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3 Ways to Beat Executive Dysfunction and Boost Productivity

Author: NeuroGym Team | 2022

Have you ever sat down to work, but found yourself staring at the computer screen for hours instead?

Or, have you ever created a to-do list, but found yourself procrastinating all day regardless? Executive dysfunction is a productivity killer, but dealing with it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fail!

Millions of people deal with executive dysfunction every year, but most don’t even realize they have it! While medical conditions such as ADHD can cause executive dysfunction, many of those struggling are victims of bad habits around focus and time management. Luckily, learning to form good habits can help you get back on track to reaching your full potential.

If you’re looking to improve your understanding of how executive dysfunction works, or for tips to help overcome it, read on! 

What is Executive Dysfunction? 

Your professor tells you there’s an essay due in two weeks, so you mark it in your calendar, start working on it early and submit on time. 

You have a few hours to clean your house on Sunday morning before going out, so you get the most important tasks done first in case you run out of time. 

The manager at your new job tells you their name and where you can find supplies in the office, and you easily remember both pieces of information the next day.

What do these tasks have in common? All three use executive function—a group of cognitive processes that help us focus, learn, and get things done. But if those processes aren’t working properly, the resulting struggles are called executive dysfunction.

Have you ever worked through the night to finish an assignment that’s due in the morning—even when you knew about it weeks in advance? Have you ever been overwhelmed by a to-do list with multiple tasks, even with plenty of time to do them? Do you find it hard to ignore distractions when you’re trying to focus?

If so, you might be dealing with executive dysfunction!

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Symptoms of Executive Dysfunction

Struggling with executive dysfunction does not mean you’re stupid, lazy, or unreliable. People from all walks of life—even the most successful—deal with this frustrating barrier to productivity, and many people struggle with it without realizing they have it at all!

Still not sure if you have this problem? Check out this list of symptoms:

  • You procrastinate on time-sensitive tasks.
  • You regularly get overwhelmed by your to-do list, and find it hard to prioritize the most important tasks.
  • You often misplace things, or forget appointments or responsibilities.
  • You often make simple mistakes at school, home, or work that you know how to avoid.
  • You struggle to regulate emotions and stress, leading to extreme frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed when you have a lot on your plate.
  • You struggle to stick to a schedule.
  • You often abandon tasks before they’re completed.
  • You often start new tasks before finishing others.
  • You struggle to ignore distractions when focusing.
  • You forget to eat, shower, or take care of yourself in other ways.
  • You find yourself “zoning out” when you should be paying attention.
  • You forget simple and routine things such as passcodes or coworkers’ names.
  • You’re aware you struggle with things on this list, but your efforts to improve rarely work out.

What Causes Executive Dysfunction?

The causes of executive dysfunction are as diverse as the people coping with it! Struggles with focus can indicate a medical issue, but bad habits can also be a major factor.

One common cause of executive dysfunction is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a complex disorder well-known for its impact on focus. The stereotype of ADHD is a little boy who can’t sit still in class, but people of any age and gender can be affected! 

In fact, many children with ADHD are never diagnosed, and there are likely millions of adults around the world living with undiagnosed ADHD right now.

If you deal with executive dysfunction and also have problems with controlling impulses, navigating social interactions, or sitting still, consider scheduling an ADHD assessment with your doctor. Many people with ADHD find their quality of life improves drastically with therapy or medication!

Mental illnesses such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression can also cause executive dysfunction. If you struggle with focus and also feel afraid, nervous, sad, on guard, or hopeless much of the time, an undiagnosed mental illness could be the culprit. As with ADHD, medical interventions can really change the lives of people with mental illnesses!

When executive dysfunction appears in an adult who’s never had it before, or when it suddenly becomes very severe, it can be a sign of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or another serious condition that needs to be checked out ASAP.

If executive dysfunction is impeding your day-to-day life or your career, or if you’re worried for any reason, there’s no shame in reaching out for help. A doctor can look into whether there’s a health issue at play, and refer you to a specialist for evaluation and treatment.

3 Simple Ways to Boost Your Executive Functioning

Not everyone who struggles to focus has a medical problem; years of bad habits can also cause executive dysfunction. This is good news—kicking a habit is hard, but not impossible!

Thanks to evolutionary pressure, our brains are always calculating ways to minimize the energy we expend in order to maximize our returns. If procrastinating has “worked out” in the past, you’re more likely to do it again than to take initiative the next time you have a deadline to meet. Once you’ve reinforced procrastination as a habit, it’s hard to break!

Do you find you regularly let tasks pile up until you’re overwhelmed? If so, you’re probably not trying to live this way! Repeatedly slipping down that well-worn path to procrastination can be very discouraging when you’re trying to avoid it.

Don’t worry—you’re not a bad worker, and you’re not alone! Here, we’ve included three simple ways to get back on the road to success!

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Be Realistic

You wouldn’t try to bench-press 200 pounds on your very first day at the gym, would you? Of course not! Common sense says to start at a lower weight and gradually build up as your muscles develop. So why should productivity be any different?

