Planning and organisational skills (executive functions)

Executive functions are controlled by the frontal lobes of the brain and can be thought of as the conductor of the brain’s orchestra.  

Executive functions are thoughts that we carry out or “execute” as actions in order to reach a goal. Another name for executive functions is critical-thinking skills.     

Executive function can be divided into two groups:

  • Organization:Gathering information and structuring it for evaluation
  • Regulation:Taking stock of your surroundings and changing your behaviour in response to it

Executive functioning skills help you to get things done and include:

  • Managing your time;
  • Planning and organising;
  • Problem-solving;
  • Multi-tasking;
  • Paying attention;
  • Switching your focus;
  • Remembering things;
  • Saying and doing the right thing;
  • Thinking flexibly.

Difficulty with any of these abilities can cause problems with everyday life tasks.

Techniques and strategies to improve executive function:

Executive functions are the mental processes that allow us to solve problems, make decisions, plan ahead, and see tasks through to completion. Many of the strategies to help with attention and memory problems will also be helpful for people with executive function problems too.

People with executive function problems can find new situations and/or tasks particularly challenging to get started and to think through.

  • Keep to a regular routine to reduce the demands on your brain. Our brain finds it much easier to do things that are familiar, practiced or part of a routine.

  • When is your brain fog worse? Prepare in advance and set things out ready. 

  • Make a clear plan before completing activities.

  • Use a step by step written guide when completing tasks and follow it.

  • Plan ahead and prepare a detailed schedule for your week/day.

  • Pick a time when you are most alert to do difficult/complex tasks.

  • Do 1 thing at a time. Multi-tasking can lead to mistakes.

  • Ensure your home and workspace are as organised as possible.

  • Don’t be too ambitious in case you fail to get through everything. Success feels better than failure.

  • The ‘Stop and Think’ technique:

Develop a habit of pausing during complicated activities to clarify how the task is going:

Imagine you are cooking a meal for family or friends. You have planned well and have your recipe to follow. You have all your ingredients prepared and have started cooking. But you have lots of steps to do, and you may need to hop between tasks, perhaps stirring something in a saucepan, but occasionally checking how things are doing under the grill. This is a situation where your attentional spotlight might need to be moving from time to time. You don’t want it to get stuck on one task when something else important now needs to be done. So, it is important to get into a STOP:THINK habit.

From time to time, take a moment and think – ‘am I doing what I should be just now’? Is my attentional spotlight where it should be? Check the mental to-do list. What should I be doing just now? If your spotlight is in the right place, that’s good! If it needs to be moved (perhaps to check the grill), then move it over, and then bring it back. Everyday life is full of tasks that have lots of steps, or situations where we have to switch to a different task, even if we haven’t completed something. This can be at home or work – we are often having to manage multiple tasks at the same time. So, getting into a good ‘STOP:THINK’ habit helps keep the attentional spotlight in the right place, and move it when needed.