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What Executive Functioning Is, and Why It Matters at Any Age

The value of knowing your executive functioning strengths and challenges.

Key points

  • It is valuable to understand and know your specific executive functioning strengths and weaknesses at any age.
  • The strengths of our EF skillsets, such as self-control, planning, and self-assessment, are fundamental to much of our life satisfaction.
  • Executive functioning can be developed and enhanced with understanding and focus.
  • Assess your own executive functioning and then work on how to practice, support and develop those skills that may sometimes trip you up.

Executive functioning has become a buzzphrase and hot topic for professionals working with adolescents and young adults. There’s been a lot of good research in the field of late, and increasingly, I see that its use should not be restricted to this younger age group. We would all benefit from being informed about it, both as a concept and in its practical application.

Rather than being an abstract set of skills, as previously thought, executive functioning (“EF”) refers to a specific array of mental skills and abilities. These capacities, seated in our frontal lobes, which are sometimes called the “brain manager” or our brain’s “executive committee,” directly influence every aspect of our lives, from how we learn, engage in projects and work, to our relationships and overall life satisfaction. Neuroscientific research has shown how EF development begins in infancy and progresses apace until our late 20s, but also beyond. The brain can be trained and conditioned to function more effectively, to learn skills and practical strategies.

Our EF can be enhanced or hindered depending on the habits, behavior, and choices we make in life, and we can intentionally impact our ability to engage in forethought, long-term planning, impulse control, and goal-directed behavior. Other cognitive skills include critical thinking, monitoring behavior, identifying mistakes, and planning for the future. EF skills are also intertwined with qualities such as grit, determination, resilience, and a positive mindset, along with attention and focus.

So how does knowing our EF profile help us?

Even if we have missed the turbo-charged growth period of adolescence and young adulthood, with concerted effort, we can still make an impact on our skills level at any age. To do this, we first need to understand what our EF strengths and challenges are. We need to understand what patterns of behavior we have fallen into and which skills we favor and rely on. This will allow us to prepare for and begin to avoid repeated and predictable pitfalls and to consciously use the skills we’re best at to shore up our weaker capabilities, which, in turn, we can practice, like working on a set of muscles at the gym, to strengthen.

Executive functioning skillsets

Different research professionals use different terms and delineations to describe specific EF skillsets. I prefer to use the categories set out by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare in their many practical books on the subject, which I paraphrase as follows:

Response inhibition: the capacity to think before you act; the ability to resist the urge to say or do something, giving one time to evaluate a situation and how one’s behavior might impact it: i.e., accepting the call of a referee without an argument.

Working memory: the ability to hold information in one’s memory while performing complex tasks, incorporating the ability to draw on past learning or experiences to apply to the situation at hand or project into the future: i.e., being able to juggle different tasks, including multi-step directions, and keeping track of different tasks with different deadlines.

Emotional control: the ability to manage one’s emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior: i.e., being able to manage well the anxiety associated with taking a test, enabling one to perform to one’s potential.

Sustained attention: the capacity to keep paying attention to a situation or task in spite of distractibility, fatigue, boredom, or obstacles: i.e., the ability to keep working on a project despite more enjoyable, competing opportunities, or despite a setback.

Task initiation: the ability to begin projects, without undue procrastination, in an efficient or timely manner: i.e., not waiting until the last minute or beyond to begin a project.

Planning/prioritization: the ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal or to complete a task, involving making decisions about what is important to focus on, less important or unimportant: i.e., formulating a plan to complete some work, effectively managing competing demands.

Planning and attention.
Source: Firmbee/Unsplash

Organization: the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials: i.e., organizing and locating work files.

Time management: the capacity to estimate how much time one has, and how much is needed, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits and deadlines, also involving a sense that time is important: i.e., establishing a schedule to meet task deadlines.

Goal-directed persistence: the capacity to have a goal and follow it through to completion, and not be put off or distracted by competing interests or obstacles: i.e., earning and saving money over time in order to buy something one considers important.

Flexibility: the ability to revise plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes; adaptability to changing conditions: i.e., being able to accept an alternative when a first choice is unavailable.

Metacognition: the ability to stand back and take a bird’s-eye view of oneself in a situation, to observe how one problem solves, including self-monitoring and self-evaluative skills, and to assess if the behavior is in line with larger goals: i.e., monitoring and critiquing one’s performance, improving it by observing others who have those skills, recognizing if one’s actions benefit oneself in the long run.

Stress tolerance is not an EF skill specifically, but it has an overall effect on our ability to access and utilize all the EF skillsets. It is the ability to tolerate reasonable amounts of stress to ensure optimum performance without getting overwhelmed or unduly distressed.

To assess your own particular strengths and challenges:

Consider a specific discrete project you have worked on—anything from completing a large presentation to clearing out a storage room. Critique yourself on each of the different EF skills. We often see ourselves as overall “good” or “not so good” at getting things done. If we can identify exactly which areas we excel in and which need work, we can start the job of strengthening them. In future blogs, we’ll look at how to change entrenched habits.


Dawson, Peg and Guare, Richard (2012). Coaching Students with Executive Skills Deficits. The Guilford Press.

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