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Executive Functions 101: How ADHD impacts these essential skills for cognitive control and self-regulation

Welcome to the first post in our series on executive dysfunction. In this post, we will review executive functions and how ADHD impacts those functions. Over the upcoming months, we will go over each skill and what tools and resources we can implement to support ourselves.

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Executive Functions

What are they?

Executive functions are the skills we use to plan for our future and identify what we should be doing to execute that plan.

Researchers have several different ways to categorize our executive functions but I've found Russel Barkley's view that he outlines in his book "Taking Charge of Adult ADHD"

Watercolor painting of a man looking at a whiteboard

The Seven Executive Functions

  1. Self-awareness

  2. Inhibition

  3. Nonverbal working memory

  4. Verbal working memory

  5. Emotional self-control

  6. Self-motivation

  7. Planning and problem-solving

Understanding your own weaknesses and strengths around your executive functions can support you in managing your ADHD. Targeting support to those weak spots will make a world of difference.

How Does ADHD Impact Executive Functions

The difficulty with creating a one-size-fits-all approach to managing ADHD is that everyone's symptoms will show up differently and will change throughout their lives. Understanding how your ADHD shows up and makes things harder in your life is necessary for true ADHD management.

Self Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to monitor and change your own behavior as needed. It is one of the first skills we develop as children and can have major consequences if we lack it. Some of the ways a lack of self-awareness shows up are:

Difficulty seeing

  • our own behavior

  • how others view us

  • how loudly we are talking

  • how much we talk

Watercolor painting of two women at work chatting


Inhibition is our ability to restrain ourselves. To be able to stop and think before we act.

Poor inhibition can look like:

  • Impatience

  • Impulsivity around decision-making

  • Risky behavior

  • Doesn't learn from experience (makes decisions without reflecting on the past)

Impatient woman in a line

Nonverbal Working Memory

Nonverbal working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind, specifically around the senses. This executive function helps us see and plan for our future, see the consequences of our actions, and gives us a sense of time.

Weak nonverbal working memory looks like:

  • No grasp on the passing of time

  • Difficulty recalling past memories

  • No foresight

  • Always going for instant gratification

Watercolor of a man running late for a train

Verbal Working Memory

Verbal working memory is the ability to talk to ourselves. This helps us process events, solve problems, and follow rules.

Poor verbal working memory looks like:

  • Making a lot of false assumptions without thinking things through

  • External influences rule your emotions

  • Difficulty making your own plans

  • Following some rules rigidly while completely ignoring others

Watercolor of a woman looking overwhelmed at work

Emotional Self-control

Emotional self-control is exactly what it sounds like. Having the ability to control our emotions.

Limited self-control looks like:

  • Impulsive emotional reactions

  • Exaggerated reactions that aren't appropriate for the situation

  • An inability to use emotion to motivate yourself

Watercolor of a woman screaming


Self-motivation is the ability to sustain effort towards activities, even if they aren't particularly exciting.

A lack of self-motivation looks like:

  • Skipping out on work

  • Not paying attention to details

  • Inconsistent quality in performance

  • Difficulty working without supervision

Watercolor of a man getting distracted at work

Planning and Problem Solving

Planning and problem-solving is the ability to manipulate information in our brains. We can dissect and rearrange pieces of information to solve problems and plan for the future. This skill helps us to consider different options and decide on the best plan of action.

Poor problem-solving skills look like:

  • Difficulty making a good decision quickly

  • Inability to get and stay organized

Watercolor of a messy room

Now that we understand what executive functions are and how they might look if they aren't functioning well, we can dive into ways to cope with those deficits.

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