I have an informal policy of not quoting Wikipedia because…I don’t know, I’ve just never felt compelled to quote Wikipedia before. But trying to write my own succinct definition of executive functioning (EF) was a pain, so I plagiarized.
“Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”
We often talk about EF as though it’s this one discrete skill or entity, but EF actually consists of 10 core components. Breaking EF down and looking at each of these units individually can make it easier to understand how poor EF affects people’s lives and what strategies can help. This post describes all the EF components, or at least, the ones you should care about.
Component #1: Task Initiation
Ironically, it took me forever to write this post. Even more ironically, I wasn’t sure how to start. I ended up starting the same way I start all of my writing: I just write, and I accept that it will have to get edited, and it’ll take time. But that time doesn’t start until I do.
Task initiation shows up in DSM-5 autism criteria in the context of difficulty with transitions. These are especially hard when we have to finish an enjoyable task (e.g., special interest du jour) to begin an unenjoyable task (e.g., virtually anything else…nothing is as special-interesting as a special interest). On paper, this sounds like it would be intuitive for anyone, but it’s particularly challenging for autistics. I don’t have a scientific reason to explain that any further. Yet.
Component #2: Response Inhibition
Once I got started with this post, I found myself continually getting distracted by other stimuli: emails popping up on my computer, my sister asking if she could borrow my highlighter, being thirsty, seeing a text message on my phone, suddenly remembering three other things I forgot to do this morning. These are the shiny objects, and keep in mind that shininess is relative. A stimulus doesn’t have to be that exciting to distract me. It just has to be even the tiniest bit more appealing than what I’m supposed to be doing. And then, response inhibition stops me from attending to these shiny objects. Or not.
Component #3: Time Management
Before researching for this post, I thought of time management as a single, irreducible skill. I’ve since learned that much of time management has to do with your ability to conceptualize time. Effective solutions thus involve visual representations of time, like analog clocks and large calendars. I like setting short timers (e.g., giving myself 5 minutes to complete one chunk of a task), but this might not be effective if you tend to rush through things.
Component #4: Working Memory
This one comes with a convenient analogy. Computers have two basic types of memory: Random Access Memory (RAM) and Read-Only Memory (ROM). RAM keeps track of information while you are using it. Rather than storing all your necessary info deep down in the caves of a computer (metaphorically speaking), that information is readily available, and it allows your computer to work quickly. In contrast, ROM stores data permanently. You can’t access it as quickly, but it won’t be deleted if your computer accidentally shuts down, and it has much more storage capacity than RAM.
Now let’s translate this to humans. People with poor EF often have limited RAM capacity, aka working memory. That might mean that:
- By the time someone finishes giving us a set of instructions, we’ve already forgotten the beginning.
- For every one thing we manage to remember in the short term, we forget three others.
- We forget people’s names, even if we meet them multiple times.
- We frequently misplace our phones, keys, marbles, etc.
- We have trouble following conversations, especially when they jump from topic to topic.
Working memory can further be divided into auditory and visual-spatial. Imagine someone’s giving you directions for doing something. If they tell you the directions (by speaking) and you quickly forget them, you may have impaired auditory working memory. If they show you the directions on a map and you promptly forget them, you may have impaired visual-spatial working memory. If neither option would be helpful, then you win impaired working memory bingo. Congrats.
Component #5: Organization
Oh, this one’s fun. I am a master of selective organization: I can stay very on top of one particular project, but then I forget the most basic things simultaneously. I suppose this might have to do with the autistic tendency to have trouble seeing the big picture and integrating all the components of an idea/painting/life. The primary organizational tool I will focus on here is The System. Not a system, but The System, a System whose singularity and omnipresence are crucial to its success. My System is a work in progress. It may be that all Systems are.
Component #6: Flexibility
As in, “Our plans for the day have changed utterly and completely at the last minute – what a great opportunity to practice flexibility!”
This is the ultimate challenge to my autistically rigid thinking, and it’s taken an absurd amount of therapy for me to go from “super incredibly pathologically rigid” to “way more rigid than your average neurotypical but it used to be worse so, you know, progress.” If only cognitive flexibility were as easy as its physical counterpart. I’m doing the splits right now.
Component #7: Emotional Self-Control
My horoscope once said, “You are very emotionally stable,” and I died laughing. Not that I take horoscopes seriously, but still. For most of my life, no one ever would have accused me of being psychologically stable, and I’ve gotten markedly better over the past year, but it was such a low bar. Emotions and EF are more intertwined than some might assume. When I’m significantly dysregulated, my EF skills go out the window, rendering me incapable of even the smallest tasks. And when my EF skills go out the window, I feel terrible about myself.
Voilà, a vicious cycle. Many of the techniques I use to counter this come from cognitive behavioral therapy. This modality teaches people to identify and combat cognitive distortions by filling out a ton of worksheets. I promise that I will not provide any worksheets.
Component #8: Task Completion
The inevitable result of improved EF: if the above approaches work, you will have completed the tasks in question. Just like I have completed this post. Finally.