The ability to plan and regulate ourselves is fundamental to being effective in society.

This includes timing our tasks when we complete a job, applying for roles in a new company, and managing how we respond whenever issues arise that we are not happy with. These competencies all come under the banner of “executive function”, which is necessary for anyone looking to make the most of their career or the potential of their students. Find out more about what executive function is, some of the conditions that can affect someone’s executive function, and how to develop executive function in a range of settings.

Education resources


What is executive function?

Executive function refers to our ability to complete standard everyday tasks with ease. This includes things that we do in the workplace, completing standard chores around the house and a selection of other daily events that we often don’t think about. Using our executive function involves filtering out distractions that stop us from working, effectively prioritizing the tasks we complete, and setting goals for a set amount of time without procrastinating progress toward the goal. Research shows that we lose these skills as we age, in addition to some conditions affecting executive function.

A good metaphor for executive function is that of an air traffic controller. The planes must come in at a specific time on a specific runway. While many ground support vehicles, weather warnings, and fellow employees are in the space, potentially distracting you, effective executive function means that all arrivals and departures are dealt with safely and securely at the right time.

What are the main executive function skills?

There are a few main skills for executive function, including:

Working memory

Working memory refers to short-term memory that specifically entails the tasks we complete when we are provided. We are provided information about the task, such as being at step five of nine-stage progress, and we keep that in our minds throughout. Effective working memory means transporting and conveying information from one step to the next, retaining important information and data, and using it later. This is necessary when completing tasks that can take a couple of hours. An example of poor working memory occurs if you walk from one room to another and forget what you were doing the moment you are through the doorway. This is referred to as an ’event model’ and is the subject of lots of existing research.

Mental flexibility

Mental flexibility refers to changing demands in a workplace or similar space. For example, when we eat dinner on our own in our own homes, there are entirely different rules and expectations compared to when we eat at a fancy dinner with a client or in front of our employers. Having a high degree of mental flexibility means that you can respond to these changes in demands effectively, presenting yourself better while appearing appropriate in any situation you find yourself in.


Self-control is our ability to set our priorities and act upon them. This includes the capacity to control ourselves when there is potential for an impulsive action and control our responses to events outside our control. Effective self-control means working consistently, completing the tasks that relate to us whenever necessary, and reacting calmly whenever something goes against our expectations.

Conditions affecting executive function

There are several conditions that people can have that affect their levels of executive function. This includes permanent conditions and a part of how someone’s mind works, in addition to some temporary afflictions that people can suffer from. Each affects someone’s ability to complete standard tasks. Some of these conditions include:


ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and is one of the most prominent conditions affecting executive function in people throughout society. The attention deficit aspect of ADHD means that sufferers struggle with their working memory, leading to a high level of distractability and a failure to keep up with a long task until the very end of the process. This combines with hyperactivity, which causes a lack of control as people with ADHD seek a stimulus such as a YouTube video, music, or even simply fidgeting by tapping their feet or playing with a pen. ADHD symptoms are lessened by taking medication such as stimulants.


Depression leads to a loss of self-control that people have in their executive function. Thanks to a severe shift in mindset, people struggle to set goals with specific timeframes as they focus more on the negative side of events rather than having the drive necessary to set goals, push forward, and attempt to achieve them. You can recognize depression through people being de-energized or failing to interact with others as they did before. Depression has several treatments, including therapy and pharmacological interventions such as medications.


Autism, or ASD (autism spectrum disorder), is a disorder people have from birth, diagnosable from a young age to adulthood. Having autism means that a person increasingly relies on rhythms and habits in their lives, like focusing on specific food items as their favorites and having very specific routines they complete daily. ASD means someone does not have the mental flexibility necessary for effective executive function, as they focus specifically on habits and rhythms and a high degree of regularity. Some treatments for autism include a wide range of therapies and medicines, depending on the specific patient.

Lack of sleep

A lack of sleep is one of the more temporary issues affecting someone’s executive function. When you have had less sleep than normal, you suffer from issues such as memory loss and an attention deficiency, as your brain is not working as normally as it normally does. This damages working memory and means that people struggle with completing tasks they typically complete with ease in the workplace. Reduce the damage that a lack of sleep causes by seeing a physician and checking if you have issues such as sleep apnea or simply adjusting your sleeping pattern to get more time in bed.

How to improve executive function

There are several ways of improving executive function, both in yourself and as an educator or parent looking to improve how a young person functions. Some of these steps include:

Create stable routines

Creating stable routines is an ideal first step for anyone improving their executive function. This involves building a level of predictability in how someone’s day goes, with consistency throughout the week. Sticking to this routine, especially for someone with an issue like ADHD, is a clear sign of development as it shows a higher level of self-control than is typical for an ADHD sufferer. The same can help someone with depression to develop and build out of their current state, providing a firm foundation.

Play team sports

Building cognitive flexibility is a core aspect of improving executive function, and playing team sports is an ideal step toward this. Team sports mean facing a brand new and unique challenge every game, with situations emerging that have never happened before. People need to think on their feet in these cases. Focus on sports such as soccer that are extremely open rather than those with set “plays” such as football.

Engage in the arts

Try using the arts to encourage more executive function in a young person. Clearly, competing in and learning about dance gives young people greater executive functions, building working memory thanks to more coherent routines. Organized arts also lead to better goal-setting ability, with students knowing there is a clear deadline to provide their performance or art project. They plan their time better and develop skills like self-control and working memory.

Allow for failure

Especially when teaching young people, allowing for failure in their day-to-day tasks. If a young person has relatively poor executive function skills and still has a lot of support, to the extent that they see their efforts as a success, they will continue to fail. In a position of authority, let things go wrong but note how it went wrong and why there was an issue. By allowing for failure in this way, you provide young people with a teaching moment and show them how to progress in the future rather than building a lack of executive function into a habit.