What Exactly Is Executive Dysfunction?

I often mention executive functioning, usually in the context of how autistic people, ADHD-ers, and those with other forms of neurodivergence can struggle. On many occasions, I have said I’m having a day when my own executives are refusing to function.

But what exactly does this mean?

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Photo by Kübra Zehra on Pexels.com

Executive functioning is a set of cognitive processes that our brains use to organize information, remember things, and make progress toward our goals. Executive functioning helps with attention, motivation, planning, and many other tasks. It also helps us manage our emotional responses, communicate, and juggle all the things we need to do in a day.

People with executive dysfunction struggle with these things. They may struggle in one area or several. Like other skills, executive functioning can fluctuate – you might have a good executive functioning day and have more trouble on other days. Energy levels, stress, mental health, and other factors can impact your executive functioning.

The components of executive functioning include:

  1. Working Memory. Working memory is our ability to hold and manipulate information in our brains for a short period of time. If you’ve ever tried to remember a phone number long enough to write it down, you used your working memory.
  2. Flexibility and Shifting. These refer to our ability to think about things in different ways or adjust our thinking in response to new informaiton.
  3. Impulse Control. This is our ability to stop and think before we act or resist the temptation to do something we do not want to do.
  4. Inhibition. Similarly, our ability to inhibit behaviors is part of executive functioning and emotional regulation. This includes our ability to stop ourselves from saying something inappropriate or harmful out of anger. I tell my clients, your feelings are valid and okay, but you can be held accountable for a behavior you do while you’re having a feeling.
  5. Task Initiation. As the name suggests, task initiation is our ability to start a task without becoming overwhelmed or procrastinating.
  6. Persistence. It is useless to be able to start tasks if they always go unfinished. Persisting towards the goal after starting a task is an important part of executive functioning.
  7. Organizing. Keeping track of the tasks we need to do, remembering where our belongings are, and our ability to follow a system for keeping track of things are all part of organization.
  8. Planning. The ability to break a task down into smaller action steps and act on each of these steps is planning.
  9. Time Management. This includes knowing how long a task will take so that we can allot enough time to complete it, as well as our ability to use time wisely and efficiently.
  10. Metacognition. Literally meaning “thinking about thinking,” metacognition is our ability to monitor ourselves, our thoughts, and our behaviors.

Everyone has trouble with things like disorganization or procrastination sometimes, but it interferes with your ability to do the things you want to in your life, you may have issues with executive dysfunction. The good news is, you can improve your executive functioning. Therapy, medication management, or support accommodations can all make it easier to function.

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Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. She completed her internship at the National Psychology Training Consortium with specializations in assessment and rural mental health. Currently, she specializes in trauma-informed and neurodiversity-affirming care, and she is certified in telemental health. Dr. Marschall runs a private practice, RMH Therapy, where she provides individual and family therapy as well as psychological assessments across the lifespan. Dr. Amy Marschall is an author and professional speaker.

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