I’ve written a lot about executive function, but I realized recently that I don’t have a post that explains what EF is. I set to write one post and 4000 words later, I have a short series. This is part one. The three remaining parts will be posted over the next two weeks.
So what the heck is executive function, anyhow?
Executive function is a broad term that refers to the cognitive processes that help us regulate, control and manage our thoughts and actions. It includes planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, initiation of actions and monitoring of actions.
That’s a nice concise definition, in theory, but what does EF look like in real life?
In practice, executive function is a slippery concept. Sometimes it looks like responsibility. Sometimes it looks like self-discipline. Sometimes it looks like being a competent adult.
If you have poor EF, people might mistake you for being disorganized, lazy, incompetent, sloppy, or just plain not very bright. Why? Because executive function encompasses so many essential areas of daily living. Nearly everything we do calls on areas of executive function. Cooking. Cleaning. Parenting. Work. School. Self-care.
Impaired executive function is why I occasionally leave the burner on the stove lit after I finish cooking.
It’s why I have no clue why I’ve walked into the kitchen.
It’s why I have so much trouble taking a break from work to walk the dog.
It’s why the recycling items sit next to the front door for days before I take them out to the bin.
It’s why I write myself a list of the errands I need to run if there is more than one.
It’s why I can’t fill out a form while answering the questions that the postal clerk is asking me.
It’s why the kitchen looks like a typhoon has hit when I’m done cooking.
It’s why I insist on doing things my way even when someone shows me an easier way.
It’s why I find myself staring at a conversation partner with no idea what they’ve just said.
How is it possible that one thing encompasses so many different situations? Executive function is the control center for our brain. The conductor of our neurological orchestra. The pilot of our brain plane. The CEO of our synapses. The . . . okay, I’ll stop.
But you get the idea. Executive function is high level thinking and high level thinking plays a big role in helping us navigate the world around us. I want to talk about some general concepts related to executive function, but before I do that, let’s look at the components of executive function individually to get a better feel for what EF looks like our daily lives.
All of the components can be broadly categorized as either organization functions or regulation functions. Let’s start with the organization group: planning, problem solving, verbal reasoning, and working memory. Attention could fall into either category, depending on how we approach it, but I’m going to include it under organization because I think it’s primarily about gathering and filtering input. Together, the organization functions help us collect and structure incoming data in a useful way.
Like executive function, planning is an umbrella term. Making a plan involves a series of subtasks: assessing needs, formulating options, evaluating those options, and sequencing the selected options to achieve a goal. Planning also calls on the EF processes of working memory, verbal reasoning and problem solving.
Often “making a plan” or “having a plan” are recommended as solutions for managing other areas of impaired EF, like task switching or initiation of actions. The irony is that making a plan itself can be difficult or feel overwhelming when your executive function is wonky.
And sticking to the plan? That’s loaded with pitfalls. It’s easy to overestimate how much you can get done in an hour or a day when your EF is dysfunctional. And when we plan, we tend to assume that everything will go smoothly, which rarely happens. So cognitive flexibility, another executive function, comes into play. And then there is the common executive function fail of planning something out, starting to work on it and then completely forgetting the plan.
Also, planning is hard work. If I have a big project to plan, it might take me a couple of days to work up to getting started on it. The planning, not the project. Getting started on the project will take a few more days. “Initiation of actions” is also part of executive function. As you’ve probably guessed, having a plan is not a foolproof solution for managing executive function deficits.
Still, planning can lessen the effects of impaired EF, especially if you find a planning method that works for you. Personally, I try to visualize what I want the goal to look like (clean room, finished project, errands completed) and then think about what needs to happen to reach the goal. Often, trying to discern the bigger chunks of the plan first is helpful, then working out the smaller steps that need to come before or after to make the big chunks happen. This results in a nonlinear planning process but it works for me.
Not surprisingly, that’s also the way I approach writing. Roughly create a skeleton. Flesh out the details. I rarely start writing anything at the beginning and will often jump around, working on whichever section feels “hot” as my ideas unfold.
One final step, in both writing and planning, is to run my draft by someone I trust to check for lingering “plot holes” or for advice on weak spots I’m finding hard to resolve on my own.
In Part 2: The rest of the organization functions–problem solving, verbal reasoning, working memory, and attention