What is Executive Functioning?


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Executive Functioning (EF) is a broad term that covers all the skills and strategies that allow you to choose and control your own behavior.  

We know, it’s not the simplest answer.  But Executive Functioning is not simple, and we can’t pretend it is.

The truth is that it’s a difficult thing to explain in a blog that’s short enough to keep anyone’s attention.  But let’s start with some examples of things that fall under the EF umbrella:

  • Keeping a calendar or to-do list
  • Taking notes
  • Organizing your space and your materials
  • Breaking down, planning, and completing projects
  • Making and sticking to a schedule
  • Studying

If you’ve heard the term ‘Executive Functioning’ before, it’s most likely been in reference to observable, external things like these. At Effective Artistry, we call these types of things EF strategies. They are the processes, systems, structures, and supports that allow you to go beyond what you are capable of doing in your head. And because you can actually see whether and how people use them, they tend to draw most of the focus when anyone is concerned about EF issues. To many people, these strategies are Executive Functioning.

But Executive Functioning actually takes place first in the brain.  That is where you collect and manage information, make decisions, and marshal your energy.  You cannot follow through on a desire to do anything (including the strategies listed above) without engaging the cognitive processes that we call Executive Functioning skills.

The term ‘Executive Functioning’ technically refers to these cognitive skills, but because they are harder to understand and observe, most people tend not to notice them. Different experts break it down differently, but Executive Functioning skills include things like:

  • Working Memory
  • Initiation
  • Sustained Focus
  • Impulse Control
  • Flexible Thinking
  • Self-Assessment
  • Emotional Regulation

So yes, making and following through on a plan to complete your homework is part of Executive Functioning, but so is holding back tears when you stub your toe.  Executive Functioning is getting yourself to start on a task when you’re supposed to, and it is also finding the words to explain an idea to a friend.

The disconnect between the technical and colloquial definitions–skills and strategies–is at the root of a lot of the confusion surrounding Executive Functioning in our world. But let’s be clear: they are both important. Together, they make up your Executive Functioning.

Executive Functioning is what allows you to take any idea, desire, or decision in your head and actually do something to bring it into reality.

It is important to know that your Executive Functioning is completely unique to you.  You will have things in common with others, but no two people are exactly the same.  That’s why the things that work for someone else don’t necessarily work for you and vice versa.

Learning about your Executive Functioning means learning how your particular brain works.

It means learning why certain tasks are so difficult for you when they seem easy for others, and why some things have always come easier to you too.

It means learning why you just can’t seem to stop procrastinating even though it makes you feel terrible. 

It means learning why you keep slipping into bad habits and what you need to do to form new ones. 

It can mean learning why you feel so overwhelmed and how you can get things under control. 

It can mean learning why the strategies you’ve developed over the years actually work and how to come up with new and better ones.

We know it may still seem a little vague, but there’s a reason we refuse to ignore the complexity of Executive Functioning at Effective Artistry.  When we oversimplify EF, we don’t understand what it really is.  And:

When we don’t understand Executive Functioning, we tend to mistake EF issues for moral or psychological ones.

We have seen too many people hurt too much because they and those around them made this mistake.  We’ve been hurt that way ourselves.  But here’s the truth:

  • Laziness does not exist.  
  • “Trying harder” or “caring more” never helped anyone make long term changes. 
  • Ambition is not a personality trait that you have or don’t have.  We all want things for ourselves.
  • Low self-esteem can be the natural and inevitable result of consistently being unable to do the things you want to do or that you think you should do.
  • It costs different people different amounts of time, energy, and other resources to complete the same tasks.
  • And perhaps most importantly:

Your productivity does not determine your value.

We are tired of seeing people struggle with guilt and shame because they mistake their Executive Functioning issues for character weaknesses.  That’s why we do what we do.

Now, obviously, that doesn’t mean that Executive Functioning is the root of all your problems.  The world is a complicated place, systems matter, and people want and believe different things.  There are many, many things that can make it difficult for you to achieve your goals besides Executive Functioning–our founder is a therapist for a reason, after all.

But if you are unable to get yourself to do the things you want to do when you want to do them–or if doing them costs you more time, energy, and other resources than is sustainable–you have an Executive Functioning issue.

The good news is, if that is the case, you can work to change it.  Neither your Executive Functioning skills nor your facility with Executive Functioning strategies are static over the course of your life.  You can make decisions about how you want to function differently and close the gap between who you are and who you want to be.  Especially with support.  It may not be easy, but it is possible.

We know you may still have questions.  That’s part of the reason we offer a free consultation.  We’d rather volunteer our time than give anyone a watered down understanding of what Executive Functioning is and how it affects them.  It’s too important.  If you’d like to schedule a free consultation, click here.

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