definition of executive functions

The Definition of Executive Functions: Your Brain’s Mission Control Explained

The Definition of Executive Functions: Your Brain’s Mission Control Explained

Okay, so people in my field like to say the definition of executive function is the mission control center of our brain. However, when I hear that, I can’t help but palm my face. The simple analogy makes the idea of having an executive function dysfunction seem like a death sentence. To those who have it, I agree it really sucks. However, saying our brain’s main way of making decisions, problem solving, planning, organizing, etc is broken seems a bit harsh. Let me help answer the dying question of “what are executive functions?” in a slightly kinder way. The definition of executive functions is our ability to digest information, break it apart, plan it out, initiate it, and follow through in a way that doesn’t severely interfere with our lives. 

The last part of that definition of executive function is really important. Some of us might think, I miss appointments and procrastinate a lot. This must mean that I don’t have executive functions and the mission control center of my brain is broken. I want you to ask yourself, “Have my tendencies to miss appointments and procrastinate caused a major detriment to my life?” More importantly, have all attempts to try to remedy it led me down a dark alley of anxiety and depression? This is a major part of what is executive functioning. It allows us to take control of our lives when we choose. Those that are challenged by executive functions have tried and their efforts have only been rewarded with anxiety and depression. So sure, the definition of executive functions can be our brain’s mission control with a strong emphasis on the “control” aspect. 

My Own Story with Figuring out What is Executive Functioning

After I had graduated from college, I had an internship working with an executive functioning coach for students on the spectrum. My supervisor sat me down on my first day and asked me “What are executive functions? Do you know?” I had no idea, so he went on to explain each of the different components. Here is a simple breakdown. 

Definition of Executive Functions: The part of our brain that is responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly. They can be broken down into 5 simple parts.

  • Planning & Prioritization: The “To-Do List” Boss
  • Working Memory: Holding Onto Information (like a mental sticky note)
  • Self-Control: The Impulse Zapper
  • Time Management: The Master of Minutes
  • Mental Flexibility: Adapting on the Fly (like a mental switch)

This all made sense to me, but something surprising happened to me as I progressed in my internship. With each “what is executive functioning” explanation, I started to slowly realize that I had none! How did I progress this far in my life and through college without ever making a to-do list. I was super forgetful and did whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I was okay with managing my time and expectations, but definitely not great. As I taught tailored programs to help students build tools to compensate for their executive function deficits, I also began to try to fix myself. I picked up calendaring, making massive lists, setting timers, journaling, and everything under the sun and the moon. No matter how hard I tried to perfect the definition of executive functions, nothing worked for me. I couldn’t get myself to stick to anything.

What Are Executive Functions?!?!? It Finally Clicked for me!

After months of talking about the definition of executive functions with my supervisor and helping students practice them, it finally clicked for me. For myself and all of the students that I have ever worked with during and after my internship, we shared one strong opinion. We all hated all of the tools that we were supposed to use. Planners, timers, chunking, scaffolding, calendars, to-do lists, etc. They all sucked, and they all caused our brain to hurt. At some point, after trying everything that has been thrown at us, we kind of give up and begin to define what is executive functioning in our own terms. We create our own weird ways of getting things done that are specific to us. It wasn’t that the logic behind the usefulness of each tool didn’t make sense, it was that it didn’t make sense to us. The answer to “What are executive functions?” and why can’t I get them is that executive functions work for everyone in their own unique way.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. I think we can all agree that self control is one of the definitions of executive functions we all struggle with at some point in our lives. I had a really hard time staying still and studying without getting on my phone to scroll social media. A two hour studying block would comprise of 25 minutes of actual studying and an hour and a half of YouTube. Friends, family, and professors would all suggest that I go to the library, cafe or join study groups. The idea made sense to me, but I personally didn’t see the point. Why go through the effort of organizing a hang out if we weren’t going to talk. It’s like the question my students ask me: what is executive functioning if it doesn’t actually work for me? Let me tell you 🙂

The summer of my first year at UCLA, I went on a study date with a cute girl from my ochem class. After about 25 minutes of blasting music into my ears, I had finally finished studying. My date didn’t believe me, so she quizzed me. To her surprise, I got everything right. I had found my answer to mastering the definition of executive functions. Well back then, I didn’t know what executive functions were. I just had a tingling feeling that I carried with me to solve my self control challenges: earned praise. Studying in a group setting and doing a really good job results in praise from people you want praise from aka the cute ochem girl.

What is Executive Functioning Coaching and Why Does It Work?

Okay, so you might be asking yourself what is executive functioning coaching and does it even work? It kind of sounds like these are tools that we sort of figure out through trial and error. I don’t disagree, these cheat codes are figured out at some point. However, most of the time we don’t even realize something is working, and we definitely aren’t able to adapt it. After 10+ years of being an EF coach, I have found myself helping students find the answers to what are executive functions “to them.” The reason why our firm has a tailored, one-on-one approach is for this specific reason. The definition of executive functions can be broadly defined, but they will mean nothing to someone that struggles with these challenges unless it is conveyed specifically to their struggles. 

I don’t think it would take a genius to figure out that a teenage boy will be motivated by the girl of his dreams. Still, it wasn’t until years later when my own supervisor defined this as “earned praise” did I start to adapt it to the rest of my life. In order for me to master the definition of executive functions called self-control, I had to put myself in public environments. Whenever I find myself procrastinating, I would go to a cafe, drink caffeine, and say I have to outwork everyone. Really show them who’s boss. Then, I would go home and proudly high five that cute ochem girl and proclaim “I did it!” So, if you are struggling to figure out what is executive functioning to you then try working with myself or one of my coaches. It might just be the answer to figuring it out.

Have you ever had that ‘aha!’ moment where everything finally made sense? We can help you find it. Discover how to harness your unique strengths and overcome executive function challenges. Your breakthrough is waiting. Book your free session now. Contact Executive Functions Coach for help.

Executive Functions Coach

Get Help Developing & Honing Executive Functions Skills​

Elevate your executive functioning with a free consultation. Schedule yours today.

Executive Functions Coach

Level up your metacognition and unlock the tools to improve your organization, planning, time management, and so much more. Our expert executive function coaches will guide you towards a better understanding of yourself and provide you with invaluable skills. Don’t miss out on this opportunity for personal growth.

©2023 Executive Functions Coach. Privacy Policy.