What it is, why it's important, and how coaching can help
What is Executive Function?
There's no one, single, simple definition of executive function (EF)--even the name varies, being frequently interchanged with other terms like "executive functioning," "executive skills," and "cognitive functions." Historically, there is a general consensus in the field that EF encompasses 3 core areas: response inhibition (impulse-control), working memory, and cognitive (mental) flexibility. There's also agreement that EF is mediated by the prefrontal cortex in our brains (part of the frontal lobes and the last region of our brains to develop and mature) and involves so many different, yet interrelated mental processes that it's difficult to describe. Defined broadly--it's all about thinking and doing. It's not about knowing--rather, it's about acting on what we know. You can have the knowledge stored in the back of your brain, but it's the front brain--the executive functions--that are responsible for using that information to evaluate options, make decisions, plan and pursue goals, and take actions to accomplish them. It is goal-oriented, self-directed thinking and behavior. Researchers have conceptualized different models for explaining how EF occurs in the brain. Below are some of these frameworks of EF from leading experts and literature in the field (click tabs and links for further reading):
The Four Circuits
The "what" circuit controls working memory and uses what we know to make and execute a plan
The "when" circuit is the timing circuit that helps us coordinate the sequence of steps needed to complete a task or goal within a timeline
The "why" circuit is known as the "hot" circuit because it links our thinking and emotions, and is the "final decision maker" in all our plans
The "who" circuit is responsible for our self-awareness
Ability to hold things in your mind, recall & apply past experience to current situation, & use the information to perform complex tasks. Includes nonverbal working memory (how well you mentally picture things) & verbal (self-talk, inner monologue). Like a computer's RAM.
Ability to manage current & future-oriented demands, decide what is important or not, what steps are involved in accomplishing a task, & the sequence for completing them. Allows us to create a trail map plotting our route to a goal.
Ability to develop & maintain systems of organization, to keep track of information & materials. Using space efficiently & imposing order in various workspaces, including home, play, & storage spaces (desks, backpacks, closets, etc.).
Ability to sense & "feel" time, estimate time required for tasks, allocate & effectively use time, estimate how much time has elapsed, & map out how to complete tasks within given timeframes & deadlines. Includes concepts of time blindness, temporal discounting, & time horizons.
Ability to "zoom out" & think about our thinking. Our capacity for self-awareness, self-monitoring, & insight. Allows us to observe & evaluate our thoughts, feelings, & actions, to review & measure our performance against expectations, to reflect & readjust to meet needs.
Ability to control our impulses, slow the body down enough to "think before we act," to evaluate the situation & possible consequences of different choices before we say or do something. Our capacity for self-restraint.
Ability to remain focused on the task at hand, despite distractions. Refers to the ability to regulate (not just "pay") attention--to filter both internal stimuli (e.g. thoughts & sensations) & external (e.g. people & things around us), adjusting the "volumes" to quiet down & disregard the extraneous, & attend to the relevant.
Ability to begin working on a task without procrastinating. Includes the ability to problem-solve & generate ideas & strategies for how to start something. Often influenced by our perceptions of the difficulty of task & our ability to succeed, how boring vs. engaging it seems, & other intrinsic & extrinsic motivators.
Ability to set & pursue a realistic goal, maintain efforts, remain on track, follow through until it is finished--not give up prematurely despite obstacles or competing interests. Influenced by the capacity for frustration tolerance & delayed gratification.
Ability to process & regulate feelings in efforts to alter our emotional state. Refers to our capacity to manage & respond to emotional experiences in the environment, in order to remain on-task & direct behavior towards pursuit of a goal.
Ability to adapt, adjust, & revise plans in light of new information, changes, or setbacks. Also refers to capacity for problem-solving, overcoming obstacles, seeing other perspectives, & "going with the flow." Includes ability to shift gears (task shifting) & transition between activities.
Ability to manage stress & cope with difficult, uncertain situations. Refers to our capacity to handle & thrive in fast-paced, high-stakes, or unpredictable environments with significant demands & increased pressure to perform.
© 2023 by Kayla Quadros, LMHC - The Craft + Compass
Executive Function Skills
As mentioned above, executive function can be broken down into a few or many skills, depending on how specifically you want to tease them apart. Some may lump skills together in a category, like "planning/prioritization/organization," whereas others would break those skills down into further individual ones with some overlapping, but distinct qualities. At the Craft + Compass, we like to zoom in on the skills more specifically to help us better pinpoint and target the challenges clients are facing. The better we understand that, the better we can address and overcome barriers to increase your success. Our approach is rooted in the work of Peg Dawson, Ph.D. and Richard Guare, Ph.D. (authors of the bestselling Smart but Scattered books).
