Executive Dysfunction: What Is It and How Do You Overcome It?

Do you ever know you need to complete a task…but you don’t do it? It might be as simple as calling to make a doctor’s appointment or making an easy return to a store.

Or, have you ever needed to start a project but needed help figuring out how to get started? Kids often complain that they don’t want to clean their rooms, but sometimes it’s just that they don’t know how to get going on it or what to do first.

Are you easily distracted? Have you procrastinated on projects until the last minute? Have you felt lazy or unmotivated for being unable to accomplish simple tasks?

There are many reasons you could be struggling. You could be overstimulated or overstressed. Having too many things on your plate can greatly diminish your productivity. Health issues can decrease our ability to focus. Mental health struggles can cause us to lose the desire to address chores or other tasks.

But – sometimes, there’s something more. Our executive function abilities may not be working quite right.

What is executive function?

Executive function drives our ability to get things done. Our brain utilizes some specific skill sets, including:

  • Task initiation: being able to start a task
  • Organization: accounting for all tools or items you need to do a task
  • Working memory: involves what you’re doing right now, such as working on a math problem, taking notes, or having a conversation
  • Time management: knowing how much time the task will take

But, sometimes, our brain struggles with one (or more) of these elements, and it throws everything out of whack.

What happens when someone struggles with executive function?

Executive dysfunction is a common behavioral symptom that disrupts a person’s ability to manage their thoughts, emotions, and actions. It impacts our ability to prioritize tasks, manage time efficiently, and make decisions. It’s commonly associated with many mental health conditions, especially addictions, behavioral disorders, brain development disorders, and mood disorders.

It’s not just procrastination or being lazy.

Examples of executive dysfunction include:

  • Getting distracted and focusing on too many things
  • Hyperfocus (focusing too much on just one thing)
  • Daydreaming or “spacing out” when you should be paying attention
  • Difficulty motivating yourself to start a task that seems difficult or uninteresting
  • Struggling with thinking before you talk
  • Challenges explaining your thought process clearly, although you understand it perfectly in your head
  • Trouble controlling emotions
  • Time blindness (time management based on the task at hand and the available time)
  • Losing or misplacing things frequently
  • Inability to finish a started task

What are some strategies to overcome executive dysfunction?

While there are no solutions out there that will resolve every challenge one might experience from executive dysfunction issues, some strategies will help streamline life. Consider these tips as you go about your daily habits:

  1. Everything has a place, and every place has a thing: Establish consistent places to put your “stuff.” Keeping things where they belong and consistently putting them there will prevent you from having to look all over your house for them. For instance, when you come home after work each day, put your car keys, wallet, phone, and other important items in a drop zone or special place on your kitchen counter. This applies to other items in your care, too. Knowing that your cleaning supplies are all under the sink or in a cabinet in the laundry room will ensure they’re convenient when you need them. Or, always knowing where your favorite spatula is in the kitchen helps make preparing dinner so much easier.
  2. Set timers and alarms: Whether you use your phone or a smart device such as Alexa or Google Home, use the timer and alarm features to keep you on schedule. Most everyone uses an alarm to get up and get ready for school or work. But you can set alarms to remind you to walk the dog, take a shower, or vacuum the floor. Some people even use multiple alarms to remind them of their schedule as they get ready in the morning. For instance, the first alarm might be the prompt to wake up. The second alarm indicates that you should be dressed by then. The third alarm signals you to move along to breakfast. The last alarm warns you that you need to get out the door.
  3. Make lists: Yes, nearly everyone who battles executive dysfunction has probably created a list before. But lists are imperative for making sure all of the steps to an activity get done. Or, they are necessary to visually remind us of the tasks we need to complete for the day. They can be work-related or apply to any aspect of your personal life. Kids, for example, might benefit from a list that encourages their morning routine. It could include: brushing their teeth, putting on deodorant, getting dressed, combing their hair, putting on their shoes, gathering their school things (backpack/laptop/homework), and eating breakfast. It sounds simple, but a list that reminds you of your routine is helpful when it’s easy to get distracted.
  4. Break big projects up into smaller ones: When a kid is told to clean his room, it can seem daunting, especially for a child who struggles with executive dysfunction. Help your child break down the chore into step-by-step action items. Tell them to clean their desk first, then tend to the bookshelf. Last could be picking things up off the floor. Or, break the room up into four corners and tell them to clean it up by quadrant. As adults, the same process can apply. If you’re cleaning the house, concentrate on one part of each room until you see progress in an entire room. Even for someone without executive dysfunction, tasks can seem overwhelming. Reduce every big chore to smaller jobs to make them more manageable.
  5. Celebrate your victories: While it may not seem like a big deal, returning that library book or scheduling a haircut can be huge victories! Just compelling yourself to do little tasks can be hard. You should feel good about it when you mark a bunch of “to-dos” off your list. Allow yourself a moment to enjoy getting something off your plate, then plan for the next mini-success!
  6. Talk yourself into being successful: Even when your brain just isn’t wanting to cooperate and do the thing (whatever the “thing” might be), talk yourself into it. Sometimes, just verbally saying, “I’m going to mow the lawn today,” is enough to convince your brain to kick into “go” mode and get you the motivation to do it. Throwing it out into the universe that you’re going to do the laundry, clean the junk drawer, or organize the garage can be what jump-starts your brain.

People are successful in life every day and still struggle with executive dysfunction. The most important thing to remember is to give yourself some grace. Nobody is perfect.

Services are Available

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health challenges, reach out for help. Services for children, adolescents, and adults are available in all our offices throughout our six-county catchment area. Call us to schedule an appointment today: 866-973-2241.