Why Are Executive Functions Important?
When it comes to the question “why are executive functions important?” I think Harvard summarizes it the best.
“A new evidence base has identified a set of skills that are essential for school achievement, for the preparation and adaptability of our future workforce, and for avoiding a wide range of population health problems.”
The statement by Harvard’s center for developing children is pretty heavy. It seems understanding the importance of executive functions will solve all of our world’s problems. Will helping our children develop executive functioning strategies at a young age be the solution to global warming, world hunger, violence, etc? I would argue that it wouldn’t hurt. However before I dive into one of my favorite topics, let’s understand what executive functions are.
Understanding Working Memory, Self-control, and Mental Flexibility
If we search the internet to find the answer to our question of “why are executive functions important?”, we are generally left with three key takeaways: working memory, self-control, and mental flexibility. I know; there are tons of blogs out there talking about 7 executive functions, 8, 9, 5, etc. However, when it comes down to it, they are all essentially covered by these three main skills. Before I dive into it, I want to emphasize that each one of us has the potential to use executive functioning strategies to develop and strengthen these skills. Some of us might need more support than others, but these are possible for everyone. Let’s start with understanding working memory.
Working memory as defined by Harvard governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time. This sounds like it is pretty important, but a little complicated, let’s put some context around it. When it comes to working memory, I think about comprehension and execution of instructions. Have you ever had to read instructions over and over again and not really know what the next step is or how to get started? This is a perfect example of our working memory pulling a brain fart. When we read instructions, our executive functions should ideally take the information, break it down into its components, and understand how to go from start to finish. Simple executive functioning strategies include creating a list, reading and summarizing, and breaking down the instructions into your own steps (most of the time, smaller steps).
Moving onto self-control, Harvard again defines this as a skill that enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses. I think almost everyone can relate to this. Having self-regulation skills is what prevents us from overeating, sticking to a schedule, meeting deadlines, and staying accountable to those around us. Some simple executive functioning strategies include creating a calendar, setting timers, creating and tracking goals, and journaling.
Lastly, we have mental flexibility defined by Harvard as a skill that helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings. Have you ever felt very frustrated about a situation because it didn’t go as planned? Or have you ever been in a situation where you really want to focus on one topic, but it “appears” that your focus is needed elsewhere. I put appears in quotes because to you, you could care less about the elsewhere. Our mental flexibility is what helps shift our attention away to refocus and adapt. Executive functioning strategies could include scenario building, pros and cons list, setting strict schedules, and perspective building.
So Why Are Executive Functions Important?
Now that we understand what executive functions are, let’s revisit our original question of “why are executive functions important?” In my perspective, developing these skills helps us build mental resilience. In today’s age of social networking platforms, we are able to communicate and reach millions of people with a single post. We are able to create, influence, and exact change. Having executive functioning strategies on hand helps create a generation of individuals that can function effectively and successfully in such a dynamic world. Working memory will help us take in information, digest it, and come up with a plan on how we want to use that information. Self-control will allow us to stick to our goals, prioritizing the ones that are important for our success. It will equip us with the self-regulation skills needed to start and finish a task. And mental flexibility will equip us to manage the dynamic relationships that we will inevitably encounter and flourish because of it. So why do I focus on mental resilience? We live in a world where there are endless opportunities as long as they are seized and real hard work is put into them. The executive functions strategies that we have customized to our own lives will serve as our mental resilience to weather the ups and downs. So why are executive functions important, it helps us progress one step at a time.