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Struggling to do basic everyday tasks? No, you’re not just lazy – it could be ‘executive dysfunction’. Here’s how to tell, and how to cope


We’re the first to admit it – modern life can be pretty overwhelming. There’s a lot to keep straight at any one time, with a constant news cycle, workplace stress at an all-time high, not to mention the stress of a pandemic and its aftermath.

But sometimes, the most overwhelming and difficult thing of all seems to be the simple tasks.

The daily admin that has to be done – from grocery shopping to organising a meet up with friends – can seem insurmountable. It can be just a fact of life, but if it becomes an interruption to your routine, it might be an indicator of a deeper issue.

Here’s an expert guide to executive dysfunction – which can be a symptom of many mental illnesses – including how to recognise it and deal with it.

What is executive dysfunction?

First of all, it’s important to understand what executive function is, before exploring what happens when it doesn’t work properly. It involves the front part of our brain – our “frontal lobe” – carrying out mental skills like decision making, reasoning and holding information on a temporary basis.

It’s responsible for our attention span, our ability to organise and prioritise things on our to-do list, completing tasks, regulating our emotions, assessing what behaviour is appropriate and seeing things from different points of view.

In other words, executive function is pretty important to our day-to-day life tasks and contributes hugely to how we behave.

So, executive dysfunction – also known as dysexecutive syndrome – is when this part of the brain isn’t working properly – so the part of our brain that grants us the ability to do these pretty important things isn’t working as well as it should.

How can you tell if you have executive dysfunction?

According to chartered psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo, there are a range of issues to look out for. “You may notice that someone with executive functioning difficulties may have trouble planning and organising effectively, such as gathering what they need for the day or event,” she says.

“They may be quite chaotic in the way that they search for something they have lost, or may struggle to manage emotions and become angry or upset quite quickly. They may also find it harder to follow instructions for a task or learn new information, or find it hard to pay attention to things such as the duration of a film, a conversation or a task they are doing.

“You may also notice that they struggle to switch from one thing to another such as adapting to new changes in their environment.” These changes might be issues like a cancelled train, or having to making alternative social plans at the last minute.

Is it linked to more serious health issues?

“Executive functioning difficulties can also be found in some individuals with dementia, autistic spectrum disorders, some learning disabilities and those who have experienced head injury, stroke or tumours,” Tara says.

The condition is also linked to alcohol and substance misuse, and is a symptom of certain conditions such as depression and ADHD.

However, suffering from difficulties with your executive functioning can be temporary – particularly if you’re experiencing stress or fatigue. It’s all about watching for when it becomes chronic and unmanageable in nature, affecting your daily life.

Tips on how to cope with executive dysfunction

It’s important to remember that you can’t just motivate yourself out of executive dysfunction, Tara warns, because it’s all part of a cognitive deficit.

However she recommends “setting reminders and making sure you break tasks down into smaller steps” as helpful ways to get a handle on your symptoms. You could also use planner apps to tightly structure your day, as well as ensuring that you limit background noise from the TV, radio and your phone that could distract you.

Other people can also help you cope by helping remind you of important things and ensuring to not distract you while you’re concentrating on a task. Plus, Tara stresses that “if they’re aware of your difficulties, they will be able to make allowances for your behaviour and understanding why some things may be difficult for you”.

She also recommends seeking cognitive behavioural therapy or seeing a medical practitioner for memory difficulties if things become unmanageable.

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