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Executive Functions – What Are They? – Episode 29

Jenna: Hello, happy people, and welcome to Office ADHD. Hello and welcome back to Office ADHD. I don't really have a lot of announcements today yet. To get down the road, there's going to be some coming. I've got some things in the works, but for today, let's just jump into things. So I thought, you know what, let's talk about this executive functions or these executive functions that keep coming up. And it's a big discussion when we talk about ADHD. And especially sometimes we bring in autism into our world because ADHD and autism were a little bit related. Different, very different, but we're a little related. And one of the big things we're related on is our issues with executive functions. So, you know what, let's dive into it. First off, I will tell you that I looked up some different references and I've put my favorite references on the website. So go ahead and click the link in the show and you can find these full articles. There's definitely one really amazing one on here that I think everybody should read. It's from the National Library of Medicine. It's so cool. Let's talk about so there's a lot of different ways people define executive functions. And honestly, if you look them up, you're going to see a lot of different lists of executive functions. They're going to talk about these are executive functions. These are executive functions. So really, in the end, executive functions, it's this frontal part of your brain and it's basically the person that's in charge. It's the little guy that's in charge of the things you got to make decisions on and you actually have control over. So breathing, heart beating, things like that. Your brain's got that, you know what? Whatever that's running in the background, brain's good, but this whole and I want to think about my breathing, sorry. But the whole idea of switching tasks, making decisions, different things like that, this is where some of your executive functions are. And there are a bunch of different lists, like I said. But I am going to read off one list because I liked kind of the way that they separated things out. So this site, they separated it out into organization and regulation. So under organization, they list these sorts of tasks attention planning, sequencing, problem solving, working memory, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, selecting relevant sensory information. So there's a lot in there. And then their list for regulation is initiation of action, self control, emotional regulation, monitoring internal and external stimuli, initiating and inhibiting context specific behavior, moral reasoning, and decision making. Okay, so let's break down a little bit of this. For one thing, the thing I want you to know is that we don't all have all the same issues with executive functions. Attention is definitely our issue. And like we've talked about in some of the past episodes, especially if you listen to the one called The Science of Distraction, we talk a lot about how it's more of an attention regulation issue. It's not so much that we don't have attention, it's just regulating where our attention is. And that's where this executive function comes into play. The thing that happens is our CEO, the guy, our executive function guy, just sometimes falls asleep at the wheel or sometimes is a little too attentive. And that's kind of where we run into problems. We run into problems with control of interrupting other people or wanting to just impulsively grab or do things or touch something soft and squishy. We have issues with some of those self control things. At least I know I do. Anytime somebody's wearing a soft sweater, I'm going to come over and try and touch your arm. It's just the way life is. But we do actually have really good cognitive flexibility. We're very creative. We're very good at abstract thinking. We tend to be very good at a lot of these executive functions. So it's not that every single executive function we can't do or something like that. When we talk about executive function issues, quote unquote, we're not saying that you don't have any executive functions because you really couldn't operate without them. You would be like a six month old without any executive functions. And that's something to understand, is that an executive function disorder doesn't mean that you don't have any of these things. It just means that there are certain sections of these you are struggling with and you aren't necessarily struggling with them all. And that's one of the reasons, too, that I've been bringing on coaches, is that a lot of times, working with a coach or working with someone you trust so even just somebody that you know and love and you know, knows and loves, you can be really helpful in figuring out where your executive functions are falling short and how to fix that. Because, yes, we are actually pretty good at figuring out where we're falling short. We're a little too good at that, in fact, but they can help with figuring out how they do that. There's a book that I definitely want to go over with you guys. It's called the sidetracked home executive. It's one of my most favorite organization books. I'm going to have to just put it on here for this episode, too, because it's awesome. I love this story that I will tell you again when we read that book. So basically they talk about some people being born organized and some people being born disorganized. And one of the things that they're really talking about that they didn't know they were talking about, I'm sure, is this whole executive function issue. And people with executive functions that are good and solid can teach those of us that have some that are a little more shaky. So the story goes that these two sisters, they're the Sidetracked Home executives, were talking with their friend that was a born