Find a therapist Search articles

Executive function: What it means and how it works

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

A collection of bright sticky notes stuck to a corkboard

What is executive function?

“Executive function” refers to the higher-level mental skills and processes involved in planning and accomplishing tasks. It allows us to manage ourselves and get things done.

What part of the brain controls executive function?

Executive function takes place largely in the brain’s frontal lobe. The frontal lobe plays a large role in many abilities and processes, including:

Are we born with executive function skills?

The frontal lobe is one of the last parts of the brain to develop and mature. Most people’s frontal lobes aren’t fully developed until around age 25.3 But that doesn’t mean we completely lack executive function until we hit that age.

While we aren’t born with these skills, we begin acquiring them at a young age, the same way we learn to speak and walk. The most dramatic period of executive function development occurs between ages three and five.4 It then continues to grow through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

Executive function skills can be learned, but first they have to be demonstrated. Being around healthy relationships, engaging activities, and safe environments all help kids develop their executive function and self-regulation skills. These are especially useful during periods of transition, such as moving from elementary school to middle school.5

People learn different executive function skills at different stages of childhood: Memory skills, for example, develop before planning or time management skills.

Types of executive function

Researchers who study executive function skills often focus on three separate aspects: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.6

  • Working memory helps us store, understand, and use information over short periods. It allows us to remember facts and figures, understand and memorize rules or instructions, follow through on tasks, and manage time effectively.
  • Mental flexibility allows us to switch between tasks and adapt our behavior to fit different environments. It’s involved in organizing, planning, goal setting, adjusting to new information, and multitasking.
  • Self-control helps us regulate our emotions, resist temptations, and stay focused. People use it when they control their emotions in challenging situations, start new tasks, pay attention even when they’re bored, and control unhelpful impulses in general.

What is executive dysfunction?

“Executive dysfunction” takes place when someone struggles to use their executive function skills. For example, if they have trouble following complex instructions, managing their impulses, or solving problems, these could all be considered forms of executive dysfunction.

Executive dysfunction isn’t an official diagnosis or illness. However, it may be caused by, related to, or a sign of a number of conditions, including:

Signs of executive dysfunction

Everyone struggles with executive function now and then. But if your struggles continue for a long time or interfere with your daily life, it could be a sign of a more serious condition.

Symptoms of executive dysfunction include:

  • Difficulty maintaining focus
  • Misplacing important documents
  • Low tolerance for frustration
  • Procrastination or lack of motivation
  • Being easily distracted
  • Difficulty with planning and organization
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Poor time management

Executive dysfunction can be caused by common life events, such as stress or lack of sleep. But if you continue to have a hard time once those events are resolved, it may be time to talk to a therapist.

Treatment for executive dysfunction

If executive dysfunction is impacting your life, you may want to seek professional help. Some common treatments include:

  • Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are two options for treating mental health disorders associated with executive dysfunction.
  • Medication: Some mental health disorders related to executive dysfunction, such as ADHD, respond well to medication as well as therapy. You may want to ask your doctor or therapist if medication could be a treatment option for you.

How to improve executive function skills

In addition to professional treatment, certain activities can help strengthen your executive functioning:

  • Create visual reminders: If you have a hard time with working memory, visual reminders may help.
  • Write things down: The physical act of writing something down has been shown to help you remember it better.7
  • Set a schedule: If time management is a challenge for you, consider scheduling your day in advance so you know what you need to do to stay on track.
  • Break down large tasks: Beginning new tasks is difficult when you have executive dysfunction. Consider breaking larger tasks down into smaller ones so they’re easier to start—and you’re able to see your progress.
  • Use organizational tools: Calendars, checklists, reminder apps, and other tools can be very helpful.
  • Build in extra time: With executive dysfunction, it can be tough to shift between tasks efficiently. Building extra time into your schedule can give you needed breaks and reduce stress.

All these activities can help lessen the impact of executive dysfunction. If you find that it’s still affecting your mental health, it may be time to contact a mental health professional. They can help you develop coping tools and explore whether a mental health disorder may be at play in your executive dysfunction.

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

Related articles

A notebook with a list of goals.

Goal setting: Tips and techniques for improvement

Learn why goal setting is important, 3 different types of goals, 3 goal-setting...

A therapist with a child during a writing exercise.

Initiation and activation: 2 exercises to help kids focus

Many students struggle to get started on tasks because they simply don't know...

See more