In the simplest of terms, Executive Functions (EFs) are what make it possible for us to start and finish a task successfully and efficiently. While the exact number remains a matter for debate, most professionals agree on at least a few. For our purposes, we're going to define ten of them and share some reasons why they're important. Keep in mind that these functions should not be fully developed in a neurotypical brain until about 25 years of age. In a neurodivergent brain, you can tack on another 5-10 years!
The ability to have a "just right" sized reaction to a situation or problem. Essentially, emotional control when you're an adult is being able to keep your shit together even when you feel like having a temper tantrum. When you're a kid, it's more about using calm-down strategies to get back to the task at hand, despite whatever emotions you're feeling. This can be really tough for an ADHD brain.
INHIBITION/IMPULSE CONTROL: The ability to have a thought or idea but NOT act on it. It's basically "if-then" thinking at its finest. As in, if I take my friend's dare and throw food in the cafeteria, then I will definitely get in trouble. Or, if I don't pay my mortgage on time, I'll have to deal with late fees and crappy credit.
INITIATION: The ability to begin a task or activity. Or, in other words, stop procrastinating! You know, like it's only going to take like 5 minutes, I don't need to start yet! Or, OMG this is
going to take forever, I can't even think about it. Procrastination can make the best of us feel guilty, or lazy, or like a failure. Sometimes an ADHD brain needs to wait until the last minute in order to feel a sense of urgency and dig deep for some motivation.
WORKING MEMORY: The ability to remember the little stuff, even when it doesn't feel important. There are so many types of memories: visual, auditory, procedural, sustained, and shifting (just to name a few). This executive function helps you get information out of your brain when you need it. When my husband and I were still dating, he had an epic working memory fail the day of a party at our house. I had to work, and he had the day off. He asked what he could do to help and I told him: take the trash out, go to the store, and vacuum the downstairs. When I came home (this was before cell phones were really a thing), he said, "I know there's something I forgot! I went to the store and took the trash out, but I CAN'T remember the last thing." In retrospect, a written to-do list probably would have been a stellar idea.
FOCUS: The ability to sustain and shift attention depending on the task at hand. ADHD brains are really, really good at focusing as long as they're focusing on something they want to focus on. Video games anyone? But, sustaining focus on a boring or hard task can feel like, as my husband puts it, "pain radiating throughout his body."
PLANNING & PRIORITIZING: The ability to set goals and objectives to achieve a task AND sequence those goals and objectives to complete a task efficiently. This is an executive function that is often described as a waste of time by ADHD brains. Why make an outline for an essay?! It's just another step. Planning and prioritizing can actually make a big task feel doable. It also helps to keep a distracted brain on task.
ORGANIZING: The ability to arrange information or tasks systematically. It's kind of like making goals for where things go or how things belong together. If you always hang your keys on the key hook when you get home, you have a rule for where they go. It becomes a habit or motor memory and takes losing them out of the equation. Without the rule, you're likely to find yourself running around in the morning and swearing at the walls, "Where the actual F*CK are my keys?!" I love teaching this to clients who don't like to or don't know how to get organized.
SHIFTING OR THINKING FLEXIBLY: The ability to "go with the flow" and recognize the need to change a plan if something isn't working. What's the definition of insanity again? "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." A common characteristic of ADHD brains is getting stuck in their own thinking. As in, yep, absolutely, this is gonna happen. I decided that climbing the ski resort hill at 2 in the morning is a good idea, and gosh darn it, I'm doing it! Despite the fact that it's maybe not the greatest plan.
SELF-MONITORING (AKA METACOGNITION): The ability to think about your own thinking in order to assess its quality (or lack thereof). Consider this your inner dialogue. Does that look OK? Does that make sense? Can I do this better? What was I thinking?! This looks like crap. I can't turn this in. This executive function tends to be one of the last ones to develop, so don't go looking for a great deal of insight when a kid is young!
TIME MANAGEMENT: The ability to recognize the passing of time in order to realistically estimate how much time something will take. This includes the skill of being able to speed up or slow down based on the expectation of a situation so that you're performing as efficiently as possible. ADHD brains tend to have a very slippery understanding of time. I remember a few weeks ago while I was working with a high school student, she insisted that turning on her Chromebook to check grades would take, "like 10 minutes!" I challenged her and said, I'll time it and we'll see. About 90 seconds later she was looking at her grades. When I asked her to guess how much time had passed she said, "I don't know. At least 5 minutes." Hmmmm, nope. 90 seconds.
SOCIAL: The ability to think about others, no matter how distracted, bored, or hyper-focused on something else you might be. Not everyone agrees with me on this one, but I think that "social" is the executive function that allows us to take another's perspective and apply situational awareness during social experiences. Having these abilities allows us to make connections with people and remember what we know about them in order to maintain friendships and relationships. An example of an epic social fail happened one-night last winter. I came home from work to find my husband standing on a chair in the kitchen. He was leaving on a snowmobile trip in a few days and his brain was busily hyper-focusing on a map of snowmobile trails in northern Maine. You know, the one that he made from an old Gazetteer by ripping out all the pages and taping them all together on the wall because everyone does that, right? He was so focused, he literally didn't notice I was there. Now someone else might have been upset about that, but this was not my first rodeo with something like this. I mean, I married the man!