How can we strengthen our executive skills?

Sometimes referred to as” habits of the mind”, a person’s “executive skills” are those brain-based skills required to execute tasks – that is, getting organized, planning, initiating work, staying on task, controlling impulses, regulating emotions, and being adaptable and resilient. These skills primarily reside in the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain that helps you manage complex problems, goals and self-control.

People with weak executive skills, then, are those who have trouble getting organized, managing time, planning ahead and staying focused. They tend to be impulsive, procrastinate, and get easily sidetracked.

If a child had these characteristics they would probably diagnosed as having ADHD. Many researchers believe that ADD and ADHD are disorders of executive skills. All agree that if the child has ADHD at least some executive skills will be impaired, such as the ability to pay attention and stay focused, manage their time, and stick to one task for any length of time.

Strong executive skills are critical in today’s digital age of speed because life is getting more and more complicated with increasing numbers of choices and decisions to make and less time in which to make them. For this reason, I believe that time management strategies must focus less on environmental control and more on internal control. We cannot control how the world is changing, neither the pace of life nor the 24/7 connectivity and constant bombardment of information. But we can change how we react to this change. And although some of that may still be physical, success in the future will depend more on what’s going on in your mind, body and spirit than what’s going on in your office.

The exact number of executive skills has yet to be determined. Smart but Scattered by Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare (The Guilford Press, 2009) identify 11 executive functions. Work Your Strengths by Chuck Martin, Peggy Dawson and Richard Guare (AMACOM, New York in 2010) describe 12 executive functions. A New Understanding of ADHD in Children & Adults:Executive Function Impairments by Thomas E. Brown (Routledge, May, 2013)  proposes 6 separate clusters of executive functions. This makes more sense since several of the executive functions are similar, and the more detailed you are, the more open to error you are as research in this area continues.

Regardless of the number of skills, they are generally those essential to effective self-management or time management, and they can be strengthened. In next week’s blog I will pass along some information on how you can use your mind to strengthen weak executive skills in order to manage your time more effectively. The battle in the mind has begun.

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