I Struggle With Executive Function — Here's How I Stay Organized & Productive
As adults, we use executive function skills constantly. They're critical for accomplishing daily tasks, achieving long-term goals, and operating as successful, functioning members of society.
And I suck at them. No, really—I wish I were spinning an exaggerated tale here for the sake of hyperbole, but my subpar executive function skills maneuver an all-day, haphazard combat between me and my brain.
From procrastination to time management, I have a seriously difficult time with executive function. But struggling with such a critical cognitive skill that affects my job, relationships, and personal goals has forced me to test out different strategies and techniques that help me stay focused, organized, and productive.
I'm still working on winning the war, but these tried-and-true tips help me improve my executive function (and I'm winning way more battles than I used to).
Wait, what is executive function?
Executive function is a set of cognitive skills that help us plan, prioritize, focus attention on, and successfully execute tasks. Essentially, executive function is the bridge between wanting to do something and actually getting it done.
Some examples of executive function skills include:
- Time management
- Task switching
- Working memory
- Impulse control
- Delay aversion
- Task initiation
- Cognitive flexibility
These highly important skills are mediated in the prefrontal cortex and regulated by key neurotransmitters1—including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine.
As someone who sometimes finds it challenging to regulate her neurotransmitter levels (especially dopamine, the reward and motivation hormone that helps us focus, concentrate, make decisions, and accomplish our goals), this science-y explanation of how executive function is modulated makes a lot of sense.
How to tell if you struggle with executive function.
Everyone is unique, so I can't speak to what executive function (or lack thereof) looks like for others. That said, here are some examples of how suboptimal executive function skills manifest for me:
Have you ever actually thought about what time is? Honestly, it's very strange to me that we all schedule our lives by this human-made, abstract concept that doesn't actually exist.
Days and nights I can wrap my head around: The sun comes up—it's day; the sun goes down, it's night. Simple. Seasons are clearly marked by changes in the weather, the temperature, etc.—that's a no-brainer.
But seconds, minutes, and hours? Nope, cannot compute. Time simply doesn't make sense to me. As a result, I have no concept of how long something will take, ever.
Whether I'm trying to judge when I should leave for a doctor's appointment or how much time I should carve out to cook a recipe, I misjudge how many minutes or hours are required for tasks every single day.
This means I'm chronically late for scheduled events (no matter how important they are), I rarely eat dinner at a reasonable hour, and I often need extensions on work assignments because my brain simply couldn't judge how long it would actually take.
Oof. This is a big one. I often build up a task so much in my head that it becomes more and more difficult for me to even start on it.
And once I finally stop procrastinating and just freaking start already, nine times out of 10 I'll discover it isn't nearly as challenging as I imagined it to be.
Most of the time, I even enjoy what I'm doing once I'm doing it (monotonous admin work and chores included). It's the starting that's insanely difficult for me.
Task switching (aka set shifting)
Once I'm actually in the flow of a task, I'm locked in—hyperfocused, even. I get in a groove and feel unstoppable.
But if something interrupts me or I need to suddenly switch to another task? Game over. All of that progress is lost, and I need to build up my focus on the new task now, which takes a lot of mental energy.
Generally speaking, if I switch from task to task too quickly, it's a good way to get the bare minimum of a lot of things accomplished. (Talk about unproductive.)
As we've already established, I have a very loose grasp on the concept of time. As a result, my foresight isn't as strong as I'd like it to be.
What does this mean? Well, since I can't fully understand the impact a task will have on my long-term goals, it's difficult for me to decide which one is most important right now. I tend to over-plan to try to get these concepts on paper—which is essential for remembering tasks I need to complete and keeping them organized but can become a bit of a time suck if I'm not careful.
Knowing this about myself, I often ask someone (like my boss or my partner) which project or task I should prioritize first so I don't get mentally stuck analyzing where to start or what's most important.
Embracing your neurodiversity.
If you're thinking Holy shit, I'm amazed this woman gets anything done with all these daily obstacles, then first of all, same. Second, I'm guessing you don't struggle as much (or as often) with executive function.
But if you've made it this far, it's safe to assume you also find some of these executive function skills challenging. It's easy to get caught up in a spiral of shame and frustration when executive function doesn't come easily (especially when Googling "executive function" brings you to child development articles and you're a fully grown 27-year-old), but the truth is that executive function isn't always simple or easy!
We all have unique brains that work differently, and if executive function is not your strength, I'm willing to bet you excel in other cognitive functions—like creativity, emotional intelligence, or divergent thinking (aka "thinking outside the box").
These are all incredibly valuable traits that shape who you are and what you bring to the table in professional and personal settings. That said, we still need to utilize our executive function skills to help optimize these qualities and accomplish tasks in an effective manner.
5 ways I enhance my executive function skills.
Here are the top things I do to work with (not against) my brain and enhance my executive function:
- Take mbg's focus+. This daily nootropic supplement has completely changed my life. Thanks to ingredients like instant- and sustained-release plant-origin caffeine, L-theanine, Panax ginseng, guarana, and vitamin B12, focus+ supports executive function skills like attention, task switching, concentration, and working memory.* If you're looking for a supplement that can help you get shit done, I can't recommend it enough. (You can read more about my personal experience with focus+ here and here.)
- Write out to-do lists. I never, ever get through all items (because time management), but physically writing down and prioritizing tasks I need to accomplish is a helpful way to declutter my brain and focus my attention on one task at a time.
- Eliminate digital distractions. This one may seem obvious, but if you struggle with task switching and impulse control like me, it's key to reducing the likelihood you'll get derailed. I live with my phone and computer on "do not disturb" mode for the majority of my workday to make sure Slack messages, emails, texts, and other notifications don't distract me. If I'm really determined to be focused (like when I have a big professional or personal project in the works), I also delete time-sucking apps like Instagram, Netflix, and YouTube from my phone entirely to remove the temptation to deliberately defocus.
- Organize my life with an agenda. If you, too, find time management challenging, I recommend a physical agenda with a weekly layout and a monthly calendar so you can visually conceptualize upcoming assignments. This is also where I write my to-do lists and track my habits and goals.
- Use a visual timer. I use an app called Time Timer to be aware of how much time is passing as I work on a task. While I don't always complete things in the time I've allotted, the visual representation makes me hyper-aware of how much time has passed so I can stay focused on the task at hand.
Struggling with executive function can make day-to-day life pretty challenging, but with some targeted tools and strategies, you can enhance your executive function skills and bolster cognitive task performance.
For a simple and effective daily tool that promotes mental clarity, task performance, attention, and concentration, I seriously cannot recommend mbg's focus+ enough.*
To learn more about the science behind the incredible nootropic supplement, see what neuroscientists and dietitians have to say about the focus+ formula here.
Morgan Chamberlain is a supplement editor at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in magazine journalism and a minor in nutrition. Chamberlain believes in taking small steps to improve your well-being—whether that means eating more plant-based foods, checking in with a therapist weekly, or spending quality time with your closest friends. When she isn’t typing away furiously at her keyboard, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, hanging outside, or doing a vinyasa flow.