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Executive Functioning: Managing the Dysfunction

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

Executive functioning refers to a set of mental skills one uses to plan, organize, and maintain focus to complete tasks or responsibilities. Executive dysfunction refers to a behavioral symptom that disrupts one’s ability to manage thoughts, emotions and actions that are required to complete tasks or goals.

Getting Started:

If you have ever done a quick google search for managing executive dysfunction you will already know that the most common strategies are to create goals, determine timelines, set reminders, and reward yourself. All of these strategies are great in their own way but often neglect to understand how daunting all of these steps can be. Additionally, many individuals with executive dysfunction have a difficult time getting started and completing tasks, they thrive in the ‘middle’.

So how do we get started, especially when you feel stuck? Instead of breaking down tasks into bite size pieces, break them down into morsel size pieces. I really like utilizing the ‘popcorn’ or ‘microwave’ techniques, setting a timer for a certain amount of time and getting what you can get done in that amount of time. Breaking a task down into morsel size means that instead of setting your timer for 15 or 20 minutes, you would set your timer for a time between 1 minute and 5 minutes. If I need to put all my clothes in my hamper and I have clothes all over the house, getting that task done may be overwhelming because of the quantity of work (i.e. going into each room, going back to hamper when I get my hands full, or brining the hamper into each room and then back to the laundry room, etc.). If my laundry has been sitting all over the floor for a while it may be because I am stuck in this overwhelming feeling. Instead, if I set a timer for 1 minute and see what I can do in that time, I am much more likely to begin this task because I go into the task knowing no matter what I will only have to dedicate one minute to this task.

If you are thinking, well what good is that the task is not complete. Remember, people with executive dysfunction thrive in the ‘middle’ but often have a hard time getting started. Once an individual gets the motivation to even start (which is triggered by understanding they only have to commit to 60 seconds), they will flow into getting the task done. In most cases, once a person gets started with one task, they will move on to the next without even thinking about it. We can use this strategy in many different ways.

  • Got a pile of dirty dishes that have been sitting in the sink? Commit to washing one dish. If you only get one dish done, that is progress. What is more than likely is that once you no longer feel overwhelmed by the task, because you only have to do one dish, you will actually do most (if not all) of the dishes.

  • Long paper (or report) is due in two days and you can’t even open your laptop? Commit to picking up your laptop, placing it where it needs to be, plugging it in and opening it up. After taking these steps, you will likely take the next step of opening up a document automatically. You may stop there, that is progress. There is nothing more disheartening than finally finding the motivation to start writing only to find your laptop dead and your charger nowhere to be found. If we break down the task into morseles, once you get the motivation to work, you are set up for success.

  • Have a bunch of stuff on your table that you aren’t using but can’t seem to find the motivation to organize it so you can use your table? Take a large bin and literally shove everything off the table into the bin. A clean table will feel like a reset, even if it seems like you are just placing the same items into a different space.

Seeking Professional Help

Navigating executive function can be stressful and impact one’s mental health. There is often shame around executive dysfunction because some of the steps seem so simple. This shame can come from others but also can be internalized. Individuals with executive dysfunction may feel isolated, guilty, and decreased confidence. If you are feeling overwhelmed with navigating executive functioning, seeking out a professional may be the first step.

The strategy of ‘breaking down tasks into morsels’ that I mentioned earlier is one of the many that I have seen work for clients. Many therapists have a toolbelt of techniques, strategies, and tips for anyone to use when they are feeling overwhelmed by executive dysfunction. Seeking a professional to help guide you through this process can help normalize the experience, decrease shame, and provide you with tools that a google search won’t give you.

Additional resources:

Book: Maintaining a Household While Drowning by KC Davis.

In this book KC Davis guides the reader through a variety of strategies and techniques to use to manage household responsibilities. KC Davis often references how these techniques were developed for individuals who are neurodivergent or have ADHD, but truly anyone can use these strategies. I appreciate Davis’s compassionate approach to managing executive dysfunction. She guides the reader through understanding a dysfunctional home is not a moral failing and that shame often results in individuals feeling as if they are stuck in their dysfunction.

Website/app: “Trello is the flexible work management tool where teams can ideate plans, collaborate on projects, organize workflows, and track progress in a visual, productive, and rewarding way. From brainstorm to planning to execution, Trello manages the big milestones and the day-to-day tasks of working together and getting things done.” I find that Trello’s templates are really helpful getting started as the user can start importing their tasks right away rather than focusing on color coding, folder building, etc.

Written by,

Madison Repak, LPC



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