The 3 areas of executive function

By Gail Belsky

Expert reviewed by Philip D. Zelazo, PhD

3 areas of executive function, women working on laptop

At a glance

  • Executive function is a group of important mental skills.

  • These skills help us pay attention, get organized, and plan.

  • People use executive function skills all the time to get things done.

Not all experts look at executive function in the same way. But many view it as a group of important skills that include:

These skills can impact people at home, in the workplace, at school, and in social situations.

The three areas of executive function

According to many experts, the five executive function skills listed above fit under these three umbrellas:

What it is: The ability to keep information in mind and then use it in some way

Example: An employee might use this skill to hold on to information needed to work on a bigger project, like a presentation or a report.

2. Cognitive flexibility (flexible thinking)

What it is: The ability to think about something in more than one way

Example: A student might use this skill to answer a math problem in two ways or to find relationships between different concepts.

3. Inhibitory control (includes self-control)

What it is: The ability to ignore distractions and resist temptation

Example: A child might use this skill to keep from blurting out an answer in class or to stay seated until dinner is done. Inhibitory control also keeps people from acting impulsively.

Skills related to executive function

Here are some other skills that might be hard for people who struggle with executive function.

Reflection: Reflection is a process that allows people to stop and think before they respond to something. This skill is key for solving problems. The more they practice it, the better adults and kids get at reflection.

Processing speed: People need to go through a reflection process quickly in order to solve problems on time. That’s where processing speed comes in. Some experts view this skill as the engine that drives how well people use executive function skills to solve problems and achieve goals.

Key takeaways

  • The three areas of executive function are working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control.

  • Executive function skills allow people to think before they act and consider consequences.

  • Processing speed impacts how well people can use executive function skills.

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.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Philip D. Zelazo, PhD is the Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.