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Adult executive function skills: comprehensive guide (2024) 


cartoon of a man in a blue suit, thinking, with images of clocks and hears around him

Yesterday, Jim was late…again. 


At 1:30, he looked up from his phone, knowing he should get ready for his doctor’s appointment. “Just two more minutes”, he told himself. 30 minutes passed in what felt like an instant.


Can you relate? 


Do you struggle to be on time and consistently finish tasks at the last minute? Have you tried using to-do lists but it didn't make a difference? Is your home disorganized, leaving you overwhelmed?


Welcome to the adult executive function skills comprehensive guide. This blog is your roadmap to a more productive and balanced life. You will:


  • Learn how your executive function impacts daily life

  • Discover strategies to implement today

  • Learn about the transformative role of executive function coaching


Without further ado...


 

Table of Contents

 

What are adult executive function skills?

Executive functions are a series of skills that allow us to make decisions and get stuff done. While there isn’t an agreement on the number and names of these skills, professionals do agree that executive functions act as the control center of our brains. 


Our executive functions allow us to manage our daily lives, responsibilities at work, and relationships while pursuing lifelong goals. They help us…


  • Juggle a job and family responsibilities by creating weekly schedules

  • Consider our financial situation before making purchases 

  • Set and achieve goals 

  • Monitor our emotions and respond appropriately during heated conversations

  • Sustain our attention on a task for extended periods without distraction


According to Dr. Peg Dawson and Dr. Richard Guare, there are 12 executive function skills


infographic that states the 12 executive function skills

Response Inhibition

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  • ability to think before acting

  • evaluate a situation and how behavior might affect it, rather than acting on impulse.


Working Memory

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  • hold and manipulate information in the mind over short periods

  • crucial for reasoning, decision-making, and conversation


Emotional Control

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  • manage and regulate emotions

  • respond appropriately to situations and avoid overwhelming reactions


Task Initiation

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  • begin projects or tasks without excessive procrastination



Sustained Attention

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  • capacity to maintain focus on a task or activity over extended periods

  • resist distractions


Planning/Prioritizing

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  • create a roadmap to reach a goal or complete a task

  • make decisions about what's important to focus on and what's not


Organization

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  • keep track of information and materials, both physically and mentally

  • maintain organization systems at home and work


Time Management

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  • estimate how much time one has and how to allocate it

  • stay within time limits and meet deadlines


Cognitive Flexibility

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  • capacity to adapt to new situations

  • revise plans in the face of obstacles, new information, or mistakes


Metacognition

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  • awareness and understanding of one's thought processes, strengths, and weaknesses

  • self-assessment and adjustment strategies


Goal-Directed Persistence

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  • determination to complete a goal, even in the face of obstacles and challenges


Stress Tolerance

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  • ability to thrive in stressful situations

  • cope with uncertainty, change, and performance demands


How do we develop executive functions? 

We are not born with executive function skills but the potential for development is there. 


In short, developmental growth and experience result in executive skill formation. These skills are honed and executed in a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. 


Several factors can limit the development of executive function skills in children:

  • extreme stress

  • exposure to toxins

  • poverty

  • traumatic brain injuries

  • neurological differences like ADHD and autism 


quote with white font and a green background that says our brains are optimized for learning between birth and the age of 25

By the age of 3, children are developing executive functions. They learn how to respond to stimuli in their environment, follow rules, and even control impulses. As children develop, they learn how to plan, set goals, and initiate tasks independently. In many situations, executive functions are fully developed between the ages of 18 and 25.


While it is more difficult, adults can develop and learn how to manage their executive functions through coaching and repeated practice.  


Why do some adults struggle with executive function?


cartoon of a man sitting at a desk, looking at his computer

Adults with executive function challenges don’t have fewer executive functions. Instead, they are unable to use their executive functions effectively and when they want to. 


Some of the causes are:

  • underdeveloped skills from childhood

  • intense stress

  • traumatic brain injury

  • neurological differences like ADHD and autism


How does ADHD impact executive function? 

ADHD is a deficit of executive function. ADHD impacts on executive function can vary widely among individuals, with some experiencing more difficulties in certain areas than others.


In children with ADHD, executive function skills are typically delayed by two or three years. This delay persists into adulthood if these skills are not explicitly taught, practiced, and monitored. 


inforgraphic that explains 9 ways adults with ADHD struggle with executive function

Can adults develop executive function skills? 


cartoon of a woman wearing professional business attire, sitting at desk looking happy and productive

While the best time to learn executive function skills is during childhood, adults can learn how to manage these skills. 


Adults can learn new skills, like playing the piano, because new connections within the brain are possible. This is called neuroplasticity.



While it is more difficult for an adult to learn to play the piano compared to a 10-year-old, with consistent effort, it can be done. The same is true for executive function skills. 


Want to learn more about adult executive function coaching? Schedule your no-cost strategy session with Eric to learn more.


Strategies for managing executive function

The first step is to develop more self-awareness around your strengths and weaknesses. You can use Dr. Dawson and Dr. Gaure's Executive Skills Questionaire (ESQ) to evaluate your top 3 strongest and 3 weakest skills. 


Next, begin to pay attention to the “why” behind your weaker skills. 


Do you struggle to be on time because you are time blind? Are you disorganized because you do not have a system or strategy for organization? Does your working memory fail you because you do not have a system for keeping track of to-do’s that come up throughout the day? 


Once you learn which skills are difficult and why this is the case, you can implement a system or tool to support your weak spots. Here are our favorite systems and tools:


1. Set a code to live by

Create rules that you can stick to. For example, improve your organization by always putting dirty clothes in the hamper when you take them off, updating your to-do list on Sunday evenings, or putting your phone on silent when you do a demanding task.


