What Are Executive Functions and How Do They Impact Adults with ADHD?

You know that feeling when your mind’s racing about the tasks on your list, you have no idea how much time you need, and you can’t make a decision about where to start?

Yeah? Me too. Complete and utter overwhelm.

I’ve found that for myself and my clients, this experience is often the result of our over-taxed executive functions. 

brain function illustration

Have you ever thought about the impact ADHD has on executive functioning skills in adults?

You see, the ADHD brain has an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, and it has fewer neurotransmitters than a neurotypical brain (someone without ADHD).

Because of this deficit, our executive functions (i.e., our ability to plan, regulate emotion, navigate impulses, manage our time, stay organized, etc.) suffer.

What I’ve found over the past few years is that many of us with ADHD brains have not been taught the myriad ways ADHD can impact our lives. Nor have we learned what that impact can look like on a day-to-day basis.

Because spoiler alert…ADHD is so much more than just a struggle with distractibility.

In episode 149 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast, I take a deep dive into executive functions to help provide some of that context.

If you’re a person who has ADHD or identifies with ADHD tendencies, I invite you to give this episode a listen. You’ll further expand your awareness of how your brain works, and you’ll learn to identify where you can incorporate additional scaffolding and support.

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:   

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

In Episode 149: Executive Functions & How They Impact ADHD, You Will Discover…

  • What executive functions are and the role they play
  • How does ADHD affect executive functioning?
  • How to identify the areas of your brain that would thrive from additional support

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Episode #149: What Are Executive Functions and How Do They Impact Adult ADHD? (Transcript) 

What are Executive Functions & How Do They Impact Adults with ADHD?

Hey, everybody. How are you? I am feeling super excited. When this episode goes live, it means the next round of We’re Busy Being Awesome begins, and I can’t wait to dive in with everyone. I have some people returning from the January cohort who are ready to take the tools even deeper. And there are so many new people joining us for the June group. I can’t wait to connect with each person.  

Since we’re all coming from different backgrounds, and we’re all in different stages of our ADHD journey – some of us have been diagnosed for a while, some of us are newly diagnosed, and some of us are self-diagnosed and resonate with the tendencies.

To prepare for our first call, I had planned to create a training on our executive functions just to help ensure we’re all starting from the same page when we dive in and work together. 

But then I thought, why not share this on the podcast so everyone in our busy awesome community can have access to this information, too? That sounds like fun!

So that’s what we’re going to do today.

Executive Functions & The Adult ADHD Brain

woman focused on work

We’re taking a deep dive into the brain and, more specifically, what’s called our executive functions.

For people with ADHD, our executive functions are often quite impacted. Whenever I hop on a consultation call and start talking through these different areas, clients are always so surprised at the different ways that ADHD can present itself.

I hope this topic on executive functions helps you better understand your brain and also helps you begin raising your awareness of the areas that might offer some obstacles for you right now.

Knowing this will help you better understand where to dig in and start building or reinforcing the scaffolding, you need to support your brain and make things happen.

With that being said, even if you don’t have ADHD or resonate with the tendencies, we all have this critical part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex that houses our executive functions, and I think it can be really useful to know more about what the different roles are that this part of the brain plays.

Using the process that we go through today will also help you better understand which strategies and tools might be useful for you to implement, too!

So, let’s talk about executive functions, shall we?

What Are Executive Functions?

What do I mean when I say executive functions?

Executive function skills are the mental processes that allow us to plan, and focus our attention. They allow us to remember instructions, and juggle lots of tasks at once. Basically, they’re the secret to successful adulting. 

When you think about the brain, executive functions are some of the last cognitive functions that develop, and they’re housed in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area right behind our forehead and our eyes.

Our executive functions don’t fully form until we are in our mid-twenties – and not coincidentally, that’s also when you can start renting a car. 

Example: If you think back to the development of children, when they are babies or very young, they have certainly not developed their executive functioning skills yet. They’re not worried about paying attention or making a clear step-by-step plan, or thinking critically, or navigating intense emotions.

For those of you who are parents or have nieces or nephews, or you work with young kids, you are well aware that young children basically do what they want.

Of course, these functions do develop over time. But they’re slow to develop. This is why teenagers often make rather impulsive choices compared to adults. And again – usually by around 25/26, these areas have evened out. At least for neurotypicals.

However, if you have ADHD, this is not necessarily the case.

To understand why I want to get a little sciency for a minute. But as I always remind my clients, stick with me, this will not be too complex.

I’m a life coach and a musicologist, not a scientist. Additionally, this is not a podcast about science, but I do want to put things in context.

