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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Shepard, MD

What is executive functioning? And how is it affected by ADHD?




If you’ve been active in the ADHD community for any period of time, you’ve probably heard the term “executive function” or its arch nemesis, “executive dysfunction”.


Executive functioning (EF) skills are what we use to identify and work towards goals, solve problems, regulate our emotions, control our behaviors, and make decisions. In other words, EF involves all the “higher-level” cognitive processes we humans have to engage in. Our EF networks are considered higher-level cognitive processes because of the way they interpret, integrate, and coordinate more basic systems.


To oversimplify, our EF skills allow us to turn our more basic brain functions (such as sensory perception) into meaningful action.


For example, our lower-level cognitive process of sight allows us to perceive a snake on the trail ahead of us. Our EF skills then take what we see and compare it to what we know about snakes, weigh the pros and cons of continuing on our walk, and come up with an escape plan if one is needed.


If the snake were to bite us, our lower-level cognitive processes would feel the pain of the bite, while our higher-level cognitive processes (our EF skills) would allow us to quickly interpret the context of that pain, what it means, and decide how to get help.


Our EF skills allow us to do all of the wonderfully complex things that make human life so interesting (and so damn hard sometimes). Things like achieving our goals, managing complex tasks, and problem-solving. EF skills include things like prioritization, time management, planning, goal-setting, task initiation, perseverance, and organization. Our EF skills also provide an important set of brakes for our brains, allowing us to stop our lower-level cognitive processes from pushing us into irrational, emotional, or impulsive decisions that we may later regret.


As ADHDers, we tend to struggle with tasks that require a lot of these EF skills. We may have to approach these tasks differently or may need more reminders, cues, or reinforcement than the average person without ADHD.


(And yes, you heard me right, it’s your ADHD that makes these EF-heavy tasks difficult- not stupidity, laziness, or a personality flaw.)


Thankfully, there are hacks that we can use and skills that we can learn to improve our executive functioning (I teach a lot of these in the Squirrel’s Guide to Overwhelm so check it out if you need help!).


But in the meantime, be kind to yourself. You’re doing a good job :)


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