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Executive Functioning: What It Is and Why It Matters

5 Mins read

You may have heard disorganized people express concerns about possible impairment of executive functioning in their brain. ‘Executive functioning’ refers to the important cognitive skills we use when we solve problems, organize our day, respond to stimuli and interpret events. Most of the brain activity associated with executive functioning occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Imagine that you wake up on a Monday morning and take your dog for a walk, using the familiar route you always take, before heading into work. You don’t need a map to get to the office; you’ve been there a hundred times before. You’re slightly anxious because traffic is a little heavier this morning than usual and you worry you’ll be late, so you take a deep breath to calm yourself. 

At the office, you smile and engage in conversation with your coworkers. You notice that someone has brought doughnuts, so you take one, even though there are two in the box that looks particularly appetizing. 

After that, you sit down at your desk and create a to-do list, putting the biggest and most pressing matters at the top. With your day planned out, you put your head down and get to work, doing your best to filter out distractions. 

On your way home, there’s an accident on your usual route, so you take an alternate way and realize it gets you home quicker. You make a mental note to remind yourself to take it again tomorrow morning. 

Every scenario described above, from calming down in heavy traffic to planning an assignment and setting goals, involved the work of executive functioning, a collection of skills that help us organize our lives.

But what does that mean? What can impair executive functioning, what does executive dysfunction look like, and can executive functioning skills be improved upon?  

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What Exactly is Executive Functioning?

When we talk about executive functioning, we’re not referring to any one thing. ‘Executive functioning’ is an umbrella term that describes the many cognitive skills we use daily when we focus on tasks, solve problems, respond to stimuli and interpret events. Most of the activity associated with executive functioning happens in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area responsible for higher brain functions and is linked to our social skills and personalities. 

There are three main areas of executive functioning and a plethora of skills that executive functioning enables. The three main areas are:

  1. Flexible thinking: As the name suggests, flexible thinking is our ability to approach problems from multiple angles and utilize different strategies to solve those problems. 
  2. Working Memory: Think of it as a highlighter; our working memory allows us to hold new information in place so that we have easy access to it as we connect it to new information, like answering questions about a text we just read or remembering directions. Our working memory also helps us keep our experiences organized for storage in our long-term memories. 
  3. Inhibitory Control: Otherwise known as self-control, it’s which helps us filter out or ignore distractions, regulate our emotional responses and resist temptations. 

Why is Executive Functioning Important?

Executive functioning allows us to consider short and long-term consequences of our actions and plan accordingly. It affects so much of our day-to-day life that we seldom realize it. Executive functioning skills help us:

  • Focus our attention
  • Move between tasks
  • Remember steps and instructions
  • Organize our days
  • Set goals and create a plan for achieving them
  • Form concepts, make connections and generate new ideas
  • Reflect on a situation before responding to it
  • Anticipate outcomes
  • Control our emotions 
  • Recognize social cues, and much more

Imagine you have a little secretary living in your head. That’s basically what executive functioning does; calls forward the skills you need depending on the situation you find yourself in. Going somewhere and need to recall turn-by-turn directions? Your little secretary can help you out.  Need to pick up on an assignment where you left off yesterday? Call upon executive functioning. 

Executive functioning is essential for personal development as the skills involved make it possible to learn new things and have healthy, functioning relationships. 

Entrepreneurs and freelancers especially rely on their executive functioning skills to be successful. Since no one is managing them or tracking their progress, people who are self-employed need executive functioning to manage themselves. The self-motivation and discipline involved could not be possible without substantial executive functioning. 

Executive Functioning Development

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So, are people born with executive functioning the way they’re born with senses? No, but we start to acquire these skills early on. Executive functioning emerges in infancy and develops slowly until the toddler years. There is a spike in development between the ages of 2 and 6 and again in adolescence. For people with inhibited executive functioning, symptoms can become apparent at any age (depending on the level of dysfunction) but are most noticeable in higher elementary school grades when the workload starts to increase and tasks become more complex. Hannah Ross, an educational therapist from Los Angeles explains, 

“Executive function skills are not intrinsic and in fact, executive function skills are not fully developed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain until the age of 25, which is why many students struggle with these skills. Some students struggle more with these skills than others, particularly students with ADHD, processing deficits, or other learning differences. Some symptoms of executive dysfunction are:

  • difficulties with starting, organizing, planning, and completing tasks independently
  • often forgets assignments, papers, or things to do
  • struggles organizing personal space in their home and school
  • often misplaces school work and important items
  • has trouble following directions and sequences of steps
  • difficulty managing time and often late to start tasks

Aside from ADHD, another condition that greatly affects a person’s development of executive function is an autism spectrum disorder. According to a source at Autism Speaks, “Many people with autism have difficulty with executive functioning. They may have trouble with certain skills like planning, staying organized, sequencing information, and self-regulating emotions. Some people pay attention to minor details but have trouble seeing how these details fit into a bigger picture.  Others have trouble maintaining their attention in the classroom or other settings. When preparing to do a task, some may find it hard to organize their thoughts and actions in order to figure out what sequence of steps are needed. Executive functioning difficulties can also be associated with poor impulse control. 

Some have difficulty with complex thinking that requires holding more than one train of thought at the same time. For instance, Temple Grandin once said: “I cannot hold one piece of information in my mind while I manipulate the next step in the sequence.” 

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Other Factors that Impair Executive Functioning

You’re now aware that ADHD and autism can impair executive functioning in the brain. A number of environmental factors can hinder the healthy development of executive functioning as well. This includes childhood trauma, neglect, stress, drug or alcohol abuse, sleep deprivation and even severe boredom.

Mental illnesses such as depression, PTSD and other anxiety disorders can also impair one’s executive functioning. 

Any accident or injury that results in the frontal lobe of the brain being damaged can also affect executive functioning.

Keeping Your Brain Healthy

Fortunately, research scientists are learning more and more about brain function and brain health each year. You can also take preventative measures by learning the signs of executive dysfunction and watching for them, and by getting a comprehensive health report from CircleDNA. This DNA test’s health report outlines your risk for any genetic health conditions that impact the brain, such as your genetic risk of developing ADHD or Alzheimer’s disease. Knowledge is power, and with this information about your genetic risks, you can take preventative measures and live a healthier life.

Meagen Seatter
78 posts

About author
Meagen Seatter is a bookworm, avid traveller, child-care provider, and insatiable foodie. She currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, where she enjoys hiking and photography. Meagan loves reading and writing about health and wellness.
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