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What is Executive Functioning?

At a Glance

In this post, we will define executive functioning and how it works.

We will also briefly touch on 9 core executive functioning skills and how they all work together for executive functioning.

This is the first post of our Executive Functioning series.

Welcome to our Executive Functioning Series, where we will explore facets of Executive Functioning from what the heck it actually means to how we can effectively practice our executive functioning skills. 


In this post, we will offer a potential visualization of executive function skills and how they work. We will also briefly touch on 9 core executive functioning skills. 


But since this is part one, we can’t think of any better place to start than talking about what executive functioning actually means!

What is executive functioning?

While the term executive functioning can cover a wide range of potential activities, but let’s try to boil it down to what they all have in common:

Executive functioning is the personal system by which you complete your day-to-day tasks to the best of your ability.

Executive functioning entails a wide range of potential activities, but it’s possible to work on your overall executive functioning by practicing any number of executive functioning skills. Your personal need for executive functioning skills may vary throughout your life. 


Often as we get older, we find ourselves needing to complete more activities for daily living just to maintain our personal standards. Others might find themselves with greater responsibilities in their jobs, or wanting to find ways to commit more to a hobby they are passionate about. Whatever tasks you see as vital components of your life, executive functioning is just how you make them happen.

One way to visualize executive functioning.

Now that we have a basic working definition for executive functioning, we thought it might be helpful to offer a visualization of the role that executive functioning plays in translating your energy to doing what you need to do on a daily basis. A visual that has been helpful for us is the Executive Functioning Wheel. 


At the center of the wheel is the axle, which is carrying our day-to-day energy. Our energy is connected to our overall executive functioning by our individual executive functioning skills. While our energy might be able to carry us some distance on its own, strong executive functioning skills can help us go farther and more quickly build up our momentum!

Of course in practice, a specific activity related to executive functioning such as creating a weekly planner might involve multiple executive functioning skills, such as planning, organization, task initiation, and time management. 


But each of those individual skills play a role in turning a blank planner into a functional tool that helps you plan your activities.

What are those executive functioning skills?

Sometimes it can be hard to decide what kind of executive functioning-related activity is most worth your time when trying to make better use of your time and energy. 


While executive functioning skills themselves can be more abstract, having a list of them available can clue you into areas where you feel you could benefit from additional practice and try to identify suitable practice activities based on that assessment. 


For example, if you realize one major area for improvement is related to task initiation, you might experiment with different ways of ramping up into getting a particular task started or into starting tasks in general.


With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some core executive functioning skills and what types of activities they can be connected to.

1. Working Memory

Working memory refers to our ability to complete complex tasks requiring multiple steps. 


While the term working memory implies that these tasks must be completed from memory, using tools to help yourself remember is one of the best activities for practicing this particular skill! 


If you learn to, for example, set up calendar alerts to keep a certain schedule then you’re building up your working memory skills. 

2. Adaptable Thinking

Adaptable thinking refers to our ability to adjust to changes, whether as a part of a new plan or opportunity or due to circumstances outside our control. 


Some might feel more comfortable adapting to unexpected circumstances while others might excel at coming up with creative unexpected solutions. 


If you want to practice your adaptable thinking, one great way to do so is to practice your decision-making in hypothetical worlds where you are safe to improvise and make mistakes with an intention toward coming up with unique solutions to challenges that arise. 


Even though the stakes in a hypothetical situation are not real, it can still help with our lateral thinking skills and as a result our adaptability!

3. Self-Regulation

Self-regulation refers to our ability to manage our emotions in the context of completing necessary tasks and working through obstacles and mistakes. We want to be clear about one particular point here: self-regulation is first and foremost about how your emotions affect your energy and ability to complete the tasks you think are important. It is not about masking emotions for the benefit of others!    


One great example of how self-regulation can be important to individual executive functioning is managing how to react to, address, and move forward from mistakes. 


Mistakes can be an incredibly frustrating part of any process, new or familiar, and it’s not uncommon at all for people to feel affected by the weight of their mistakes when trying to continue with their work. 


A person seeking to work on their self-regulation might come up with a list of things they can do to cool down after a frustrating mistake, from taking a break to specific personal coping methods. 


Not everything you try may work, but the process of finding out what works and what doesn’t is part of building up your self-regulation skills!

4. Self-Monitoring

Self-monitoring is all about self-awareness! It’s about maintaining a sense of your personal strengths, preferences, challenges, and needs. 


It can also mean keeping track of your progress on a particular project, and when you might be on track to complete it. Self-monitoring can be a tricky skill, because sometimes it’s hard to know whether we are viewing ourselves objectively! 


One way to practice self-monitoring is to pick specific high-priority skills and attempt to evaluate yourself while also seeking out an honest evaluation from a person you trust. Alternately, you might find some simple ways to quantify types of success in the personal tasks you evaluate and check to see if you are meeting those marks.

5. Time Management

Time management may be fairly self-explanatory, but the ways you can build on your time management skill can be quite varied! 


Improving your time management might be a matter of writing down all your obligations in a planner so you can keep better track of them. It might involve better estimating how much time a given task will take you. 


For complex tasks, it may be necessary to plan out how everything will come together by a particular deadline. For something like a standardized test you may even need to manage a specific time limit! 


However you practice your time management, it often comes down to the task at hand, the time allotted, and the amount of activity you are able to fit in to the time allotted.

6. Planning

When you look at time management and planning, you may notice some areas of overlap. Things like scheduling your time and figuring out how you will complete a particular activity by a given deadline can obviously involve planning. 


But planning is also about anticipating and being prepared for potential challenges, figuring out how to approach long-term goals, or mapping out what you will do in the event that things go wrong. 


Starting out by consciously making plans or lower stakes activities (even if you don’t always stick to them!) can be great practice for getting used to building out detailed plans when higher stakes moments arrive!

7. Metacognition

Metacognition is all about your ability to connect your executive functioning skills together and evaluate from a bird’s eye view how well you are doing at managing your day-to-day functioning. 


One way it might connect to an overlapping skill like self-monitoring is examining your performance on multiple activities and evaluate how they collectively reflect on your overall performance. 


One way to practice metacognition is to actively think about where you are succeeding most and why you are successful.

8. Task Initiation

Task initiation is another skill that is a little bit self-explanatory, as it’s all about your ability to get started on the things you want or need to do. It might seem simple on the surface but if it were that easy there wouldn’t be so many people out there struggling with procrastination! 


Task initiation is another skill where part of the practice is repetition but another crucial part is testing new methods until you find one that works for you. 


For example, some people can more easily initiate tasks with on-ramping routings like listening to a song or making sure they have a cup of coffee before starting on anything effort intensive.

9. Organization

The more tasks on your plate, the more complicated your organization can become. 
For some personal organization might come down to planning and time management, while for others it might be about ensuring that tasks are completed in a way that fulfills all necessary criteria for a satisfactory result. 
The two key factors in improving your organization are finding ways to keep track of all the different lists of stuff and to do so in a way that is beneficial to you remembering to do everything you need within your timelines.

If it seems like we’re covering quite a bit in a short period of time, that’s because we are! 


We are excited to dig deeper into various topics related to executive functioning, as well as more closely examining the skills we have discussed today. If you are interested in learning more about executing functioning we’d love to hear what topics excite you most! 


Just drop us a line at hello@autismgrownup.com, and we’ll see you in Part 2.

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