Executive Functions in a Nutshell

ADHD Executive Functions Planning Lists Organisation Memory

You may have heard the term Executive Functions if you’ve been starting to research into ADHD, or you may, like me, have assumed that Executive Functions had something to do with Business Conferences. My doctor had certainly never mentioned them, and I guess Biology lessons didn’t really cover cognitive functioning in any great detail.

So what are Executive Functions?

Simply put Executive Functions are the processes in your brain to get things done.


ADHD can affect any combination of these functions which is why you might start lots of projects, but never get them finished. I like craft hobbies, I love starting them, I love buying all the shiny new kit and caboodle, I love finishing my first piece and looking at my big stash of projects that I’m going to do next. Then I love something else. It is expensive, it is infuriating to those around me and it makes me feel guilty!

I’m also horrible at making decisions, which has caused me a lot of trouble over my adult years. Basically if there is another adult in the room, at home there’s my husband and my mother-in-law, I will defer to them as the responsible adult. This means that, before I realised what I was doing, I was often disgruntled and exasperated at the decisions they made, even if I had wanted that decision too, and it made me feel very negatively towards them. I blamed them for bad decisions, but I didn’t feel worthy of making them myself.

With ADHD you can gain amazing hyperfocus if you are really interested in something, hence the entire set of Letraset Promarkers sitting on my shelf which come out maybe once a month because my colouring phase has gone. It can be crippling in some ways but if you harness it, it can be great.

Use your hyperfocus to brainstorm ideas, I have a list of blog post themes in my notebook which is pages long. I always think that people with ADHD make great consultants, we are really good at the start of projects, we can be really creative and think of some pretty unusual ideas. We’re just not so great at carrying them out long-term.

The biggest and most common problem I have found through forums and talking to other parents with ADHD is the ease in which we become overwhelmed. This comes down to the planning, organising and prioritising part, and of course time-management. It’s so easy to become so overwhelmed by your To-Do Lost that end up shutting down and doing nothing at all. It’s one of the challenges that I’m currently working on, and I’ve got a great tip coming up for Time-Management in my next post that helps me to break it down and not get to that shut down point.

The trouble is, with all the negative self-talk that creeps in with ADHD (not an executive function but I bring it up here and will discuss it in a separate post) it’s very easy to see the Lego all over the floor, the wrappers tucked down the sofa cushions, the meetings and appointments on the calendar, the diet chart and the chocolate bar that you know is in the cupboard, the pile of washing, the dirty dishes, the empty fridge and the inability to find actual floor in the footwells of the car, as being insurmountable. -and that’s just the household chaos.

My desk is covered in scribbled notes, post-its reminding me to eat and drink, piles of documents in my handy ‘filing’ tray, dirty cups and somewhere there is another to-do list that I’ve written, probably the third one so far this week. I look at that great big list of blog posts with a slight terror and apprehension before I get myself into gear.

Because that’s what makes the difference, I can now get myself into gear through some of the techniques that I will be posting about, I want to share how I’m managing to step back from it all and see things in a better light. I still have bad days, don’t get me wrong, but those bad days are when I haven’t used the tools that I’m going to talk about to help me.


What about Medication?

Medication works differently for everyone, I have to start off with that because I know some people who have found it revolutionary and some who have found the side-effects outweigh the positives.

You will not be able to try medication if you do not have a diagnosis of ADHD, so if you’re out there and you’re wondering, maybe you’ve looked at that chart of Executive Functions and think, ‘Wow, they’re all the things I struggle with’, then you need to go and talk to a doctor.

I’m only going to comment on my personal journey with medication in this post, I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences so please comment below if you have a story to share.

I started taking Concerta XL at the start of 2012, you can read about my first three months on my old blog, which of course, I let lapse because I lost focus – I hadn’t reached this part of my journey yet. It was called 10:22 because that was the time I took my first tablet – clever right?!

I had some great positive results from it, I was able to blast through the housework at first and felt I had more energy. As time went on the results seemed to fade, so I had a few dosage changes and things ticked along. The problem was, and I didn’t actually associate this with the medication at the time, my irritability and frustration increased. I was shouting at the kids and feeling periods of hopelessness, my negative self-talk was still rearing it’s ugly head, so I ended up taking anti-depressants as well.

I began getting headaches and with the Concerta XL seeming less effective I was set to go back to my Consultant to ask to try something else. I just couldn’t get around to booking the appointment though, which in hindsight shows that the effects of the medication really had reduced. The pharmacy actually switched to a cheaper brand called Xenidate XL and weirdly they were working better so yay, forget that appointment anyway.

Over the following year the same thing happened, the results seemed to become less noticeable, they raised my anti-depressant dose, but still I was getting headaches which made me grumpy and I was feeling pretty fed up. I started looking into what else I could do about my ADHD which was the beginnings of the concept of this blog.

I took myself off the anti-depressants, blame my impulsivity on that, and the headaches went away. I am currently waiting for an appointment with the Consultant with the hopes of trying a different medication, specifically the one that my son takes called Elvanse. It’s a different formula and from what I’ve seen there are less side effects and it works in a slightly different way. If I am successful in being prescribed Elvanse you can bet I’ll be blogging about it!

My son actually suffered far worse side effects with methylphenidate than I did, though he took Medikinet at first and then Equasym XL. He suffered from anxiety and depression, reduced appetite, he was like a zombie at school, he couldn’t sleep, it wasn’t great, but it didn’t start that way. All of that came when he hit puberty so some of it can be attributed to hormones. Still, it was enough to make me push for alternatives. I want to make it clear that he has always maintained that he needs the medication for school, he says that he can’t focus without it so it has been doing some good too! In fact, the first day he took Medikinet, he came home from school and said ‘I finished my work!’. He was so proud of himself and amazed that he was actually able to complete a piece of writing!

Your story might, and is likely to be different so I would always say medication is worth a try. What medication probably won’t do for you is fix all of the difficulties you have. It mainly increases your ability to focus and pay attention, you may see improvement in some of the other areas but it’s not a magic wand. The medication can help you to take control and implement some of the ideas that I’ll write about, but it won’t do it for you!


So I have some impairment to my Executive Functions as part of ADHD, what now?

Recognising that this impairment to Executive Functions is a real, genuine part of your condition can be quite liberating – all that negative self-talk that tells you how lazy you are is way off track! Once you recognise and accept that there are biological reasons behind your challenges you can stop blaming yourself and get on with finding ways to beat them.

Stay with me on my journey, look out for posts on how to tackle these challenges and try out some of the methods I’m going to talk about, but don’t give up hope, and don’t be too hard on yourself. I still have a long way to go, but at least I’m moving in the right direction!


2 thoughts on “Executive Functions in a Nutshell

  1. Annie says:

    I love how detiled this is!
    Also this will probably sound silli, since I’m not diagnosed with ADAD or anything like that (but of course my doctors still don’t know what’s up with my brain), but I often find myself doing the stuff you listed (starting the 100 projects at once and not finishing them, having hyperfocus for stuff that interest me, etc)…. It’s weird, cause my psychologist told me that I’m just “odd like that” …..

    • Emma Bennett says:

      Maybe some of the practical tips that I’ll be talking about on this blog will help you out too. I’m going to be posting a bit more about the different types of ADHD so definitely check in on that to see if anything else feels familiar. ADHD in women is often missed by professionals as there’s so much focus on the typical ‘hyperactive little boy’ image of ADHD, it’s far more common in women then you realise and generally it manifests differently. I’m glad you enjoyed my post, let me know if there’s anything you want to ask about!

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