Identifying Executive Functioning Deficits

By Lisa Shanken | Healthy Living

Do you ever find that when you feel sad it's harder to motivate and be productive? Or if you feel anxious, it makes it more difficult to get out of the house and get your day started? Or when you are stressed, do you sometimes feel too overwhelmed to know where to start on your to-do list and end up wasting time rather than being efficient with your day? These are all examples of how your mood can strongly impact your executive functioning skills.

Understanding What Executive Functioning Means

Let's start with a basic understanding of executive functioning skills. A detailed explanation can be found here, but below is a quick summary

  • Working memory: The ability to hold information for later use
  • Cognitive flexibility: The ability to think about things in different ways or use the same information in multiple ways.
  • Inhibitory Control: The ability to ignore distractions and stay focused, as well as the ability to control impulses.

These executive functions impact our abilities to manage time efficiently and avoid procrastinating, organize things in your life, understand different perspectives on things, start and stay on track to finish tasks, and regulate emotions. We use these skills daily. If you struggle with any of these things, it can then affect your self-confidence and your mood, and vice versa. Hopefully, you are now starting to see the mood<-->executive functioning connection.

Tips To Improve Executive Functioning Skills

To improve your executive functioning, think of your brain as a muscle, and new habits as exercises for that muscle. If you choose one new habit to practice at a time and repeat that habit over and over again, your executive functioning will get stronger. Here are some recommend habits to build that executive functioning muscle:

  1. The "Wait 5" strategy is helpful for controlling impulses like blurting things out too quickly or buying unnecessary things too often. This strategy teaches you to simply count to 5 in your head before making a final decision about a choice. Taking that slight pause to think your decision through before saying something or buying something is a great way to make better choices.
  2. Practicing situations where things don't go as expected is a great way to improve the executive function skill of flexible thinking. Work with a coach to role-play or use creative writing in a journal to think of scenarios that may go astray from the original plan, and think about how you can handle them to "go with the flow." For example, the restaurant you planned to go to is closed or a teacher or boss reprimands you for doing something wrong. Out of the actual moment, think about how you could react to these situations calmly and adapt easily.
  3. Self-monitoring strategies are great ways to help improve the executive functioning skill of staying on task. You can monitor yourself or work with an accountability partner/coach to make sure you start, stay on track, and complete your tasks. You can do this by setting alarms to remind yourself where you should be in the task or by having check-in calls to make sure you are staying on point.

Getting Help

If you think you fall into the category of struggling with executive functioning, we are here to help. Remember that asking for help when you need it is a sign of strength! You are not alone, as this is an unidentified problem for many people. One of the amazing things about humans is that with support, coaching, and practice, your brain (no matter how old you are) can form new pathways to learn new habits and skills to correct executive functioning deficits!