Overwhelmed At Work?: Demystifying Executive Functioning Deficits
Written by Dr B. Malavika, Psychological & Educational Therapist
Have you met Michael recently? He’s the bright, young, dynamic person at our office… I always thought of him as the person who’s the life of the party, and he genuinely seems to care for his colleagues… Aah, yes, the same person who unfortunately missed out a promotion this year… I heard his boss say that he definitely had the potential, but it wasn’t showing up in his work. He would initiate tasks with enthusiasm but would lose interest quickly; turned up late for meetings, or even forgot about them, and frequently misplaced important files as his table was often cluttered.
Does this seem familiar? Do you recognise similar signs in yourself or someone else you know? These issues might be due to something known as Executive functioning deficits or disorder (EFD). Though symptoms start in early childhood, the challenges might have been seen as the individual’s behaviour problems and not as a syndrome. Even as adults, many of those with EFD aren’t aware they have it — they just know that even everyday tasks can be challenging.
What is EFD?
Executive functions are the set of higher-order mental skills that allow us to analyse, plan, organise, make suitable decisions, manage time, focus attention and execute the plan. No matter how smart or talented one is, not much will get done well without these key capabilities. The human brain comprises of two systems: the automatic and the executive. While the automatic system guides 80 to 90% of our activities every single day, the executive system guides the remaining 10 to 20% and requires purposeful, regulatory effort.1
What causes EFD?
Experts don’t know exactly what causes this and a 2008 study found that differences in these skills are “almost entirely genetic in origin due to differences in brain chemicals” 2
People who have executive functioning deficits might have problems with many of these functions:
- starting, organising, planning, or completing tasks on deadline.
- listening or paying attention
- remembering tasks or details
- time management
- decision making
- controlling emotions or impulses
But it is important to note that EFD is not associated with low IQ.
Almost everyone has some symptoms similar to EFD at some point in their lives but It isn’t EFD if the difficulties being faced are recent or occurred only occasionally or intermittently in the past. If you’re curious to know if you do have EFD, you could take the test given below.
Even if you’re not sure if EFD is indeed the cause of the problems experienced, or, if you do not want to give it a label, you could still use the tips/ strategies given below to enhance your general skills and productivity at work.
One surprising way found to improve executive function in adults is aerobic exercise. Many research journals have published that regular aerobic exercise in older adults can boost the executive functions that typically deteriorate with age, including the ability to pay focused attention, to switch among tasks, and to hold multiple items in working memory.3
If you think that the feeling of the constant deluge at the office is largely the result of so many things clamouring for attention at once, a tool like Stephen Covey’s Quadrants can be used. Each quadrant (Q) has a different property and is designed to help prioritise tasks and responsibilities. These are:
- Q 1 – Urgent and important
- Q 2 – Not urgent but important
- Q 3 – Urgent but not important
- Q 4 – Not urgent and not important
Another useful technique is the Pomodoro technique of time management developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It uses a timer to break down work into 25-minute intervals, separated by 5-minute breaks. This method not only helps you remove distractions and enhance focus on your task, but it also factors in time to take a short breather.
Those who are tech-savvy can find these as smartphone apps. Other technology tools that can help are File-sharing software like Dropbox to keep notes handy, digital sticky notes or reminders, and password manager software to keep track of passwords. Those who are not comfortable with technology can compensate for working memory deficits by making information external — using cards, signs, symbols, sticky notes, lists, journals, clocks and timers.4
Other simple workable strategies are:
- Break large tasks into smaller individual tasks and put them into a linear order or flow chart. This helps provide clarity and allows you to monitor your progress
- Keep a routine
- Know yourself and get your best work done according to your own biorhythms
- Give it a positive twist – make the activity a ‘want to do’ instead of ‘should do’.
Games can help to improve executive function skills. Games like Checkers, Monopoly, and Clue use planning, sustained attention, response inhibition, working memory and metacognition. Games like Zelda and SimCity help with problem-solving and goal-directed persistence. Managing fantasy sports teams also use executive skills like task initiation and time management while having fun.4
Positive emotions reduce the impact of stressful events on the self and help build resilience. They make us more flexible, allowing us to be more open to options of problem-solving. Studies show that people feel and do their best when they have at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions.5 It is, therefore, most important that you periodically reward yourself when you have met the goals you have set. Equally important is positive self-talk which is a powerful tool for increasing your self-confidence and strengthening your resolve to make these healthy new habits a part of your personal and working life.
When to seek help?
Diagnosis of EFD can be difficult because certain symptoms are similar to those caused by other conditions, such as ADHD, LD, depression, anxiety, mood disorders or OCD. If any of the symptoms listed above continually disrupt your life, talk to a mental health professional. There is a variety of strategies recommended by experts to help strengthen the areas of weakness that EFD creates. Treatment options could be medications and therapy such as occupational or speech therapy, Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).