The reason why ADHD brains struggle with executive functions more than others is that we have fewer neurotransmitters in our brains. And according to Dr. Larry Silver, a clinical psychiatrist at Georgetown Medical center – and this is a direct quote from an article, which I’ll link in the show notes,

“ADHD was the first disorder found to be the result of a deficiency of a specific neurotransmitter — in this case, norepinephrine — and the first disorder found to respond to medications to correct this underlying deficiency.”  

Dr. Larry Silver

He goes on to explain that one of the main building blocks of norepinephrine is a molecule called dopa, which is converted into dopamine.

In other words, people with ADHD are lacking appropriate levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, and other studies also suggest serotonin, which ultimately challenges several different areas of the brain, with one of them being the prefrontal cortex. 

let’s Look at dopamine and norepinephrine.

You’ve certainly heard me talk about our brains seeking dopamine on this podcast before, right?

And dopamine plays a key role in so much.

Now we sometimes think dopamine comes only from when we experience something really pleasurable, but in reality, research suggests that…

We experience the most release of dopamine in anticipation of a reward, not the reward itself.

Also, the unpredictability of the reward is what increases the anticipation and the amount of dopamine released.

Some Examples:

Think of slot machines. You pull the lever and it’s the anticipation of winning that releases the dopamine and that continues to fuel the desire to play again.

The same goes for ALL social media. We have dopamine releases in anticipation of new posts, new likes, new information. We have it with email, continually checking to see if something new has come in.

All of these activities are releasing dopamine in anticipation of the experience

Dopamine plays a key role in helping us stick with and reach goals as we anticipate getting there and creating that feeling of accomplishment and success.

On the other hand, norepinephrine helps us stay awake and focused and pay attention. 

In a neurotypical brain, when you have dopamine and norepinephrine working well together, we see better focus and attention to detail. We see an ability to plan and organize. However, for those of us with ADHD, our brain can’t access the neurotransmitters it needs, which results in distractibility, impulsivity, etc.  

There is an analogy that I really like from the clinical psychologist Thomas Brown. He talks about the executive functioning system of our brain as the manager of all of the different cognitive functions that we have going on. 

He makes a comparison between an orchestra and our executive functioning system. What he says is,

“Imagine a symphony orchestra where each musician plays their instrument really well. If there isn’t a conductor to organize the orchestra and start the players together or signal when different sections of the orchestra should play louder or softer or convey the overall interpretation of the music for all of the players, the orchestra does not create good music.” 

Thomas Brown

When we think about our brains, our symptoms of ADHD are not the players, our symptoms arise because we don’t have the conductor. We don’t have the person directing all of the different functions to work together smoothly at the same time.

5 Core Executive Functions & How They Impact ADHD Adults

woman sad

Let’s talk about these different control centers of our brain, which we’re grouping under the category of executive functions.

If you look into different studies on this, you’ll find that these functions can get grouped into somewhere between 5-9 categories.

For simplicity today talking about them in the broadest grouping of 5 categories.

  1. Focus and attention
  2. Organization of physical stuff, plus time and planning
  3. Cognitive or mental flexibility
  4. Emotional regulation
  5. Impulse control

While I’ve chosen to group them this way, there are lots of benefits in looking at them through other groupings, too. Similarly, these functions all continually work with one another and impact one another, as we’ll talk about. No one area works in a vacuum.

As we dig into each executive function, I’d love for you to think about whether or not this is an area you find yourself navigating.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • If so, in what part of your life?
  • Is it at work?
  • At home?
  • Relationships?
  • Personal/self-care?
  • Life admin? c

Now let’s look into each executive function in more detail…

1. Focus and Attention

This is the cognitive function that allows us to focus on and follow conversations, for example. It also allows us to stay focused on a task or follow instructions, whether with a manual or a step-by-step process. 

When we struggle with focus and attention, we may have a hard time staying focused because there are a bunch of different competing distractions, and we have a hard time being able to filter out the “noise” that otherwise allows us to maintain our focus.

For example, if I’m on the phone and Ryan asks me a question, my brain freaks out, and I can’t focus on either person. It’s too much information overload to process.

As we talked about back in the boredom episode, you may also find yourself allergic to boring tasks.

You may find it very challenging to maintain your focus and attention and engage in things that your brain finds boring. When you are trying to read or study or do something that’s quite thought intensive, maybe your attention wanders and it’s difficult to stay focused on that text.

As I describe these areas, I invite you to think about the areas in your life you might be navigating this – if any. And I know that it’s easy to laugh it off by simply thinking “everywhere!” but I encourage you to get curious and really start honing in on where you notice this happening in your life.

Could it be…

  • Finishing expense reports?
  • Playing with your kids?
  • Conversations with your partner?
  • Writing content?

As you identify the area or areas, it acts as a spotlight. It helps point you in the direction of how to create additional scaffolding for yourself and know where to zoom in and build it up.

2. Organization: Physical and Time

The next area I want to explore is physical organization. 

