Executive function: Definition, skills, types, dysfunction
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
Executive function refers to the higher-level mental skills and processes needed to plan and accomplish tasks. Executive function skills allow you to manage yourself cognitively and exert control in areas of life in which you have agency.
Executive functioning takes place in the frontal lobe, located appropriately at the front of your brain, which is behind your brow. Your frontal lobe is the part of your brain that is often identified as the control center. Activity in the frontal lobe is associated with various higher-order abilities and processes, including:
- Voluntary movement
- Emotion regulation
The frontal lobe is one of the last parts of the brain to develop and mature. In fact, most people’s frontal lobes are not fully developed until around the age of 25.
However, that doesn’t mean executive function skills don’t emerge until you’re in your mid-twenties. Although children are not born with these skills, they begin to learn and acquire them at a young age, the same way they learn and acquire other skills, such as the ability to speak, chew, and walk. In fact, between the ages of three and five is when the most dramatic period of development of executive functioning skills occurs, with this development then continuing throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.
The important thing to remember is that executive function skills can be learned, but they first must be taught. For children, the opportunity to learn executive functioning occurs in the context of social interactions and other play-based activities, which provide them an opportunity to develop their capacity for self-regulation with peers and supportive adults. In addition, children learn different executive functioning skills at different stages of development. Memory skills, for example, develop before planning or time management skills.
Executive functioning skills can be divided into three main categories: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.
Working memory involves the ability to understand, store, and use information. Examples include:
- Remembering facts and figures
- Understanding and memorizing the rules of information ecosystems (e.g., language, mathematics)
- Following through on tasks
- Managing time effectively
Mental flexibility involves the ability to switch between tasks and adapt one’s behavior in response to changing environmental demands. Examples of mental flexibility include:
- Planning and goal setting
- Adapting to new information
Self-control reflects the ability to regulate emotions, resist temptations, and stay focused. Examples of self-control include:
- Showing emotional restraint
- Initiating a task
- Paying attention
- Controlling impulses
Executive dysfunction is not an official diagnosis or illness. Rather, it refers to deficits in executive functioning that result in a range of difficulties on an emotional, cognitive, and behavioral level. Executive dysfunction may be caused by, related to, or indicative of various physical health, mental health, and developmental conditions, including:
Everyone struggles with executive function skills from time to time. However, if these struggles persist or interfere with your daily functioning, it may be a sign of executive function issues. Some symptoms of executive dysfunction include:
- Difficulty paying attention or sustaining attention
- Misplacing important documents
- Poor frustration tolerance
- Problems with procrastination or lack of motivation
- Frequent distractibility
- Difficulties with planning and organization
- Difficulties completing tasks
- Poor time management
Some symptoms of executive dysfunction may be related to temporary external factors, such as stress over an upcoming project or difficulty concentrating due to a few rough nights of sleep. In fact, stress and exhaustion are two of the most common factors that can interfere with executive functioning. Once these external factors resolve, normal executive function capabilities return.
If your struggles with executive function continue to persist, seek a professional diagnosis from a therapist. Remember, executive dysfunction is a symptom, not a disorder or illness. Resist the temptation to self-diagnose based on your symptoms; they can be an indicator of a wide variety of conditions that require a professional assessment to guarantee an accurate diagnosis.
If your executive dysfunction is symptomatic of a mental health disorder, you may want to seek professional treatment, such as:
- Therapy: Certain therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT), are helpful options for mental health disorders typically associated with executive dysfunction. Click here to find a therapist near you.
- Medication: Some mental health disorders related to executive dysfunction, such as ADHD, respond well to medication as well as therapy. Ask your doctor if medication is an appropriate treatment option for you.
In addition to seeking professional treatment, you can engage in certain activities to strengthen your executive function skills, such as:
- Creating visual reminders: If you struggle with working memory, visual reminders may be helpful.
- Writing things down: The physical act of writing things down has been shown to help people better remember information.
- Scheduling out your day: If you struggle with time management, consider scheduling out your day in advance so you know what staying on track looks like.
- Breaking large tasks into smaller ones: Initiating tasks is difficult for people struggling with executive dysfunction. Consider breaking larger tasks into smaller ones so they are easier to start.
- Using organizational tools: Calendars, checklists, reminder apps, and other tools are enormously beneficial to people struggling with executive dysfunction.
- Building in extra time: It can be hard for people with executive dysfunction to switch between tasks efficiently. Give yourself a break by building in extra time instead of holding yourself to rigid standards of efficiency.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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