Here's a list of the 12 executive function skills we assess and help you with here at the Craft + Compass:
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
The Link Between Executive Function + ADHD
What first comes to mind when you think about ADHD? Maybe you’re wondering if that’s the same thing as ADD? Or maybe it’s just the hyper version of ADD, instead of the flighty, forgetful, easily-distracted-by-a-squirrel type? Maybe you’re picturing a hyper 8 year old boy bouncing off the walls, getting in trouble at school for not listening and disrupting class? While these things might ring true for some folks with ADHD, these are overly simplistic stereotypes that can unfortunately reinforce the stigma of this condition. There are a lot of myths, misunderstandings, and confusion out there, so let’s start with the basics:
ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and ADD (attention-deficit disorder) are the same thing. ADD is actually the old, outdated term for the disorder–the American Psychiatric Association officially changed the name to ADHD back in 1987 (people don’t like change, I guess…old habits die hard).
The truth is that ADHD is a very complex and nuanced neurodevelopmental disorder with a direct link to executive functioning.
Read on to learn more about this connection and dispel some common myths about ADHD:
What Everyone Needs To Know About ADHD
Neurobiology + Genetics
Studies have shown that ADHD is not a categorical disorder, meaning it's not as simple as "you either have it or you don't." Rather, it is more of a complex, continuous trait, ranging from nonexistent or mild to moderate to severe, that exists throughout the population. This means that ADHD-like symptoms occur in all people, to a certain extent. The ADHD diagnosis exists on the extreme end of this spectrum.
ADHD has a strong genetic component and runs in families. In fact, if one parent has ADHD, there's ~33-35% chance their child will have it (that doubles to 66% chance if both parents have it). A child with ADHD is 4x more likely to have a relative with it as well. Brain imaging, genetics studies, and twins studies reinforce the fact that ADHD is a neurobiological condition and that the ADHD brain is structurally different than the neurotypical brain.
The Misnomer of Attention-Deficit
Recent research in the field contextualizes ADHD through the lens of “triple pathways” theories in which there are three main cognitive processes involved in its development. Within this framework, ADHD is a condition broadly defined by deficits in: (1) executive functioning, (2) reward processing, and (3) temporal processing/timing. In other words, it involves organization, planning, decision-making, time-management, etc. Fundamentally, it’s all about self-regulation.
In fact, more and more research is supporting the notion that ADHD should actually be known as a self-regulation deficit disorder, not an attention-deficit one. The issue isn’t a lack of attention, but rather, too much attention directed at irrelevant things. The trouble arises from not being able to effectively regulate and modulate attention–filtering out extraneous or tempting distractions, delaying gratification, shifting focus, and honing in on the task at hand. This attention regulation is one of the many executive functioning skills of the brain. And it is not the only one impaired by ADHD.
The Self-Management System of the Brain
Executive functions are seen as the “self-management system of the brain.” Dr. Russell Barkley, a leading psychologist in the ADHD field, believes that all executive functions are actually a form of self-regulation (e.g. working memory = self-speech; inhibition = self-restraint; metacognition = self-awareness/self-directed attention, etc.).
So in essence, if executive function is synonymous with self-regulation, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is more accurately a self-regulation deficit disorder, then it stands to reason that ADHD can actually be classified as a type of executive function deficit disorder. In fact, up to 90% of kids with ADHD have executive function issues, and ADHD overall delays the development of executive functions by ~30%.
“The self-regulation problems inherent in ADHD stem from deficits in executive function...The executive system lives in the brain's frontal lobe, and it is responsible for putting into action the knowledge that lives in the back of the brain. But ADHD separates these two parts of the brain like a meat cleaver.”
The Brown ADHD Model
Dr. Thomas Brown, another leading expert in the field, has decades of research reinforcing the connection between ADHD and executive function. Brown maintains that attention is not as simple and one-dimensional as many believe. Instead, attention is actually a multifaceted process referring to the “integrated operation of the executive functions of the brain.” Everyone experiences challenges with attention and executive function at times, but those with ADHD demonstrate more frequent and severe deficits in these areas. Subsequently, Brown developed a model for understanding ADHD with this more nuanced definition of attention, and with an emphasis on it's impact on cognitive processes.