This might look like levels of clutter in your house, your office, your car, the garage, etc.

The executive function or organization is our general ability to keep these living spaces in relative order.

Physical Organization

One of the areas that I often hear from my clients focuses on paper and the dreaded paper piles.

Many people I talk with have this love-hate relationship with paper.

We love the tangibility of it.

We love to see the paper and write the things down.

Then we end up with paper piles that quickly get out of control. We have sticky notes, bills, junk mail, and receipts, and we don’t want to throw anything away because we’re worried we might need it.

But we never create the filing system to deal with it, so they stay in these piles. 

In terms of physical organization, it can be anything to do with de-cluttering and organizing our physical spaces.

Time Management

Looking at the concept of organization through a different lens, we have planning and time management.

It’s our organization of time.

When we’re doing well, this could look like:

  • Making vacation plans with friends or family and following through on them.
  • It could be mapping out project deadlines for work and staying on top of them.
  • It’s planning out your day and knowing when you’ll get to the different tasks on your list or schedule. 

However, when we are struggling with planning and time management, these things slip.

  • Maybe we can’t complete projects on time, because we didn’t plan it out in enough detail to make that happen.
  • Or we needed to get to an appointment at 2:00 and forgot to include the travel time and time needed to park and get inside the building…again.
  • Perhaps we struggle with planning ahead and never leave ourselves enough time to complete projects, or you’re like me and constantly telling your partner – with the genuine belief – “5 more minutes” which he now knows is closer to 25 or 30.

When you think about planning, scheduling, and time management in your own life – at work, at home, and in your relationships, what comes up for you?

  • Do you notice it as a problem in certain areas? If so, what it is? Is it long-term planning? Short-term planning?
  • Does it come up more with work scheduling or with personal plans?
  • Do you notice the passage of time as you’re working or find yourself often running late or racing the clock?
  • What – if any – are the obstacles for you? 

3. Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility presents itself through two different lenses, and we’ll talk about both here.

I had an episode on how cognitive flexibility – or inflexibility – presents itself. The episode focused on navigating change and transition as we move out of summer vacation and back into school, and we explored how we can do that with greater ease. 

Cognitive flexibility is essentially the brain’s ability to adapt to new or changing schedules, plans, or events.

Often even more challenging are unplanned schedule changes or events.

Cognitive flexibility is our ability to easily adapt to changing situations, and unless we’re the ones instigating the change, this can feel quite challenging.

Example 1: Changing Tasks

This could look like struggling with something like moving from reading emails to writing a report.

This transition might have a lot of resistance and we might get caught in one of our prioritization traps that I talked about a few weeks ago rather than beginning the new task. 

Example 2: Turning Your Work Brain Off At Home

It might look like struggling to transition from work mode to home mode and not keep thinking about work when you’re back to your personal time (or vice versa).

If I’m deep into work and I get interrupted and need to shift my attention, it feels physically uncomfortable because it’s such a difficult shift for my brain. I have to pull myself out of hyperfocus and try to reorient myself and then often feel super crabby when it happens. 

Example 3: Inflexible Thinking

Additionally, looking through the other lens, it can present itself as inflexible thinking.

This is where we get stuck in black and white, all-or-nothing, and perfectionist thinking rather than seeing the multiple options in between.

When this becomes an obstacle, it can be challenging in the following ways:

  • Understanding both sides of an argument.
  • It could be hard to believe new things about yourself. Maybe your brain offers thoughts like, I’ve always been bad at this; it’s not like it will change. I have to do it the right way, or I can’t start.
  • It could sound like I have to do this perfectly, or what’s the point in doing it?

Thinking about your life, what situations (if any) do you notice cognitive flexibility presenting a challenge?

  • Do you notice it more with either a change in plans vs. challenging your thought processes?
  • Do you have an easier time navigating this around certain people? Or with certain situations?

For example, if your friends change plans and want to see one show instead of another, you don’t mind. But if something changes in the schedule for work you have a hard time making that adjustment.

Check-in where you notice this for you.

4. Emotional Regulation

Our next executive function category is emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation pulls in the limbic system, which is located deeper in the brain and helps regulate our emotions.

Emotional regulation basically helps us thrive in both our personal and our professional l relationships. It’s the part of our brain that helps us navigate our feelings and learn how to check in with ourselves without reacting immediately to whatever situation is going on. 

It’s that part of our brain that allows us to slow down the think – feel – act cycle, right?

We have a thought, which makes us feel something, and that feeling drives our actions – it causes us to do something. When we’re well regulated, we’re able to slow down and ask ourselves,

  • Do I want to act on this emotion right now?
  • Is this serving me?
  • Is this thought I’m thinking even true?
  • Do I want to keep thinking it?

This is some of the core work I do with clients through so many different lenses because it impacts everything.