A lot of people decide that this is the day they’re going to change. After years of bad habits, they’re going to wake up tomorrow morning, eat breakfast, stay focused at work, finish every task on their list, cook, clean, and go to bed early! Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way.

If you try to change everything all at once, you’re fighting against hundreds of bad habits instead of just a few. Therefore, when you decide to make a change, set realistic expectations about how much you can change, and how fast. Always start small.

For example, instead of giving yourself a lengthy to-do list for the week, select a small number of tasks to get done each day, and add more once you become more confident.

It also helps to have a timeline. Instead of saying, “I will send that important email today,” try, “I will send that important email at 11 a.m.” Just be sure to schedule yourself enough time to do everything, and don’t plan out your entire day, especially if you’re not used to that. Once again, small steps are key!

Take It Step-By-Step

If you cope with executive dysfunction, you know all about getting overwhelmed by important tasks that take a long time, require a ton of mental effort, and have multiple steps. You’ve probably also procrastinated on this kind of task by doing smaller tasks you found easier.

You can probably see where we’re going with this: If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try separating a big task into several smaller tasks that feel more manageable.

For example, imagine you have an important form to fill out. To do this, you need to gather the documents that have the needed information, print out the form , fill it out, then bring it to the post office to mail it. Instead of putting “fill out form X” on your to-do list, you would treat each of these steps as a separate task.

Remember to schedule adequate breaks while you’re getting things done, too! If you like, you can even give yourself a small incentive for getting through each step. 

Some examples of incentives for completing a step are 10 minutes of your favorite show, a walk around the block with music, or even a piece of candy. Some balk at these methods—it can feel strange to reward yourself with a treat like you would a pet—but others swear by them! If you need more inspiration, support groups for people with ADHD are full of ideas.

Lastly, remember that you can also break down lengthy single-step tasks this way: Instead of reading a 20 page document as one task, try reading 5 pages at a time! The task will feel much less daunting, and you’ll be less tempted to give in to distractions if you get a short break or reward between steps.

Eliminate Distractions

Procrastination’s partner in crime is distraction, and you’ll hardly ever encounter one without the other! Everyone gets distracted sometimes, but for people with executive dysfunction, distractions can really cut into the workday.

Having a clear timeline can help prevent you from getting distracted. When it’s time to make that important phone call or finish that paperwork, it’s not time to do anything else, productive or not! 

However, sticking to a schedule can be hard for those with executive dysfunction, so to stay on task and avoid distraction, you might need a more proactive approach.

Let’s say you have something important to do, and it’s due today. But… Netflix just released a new show, there’s a bunch of dishes in the sink, the weather is perfect for a walk, and you really should make an appointment for a tire change… 

When you have time, make a list of the things you’re usually doing while you procrastinate. Then, have a look around the room you work in: Can you see anything on the list?

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You probably can! Look for ways to remove your distractions. Here are some possibilities (you can use any of these or others, depending on what you find distracting):

  • Turn your desk around so your back is to the window.
  • Block social media and streaming websites from your browser while you work.
  • Have a dedicated drawer in which to hide things associated with your hobbies when needed.
  • Use headphones or run a fan if the distractions are audible.
  • Let friends and family know your work hours so they know not to message you during that time.
  • Choose clothing, hair, and makeup styles that are comfortable and don’t require touch-ups during the day.

But don’t forget the biggest distraction of all—your smartphone! 

You can turn off your phone or put it out of sight, but for some people, this doesn’t cut it: The habit is so strong that they need to put their phone in another room while they work, or even in a lockbox with a timer! Experiment a little and see if there’s a method of hiding your phone that works for you.

Final Thoughts 

Executive dysfunction isn’t a personal failing, a crippling barrier, or a death sentence to your career. It’s frustrating when things pile up despite your best efforts, but luckily, you have the power to overcome these difficulties. Your full potential is within reach!

For most, executive dysfunction is the result of bad habits, and can be overcome by workarounds like breaking down tasks or blocking distracting websites from your browser. This kind of intervention should be tried first. However, if it turns out you need medication to manage ADHD or another issue, there’s no shame in that!

Remember not to give up. You probably won’t find your ideal management strategy right away, and even when you do, it takes time to turn that strategy into a habit. If you slip up on occasion, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fail; just get back on the wagon, or find another strategy you like better!

People who struggle in this area often also struggle with their self-esteem: It can be demoralizing to constantly find yourself overwhelmed by a to-do list, or to be reprimanded by a boss or teacher for being late or disorganized  when you’re really trying.

Therefore, it’s also important to be kind to yourself. If you had a friend who struggled with executive dysfunction, would you tell them they were stupid, lazy, or not cut out for success if they were late finishing a task or got overwhelmed? Surely not; so why would you say these things to yourself?

Finally, don’t forget to celebrate successes—like learning how to overcome the obstacles in your way! Congratulations on taking this first step. Getting to the end of this article is the first of many successes in your future!

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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