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Water Cooler: How your brain’s executive functions get you through the day

Jan. 22, 2021 Updated Sun., Jan. 24, 2021 at 8:23 p.m.

caption for WC spotlight goes here  (Pixabay)
caption for WC spotlight goes here (Pixabay)

Your brain’s executive functions are like the conductor behind the curtain. They can work so seamlessly that you don’t even notice them or understand exactly what they do. If something disrupts their function, be it a traumatic brain injury, dementia, depression, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or addiction, you would likely take notice very quickly as it will affect essential life skills, such as the ability to manage time, accomplish tasks and maintain relationships.

The executive functions are neurological processes all related to managing oneself and one’s resources in order to complete a goal. They translate as a set of skills which develop during childhood that revolve around the ability to control ourselves.

Many researchers agree that there are eight executive functions in total, although some argue there are five, seven or 12. The eight executive function model divides them into emotional control, inhibition, working memory, initiation, planning and prioritization, shift, organization and self-monitoring.

Emotional control is the ability to regulate emotional responses by modulating or processing the emotion using rational thinking. This helps us to keep our emotions in check and make sure we respond appropriately according to the situation in which they occur, such as carefully choosing our words when dealing with a frustrating discussion in a professional environment.

Inhibition is the ability to stop behavior and not act on impulse. This helps you to think before you act, such as remembering to check your schedule before committing to plans or to not purchase an expensive item before considering your budget.

Working memory is the capacity to retain new information while using it to complete a task. You use working memory to remember the rules of a new game or remember dates while creating a schedule.

Initiation is the ability to begin a task or action. This can help you figure out where to begin on a project or goal and to get started on it.

Planning and prioritization is the ability to manage future plans such as setting goals and remembering the things you need to do each day to meet those goals, or to know which tasks are most important to get done first.

To shift is the ability to have the mental flexibility to shift from one task to another or adjust to changing situations. This helps us “go with the flow” when our plans don’t work out or to get back on track after handling an interruption.

Organization is a skill that allows us to keep track of and order things mentally and physically. This helps us to create checklists for packing or shopping trips and to create orderly work spaces and storage.

Self-monitoring is the ability to be aware of oneself in the moment and measure your behavior or performance against external expectations. This would help you know if you are talking to much or too little in a conversation or to know if we’re not doing well in school or at work.

We all have struggles with executive functions at times, and although some may need medication to correct this, there are also behavioral techniques that can help.

Utilize tools to keep yourself organized, such as planners, lists and alarms. Ask for written instructions or notes as a back up. Create routines and schedules, and check it throughout the day or week. Break large tasks into smaller steps, such as listing out specific chores instead of just planning to “clean the house.” Keep work, play and rest areas separate as much as possible. Set reminders for upcoming transitions to help yourself mentally prepared.

Lastly but perhaps most important of all, give yourself plenty of positive self-talk to build up your confidence and to celebrate even the small executive function victories.

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