines environmental modifications, skill-building exercises, and, in some cases, professional guidance. At EEC, we provide individual guidance to help clients through a strength-based approach, to build these EF skills. The following are a few of the most effective steps we guide our clients through to improve EF skills:
Seek Professional Evaluation
Consulting a healthcare professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, can help identify executive function disorder, and guide treatment options. Typically a neuro-psych evaluation will provide great insights about where EF delays may be, allowing a person to see which skills can be best to improve first. This evaluation is not necessary, however, to begin receiving help.
Medication and Therapy
In certain cases, medication may be prescribed to manage symptoms of ADHD. Additionally, therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help individuals develop coping strategies and improve these skills.
Implement Supportive Environments
Creating structured and organized environments at home, school, or work can minimize distractions in everyday life and facilitate better executive functioning. Knowing how to successfully create a structure that will work for each individual, based on their strengths, is best determined (and planned), with the support of a qualified support person or coach.
Implement Success Strategies
Using supportive tools like checklists, visual schedules, or task management apps can assist individuals in compensating for executive function challenges. It is important to note that these tools often are challenging to integrate consistently into everyday life when EF skills are delayed. For this reason, high levels of accountability are important initially. Often, that accountability is most successful with the help of a skilled EF coach.
Executive Function Skills
What are these executive function skills that can cause challenges or executive dysfunction, particularly those with ADHD? Different sources will cite anywhere between 10-13 EF skills. Below, we list the 12 that are most commonly found to impact everyday life. The twelve core skills of executive function include:
The ability to think before acting and resist impulsive behavior. Examples could include most would consider impulse control, or thinking before speaking, refraining from impulse purchases, problem-solving before jumping to conclusions, etc.
Finding solutions to a problem that may not be obvious. This kind of problem-solving may bound simple but involves flexible thinking, perspective-taking, as well as impulse control. Taking the time and mental energy to effectively do this requires practice and guidance. One way we do this at EEC is through the Barriers and Strategies Protocol, developed by Dr. Laurie Faith.
Holding and manipulating information in mind for short periods. Working memory is part of short-term memory. A few examples are holding a teacher’s words in mind long enough to process information, paraphrase it mentally, then write it all down as notes that make sense. Multi-step tasks like these, which require holding information in mind long enough to act on it, are examples of working memory.
Managing emotions and adapting responses to different situations. Most people struggle with emotional regulation, knowing how to respond to emotions, rather than immediately react to them. When ADHD is present, this becomes even more challenging, which makes professional help essential to the equation.
Flexibility can be defined as shifting gears, adapting to changes, and adjusting plans when necessary. This is helpful in many different aspects of like, but most clients see the benefits of flexibility when it comes to adjusting their daily plans when something takes longer (or shorter) than planned. A person who struggles with flexibility is likely to feel overwhelmed by the task of switching plans to account for those changes.
Maintaining focus on a task for an extended period without being easily distracted is what we consider to be the skill of sustained attention. Various learning strategies or movement opportunities can be used to improve attention for college students and adults. Often minimizing access to distractions is an equally effective strategy.
The ability to overcome procrastination and starting tasks promptly is what we consider task initiation skills. This does not come easily for those with motivation deficits commonly associated ADHD. Often clients need to learn new skills helping them plan differently so tasks don’t feel as challenging, and are more easily initiated by keeping track of what things need to be done.
Planning and Prioritization
Planning and prioritizing skills would refer to the ability to develop effective strategies to accomplish goals and organize tasks. Being able to take the task of grocery shopping, for example, break it down into smaller steps, planning what to buy, what to make with that food, and prioritizing according to budget, diet, or time preferences is a skill that is very important.
Organization is considered to be the ability to create order and structure in physical and digital spaces. Some clients use sticky notes, phone reminders, or even family members to assist with keeping a system that feels organized and functional.
Allocating time effectively and meeting deadlines is essential for time management skills. Often times those with executive functioning issues have difficulty knowing how long things take, and planning time effectively. The result is a person running late, feeling rushed, and overly stressed about deadlines. Keeping track of tasks and time needed for such tasks takes practice and patience.
Goal directed persistence involves staying focused and motivated to achieve small daily life goals and long-term goals.
Metacognition is reflecting on one’s thoughts, actions, and strategies for problem-solving. Being able to reflect on past mistakes, and successes in a way that provokes thought about how to improve the future is helpful for anyone working towards long term goals and self improvement.
Examples of Executive Functioning Activities
Knowing the executive function skills are is the first step towards improving on them. The next step is to find executive function strategies that work effectively to improve those skills. Here are some strategies to help improve EF skills:
Encourage the use of planners, calendars, or digital tools to help with organizing and prioritizing tasks and activities. Set specific time limits for completing tasks and create routines to enable you to visualize the big picture of the entire day, paying attention to deadlines or time sensitive tasks, and prioritizing others as needed.
Teach individuals to break down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. This can help reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed and make it easier to complete tasks
Assist in setting clear and achievable goals for daily life and long term. Encourage individuals to define their goals, create action plans, and track progress. Use visual reminders and rewards to enhance motivation.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Practice mindfulness exercises and meditation to improve attention, focus, and self-awareness. This can help individuals recognize distractions and bring their attention back to the present moment.
Engage in regular physical activities to improve overall cognitive functioning. Exercise increases dopamine and norepinephrine levels, which can enhance attention and reduce hyperactivity making everyday challenges seem less overwhelming
Cognitive Flexibility Games
Engage in games or activities that require flexible thinking and problem-solving. Examples include puzzles, Sudoku, crosswords, or strategy games like chess.
