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How to Improve Executive Function Skills in Adults

By Apricus Health

25th March 2022

Our brains are incredibly complex computers that constantly learn and take on new information. Executive function refers to our brain's ability to remember things, think flexibly, and maintain self-control. Executive functioning skills allow individuals to prioritise tasks efficiently and use their brains to complete tasks properly.

Experiencing problems with executive function can make focusing on things difficult, cause trouble following directions, and see a person struggle with correctly handling emotions, amongst other things. Even moving from one activity to another – a daily activity that is required across a wide variety of occupations and errands – can be incredibly difficult for someone who has an executive function disorder.

This article will delve into executive functioning, the signs of lower executive functioning, and how to improve executive function skills in adults.

So, What Is Executive Function?

Before we get into some ideas to improve  executive functioning skills in adults, let's discuss what executive function disorder (EFD) is.

Executive function is often called "the brain's management system". An executive function disorder refers to multiple behavioural symptoms characterised by difficulties in self-regulation, planning, maintaining focus, or time management. EFD can impact: 

  • Ability to plan things 
  • Organisation and prioritising
  • Shift between thoughts and situations 
  • Control emotions 
  • Impulsive behaviour 
  • Learn from previous mistakes

Signs of Faltering Executive Function Skills  

Executive functioning skills develop well into adulthood when we start to experience independence and autonomy.  Some  individuals carry a hereditary impediment or other dysfunction that prevents them from maintaining complete control of how their executive functions operate. If you notice yourself or someone with the following symptoms, it may be worth understanding how you can work to improve executive functioning skills.  

1. Poor organisation skills

If a person is scattered and struggles with following directions and listening. They might have a cluttered workspace leading to difficulty completing tasks. 

2. Memory issues 

Memory is one of the critical areas of executive function. A person's ability to store information, remember lists, and solve problems revolves around memory. If an individual struggles with managing finances, recalling directions or remembering a shopping list, they may be struggling with lower executive function skills.  

3. Cannot effectively multi-task 

If an individual has difficulty shifting their focus from one task to the next or performing two jobs simultaneously, or even in quick succession, this is another sign of lower executive function skills.  

4. Inability to plan or prioritise effectively

Sometimes, the first hurdle on a project for those with EFD can be planning and prioritising a project's segments. Struggling early on in a project can cause the individual to be overwhelmed and have trouble seeing the bigger picture. 

How to Help Someone with Executive Function Disorder

If you know someone struggling with an executive function disorder, it’s important to offer as much support as possible, as the condition can often make people feel alienated or incapable. Helping those with an executive function disorder can look like: 

  • Assisting the individual take a step-by-step approach to tackle work and daily tasks 
  • Making schedules and looking through them several times a day
  • Giving written and oral cues or instructions wherever possible
  • Breaking down longer assignments into chunks and assigning time frames 
  • Focusing on positives rather than negatives when discussing how to improve executive function skills
  • Consider the person’s age and what types of experiences they have had in dealing with similar situations. They may just need some coaching through what you would do in a certain situation that is new to the other person.

Improving Executive Functioning Skills

Still wondering how to improve executive function skills in adults? Sometimes even little steps can make a difference in improving executive functioning skills in adults. If you find yourself looking for ways to improve some skills you are having more difficulties with, you can try:

  • Using a hardcopy planner or calendar to follow obligations 
  • Use a visual organisation system with highlighters or different coloured pens 
  • Set up reminders using apps or AI on smartphones 
  • Visualise days or weeks to predict challenges 
  • Practising stress management techniques to combat anxiety-related symptoms of EFD

Importance of Understanding Executive Function Disorder

In many cases, EFD is a part of a more serious mental health disability. Those with depression, ADHD, damage from a stroke or Alzheimer's Disease, or any other brain injury may suffer from issues related to executive function. For many, it is not just about how to combat executive dysfunction but how to best manage the symptoms that are often an unavoidable part of their lives. With the help of modern technology, occupational therapists, and contemporary medicine, there is a wide range of ways to manage an executive function disorder. 

EFD & Apricus Health

Apricus Health delivers a holistic approach to health care that focuses on meaningful community engagement and participation. We understand that an executive functioning disorder is best managed through a supportive team; experiencing the symptoms of lower executive functioning skills without the proper support can be incredibly disheartening. Our therapists offer home visits, telehealth consultations, and standard consultations at one of our conveniently located practices across Townsville, Ingham, Charters Towers and Ayr. Book a consultation with Apricus Health today to learn more about how we can help with an EFD or our occupational therapy services.