organized person, and they were like, okay, we need help. Give us a tip. And they were sitting there drinking tea, and the born organized person was like, how many tea bags do you use to make a cup of tea? And they were like, one each. And they're like, oh, she's going to give us some crazy recipe. And the born organized person looked over at the counter, and there's like 20 soggy tea bags sitting there on the counter. And she's like, then why are there 20 tea bags on your counter? When you get done using the bag, throw it in the trash. And they were like, because for those of us that are not organized, we simply don't see where we're causing these issues for ourselves sometimes. Where it's like, oh, I could just put it away right now. If I just did this one little thing right now, then it wouldn't pile up. And so then they go through the book, and we'll talk about that one again later if I talk about the book. But they talk about finding little ways that they were building things up. That's one of the things, too, that I want to make sure that I emphasize in this episode is that your executive functions are not fixed. Even for those of us that we just naturally, because of the way we're born, the way our brains work, we're going to have issues with some of our executive functions. And that's okay. It makes us the fun, quirky people we are. Love it, live it, be it. But we can improve. We can build these skills. Our brain is a muscle. And just like, honestly, I was born not that flexible. I know most kids in grade school PE can do the butterfly thing and put their knees clear to the ground and bend their leg over the back of their head and stuff like that. I was never one of those children. I was always more stiff than others just because that's the way that's my anatomy that I was born with. But I still believe in myself that I can learn to do the splits. I'm not quite there yet working on it, but I have become way more flexible just by trying and building that. And that's the same thing with our brains. We can turn our weaknesses into our greatest strengths. And the great thing is that those of us that learn these skills and that take the time to do it, we can teach others because a lot of other people don't understand how they got to where they are, and so they don't understand how to fix any problems with where they're at. Those of us that have to learn and have to build these skills, we can help other people be even better as we help ourselves. So let's talk about some of the things. Obviously, what the biggest thing we have is distraction. And some of the issues with that is being able to filter is practicing being able to filter out distractions around us where we want to see everything. Like you're in a room with a lot of people talking, you want to hear all of the conversations. And I know people say you can only think through one thing at once, but I swear that I can process two conversations at once when I'm really in the zone and really going. So there's some of those things that you learn to work with, but it's good to practice, to practice focusing on the one person talking to you. And when we talked about in the last part one and two, where I was talking with Michael Stein, we talked about this, that even doing something where now that I do a podcast, I have to stay focused while I'm talking to you, and I have to stay focused on the person I'm having a conversation with. So putting yourself in those situations and being brave about saying, I'm going to just try this, I'm going to work on building, this definitely helps. And then there's other things too. They talked about in this article, I thought it was really neat. First they talked about with babies. They said one of the things they use to study is they'll study if a six to eleven month old infant, they're very motivated by prizes they can see. So like a toy or a treat or something that they want to get to or person that they can see. But if you put a clear barrier between them and what they're trying to get to, they'll just keep hitting that barrier and keep hitting that barrier and just get frustrated. But if you make that barrier so that it's more opaque, so it's like tinted, so they can still see through it, but they can see there's a barrier there, then they'll go, oh, and they'll figure out their way around it. They'll figure out there's a barrier there and go around it. And it's the same idea. They said that some people, even as adults, use this by taking things that are distractions or things that are against your goal and putting them out of sight. For example, if you're trying not to eat candy, you put the candy off the counter, you put it in the drawer. And if you're trying to eat more vegetables, put those in sight, put those out on the counter where you can grab them. Or money is a thing that a lot of us did, you know that? It's a thing like you're with your people right now. A lot of us have issues with budgeting and controlling all of our spending and things like that. We see shiny objects. We have shiny object syndrome. It is the way one of the things that I know I do is my money comes out direct deposit, and I just have two bank accounts at two separate banks. And one goes to money I can spend, one goes to money that pays for bills. And I don't even hardly look at the bills account. I mean, I check it here and there to make sure it's functioning. But bills auto pay out of there and that is where the bills money goes. So that I never see the bills money. It just automatically deposits into that account and then the bills automatically pull out of that account, out of sight, out of mind. And then I never have to worry about that account and I don't have to worry about those bills because they're paying themselves that sometimes we can do things that we can say, you know what, I know I have this issue, let's build around that. And that's one of the biggest goals that we