Understanding Executive Functioning

Aug 20, 2021

BPS Staff

By: Dr. Nikita Patel, Psy.D.

Do you find yourself putting off errands or tasks unless there is an immediate deadline? Is it difficult for you to organize your thoughts and clearly explain them to someone else? Time management and organization are examples of executive functioning.

Executive functioning refers to the cognitive processes that help us meet the demands of our life. This can look like getting started on an assignment, tolerating anger that intensifies during an argument, and problem-solving when things go wrong. These processes sit in the prefrontal cortex, which is located at the front of the brain. This area is the last to fully develop in your mid 20’s. 

According to Thomas Brown (2005), there are six major areas of executive functioning that work together to help us meet a goal or accomplish a task:

1. Activation This is everything that we do before initiating a task. For example, getting to work requires you to prioritize the task of getting yourself to work on time by getting dressed and ready, organizing your bag, checking the weather, checking traffic or train delays.
2. Action This occurs during the task. For example, when commuting to school or work, it’s helpful to engage in self-monitoring to ensure that you’re on the right train and on time. In addition, you have to be ready to course-correct if your train suddenly goes express by evaluating the change and redirecting to another route.

3. Working Memory This factor is helpful with short-term memory tasks that require us to take in information and manipulate it. Taking notes requires both the capacity to remember what is being said as well as being able to jot down the information for later review. Imagine how much memory is required to engage in a back-and-forth conversation with a friend.

4. Emotion Regulation Can you imagine what would happen if we leaned into all of our emotional urges? The ability to manage and tolerate difficult emotions is important in staying effective towards meeting both short- and long-term goals without derailing from the task at hand.

5. Sustained effort Have you ever found yourself full speed ahead on a task and fatigued halfway through? Effort helps us to sustain our pace while working so we can get through a task.

6. Sustained focus We’ve all drifted into our thoughts during a work meeting or during class. This area helps us to shift our attention to what’s important in the moment and maintain that focus to help us effectively achieve that task.

You may find yourself having trouble in some areas and not others. However, weakness in any of these areas tends to generalize to different aspects of your life. For example, you may find yourself struggling with managing your time at work, with friends, and at home.

You may have noticed that you probably struggled with many of these areas as a child since the prefrontal cortex was still developing. Parents and teachers often took the role of being the source of our executive functioning to help us meet tasks. Think back to all of the reminders you received from parents and teachers to complete chores or homework assignments. If you find yourself having difficulties in any of these areas, there are skills and strategies that you can use to help such as, keeping planners to organize deadlines and events, keeping to-do lists, setting alarms to manage time, and using coping skills to manage intense emotions.

For individualized help, there are executive functioning coaches who can tailor skills to your specific needs. Below are two resources for both children and adolescents and adults:

Children, Adolescents and Adults

Children and Adolescents