Consider the two-minute rule: if it takes less than two minutes, do it right away. Don’t tell yourself, “I’ll do it later”.


2. Offload your to-do’s from your working memory

Instead of remembering your to-dos, use a to-do list and digital calendar.


This will allow you to visualize your day, plan, and set reminders to be on time. You will also experience a reduction in stress as your working memory does not need to work as hard. 


Check out this video and learn how to use Google Tasks to turn your to-do list into a time blocked plan:



3. Improve your organization

Use AirTags for important belongings that you notice you lose most often. Additionally, create a launch pad near the door where you always place your wallet and keys. 


At the end of the work day, take 5 minutes to declutter and reorganize. This makes it easier to focus your attention and prioritize to-dos the next morning. 


4. Manage time differently 

🕰️ Put analog clocks in every room of your house. Analog clocks help you visualize the passage of time. Having a clock close by will make it easier to keep track of

time. 


⏱️ To learn how long tasks take to complete, time it. Going to the grocery store, taking out the trash, or commuting to work need to be planned for. When you know how long they take, you can manage your time better. 


🔔 Use alarms to remind you to switch the laundry, get ready for your workout, or bring you back from a break at work. 


Sand timers are an amazing way to visualize the passage of time. You can purchase inexpensive sand timers and use them as a countdown to start a task or work on a task for a specific amount of time. Because you are not using a device to keep track of time, it is less likely that you will become distracted.

 

two catoon people talking to each other in library with a tan background and shelves of blue, read, and orange books

5. Find an accountability partner 

Follow-through is difficult. When you set a goal or are working on a new skill, find someone who can keep you on track. This can be a friend, family member, or executive function coach. 


Share your weekly goals with your accountability partner and discuss how they can best support you. Whether it be text check-ins or a weekly debrief at a local coffee shop, you are more likely to make progress with support. 


6. Do an energy audit 

Develop an understanding of what gives you energy and what is most draining. Next, pay attention to the times of day when you feel more energized and focused. Schedule your most challenging tasks during the times when you feel locked in. 


7. Hone the 5 Pillars 

Sleep, nutrition, movement, mindfulness, and community all play key roles in our executive functions.


Learn how much sleep you need and create a structured bedtime and wake-up time. Each healthy, whole foods that give you energy.


Move your body daily. Recent research conducted by Dr. Frances Kuo found,


Time spent in natural surroundings has been linked to an increased ability to focus in adults with ADHD. 

Practice mindfulness through breathing techniques, meditation, prayer, or journaling. And finally, spend time with people who support and challenge you.  


How can adult executive function coaching help? 

Imagine having a mentor who deeply understands your daily challenges and has the skills to help you overcome them. This is the heart of adult executive function coaching, aimed at improving the cognitive skills essential for planning, organizing, and managing impulses.


Adult executive function coaching offers a tailored experience, focusing on your unique needs and goals. Together with your coach, you'll identify your strengths and challenges, then craft a plan filled with effective strategies and tools to enhance your executive functions.



man with long black hair standing in front of a green background, wearing a black jacket


Through coaching, you'll learn to apply these strategies in daily life, improving your task management, time management, and decision-making. With commitment and expert guidance, you'll achieve noticeable gains in productivity and focus.


Ready to give coaching a try? Schedule a no-cost strategy session to see if executive function coaching is your key to living a better life. 


How can I leverage technology?

With incredible resources at your disposal, technology can be an incredible way to offload your executive functions. Here is a list of our favorite tools: 

  • Google Calendar 

  • Magic ToDo 

  • Reminders app 

  • Daily/Habit Tracker: Habatica

  • Autopay 

  • Headspace 

  • Tab Snooze

  • Pomodoro timer 


Resources

Online Forums and Groups


Workshops, Seminars, and Other Educational Opportunities

  • Each month, we host a no-cost webinar. Check out our events page for details. 

  • Addutide hosts webinars on many topics. Some of which relate to adult ADHD and executive function skills. Learn more here


Books


Conclusion

This comprehensive blog walks through the landscape of executive function skills in adults, dissecting their core components, examining how they manifest in adult life, and exploring the unique challenges some adults face in harnessing these skills effectively. We delved into the intricacies of executive function, from response inhibition to stress tolerance, highlighting their pivotal role in our daily lives, responsibilities at work, and relationships.


We've seen through examples of Cathy and Jim how strong executive function skills can lead to success and fulfillment, while challenges in executive function can result in struggles across various aspects of life.


For those facing challenges with their executive function skills, remember, growth and development are within reach at any age. The brain's remarkable plasticity means that, with effort and the right strategies, improvements can be made. We shared practical tips and strategies to enhance executive function skills, emphasizing the importance of self-awareness, structure, and support systems.


What questions, experiences, and feedback do you have? Have you found certain strategies particularly effective? Are there challenges you're still seeking solutions for? 

Let's continue the conversation and support each other in navigating the complexities of executive function. Your insights and stories can inspire and guide others, contributing to a community of learning and growth. Leave a comment below! 


Stay engaged


About the author

Eric Kaufmann, M.Ed is a Professional Educational Therapist and Certified Executive Function Coach. He is the Co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, an online adult executive function coaching company designed to guide adults in overcoming disorganization, procrastination, and productivity roadblocks so they can unlock their potential. Eric is also the founder of Elevate Learning Solutions, an Educational Therapy practice located in San Clemente, CA, that guides students with neurological differences toward becoming independent and confident students and self-leaders.

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About 👋

Upskill Specialists was founded when two former special education teachers turned executive function coaches decided that adults need tools and coaching to improve their workplace skills and feel confident and empowered. Our mission is to ensure every adult with EF challenges has access to high-quality coaching services. 

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