have with organizing. And I hope you pay attention for the next couple episodes because I have some amazing organizers that are going to be coming on to talk to us. Another thing is to look back at when you were growing up, because a lot of our executive functions are built as children. And to look at your children and help them with building their executive functions, that's actually another gift that you have. If you are a parent, or even if you're not a parent, if you're an aunt and uncle, you see children on the street that you can give is the fact that since you have to stop and think about executive functions, you can help these people that these little guys and even teenagers and people that are still building these executive functions. And the idea is that you build it up slowly and you need to do this with yourself, too. If you have something that you know you're struggling with, don't expect yourself to suddenly have this skill overnight to just say, well, I want this executive function and I'm going to work on it, so tomorrow I'll be perfect. No, build gradually. So for example, if you're helping someone with emotional regulation, it's the chance to say, like when my son was five and he lost playing cards with us, playing a game, he would cry or something. And it's giving them that space to say, oh, that does feel not as good to lose, doesn't it? And giving them a hug and then explaining about how really the fun part is playing the game. And we start learning to emotionally regulate by seeing these other things and through example by them watching us. And so one validating that emotion and saying, yeah, these emotions are okay, whatever emotion comes up, that's an emotion you naturally had and that's all right, let me give you a hug. Now let's talk about what we do with these emotions. Let's talk about different ways to look at this situation. Because one of the biggest things that a lot of these articles talked about was that with a lot of this regulation, the biggest thing you need is time. And that the impulse issue with our executive function is not giving ourselves time to really think through the answer, to not give us time to it's like waiting to hit send on that email, to write the email and then walk away, sleep on it before you hit send. To have that initial reaction to my friend just said this thing and it felt really insensitive and really hurt my feelings. But to walk away and say, is that what they really meant? Am I taking this in the wrong way and not the way that they meant for me to take it? Did I misunderstand their words? Because a lot of times we have these miscommunications and these misunderstandings, especially now that we live in a world where everyone texts each other. What if you just misunderstood what their acronym meant that they were sending you, they were really saying something really nice and you took it the wrong, completely wrong way. There's no tone of voice on these texts. And so just giving yourself that space is something that we learn as we grow older and as we have more experience, and that it's good to teach each other and good to teach ourselves, good sometimes to stop. And honestly, that's one of the things that I like that now. I work online, and so when I'm in meetings, I can mute myself so that I can interrupt everybody, but they don't hear it. So that I learn not to interrupt them slowly by saying, oh, I'm glad that I was muted when that came up. Or I can shout something out and then decide if that was something I really wanted to say. And yes, my camera is usually on, so they can see my mouth moving, but it's okay, they don't care. They know me and they love me now, but it's fine. And I think sometimes it's putting in those barriers, putting in those things, or like teaching yourself. Every time I want to interrupt, I'm going to put my finger on the top of my lip or something that, like I said, whatever it is that you're working on is stopping. And one, giving yourself that grace, giving yourself that space to be imperfect. I think the biggest thing that we can do whenever we talk about executive functions, whenever we think about executive functions, is to give ourselves space to be imperfect, to give ourselves space to learn and to realize that each mistake that we notice is one more step towards becoming better. Because we saw it, we saw that mistake, we saw how it felt, and then we can learn one more time, okay, what am I going to do? That's all right, I'm getting better because at least I see it now. I've talked about my son a lot with this one, but I guess because you notice executive function things very extremely in children, and so it's a lot easier to explain that way. So, for example, my son was a thrower when he was a toddler. He is angel now, by the way. I love my little boy. He's older, so he's not exactly little, but he was quite the thrower. And I was like, oh my goodness, what are we going to do? And I just still remember the day that he finally he picked up his toy, but he stopped and he thought about it, and then he threw it. But he stopped and he thought about it. And I was like, oh my gosh, good job. And I was like, you at least paused. You didn't just give completely into that impulse. He was like mad about something, I'm sure is why he was throwing. So he was very confused about all of this praise, but he figured it out and we get to laugh about it. But the idea is that if you can make yourself at least pause before you do your impulse, that's a huge step. Celebrate that, live it, love it, be it. That's the thing, is just don't give up. And honestly, when you're trying to coach yourself, that's why it's actually really good to get a coach or to get somebody who cares about you, to help you. Because when you try and coach yourself on a lot of these things, we tend to brow beat ourselves. We tend to sit there and go, how could you do that? What were you thinking? And