What is executive functioning, anyway?
Whether you're a student or working professional, the term executive functioning has been buzzing around a lot these days. Many people have heard of it, but aren't sure what it means to have executive functioning skills. We know it's important and may feel like it's something we need to work on, but without understanding what executive functioning really entails, it may feel like an ambiguous and intangible task.
According to an article from Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child, "Executive functioning skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses."
Executive functioning includes 11 key areas:
Planning and prioritizing
Flexibility and shifting focus
Does everyone struggle with executive functioning?
The answer is, YES! We all have some area of executive functioning we can improve upon and the areas we struggle with may change during different periods of our lives. For example, if you're planning for a wedding in addition to working a full-time job, you may find it difficult to plan and prioritize and manage your time effectively because you have more tasks to complete than you're used to. If you're a middle school student and you're having an issue with your best friend, you may find it hard to regulate your emotions or initiate tasks because you're feeling down. We will never be 100% effective in the 11 key areas at the same time, but we can adapt and find new ways to try and manage the growing number of to do's we have on our plate.
In today’s technologically advanced world, executive functioning has become more arduous. We are always connected through our devices and spend a majority of our time in front of a screen. We have multiple logins for school and work. If we start a task, we have dozens of distractions from being phones to social media. Our brains are being (over)stimulated and we’re having a hard time decompressing before bed, leading to a lack of sleep. This cycle of constant engagement has significantly adding to the daily juggling we’re expected to cope with.
How can we improve executive functioning?
If you feel like improving your executive functioning skills would benefit you, there are many ways to approach it. First, you’ll want to identify which key areas you struggle with the most. Once you determine what areas need improvement, you can think about various ways to work on it. Many times, simply breaking down tasks and making lists can help address several of the executive functioning key areas. We tend to struggle with executive functioning when we’re feeling overwhelmed, so rather than trying to get from step A to C, figure out what step B is. Making lists and then prioritizing can help us stay on schedule and feel accomplished as we cross off our to do’s when they’re completed. It’s also helpful to use a calendar and schedule each day in advance. This allows us to have a sense of control, as well as organize and prepare what needs to be tackled and prioritized. Giving yourself deadlines to complete tasks can keep you on track and make you feel accomplished.
Improving executive function skills is an attainable goal with a long lasting impact. These skills ultimately lead to less anxiety, feeling more in control of our daily lives, and make us feel like our own hero!