If you’re not sure what “executive functions” are, it’s a collective term for various processes in the brain that work together to help you achieve your goals. Normally, these functions help you to make plans, organize your thoughts, access your memory and adjust your thought processes while you work. Executive functions even help you to analyze the work that you’re doing, letting you see whether things are going right or if there’s a problem.
Unfortunately, some people have difficulties using their executive functions effectively. Individuals with ADHD, autism or traumatic brain injuries may have trouble finding the focus necessary to make plans and organize their thoughts. Other individuals might not have reliable memory access or the ability to shift their points of view as they work on a project. These executive function difficulties can lead to confusion, frustration and in some cases can even cause wandering or other potentially dangerous situations such as attempting to cross the street without checking for oncoming traffic.
How Organizing Can Help
While executive function difficulties make what might otherwise seem like common tasks difficult, this does not mean that those with EF difficulties are doomed to struggle with them. One thing that can help with executive functions is to add an extra degree of external organization and strategy to an individual’s activities. This includes both formal organizational strategies and simpler things like using separate folders to hold papers related to different tasks, creating a schedule (either written or visual) that breaks down the day into individual activities and establishing lists of daily events to drive home the routines of the day.
These extra bits of organization remove some of the pressure that people feel from executive function difficulties. For example, instead of having to figure out what comes next, a person with executive function difficulties can check their schedule or consult a list to see what the next activity is. This creates a structure that the individual can operate in, providing as much support as they need to get through their daily tasks while still giving them the freedom to accomplish as much as they can with their own executive functions. If they fall short, the organization structure is there to help. Strategies such as these have been recognized by a number of experts in the field of executive function disorders, such as Dr. Lynn Meltzer (2014), a leader in the study of executive function and its role in education.
Overcoming Executive Function Difficulties
Of course, it takes more than just a visual schedule to overcome executive function difficulties. Depending on the cause of the difficulty, therapy, medication or some other alternative might be used to help reign things in. Even in cases where there is an effective treatment option, though, many individuals who have these difficulties will still lean into organization because being well organized still makes a lot of things easier.
It can take time to truly overcome executive function difficulties, even with an organization plan in place. Not all treatment options will work for everyone, and there are limits to the effectiveness of any treatment depending on what caused the difficulties in the first place. Organization and routine are powerful tools to go along with these treatments, though, and are used even by those whose difficulties aren’t severe enough to require more formal treatment.
Meltzer, L.J. (2014). Teaching executive function processes: Promoting metacognition, strategy use, and effort. In Naglieri, J. & Goldstein, S. (Eds.) Executive Functioning Handbook. New York: Springer, 445-474.