we're very mean. We are not very kind to ourselves. And that's not the way to do things. That's not the way to help somebody. So it's definitely not the way to help yourself. Stop and be nice. You wouldn't let somebody treat somebody you cared about that way. So care about yourself and don't treat yourself that way. Treat yourself with compassion. Treat yourself with saying, hey, you know what? This is something you struggle with. You're good at a lot of things. This thing, we're going to overcome it slowly and we're going to work on it. We're probably always going to be kind of impulsive, but that's kind of what makes us fun sometimes, too, let's be honest, right? So we not certainly want to get rid of all of our impulsiveness, but the idea is to try and regulate it, to try and let your brain stop before you follow that impulse and make the decision to let yourself say, oh, I really want to do that. You felt these impulses and to say to yourself, is that a good idea? To give yourself that pause? That's what we're working on here. And also with organization, I think sometimes, too, it's about deciding one thing at a time. And like I said, we're going to have a couple more episodes that are just about organization from people who are good at organization. And sometimes it's about priorities, too. It's about what do you prioritize your time with and what is actually important to you? And do I need to be like everybody else? Do I have to be ashamed of being who I am. No, you do not. Do we need to be able to organize certain things like making sure that we have food? Yes, we do need to make sure that we are eating and we need to make sure that we get our bills paid and we have certain things in place and those are things that we build on. But you know what? If every sock is not in the sock drawer or in the laundry hamper or that's not the end of the world, you don't got to beat yourself up about that. If you've got 80% of them where they belong, I say give yourself a high five right now. I think that sometimes we really put ourselves at this pedestal of perfection, which is part of our ability to imagine, ability to build these figments of imagination is this idea that we know what executive functions are supposed to look like. We've been told most of our life what executive functions we have trouble with and where we're falling short on some of these things. And people have tried to teach us these executive functions. The problem was too, that when they weren't trying to teach us, we were trying to beat ourselves into them. And you can't, you simply cannot you will never win by forcing yourself into doing, by beating yourself, by saying, yes, I will be strong. Holding yourself and saying, yeah, we can do this. Yeah, that's how you win. By saying, yeah, I am awesome and I'm going to do this a little bit at a time. Yeah, that's how you win. Beating yourself up. That's how you always lose. You only get hurt. So I guess a lot of this turned into more of a pep talk than exactly talking specifically about executive functions. I just feel like executive functions trigger a lot of our growing up being told, hey, you can't just go take that, or hey, why would you say that? What did you do? And hey, are you paying attention? Look over here and did you hear me repeat back what I said? A lot of those things that we struggled with and why didn't you get this turned in yet? How come you didn't fix that? Because one of the big executive functions that I realized just now, I forgot to tell you too, is being able to do tasks you don't want to do or being able to switch tasks on command. It's not just because you just switched tasks, because you did. The idea of I love the Holderness family videos. I have some of those on my website in the Extra randomness. And one of the songs that he does about ADHD, he's washing the dishes and he suddenly thinks of something and just walks away and leaves the dish half washed. And it's like, yes, that's something we do. Or like the idea of it being very difficult to start a task that you don't want to do and definitely listen to the next episode for that one. And that's just something that is an executive function that a lot of times we have trouble with and that's okay, is take it a step at a time. Start yourself where you can start yourself. You don't have to climb the mountain in a day. Just take a step. And you don't have to be perfect tomorrow. Just do one thing 1% better. I definitely love Atomic Habits, by the way, that's another awesome book. Be okay being you. I honestly can't say that enough. I know I say that almost every episode, and I say that I've said that lots of times this episode. I feel like that is the message that when you're trying to teach yourself something, you have to start with being okay, and then you can start improving. Then you can say to yourself, all right, you know what? I want to do this better. All right, let's do that. But I am okay. That I am in this current state, that I am good. I don't have to earn being loved. I don't have to earn being worthy. I don't have to earn being anything because I am, and I am good. And that's okay. You'll get better every single day. I'm going to put all of these references again on the website, and I hope that some of you guys read this article because it's really awesome and has a lot of good ideas. I don't even have time to read the whole thing because it's a little bit longer, but I hope you all are having a great day out there and I hope that you have an absolutely amazing week and I'll talk to you later. Thanks for listening. Remember to share this episode with anyone that you think could benefit. Talk to you later. Thanks so much for listening. To learn more about anything we talked about today, head head over to office Remember to, like, subscribe and share and have a great day. We'll see you next time!

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