Do you have trouble finding your keys when you’re in a rush to get out the door? Do you lose important papers or pay bills late because you can’t find them? Do your kids consistently turn in their homework late and with errors?
The ability to plan, organize, remember details, and set goals are all part of your “Executive Function” – a set of mental processes that enable you to relate and utilize past experiences to influence present actions. For example, organized parents whose children are involved in a myriad of activities (and are consistently on time and don’t miss a session), or children who always turn in their homework on time, completed, and with a reasonable degree of accuracy, have strong executive functions that enable them to effectively plan and organize their time.
Those who have a deficit in their executive functioning find themselves in situations where they are not fully prepared, often leading to frustration, and in some cases, decreased self-esteem. They may find that their days are unnecessarily chaotic and they are consistently being reactive rather than proactive.
How do I know if I have a deficit in my executive functioning?
A formal diagnosis for any type of learning disorder or mental illness may be made by a trained mental health professional or as part of academic testing. However, you may already be aware of your own deficits in organizing, setting goals, and planning, without requiring a formal diagnosis. Some examples of executive function deficits include:
Inability to initiate or follow-through with the necessary details to complete an activity or task
Difficulty managing own and others’ expectations
Difficulty memorizing and using stored information
Being highly disorganized
Many of these same deficits can occur when you are under stress or for other reasons; however, if these deficits are present on a chronic basis, they may be due to a deficit in your executive functioning.
Why is executive functioning important?
Although you may be able to get through life without having a strong ability to organize and plan, you have an opportunity to work “smarter” rather than “harder” by strengthening your executive functioning abilities. You may find that being able to meet deadlines and being better prepared for things (due to improved planning and organizing) makes you a happier, more confident individual. You may also see these benefits affect your family or work life in a positive way.
So how can I learn these new skills?
There are many basic behaviors that you can start adopting immediately. Like learning anything new, the more you practice, the more likely you are to integrate this new behavior into your routine. Start with some simple guiding principles, such as:
Repetition (practice the same new behavior several times)
Consistency (do the same thing each day)
Start small and slow (pick one minor thing you want to change and focus on it)
Determine your/your child’s individual motivation (time alone, new book/ toy, time with friends or one-on-one with parent, etc.)
Use these guiding principles with these specific strategies listed below to strengthen your executive function skills:
Create a daily schedule
Review your schedule every evening
Create a to-do list and estimate how long a task will take
Put your paper, pens, and pencils in individual containers on a clean, clutter-free desk