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Understanding Executive Functioning

What Is "Executive Functioning"?

Our "executive functions" refer  to a cluster of functions which can be conceptualised as the Control and Management Centre of the Brain.


A simple analogy is to think of them as an Air Traffic Controller and the Conductor of an Orchestra rolled into one.


Much like an Air Traffic Controller controls and regulates the flow of airplanes into an airport our "executive functions" are central to our capacity to process, control and regulate the flow of information reaching our brain.

Additionally, much like a Conductor co-ordinates and unifies the many elements of an orchestra, and regulates their tempo, to optimally perform a single piece of music, our "executive functions" are critical to our capacity to co-ordinate, order and assimilate the  relevant pieces of information available to us, and regulate our behaviour, to optimally perform a specific task.

A Practical, Emotional and Behavioural Component

Our "executive functions" are central to our capability to effectively navigate the complexities of  every aspect of day-to-day life 

The term "executive functioning" relates to a cluster of functions which are critical to our brain's capacity to:


  • Plan Tasks

  • Organise Tasks

  • Prioritise Tasks

  • Initiate Tasks

  • Complete Tasks

They also relate to our capability to 

  • Regulate our Emotions

  • Manage and Sustain our Effort and Motivation

  • Modulate our behaviour to the demands of the situation

Both of which are critical to our productivity and effectiveness in selecting actions and seeing them through to their conclusion.

The Importance Of "Executive Functioning"?

  • Collectively our Executive Functions are critical to driving and sustaining Goal Orientated Behaviour, particularly in relation to our pursuit of medium to long term goals, where there is no immediate gratification (or consequence) to motivate us to act.

  • They are central to our Performance, Productivity and Perseverance in the Pursuit of Goals.


  • Working out what needs to be done?

  • Working out the steps needed to do it?

  • Working out the resources needed to do it?

  • Learning the skills needed to do it?

  • Recalling and applying the skills needed to do it?



  • Working out the order in which to do things?

  • Managing the time available in which to do things?

  • Establishing the relative urgency of component tasks.

  • Sustaining attention and focus on the task in hand (managing distractions and competing interests).


  • Making adjustments to stay on track and remain aligned to the overall Goal.

  • Sustaining momentum to see the Goal through to completion.

  • Responding positively to setbacks, frustrations and obstacles.

  • Retaining faith in our capacity and capability to complete the Goal.

Deficits in "executive functioning"


Many people struggle with specific areas of Executive Functioning particularly when faced with:

  • Difficult or Seemingly Overwhelming Goals.

  • Too Many Conflicting Responsibilities

  • Sustained periods of Stress, Exhaustion or Burn-Out.

  • New Challenges or enforced Changes which take them outside of their "comfort zone".

  • Situations where they perceive a lack of control or ability to influence the outcome.

Additionally some people are born with weaker executive functioning skills than others:

Struggles with "executive functioning" are an integral component of, or highly implicated in, a range of neurological  and developmental conditions including:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

  • Dyslexia

  • Dyspraxia

  • Autism

They are also evident in, or exacerbated in their severity by, mood disorders including:

  • Depression

  • Bipolar Disorder

  • Anxiety Disorders

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

The Core Skills Associated with "executive functioning"



Task Initiation

The ability to recognise when it is time to make a start on something and to begin without procrastinating.


planning and prioritisation

The ability to create steps to reach a goal and to make decisions about the relative importance and urgency of each step.



The ability to create and maintain systems and structures to keep track of information or materials.


time management

The ability to use time productively and smartly to maximise output in relation to effort.


working memory

The ability to hold information in mind and use, manipulate and link it to complete a task.


sustaining attention

The ability to direct and maintain attention to fully concentrate on the task in hand.


goal directed persistence

The ability to see a goal through to completion whilst managing distractions and competing interests.


shifting focus

The ability to transition seamlessly and efficiently from one task to another.


response inhibition

The ability to pause to consider available courses of action rather than acting impulsively.


emotional control

The ability to manage feelings and emotions and use them constructively to support the pursuit of goals.



The ability to understand our own thought processes and how they are influencing our choices, actions, decisions and behaviour.

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