What is Executive Function?
Comments like these, as unpleasant as they are, seem to be par for the course for people who suffer from executive dysfunction. Not sure what executive function does? You’re not alone. Even among experts, the official definition of executive function is still being nailed down.
When someone refers to the executive functions, what they are referring to are the areas of your brain that allow you to plan, organize, manage time, and focus your attention. Executive functions are also related to memory. In other words, executive functioning is extremely important in today’s society.
A person without strong executive function skills will have an even harder time keeping up with today’s fast paced world than those whose skills are intact. There are, however, a few important factors associated with executive dysfunction that I feel play just as big a role but whose side effects are often attributed to the person’s lack of motivation or respect rather than a real brain-based struggle. These are the inability to fully understand time, trouble with planning and executing multi-step tasks, and inconsistency of skills.
Time Management – Don’t assume that someone who misses deadlines or shows up late to a meeting is doing so because they don’t care or because they are lazy. Arriving somewhere on time and prepared, let alone simply arriving on time, requires a whole host of small components such as knowing the directions to the meeting, remembering to bring supplies, finding the right clothes, eating breakfast, etc. People who struggle with executive dysfunction are not able to accurately estimate time and often over or underestimate how long a task will take them to complete. Checklists and visual reminders can be a huge help to people in getting out the door quickly with everything they need for the day.
Planning – Writing a report, scheduling a business trip, meeting with a client, and even doing one’s homework are not one-step processes. Almost every task we are expected to do throughout the day involves a series of smaller tasks to accomplish it. People with executive dysfunction are not able to easily see this process and thus can not appropriately prepare. It’s a little bit like starting to cook a new dish for dinner without reading the recipe beforehand. You may know you want to cook a Shepherds Pie but if you don’t read the recipe, you won’t know which ingredients, spices, pans, and supplies you need and things will likely get out of hand. If you have a coworker, spouse, or child who is struggling with multi-step processes, instead of becoming upset and unfinished tasks, try helping them to break down the process so they can fully understand all that it takes to accomplish it.
Inconsistency – This one is the real kicker. Struggles with executive function seem to always involve a high level of inconsistency. This means that Johnny will be able to complete Task A beautifully one day, but completely struggle the next. Or, that he will accomplish Task A, but not remember or not complete Task B. This can be very frustrating to the people depending on Johnny. More importantly, however, this is incredibly frustrating for Johnny. Executive functioning is not tied to intelligence, so when a person has deficits in this area, they are aware of it. They don’t like having these struggles any more than their peers, teachers, or partners enjoy the residual effects of them. Executive dysfunction can easily result in low self esteem, especially if those around the person are not supportive. My advise, be kind. Work with the people around you to help them succeed rather than blame them for dropping the ball; the long term results will be better for you both.