Teach organizational strategies, such as creating checklists, using color-coded systems, and maintaining an organized workspace. Encourage the use of folders or digital tools for document and file management.
Help individuals develop self-monitoring skills to become more aware of their behavior and performance. Regularly review progress, provide constructive feedback using functional tasks, and encourage self-reflection.
Practice memory-boosting activities, such as memorizing lists, playing memory games, or using mnemonic techniques. These exercises can help improve working memory and recall abilities.
Social Skills Training
Provide opportunities for social interactions and teach social skills. Role-playing, group activities, and communication exercises from speech therapists can help individuals with ADHD improve their social awareness and self control, to feel less self conscious and more confident in their ability to meet social expectations.
Remember, it’s important to tailor these activities to individual needs and preferences. While EF activities is an umbrella term meant to help people understand which skills they may struggle to exercise regularly, the work to improve them is very individual. Working with a healthcare professional or therapist specializing in ADHD, or with an executive function coach can provide further guidance and support.
At EEC we provide this personalized guidance to help adults find the specific activities that will help them reach their goals.
Improving Executive Functioning in Adults
Improving executive functions in adults with ADHD is important as it directly impacts various aspects of their lives including confidence, and achievement. As mentioned earlier, executive functioning refers to a set of cognitive skills that enable individuals to plan, organize, manage time, initiate tasks, maintain focus, regulate emotions, and make decisions. Improving these allows a person to improve various aspects of life.
Improved executive functioning allows individuals to better manage their daily responsibilities and everyday tasks. Adults with ADHD often struggle with organizing their time and prioritizing activities, leading to difficulties meeting deadlines and completing long term projects. By developing skills such as time management, task prioritization using break tasks, and goal setting, individuals can enhance their productivity and reduce stress associated with unfinished or overdue tasks.
Strong executive functioning skills foster better self-regulation and impulse control. Adults with ADHD frequently experience challenges in inhibiting impulsive behaviors and managing their emotions effectively. Strengthening executive functioning can help individuals exercise greater self-control, make thoughtful decisions, and resist impulsive actions, leading to improved interpersonal relationships, professional success, and overall well-being.
Executive functioning plays a vital role in maintaining focus and attention. Adults with ADHD commonly struggle with sustaining attention, getting easily distracted, and experiencing “mind-wandering.” By employing strategies like mindfulness exercises, cognitive techniques, and environmental modifications, individuals can enhance their ability to concentrate, stay on task, and filter out distractions, thereby improving their performance and productivity.
Improved executive functioning skills contribute to better planning and problem-solving abilities. Adults with ADHD may face challenges in breaking down complex tasks, analyzing situations, and developing effective strategies to overcome obstacles. By honing executive functioning skills, individuals can enhance their ability to think flexibly, problem-solve efficiently, and adapt to changing circumstances, promoting success in personal and professional endeavors.
Enhancing executive functioning skills empowers individuals to take control of their lives and build self-confidence. Adults with ADHD often experience frustration, self-doubt, and feelings of being overwhelmed due to difficulties in managing various aspects of their lives. By acquiring and practicing executive functioning strategies, individuals can regain a sense of control, build resilience, and increase self-esteem, leading to greater satisfaction, well-being, and a sense of accomplishment.
Improving executive functioning in adults with ADHD is vital for their overall functioning and well-being. Enhanced executive functioning skills provide individuals with the tools and strategies necessary to manage their time, regulate their behavior and emotions, maintain focus, solve problems, and achieve their goals. Through targeted interventions, support, and practice, adults with ADHD can improve their executive functioning abilities and unlock their full potential in various domains of life.
Exercises to Improve Executive Functioning
Engaging in specific exercises can effectively improve executive functioning skills. Some exercises to consider include:
Performing multiple tasks simultaneously, such as solving puzzles while listening to music, can enhance cognitive flexibility, working memory and problem-solving skills
Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function, including executive functioning.
Reflective writing exercises, such as journaling or self-reflection, can promote metacognition and self-awareness.
Practicing mindfulness meditation can improve attention, emotional control, and overall well-being, thereby positively influencing executive functioning.
Enhancing executive function skills is crucial for individuals with ADHD executive function disorder, but it can also benefit anyone looking to improve productivity, emotional control, and problem solving skills. By implementing strategies, engaging in targeted activities, and seeking appropriate support, individuals can unlock their potential and overcome executive function challenges. Remember, building executive function skills takes time and effort, but the rewards are well worth it. So, embrace the journey and watch your executive functioning skills flourish!
Here at EEC we provide 1:1 strength based coaching to help adults from all walks of life improve their executive function skills so they can gain the confidence needed to achieve their goals and feel successful.
Many adults with ADHD find it challenging to feel like they’re reaching their potential, when they don’t have the right tools in place. Through coaching, the activities listed above, accountability, and gentle guidance, many adults realize that taking action on daily tasks is possible, and doesn’t have to feel so draining. Once our clients see their potential to manage their everyday items, they feel more invigorated and can begin tackling new challenges without the fear of failure holding them back.
Improving EF skills goes beyond simply using graphic organizers, sticky notes, and calendar reminders, and includes learning the skills necessary to focus on one task at a time, stay organized, and knowing how to take on any challenge they might encounter using specific strategies to minimize the strain of EF skills. Once this happens, due dates are no longer used to get things done at the last minute, and people are able to more fully enjoy their time spent in leisure activities, knowing they can trust themselves to take care of things in a timely manner.
This process of developing essential EF skills takes time, flexibility, support, and the right kind of accountability. That’s what we strive to deliver for all of our clients.