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Exploring Executive Function in Depth – Part II: Strategies for Enhancing Your Abilities

Vibrant neural connections representing cognitive function enhancement

Many individuals with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) face challenges related to executive function, commonly known as executive dysfunction. Executive functioning encompasses cognitive skills that enable us to plan, organize, manage time, and take action steps to achieve our goals. These functions are primarily regulated by the prefrontal cortex, and individuals with ADHD often experience executive dysfunction due to the neurobiological effects of the condition on this brain region.

While executive dysfunction can be discouraging, there are steps you can take to enhance your executive functions and mitigate the impact of ADHD. In this second part of our series on Exploring Executive Function in Depth, we will delve into methods to improve functioning in the areas discussed previously.

Attention Variability: Learning a new skill, like juggling, woodworking, or wilderness survival, can support improved attention. Similarly, engaging in balancing activities, such as walking across a log or a balance beam, or even carrying a book on your head, can have a positive impact.

Having a physical activity to engage in when a situation demands sustained mental engagement or listening, whether it's a fidget toy, crochet, a standing desk, or an under-desk treadmill, can be immensely helpful.

Emotional Regulation: Begin by identifying your emotions as you experience them, utilizing available online emotions lists. Understanding how your emotions manifest and feel in your body is the initial step in emotional regulation.

When you notice early signs of frustration or anger—like hot cheeks, rapid breathing, or clenched fists—press the "pause" button. Taking a break when you sense these early signs can prevent impulsive reactions that may harm your relationships with friends, loved ones, or colleagues.

Working Memory: To enhance working memory, practice basic mental math, such as adding prices while shopping or recalling ingredients for a recipe. Narrating your day to yourself, connecting tasks and activities, or experimenting with slam poetry and spoken word can stimulate your brain and activate short-term memory.

Externalizing mental tasks through to-do lists, drafting assignments, or breaking down tasks into manageable steps can be particularly effective when done using pen and paper. Incorporate images alongside words, as visual aids can enhance working memory differently than electronics.

Task Initiation: Divide larger tasks into smaller, more manageable subtasks. It can be less daunting to "just open a book" than to expect yourself to read the entire text in one go.

Associate enjoyable activities with tasks. Listening to a favorite podcast while washing dishes or sipping on a favorite beverage while tackling emails can establish positive connections in your brain, making seemingly unappealing tasks more rewarding.

Remind yourself of the bigger picture. Initiating a writing assignment well in advance of the deadline can feel more achievable when framed as creating free time for the weekend with friends.

Additionally, there are activities that can enhance all executive functions, extending beyond those discussed in this series. Engaging in casual or competitive sports, and especially mindful movement activities such as qigong and tai chi, have been shown to improve executive functions and reduce stress—another factor that can hinder executive function.

ADHD often accompanies executive function challenges, but by experimenting with these strategies, you can gain greater control over how you navigate your personal and professional spaces. We'd love to hear about the strategies that work best for you, so please feel free to share your experiences and insights.

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