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Executive functioning skills in adults

July 21, 2023

Executive functioning skills in adults are often the difference between a person managing their life well and ‘just hanging on’.

The ability to effectively manage our time, prioritise tasks, and stay organised amidst a constant stream of information and distractions. These critical skills are essential for adults in their personal and professional lives.

Let’s dive into what executive functioning skills in adults are and how they can be improved.

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning skills enable us to set goals, plan and to get things done. These skills are a set of cognitive abilities, or thinking and reasoning skills, that allow us to plan, organise, regulate our behavior, and adapt to new situations. These skills are controlled by the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking, decision-making, and self-control.

Executive function is like air traffic control for the brain. It helps us to focus on multiple things at once, make decisions, monitor our progress, and revise our plans as needed. Just like in an air traffic control tower, there’s a lot of systems at play and a lot going on.

Executive functioning skills can be broken down into several key components, including:

  • Working memory: The ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind over short periods of time. It allows you to follow instructions, solve problems, and stay focused on tasks.
  • Attention and inhibition: The ability to control your impulses, resist distractions, and stay on track. Attention and inhibition help you filter out irrelevant information and avoid impulsive decisions.
  • Flexibility: The ability to adapt to changes, shift gears, and adjust your plans based on new information or circumstances. Flexibility allows you to navigate unexpected challenges and find alternative solutions when necessary.
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The importance of executive functioning skills in adults

Executive functioning skills play a crucial role in our daily lives, influencing our ability to meet responsibilities, make the right decisions, and achieve our goals. In the workplace, individuals with strong executive functioning skills are more likely to succeed in their careers, manage large projects, and lead teams. These skills enable us to stay organised, meet deadlines, and adapt to the ever-changing demands of the workplace.

In personal life, executive functioning skills are equally important. They help us manage our finances, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and create and keep strong relationships. People with well-developed executive functioning skills are better equipped to handle the challenges of parenting, juggling multiple roles, and maintaining a work-life balance. When you can remember what you need to next, control your impulses, and easily adapt to changes, your social and personal life is much easier to manage.

How executive functioning difficulties affect your daily life

While executive functioning skills are essential for success, many adults struggle with executive functioning difficulties. These challenges can show up in various ways, making it harder to stay organised, manage our time, and make the right decisions. Some common difficulties faced by adults with executive functioning issues include:

  • Disorganisation: Adults with executive functioning difficulties often struggle with keeping their physical and digital spaces organised. This can lead to losing items, missing deadlines, and a constant feeling of being overwhelmed.
  • Procrastination: Difficulty starting tasks and a tendency to put off important responsibilities is common for those with executive functioning difficulties. Procrastination reduces productivity and increases stress levels.
  • Time management: Poor time management skills can result in a constant feeling of being rushed, missed deadlines, and an inability to prioritise. Adults with executive functioning difficulties may struggle with estimating how much time they will need for a task.
  • Impulsivity: Difficulty controlling impulses and making hasty decisions can be a significant problem for those with executive functioning difficulties. This can lead to regrettable choices, strained relationships, and financial difficulties.
executive functioning skills

The impact of strong executive functioning skills on professional success

How do strong executive functioning skills impact our professional lives? Work is often very cognitively demanding, and succeeding at work isn’t just about intelligence. Strong executive functioning skills are highly valued in the professional world and can be the key to career success.

Professionals with well-developed executive functioning abilities are more likely to:

  • Meet deadlines: Good time management and organisational skills mean professionals can meet deadlines consistently. As Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of success in life is just showing up.” If you are able to do what you are supposed to do, when you are supposed to, people will rely on you and trust you.
  • Take initiative: Individuals with strong executive functioning skills will take the initiative and proactively seek out opportunities for growth and advancement.
  • Problem-solve effectively: The ability to objectively analyse complex situations and find creative solutions are valued skills at work. Strong executive functioning skills make it easier to problem solve.
  • Lead teams: Leadership requires strong executive functioning skills. Team leaders must be good at managing their own time and resources while guiding and motivating team members.
  • Adapt to change: Professionals with well-developed executive functioning skills are better equipped to navigate change and adjust their strategies accordingly.

Strategies for improving executive functioning skills in adults

The good news is that executive functioning skills in adults can be improved with practice and targeted strategies. If you have executive function difficulties, try the following to enhance your executive functioning abilities.


