3 Steps to Help Adults Manage Executive Functioning Issues

Person sits at desk, pen held to mouth, looking thoughtful, as if forgetting something

Are you perpetually late? Do you frequently miss deadlines? Do you have trouble breaking down a big task into smaller steps? Do you often misplace your keys or cell phone? Do you forget people’s names or lose focus during conversations? If so, you might have an executive functioning issue, even if you happen to be intellectually gifted.

If you found yourself nodding in agreement through the aforementioned list, don’t despair! Although often thought of as a childhood issue, executive functioning challenges are not limited to children.

Executive functioning challenges are often associated with differences in cognitive flexibility, working memory, impulse control, and emotional regulation. These differences can have a profound impact on a person’s well-being.

Challenge Areas

Cognitive flexibility has to do with coming up with new ideas. It is the ability to approach a task or problem in more than one way, like out-of-the-box thinking. If you lack cognitive flexibility, you may have trouble breaking down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. In turn, your ability to make deadlines may be impacted, such as when you need to finish a report before a big conference.

Working memory involves holding information in your thoughts for current use, such as when you listen to a conference presenter and then at the conclusion of the presentation ask the speaker for clarification. You had to hold onto specific information while you listened and then use that information after listening. Let’s imagine your working memory was not functioning well, your mind wandered off during the conference presentation, and you forgot to ask your question. You might also have forgotten the presenter’s name.

While managing executive functioning issues may not be easy, with practice and patience it is possible to reduce mishaps. Your situation and well-being can improve.

Impulse control is when you control an urge to do or think about something off-task, such as when you feel an urge to blurt out your thoughts during the presenter’s speech. You get amped up from having to hold your thoughts, and to cope, your mind begins to wander. While your mind wanders, you decide to make a trip to the water cooler, leaving an important yet small object, your cell phone, on the table. When you wander back, you realize you’ve missed part of the speech and sit down at a nearby table, not the one you left. You also miss that your phone is gone. However, since it is gone and therefore not visible, you don’t notice its absence (yet).

Emotional regulation is managing your emotions, working to understand your feelings instead of reacting to them. An example of an emotional regulation challenge is when you realize you misplaced your phone and feel frustration rise up. In response, you have a brief foot-stomping mini-tantrum. Later, you might speak angrily to your partner and not know why. In this scenario, you’ve reacted to the anger instead of listening to the message behind it. Yes, it is frustrating to lose your phone. However, with healthy emotional regulation, you can use the energy that comes from the anger and frustration to do something useful, like retrace your steps to find your phone.

3 Steps to Improvement

While managing executive functioning issues may not be easy, with practice and patience, it is possible to reduce mishaps. Your situation and well-being can improve.

The keys to improvement are understanding, awareness, and practice.

1. Don’t underestimate the value of self-understanding. Knowing why you do things the way you do can help you make changes (and forgive mishaps) so you can more readily move forward.

Explore each challenge area to learn the story behind it. Give yourself time to think and reflect. Do your challenges seem to stem from working memory? Do you need support for improved emotional regulation and impulse control? Learn about brain anatomy and look up information on the prefrontal cortex, cerebral cortex, and frontal lobe. Try to understand your internal speech. Ask yourself questions, such as how do you process and think? Do you think in images or words, and do you take the time to notice?

2. Gaining a better understanding of your specific challenge areas can help you understand yourself, and continued self-understanding can help improve self-acceptance. Learning means making mistakes. As you accept yourself, your differences, and your unique challenges, you become more self-aware.

Awareness is valuable in improving executive functioning on several levels. Awareness helps you become more mindful of what is going on within you and around you. Practices of mindfulness can help you slow down and consciously direct your attention instead of following it. Greater self-awareness may improve your self-restraint, which essentially means you can build your impulse control by being more aware of your actions and thoughts in the moment.

Mindfulness exercises can directly support the development of working memory. Try practicing mindful awareness activities to help you learn how to hold onto ideas. You can also picture things mentally to improve your visual memory, which is part of your working memory. Meeting with a professional counselor or taking mindfulness classes can help.

3. Try to practice your mindful awareness exercises daily. Knowing about something is not enough. Growth occurs through practice. When you practice, it is important to pace yourself.

Here are a few additional tips:

  • Don’t overschedule yourself.
  • During events or when completing a project, take breaks and pace yourself.
  • If you are at an event, perhaps scout out a quiet spot to escape to in case you need to collect your thoughts.
  • If you have a lot going on at once, try separating your activities visually. For example, you may try to color-code your documents with sticky tabs, the way students color-code their study subjects.
  • Practice emotional regulation by learning several thought-stopping, calming, and planning techniques. Get professional guidance as needed.
  • Keep yourself motivated by considering immediate and long-term internal and external consequences.
  • Offer yourself an intrinsic reward, and most of all, have fun!

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Grace Malonai, PhD, LPCC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Joe J.

    January 19th, 2018 at 7:37 AM

    I feel like this describes me to a T. I like the part at the end about offering yourself an intrinsic award. Do you have any ideas about what such an award might be?

  • Grace

    January 22nd, 2018 at 12:44 PM

    Hi Joe, An example of an intrinsic reward would be noticing and allowing yourself to feel good about a success. (Often people brush off successes and are hard on themselves for mistakes).

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