At a glance
Executive function challenges are common — and real.
They make it hard to start and get through tasks, and to finish work on time.
Most people with ADHD struggle with executive function.
Organization. Planning. Focus. These everyday abilities are part of a set of mental skills known as executive function. When people have strong executive function skills, they have an easier time getting through tasks. When people struggle with these skills, it can make it hard — if not impossible — to do.
We all rely on executive function to get things done. It lets us prioritize and plan work. It allows us to pay attention, remember information, and follow directions.
Executive function is “kind of like the orchestra conductor of your brain,” explains Paul B. Yellin, MD, director of the Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education and clinical associate professor of pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
Keep reading to learn more about executive function skills and what often happens at work when people struggle with them.
What is executive function?
Executive function refers to a group of key mental skills and abilities. The three main executive skills are working memory, flexible thinking, and inhibitory control (including self-control). But executive function covers other abilities, too, like focusing, managing time, and thinking things through before acting.
Executive function challenges make it harder to get through tasks even if you understand what needs to get done and are good at doing it. “If you know what you need to do and you know how to do it, but you still can’t get it done, that’s often a problem with executive function,” says Yellin.
“If you know what you need to do and you know how to do it, but you still can’t get it done, that’s often a problem with executive function.”
Struggling with executive function isn’t about laziness or not wanting to do a good job. It’s about differences in how people’s brains develop and process information.
Who struggles with executive function?
We’re not born with executive function skills. They develop over time, from the preschool years through the mid 20s. For some people, executive function doesn’t fully develop until a bit later.
Challenges can appear at any age. But some people won’t notice them until well into their 20s.
So, in the workplace, there can be a wide variety of development in people’s executive skills. “Executive function challenges are extremely common,” adds Yellin.
Having trouble with executive function is closely connected to ADHD. Most people with ADHD struggle with executive function to some degree. But people without ADHD can struggle with it, too.
These challenges are common. And depending on how much they interfere with day-to-day functioning, they can also count as disabilities under the law.
How executive function challenges play out at work
Trouble with executive function can show up in many ways. Here are examples of skills people struggle with:
- Holding on to information to use it right away
- Understanding different points of view
- Thinking before acting or speaking
- Paying attention
- Following multi-step instructions
- Shifting between priorities
- Keeping track of what they’re doing
- Starting and completing tasks
- Breaking complex tasks into steps
- Managing time and materials
- Judging the quality of work
- Organizing thoughts when writing or speaking
And here are some examples of how challenges can play out at work:
- Often missing deadlines
- Having trouble deciding how to prioritize tasks
- Difficulty shifting between responsibilities
- Getting distracted in meetings or when doing work
- Speaking up at inappropriate times
- Regularly putting off getting started on tasks
- Often being late
Executive function challenges and self-esteem
It can be very frustrating to struggle to get tasks done. Having executive function challenges can make people feel less capable or valuable than their co-workers. They may get criticized at work or worry about getting fired.
All of that can lead to stress and anxiety. It can drive some people to become perfectionists and others to avoid work opportunities. And it can keep people from talking to their managers and co-workers about challenges.
But talking about difficulties at work can help people get support, like accommodations. It can also help people build confidence and do their best work.
There are also tools that can help with executive function challenges. They can be as simple as calendars, to-do-lists, reminders, and notifications. Or apps to help with organizing your ideas for when you write. Another resource might be an executive function coach.
- Learn more about workplace accommodations.
- See how executive function challenges can play out at work.
- Listen to a podcast episode on how a woman with ADHD dealt with perfectionism at work.
Executive function skills develop over time, usually until the mid 20s.
These skills include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.
Accommodations and other supports at work can help keep challenges from getting in the way.
About the author
About the author
Gail Belsky is executive editor at Understood. She has written and edited for major media outlets, specializing in parenting, health, and career content.
Paul B. Yellin, MD, FAAP is an associate professor of pediatrics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and director of the Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education.