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ep.02 Executive Function Skills Explained

If you've ever wondered why simple tasks seem so daunting, this episode unravels it all!

Listen in as I discuss 8 functional skills and why they are essential for managing our lives, especially for adults with ADHD.

I'll unpack what these skills are, how they're processed in our brains, and the impact they have on our everyday lives.

From impulse control to emotional regulation and goal-directed persistence, we break down the often overwhelming list of 47 executive function skills into a more digestible, simplified list of 8 core skills.

We'll also discuss strategies to enhance these skills and how coaching can be a valuable tool in this process.

Coming soon, I'm rolling out The ADHD Academy! Click here to learn more!

What you'll learn:

  • Why executive functions are important for managing life

  • 47 skills that we'll break down into 8 doable steps

  • How these functions are like the "whiteboard" of your life

  • Understand how to develop these executive function skills

"Executive function skills are essential for managing our lives, including inhibition, working memory, cognitive flexibility, planning, time management, emotional regulation, task initiation and goal directed persistence."

Useful links mentioned:

Listen to the Episode:

Click here to read the transcript:

Welcome to Learn to Thrive with ADHD. This is the podcast for adults with ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms. I'm your host, Coach Mande John. I'm here to make your life with ADHD easier. Let's get started.

Today, as promised, we're talking about executive function skills. If you have ADHD, you're likely lacking in some of these skills. We're going to discuss what they are and how they could be affecting you.

Executive function skills help us manage life. They're important for setting goals, controlling ourselves, and adjusting to changes. These skills are mainly housed in our prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain right behind your forehead, but there are many other brain connections as well. An analogy I like to use is that this area is where the manager of our life is, and they're asleep in their office under the desk. Depending on who you talk to and how they break them down, there could be as many as 47 executive function skills. We're going to work off a simple list that I believe covers everything in its entirety.

Number one is inhibition or impulse control. This involves acting on things right away, without thinking. This might be blurting something out without thinking it through, eating something you didn't intend to eat, spending on something you didn't intend to spend on, or essentially doing things that you didn't think through the consequences of.

Number two is working memory. This is where you keep information for a short period of time. Imagine this is the whiteboard of your brain. When more information comes in, the whiteboard has to be erased to make room for that new information. This is where you might struggle with things like a phone number that you were just given or a grocery list, unless you have it written down. If you're trying to do a mental grocery list and you start thinking about something else, you might lose some or all of the items on the list. That's how it works.

Number three is cognitive flexibility, switching attention between tasks or adjusting to new situations. A great example of this is when I'm working with new clients. They will sit and wait for their appointment because they're concerned that if they get started on something else, they'll forget the appointment entirely or lose track of time.

Number four is planning and organization, making plans, setting goals, and arranging the tasks in an orderly way. I work with a lot of clients on meal planning, for example. This includes planning what you will eat, making a list to go shopping, perhaps organizing that list, planning to go to the store, and when you're going to do that, putting the items away once you get home, preparing food, remembering to defrost things, and preparing the food. There's a lot of moving parts to this, as you can see, so that's a really great example of how important planning and organization is. What ways is organization a problem in your life? Maybe it's dealing with papers, bills, or maybe your spaces get messy.

Number five is time management. Time awareness and prioritization, knowing how long things will take, deciding what's most important, and finishing them in a timely manner. Not waiting for deadlines, not waiting for things to become urgent.

Number six is emotional regulation. Handling feelings well internally, as well as how you express them or react to others. This might include staying calm in a disagreement and talking things through constructively or managing a stressful day.

Number seven is task initiation, getting started on tasks or projects without procrastination or feeling overwhelmed. Think of the thing you know you need to get started on but you feel you can't.

Number eight is sustained attention, staying focused on a task even when it's not very interesting. Some examples are keeping concentration in a long meeting or finishing a book. For myself, it can be difficult to sit through a movie. I have some workarounds for that, which we'll talk about in the future, because I have a movie-loving husband.

Number nine is goal-directed persistence, or some say goal sustainability. That's sticking with plans and goals until the end, not leaving it halfway done, following through on a goal, such as things like learning a language, finishing a degree, or losing weight. Those are just some examples. I'm sure as I go through this list, you're finding examples in your own life.

These are called skills for a reason. Just like you can build a muscle, you can build these skills up and you can get better and better.

I personally, for me, one of mine that I had a really hard time with was time management, and I got coaching on that, luckily. I kept going back to coaching and back to coaching, because I kept failing at time management. But I kept trying, and I would strategize with my coach, and we would try new things, and I would go back, and now I'm very good at managing my time. So that is something that was a poor skill for me that is now a very good skill.

Another poor skill for me used to be time awareness, and you know, as you saw in our list, the time management and time awareness were paired together and there's a reason for that. You can't manage your time if you're not aware of your time. One problem with time awareness was hyper focus. I'd get super interested in something and time would just pass without me being aware of it.

But I also had a very poor understanding of how long things took. I might think that it took me 30 minutes to fold the laundry when in reality it took me about six minutes. I improved that skill by timing things. Often, I would time especially things that I dreaded. So now, I actually don't mind doing the dishes. I hated laundry. I actually don't mind doing laundry now. The reason for that was when I would think about doing those things, all I would think is that it's going to take forever, because I had no concept of the actual time it took. Once I started timing it, I knew exactly how long those things took. I didn't mind doing them.

But in timing things, something shifted in my brain where, even if I'm cooking a food that maybe takes 15 minutes to cook, I'm pretty aware when there's just one minute left.

So, we can really turn these things around, and I just want that to be something that encourages you. Another way to work on these skills is through my group coaching program, the ADHD Academy. In there, each of the courses focuses on some executive function skill. Why is that? That's because that's what the problem is in our life, right? So when the ADHD Academy opens, you can get in there. You can work on those skills on your own time and build those things up for yourself.

In future podcasts, I'm going to break down these executive function skills and we're going to talk about exactly what kind of things you can do to start building these skills up, what kind of tools you can use, what kind of thoughts you can think.

There's lots of different ways that we can work on building these skills, and what I want to emphasize here is that often people perceive this as a moral issue. It's not a moral issue that you can't keep your space clean, or if there's trash in your car, or if you can't finish a task by a certain deadline. This doesn't reflect negatively on you. It's simply a skill you're lacking.

What I really want to do with these episodes is to eliminate the shame because as soon as we can dissipate that shame, it becomes manageable. When I say "air out the shame," I like to envision hanging a sheet out on a clothesline. The sun sanitizes it, the breeze blows through it, and everyone can see it. It's a liberating experience, right? So, we want to uncover these issues, make them less shameful, and focus on how we're going to resolve the problem. I also want to assert that you're perfect just the way you are and you can further improve these skills. This is crucial. I want you to know that you are everything you need to be right now, and you can still become better. I hope this message resonates through these future episodes.

Thank you for your time, and especially for your attention today. If you haven't looked into the ADHD Academy, you'll want to do that. This is my membership, with binge-able courses, weekly life coaching, new courses every month, a community of like-minded people and more. Be sure to head over to

See you next week.

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