The Brown Model of Executive Functions Impaired in ADHD views the condition as a constellation of deficits on a spectrum within the following six main clusters of executive functioning:
Activation: organizing, planning, estimating time, starting tasks
Focus: focusing, sustaining, and shifting attention to task at hand
Effort: regulating alertness, processing speed, sustaining motivation over time
Emotion: managing frustration and regulating feelings to remain focused
Memory: using working memory and recall to access information needed
Action: monitoring and modifying behaviors, regulating pace of actions
ADHD is Underdiagnosed in Adults
ADHD is a biologically-based condition that affects brain development. While the severity and number of symptoms can fluctuate on a spectrum from almost nonexistent or mild to extreme, this type of neurodevelopmental condition doesn't usually just disappear. Yet, a common misconception about it is that it is a childhood disorder that kids "will just grow out of" once they get older and more mature. In fact, ADHD is a lifelong disorder, with research showing that over 90% of kids with ADHD will continue to struggle with their symptoms into adulthood. The truth is that kids with ADHD grow up to be adults with ADHD, and the earlier they get treatment and support, the more successful they will be and the higher their quality of life will be.
Unfortunately, adult ADHD is a neglected demographic with a profound lack of awareness, research, diagnosis, and treatment available. One national survey found that only 1 in 10 of these adults ever get an evaluation or any specific treatment for ADHD, and only 1 in 4 receive treatment for other mental health problems in general. This is a huge disservice to our adult population and society as a whole. Our healthcare and public health systems need to do better.
“Though ADHD is commonly detected in childhood, later-in-life diagnoses are providing clarity and relief for many adults with once unexplained, misunderstood, or overlooked lifelong struggles. Late-diagnosed ADHD is particularly common in women, minorities, and gifted individuals.”
A Heavy Burden to Bear
While ADHD is mainly recognized as a psychiatric, neurodevelopmental disorder, it is not solely an individual problem confined to the mental health and special education domains. ADHD has a significant impact on social, familial, economic, and daily functioning as well. Substantial evidence from research and studies over the past couple of decades continues to support the fact that ADHD presents significant adverse health outcomes. A 2019 report from the ADHD Public Health Summit outlines these findings and asserts that ADHD needs to be seen and addressed as a public health issue due to its increased health risks and negative impact on quality of life, mortality, and the economic viability of the US population.
Some of the striking adverse health outcomes and consequences of unmanaged and neglected ADHD include (and sadly, this list only begins to scratch the surface):
Education: Teens with ADHD have increased risk for dropping out of high school before graduating (~33-35% compared to 15% for peers without a psychiatric disorder)
Financial: Adults with ADHD earn ~25% less income per month, which accumulates to ~$543k-$616,000 less over their lifetime
Psychiatric: Kids and adults with ADHD are likely to have additional, comorbid diagnoses (over 80% have a second psychiatric, learning, or developmental disorder; over 50% have 2 or more)
Mortality: ADHD significantly increases the risk for childhood and midlife mortality (children with ADHD have 2x risk of death; adults have 3-5x risk of death by midlife)
Lifespan: ADHD reduces overall later life expectancy by ~9-13 years
Why You Need A Coach
The Executive Assistant to your CEO
As Dr. Larry Silver said, you can think of executive function as the chief executive officer of a company, meaning that it is the CEO of your brain. An executive function/ADHD coach is like the executive assistant to your CEO--helping you make sense of everything that it on your plate, organizing and crafting order from chaos, discovering ways to streamline your life, and supporting you overall in whatever your goals are. If you're finding yourself increasingly overwhelmed and feeling like you're drowning in the demands of work, school, family, or everyday life, then it might be time to consider hiring an executive function coach.
The coaching services at the Craft + Compass will help you learn more about yourself and how your brain is "wired"; they'll help you identify your executive strengths, as well as your underdeveloped skills, and figure out what areas may be tripping you up and creating barriers to your success; they'll help you work with your brain instead of against it to craft individualized innovative solutions to your everyday problems.
are struggling to keep up or tread water
are feeling scattered, frazzled, like your head is spinning
don't even know where or how to start
feel like the world is moving faster than you can keep up
wish you could just press "pause," catch your breath, and catch up
...then coaching might be a good fit for you.
It can get better. You deserve more.
" Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."
- Unknown (but usually attributed to Einstein, though most likely not originally from him, but probably based on an allegory published in the Journal of Education in 1899...it's complicated)
You don't need to be fixed.
You just need some help navigating your path.