How to Develop Your Executive Function Skills…even when you are all grown up

Executive Function is not:

  • A party for company leaders
  • A measure of the success of an executive
  • A new word for “job description”


Executive Function is a set of important mental skills that help you set goals and get things done. Your Executive Function skills are the CEO of your brain.


These skills are:

  1. Working memory. Your ability to remember details.
  2. Self-control. The strategies you use to resist temptations and avoid acting impulsively.
  3. Mental flexibility. The extent to which you consider various alternatives and are open to changing course based on conflicting data.


Executive Function is most commonly addressed by educators who work with children. My son has ADHD and has had to work very hard to develop his Executive Function skills. The book Smart but Scattered was really helpful for me as his parent, by the way.


Many adults struggle with their own Executive Function skills. It’s not just a “kid problem.”


Do you notice any of the following issues in your work or life?


  • Difficulty organizing bills, paperwork, or electronic documents
  • Challenges with resisting distractions, online or otherwise
  • Procrastination, “firefighting”, task-related stress
  • Stubbornness, not seeking alternative solutions, conflict with coworkers whose opinions differ from yours
  • Remembering details and promises you made to others


If you do, then you may benefit from developing your Executive Function skills.


Have you noticed how many times I used the word “skills” above?  It’s intentional.


Although life is easier when you develop Executive Function skills as a kid, you are not doomed to failure if you didn’t.



The 7-Day Plan to Develop Executive Function Skills in Adults



Sunday is…Self-awareness day!


Set aside time each Sunday to think about you. What are you doing well?  In what areas can you improve?  Reflect on the prior week, how you behaved, and set some goals for the coming week.


How is your self-care? Are you proactive with managing your stress?  If you don’t put these activities on your calendar, you know they won’t get done. Prioritize your mental and physical well-being or you won’t have the fuel to make it through the week.



Monday is…Metacognition day!


Metacognition is the ability to monitor your own thought processes. When you metacognate, you consciously evaluate a problem and walk yourself through the steps to solve it. Essentially, you think about thinking. Some ways to do this include:  thinking aloud (I talk to my dog), creating checklists, documenting process steps, and teaching someone else to do a task. Practice metacognition each Monday.



Tuesday is…Task inventory day!


Each Tuesday write down everything you need to do between now and foreseeable future. What promises have you made to other people? Is so-and-so down the hall waiting on your feedback on a report? Inventory all of your actions onto a single task list (here are some recommendations) and put dates on every single task.



Wednesday is…Working Memory day!


Challenge your memory every Wednesday. Maybe go to a networking event or another place where you’ll meet new people. Play a “name game” with yourself. With each person you meet, commit to remembering their name and use it in conversation with them. Think of a pneumonic device or other memory trick to help you recall their name in the future.


Other, less social, memory-improvement tips can be found here.



Thursday is…Tidy up day!


Clear off your desk surface. Pick a 30-minute decluttering task to complete. Organize what’s left. Here are some tips to help.



Friday is…Focus day!


Strive each Friday to find and reduce the distractions in your life and work. Turn off all notifications of incoming email and social media alerts. Escape for an hour or two to a work location where distractions are less prevalent. Set a timer on your phone to focus on one task for 15 minutes. Develop your mental muscles toward focusing.



Saturday is…Self-control day!


Seek and destroy your impulsive tendencies each Saturday. Plan your day and work your plan. Stop and take deep breaths when you find yourself acting without thinking. Have a conversation with a loved one where you listen to understand rather than listen to respond. It will be exhausting at first, but you’ll get better with practice.



Executive Function skills are important for both children and adults to develop and maintain. With kids, you might make some headway with this storybook.


For yourself, you may need to add the recommendations above to your calendar.


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Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.


  1. Joyce Teal

    So glad you addressed the issue of ADD/ADHD in your article. So many people self-diagnosis themselves and don’t understand why strategies for ADD/ADHD don’t work for them. As an adult with ADHD, I have learned many strategies for being successful. One of my best is to make lists and write myself notes. Electronics don’t work for me. I truly do need to physically write them down and keep them in a book that I can carry with me. Another great article!

  2. Janet Barclay

    Although not directly related to your topic, your post made me think this could be a way to create or break habits as well. We’re told you should only work on one major change at a time, but sometimes life really demands us to work on several. What if each day was dedicated to changing a specific habit? Hmm…

    • Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

      I like that, Janet! And, if you can weave in some alliteration, all the better. 🙂


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