Time management techniques for better executive functioning

  • Set clear goals: Break down larger goals into smaller, manageable tasks. It will be easier to stay focused and feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • Use a planner, digital calendar and a to-do list: Make use of tools like planners, calendars, or apps to schedule tasks, appointments, and deadlines. Set reminders to stay on track. Most of these tool are free, such as iCloud Calendar and Google Calendar.
  • Prioritise tasks: Identify the most important tasks and prioritise them based on urgency and importance. Complete high-priority tasks before moving on to less critical ones.
  • Use time-blocking: Allocate specific time blocks for different tasks or activities. This helps create structure and prevents time from being wasted on unproductive activities. For example, you could set aside half an hour at the beginning of your work day to review your to-do list and calendar, after which you could spend half an hour responding to emails. This way, you will be able to focus on each task without distraction.
  • Practice the Pomodoro Technique: Work in short, focused bursts followed by short breaks. Set a timer for 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a 5-minute break.

Organisation tips for enhancing executive functioning abilities

  • Declutter your physical & digital space: Keep your physical surroundings clean, tidy, and organised.  Organise your digital files and folders in a logical manner. Delete unnecessary files and create a systematic filing system for easy retrieval, which will save you time. It is a proven fact that clutter makes you less productive.
  • Use visual aids: Color-coding, labels, and visual reminders can help improve organisation and memory. Use sticky notes, whiteboards, or digital tools to visually represent information.
  • Establish routines: Create daily or weekly routines to provide structure and reduce decision fatigue. Having set times for regular activities can help streamline your day and make tasks feel more automatic. For example, go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. Have set times you exercise and do housework.

Effective decision-making and problem-solving skills

  • Gather information: Before you make a decision, gather as much information as you can. Make sure you use trustworthy sources – for example, when making medical decisions, it might not be wise to rely on information from social media.
  • Analyse pros and cons: Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
  • Consider long-term consequences: Think about the potential long-term consequences of each decision. For example, how will taking on debt for a purchase affect longer-term financial goals?
  • Seek input from others: Don’t be afraid to ask for input from trusted friends, family, or colleagues. Sometimes an outside perspective can shed new light on a situation.
  • Practice problem-solving: Puzzles, brain teasers, or strategic games can be an enjoyable way of practicing problem solving. This can help improve your ability to think critically and find creative solutions, or at least learn to find problem solving enjoyable.

Emotional regulation and self-control in executive functioning

  • Recognise triggers: Identify situations or circumstances that trigger your emotional reactions or impulsive behaviors. Being aware of what sets you off is the first step towards good emotional regulation. For example, if you make too many impulse purchases from a specific app on your phone, delete the app to remove the trigger.
  • Develop coping strategies: Find healthy ways to manage stress. Exercise, journaling, or talking to a trusted friend are great ways to stay balanced emotionally.
  • Pause before reacting: When faced with a challenging situation or an emotional trigger, make it your practice to think before responding. This allows your executive functioning skills more time to kick in.
  • Seek professional help if needed: If emotional regulation difficulties significantly impact your daily life, get help from a mental health professional who can provide guidance and strategies.
executive functioning skills - female office worker at her organised desk, looking happy

Resources and tools for developing executive functioning skills

There are lots of resources and tools available to help you develop and enhance your executive functioning skills. Here are some ideas:

  • Apps: Many apps can help with time management, organisation, and productivity. Some popular apps include Trello, Todoist, and Forest.
  • Online courses: Platforms like Udemy and Coursera offer online courses on time management, organisation, and executive functioning skills. These courses provide valuable insights and practical strategies for improvement.
  • Coaching or therapy: Working with a coach or therapist, such as a clinical psychologist, who specialises in executive functioning can provide personalised guidance and support. They can help identify specific areas for improvement and develop tailored strategies.
  • Online training exercises: Effective executive function programs actively train the ability to remember more information, to master our impulses and to be cognitively flexible.
executive function
Most health professionals now agree that a three-pronged approach to improving executive function is most effective, involving a combination of individualised compensatory strategies, learning environment modifications and skill building strategies.

Sonic Learning’s team of health and education professionals has been successfully using proven neuroscience programs (EF KidsFast ForWord and Cogmed) since 2004 to improve executive function skills.
Find out more.

Enhancing executive functioning skills for success

Strong executive functioning skills are crucial for success in both personal and professional life. By understanding the components of executive functioning, recognising common challenges, using compensatory strategies, and adults can improve their ability to manage time, make sound decisions, and stay organized. Whether you’re an entrepreneur striving for business success, a busy parent juggling multiple responsibilities, or a professional looking to advance in your career, honing your executive functioning skills will undoubtedly give you the edge you need and reduce your stress.

If you want to talk to one of Sonic Learning’s health professionals about how our online programs can help you improve executive function, please reach out to us.


  • Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University website, Executive Function & Self-Regulation
  • Joseph R. Ferrari, Helena L. Swanson, and Devki A. Patel. (2021). Office Clutter: Comparing Lower and Upper-Level Employees on Work-related Criteria. International Journal of Psychological Research and Reviews, 4(1), 46.
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