What Is Executive Function and How Can You Improve It?

It encompasses many different skills and abilities

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Executive function describes several aspects of thinking, including planning, memory, and self-control. For most people, executive function naturally improves throughout childhood and adulthood as the brain matures and various experiences shape these abilities.

In addition to the natural improvements in executive function that you can expect to develop throughout the years, it is also possible to pay attention to the different components of your executive function and to work on improving them so you can be happier and more productive. 

Couple planning finances and projects is an example of executive function

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Types of Executive Function

There are several ways that executive function is defined. It is sometimes divided into three major components—inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. There are also many other aspects of executive function, and there are overlaps between these different features. Additionally, some aspects of executive function work together. 

Features of executive function may include:

  • Processing new information 
  • Memorizing facts 
  • Recalling information 
  • Learning concepts 
  • Making calculations
  • Planning events and actions 
  • Decision making 
  • Reasoning 
  • Paying attention
  • Focusing and directing thoughts 
  • Inhibition of behavior 
  • Organization 
  • Imagination 

These skills are functions of communication between different regions of the brain. Using executive function for a specific task typically involves a combination of several features.  

The Importance of Executive Function

Your executive functions allow you to manage your life and interact with others effectively and enjoyably. Intellectual aspects of work and life require executive function at any age. This can include things like knowing your way around when driving, budgeting, shopping, making a schedule, and playing board games. 

Executive function also helps you manage other skills that aren’t necessarily considered intellectual. For example, organizing your home, getting along with others, and sports strategies all involve executive function along with other skills.

Most people have some strengths and weaknesses in different aspects of executive function. Factors such as genetics and childhood experiences can affect executive function. You might have noticed your own strengths and weaknesses in executive function and those of other people you spend time with. 

Signs of Executive Function Disorder

Many different medical conditions can affect executive function. Examples include neurodevelopmental problems, dementia, a stroke, brain damage from trauma, inflammatory brain conditions, and oxygen deprivation. 

Signs of an executive function disorder include:

  • Forgetting facts, appointments, or experiences 
  • Not doing important tasks, like paying bills
  • Trouble concentrating 
  • Diminished ability to use familiar objects 
  • Getting lost 
  • Mood changes or withdrawal from others 
  • Worsening performance at school or work 

Keep in mind these symptoms can occur due to other issues unrelated to executive function, such as hearing loss, depression, or a sleep disorder

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you or someone else is noticing that your executive function is declining slowly, it’s important to make an appointment to see a doctor. You may be referred to a neurologist (a specialist in conditions affecting the brain and nervous system).


Get urgent medical attention for problems such as:

  • Confusion about time, place, other people, or self
  • Changes in consciousness
  • Erratic or dangerous behavior
  • Difficulty communicating

How to Improve Executive Function

Most of the time, executive function improves throughout life as experiences shape these skills. People are always learning and trying to make things work better by repeating actions and behaviors that bring good results and reducing behaviors that lead to bad results.

For example, most people who forget something important—such as filling the car with gas before a long trip—will remember to do it next time to avoid the inconvenience. And most psychologically healthy people who unintentionally say something that hurts another person’s feelings will not repeat the same mistake again.

Ways to improve executive function include:

  • Sleep 
  • Quiet time
  • Exercise
  • Meditation 
  • A healthy diet, low in fat and excess sugar
  • Reflection 
  • Practice 
  • Taking a class or learning a skill that is focused on executive function 
  • Hobbies that are not directly related to executive function 

It's important to know that improvement of executive function can be a challenge if you can’t figure out what you are doing wrong. Being able to have the insight to understand why mistakes were made is also part of executive function.

If you are having problems with making bad decisions, it can be beneficial to talk to trusted and unthreatening family members, friends, or coworkers to see if they have a perspective that could help fill in the gaps for you. Sometimes, seeing a therapist can help with strategies for improving executive function. 

Managing Executive Function Disorder

Just about everyone can improve their executive function. No one is perfect at thinking, memory, and self-control.

Additionally, there are disorders that can severely affect executive function to a degree that can be detected by a medical mental status examination or cognitive test like the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MOCA).

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a disorder that affects executive function, it can interfere with self-care, independence, and safety.

These conditions include neurodevelopmental syndromes, psychiatric disorders, neurological conditions like dementia and others, and medical problems that affect brain function. It’s important to have comprehensive medical care to prevent the worsening of the condition, if possible, and to maximize self-care skills and safety. 

Risk Factors and Complications of Executive Function Disorders

Executive function disorders can lead to serious complications, including injuries, car accidents, getting lost, and being taken advantage of or hurt by others.


Summary 

Executive function includes the skills and abilities that help you think, remember, plan, and control your behavior and attention. Many of these abilities overlap with each other, and everyone has some strengths and weaknesses of executive function.

For most people, executive function, which improves substantially during childhood and adolescence, continues to improve during adulthood too. Anyone can improve cognitive skills with attention and practice, and sometimes with feedback or counseling as well.

There are many conditions that can worsen executive function, and it’s important to get medical attention for any signs of executive function decline, at any age. 

A Word From Verywell

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to executive function. These functions improve with natural brain maturation. And life experiences also enhance executive function, as people learn how to improve their reasoning and thinking.

If you would like to improve your executive function, think of it like working out to improve your physical strengths. Decide what you want to improve and why, and be optimistic as you practice and challenge yourself. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the fundamental executive functions?

    Fundamental executive functions include memory and planning. There are also many features of executive function that help a person with learning and making decisions.

  • Will executive function decrease over time?

    In general, executive function improves over time. However, many health problems can affect executive function, including dementia, strokes, and certain heart and lung diseases.

  • What are the three main areas of executive functioning?

    There are many different ways that executive functions are categorized. One of the popular ways is based on three areas—memory, planning, and inhibition.

  • What is an example of executive function?

    Planning a project or trip is an example of executive function. This involves a set of cognitive skills.

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