When we struggle with emotional regulation – when we’re emotionally dysregulated, we can see this reflected in our relationships as well as our performance at work and how we show up for ourselves.

We might struggle with sudden outbursts of emotion, whether it’s sadness or anger, or frustration. disappointment, anger, fear etc.

We experience the same emotions as a neurotypical, but often we feel them more intensely, which can – when we’re not careful of our thoughts and not coaching ourselves – lead to actions we might not otherwise take.

Maybe you feel overwhelmed, and because it’s so intense, you can’t get started on your work. You go into freeze or flight response. 

Or if you make a mistake, maybe your RDS comes in full force and you beat yourself up and feel a lot of embarrassment or frustration.

This emotional dysregulation shows up not only in situations like our relationships and interactions with others but also in how we move forward on the things we want to do each day. 

Thinking about your own situation – whether at home or at work or in your relationships, I invite you to make a note of whether this is an obstacle for you.

Ask yourself this question:

  • What are the top three emotions I’ve experienced this past week? And why?

Check-in on what you’re feeling and what you can learn from it.

5. Impulse Control

Our final category is impulse control.

Impulse control helps us avoid giving in to distraction.

It helps us put aside our brilliant shiny new ideas and stick with what we’re working on in the moment.

It helps us avoid the temptation of scrolling Instagram even when we’re working on a boring task.

When we’re navigating our impulse control well, we are intentional about how we decide to show up rather than jumping from one idea or project or distraction to the next. 

Signs you might be struggling with Impulse Control:

If you’re struggling with impulse control, you might…

  • Find yourself switching projects or tasks really quickly midstream.
  • Interrupt people really often when they are clearly busy doing something else or you might see it in impulse buying.

Maybe you say something out loud, and it’s one of those moments where you think to yourself immediately after — did I literally just say that out loud? Has anyone else been there?

In short, I tend to describe impulse control in this way:

It’s saying the thing, doing the thing, drinking the thing, eating the thing, buying the thing, watching the thing, scrolling the thing, without thinking about future-you and what’s in their best interest. 

As you’ve learned about this final executive function, hopefully, you have a better understanding of whether it’s an obstacle that comes up for you.

If so, ask yourself:

  • Is it when you haven’t slept well or have been snacking all day rather than pausing to make a full meal?
  • Is it at different times in your hormonal cycle or when you’re around particular groups of people?
  • What are the situations in which you notice yourself often navigating impulsivity so you can start raising your awareness here, too? 

Executive Functions Recap

To recap:

  1. Focus and attention
  2. Organization of both stuff and time/planning
  3. Cognitive or mental flexibility
  4. Emotional regulation
  5. Impulse control

I know I threw a lot at you today, but I do encourage you to perhaps identify the functions where you might notice obstacles come up, and if your brain says “they’re all obstacles!” then hello, welcome. You’re in good company. Nothing has gone wrong.

Your homework:

Let’s start making note this week of one or two areas where your executive functions are challenged. Ask yourself:

  • What’s the biggest challenge here?
  • If I could wave a wand and make everything better, what would change?
  • How can I start working in that direction? 

Here’s the best news…

Just because you might have some obstacles that you’d like to navigate, and to my listeners with ADHD and ADHD tendencies, just because we have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex doesn’t mean we can’t put scaffolding in support to help us move forward. And here’s why…

There’s this beautiful thing in science called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is this groundbreaking discovery in the world of science that means your brain is flexible and can be changed.

For so many years, scientists believed that your brain only developed in childhood, and then it stopped. You couldn’t change it after a certain time.

Studies now show through the use of brain imaging and other research that the brain is absolutely capable of changing at any time. 

Yes, it’s a little bit harder when you are ninety years old than when you’re nine, but it’s totally possible. In fact, just by reading this article, my guess is that you’re a person who is often looking for new ways to grow, and challenge themselves, and learn new skills and concepts.

This in itself is incredible evidence of neuroplasticity. So you can start offering your brain that data, too.

You’ll notice that most of my podcast episodes teach a concept or strategy that aligns with one or more of these executive functions, so this is another great way to help further support your brain.

If you want to take it even further, I definitely invite you to join us in We’re Busy Being Awesome. At the time of this recording, which is a few weeks out from the group beginning, there is room for a couple more people in the group. And I’d love to see you in there.

Want To Join Our Group Coaching Program?!

I will be opening the doors for the next cohort of We’re Busy Being Awesome in a couple of weeks!

Add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know about program dates and times, plus how you can sign up if it’s a great fit for you.

Alright, my friends, that’s going to do it for us this week.

If you know someone who would love to learn more about executive functions, would you be a rockstar and share this episode with them? Each time you do, you help me get these tools to even more people, and I really appreciate it.

Until next time, keep being awesome. I’ll talk with you soon.

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