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What are the 12 Executive
Functioning Skills?


If you're wondering what executive functioning is, jump over here first!


Now that you know what executive functioning is, you may be curious what the executive function skills are.

Executive functioning skills have been split up in many ways, from as few as 3 to as many as 40! I've found that splitting them into buckets in the low-middle of that range minimizes the number of skills to learn while also providing enough specificity that improvements can be made and monitored in a precise and synchronous way. 

For that reason, I have found Peg Dawson EdD, and Richard Guare, PhD delineation of executive functioning skills into 12 buckets to be the most helpful, and I've paraphrased their list below.

Response Inhibition

This is the ability to think before you act: Resisting the urge to say or do something gives you time to evaluate how your response will impact the situation.

  • If you're strong in this skill, you are often calm during arguments, and consider your words and actions.

  • If you're weak in this skill, you may find yourself putting your proverbial foot in your mouth and making snap decisions without considering all of the ramifications.

Working Memory

This is the capacity to hold information in your memory while working on complex tasks. It includes incorporating knowledge or experience from the past to apply to present or future tasks.

  • If you're strong in this skill, you have no problem remembering things you need to do or commitments/appointments you've made. You can easily remember details and important information from the people in your life.

  • If you're weak in this skill, you are very forgetful. You may lose track of critical competing information (such as forgetting about a doctor's appointment because of an emergency at work) or minor obligations (like a short homework assignment or picking up milk on the way home).

Emotional Control

The ability to manage emotions with the purpose of completing tasks and goals, or directing behavior.

  • If you're strong in this skill, you can keep your calm in stressful situations and emergencies (think of an EMT).

  • If you're weak in this skill, you may find that when you're experiencing small-to-medium emotions, it's difficult or impossible for you to engage in tasks that you need to accomplish.

Task Initiation

The ability to begin a task in a timely and efficient manner without much procrastination.

  • If you're strong in this skill, you can easily and without much emotional struggle begin tasks right away, in fact you prefer to begin tasks right then. You don't need deadlines to motivate you.

  • If you're weak in this skill, you find yourself putting things off for any number of reasons (perfectionism, the task appears too daunting, etc.). You are a chronic procrastinator!

Sustained Attention

This is the capacity to keep your attention on a situation or task, regardless of how bored, tired, or distractible you feel.

  • If you're strong in this skill, you are able to continue through until a task is finished no matter how you feel about that task. You are able to defer gratification and screen out distractions.

  • If you're weak in this skill, you struggle to finish tasks. You are easily distracted and subject to interruptions. You often run out of steam before completing the task and may find yourself toggling between multiple tasks simultaneously.

Planning/Prioritizing

The ability to create a roadmap to the completion of a task or goal. It also includes the capacity to decide the importance level of each task in that roadmap.

  • If you're strong in this skill, you excel at multistep tasks. You can visualize the final outcome and easily sequence the steps needed to get there. When there is a lot of complex information, you can also determine with ease what to focus on and what to disregard.

  • If you're weak in this skill, you have a difficult time sifting through all of the information and determining where to start. You may become bogged down by minor details and forget where you are heading.

Organization

The ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials.

  • If you are strong in this skill, your space looks neat and tidy, as does your mind. Every object, mental or physical, has its place in your space.

  • If you are weak in this skill, you accumulate physical and mental clutter effortlessly, and cleaning it up is painful. Often, you can't locate physical objects in your space.

Time Management

The capacity to estimate how much time one has, how much time it will take to complete a particular task, how to allocate your time, and how to stay within deadlines. It also involves a sense that time is important.

  • If you're strong in this skill, you easily meet deadlines, arrive on time, and accurately judge how long it will take to complete a task. If you're running low on time, you can adjust and speed up your pace.

  • If you're weak in this skill, you have a particularly hard time with time estimation. You routinely underestimate how long it will take to accomplish a task, and may consistently feel the urge to do "just one more thing" before wrapping up in a space.

Flexibility

The ability to revise your plans in the face of change, such as a change in plans, obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes.

  • If you're strong in this skill, you 'go with the flow' and experience little to no distress when unexpected adjustments need to be made.

  • If you're weak in this skill, you feel distress when needing to unexpectedly adjust your plans on the fly.

Metacognition

The ability to stand back and look at oneself with a birds-eye view in a particular situation. It includes observing how you problem solve, self-monitor and self-evaluate (e.g. "How am I doing?" and "How did I do?").

  • If you're strong in this skill, you are able to see the forest and the trees rather than just the trees. You are good at making connections between disparate concepts and experiences.

  • If you're weak in this skill, you tend to have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. You likely don't spend a lot of time in introspection. You also have a hard time "connecting the dots."

Goal-Directed Persistence

The capacity to have a goal, to follow through until completion of the goal, and not to be put off or distracted by competing interests.

  • If you're strong in this skill, you create long-term goals for yourself, pursue them, and put yourself back on track when you lose sight of them. You work to accomplish the goal no matter the obstacles.

  • If you're weak in this skill, you don't set long-term goals and are happy to let the future unfold as it will. This may not bother you — that's totally ok.

Stress Tolerance

The capacity to thrive in stressful situations and to cope with uncertainty and performance demands.

  • If you're high in stress tolerance, you might prefer a lifestyle that includes some amount of unpredictability — jobs where every day is different and there are many opportunities to learn and explore. At the extreme end, you might be called an "adrenalin junky".

  • If you're low in stress tolerance, you like to know what's coming next and prefer it if it's something you're familiar with. You prefer jobs without a lot of pressure.

*Note that the list above was paraphrased from Dawson and Guare's book The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success.

If you want to learn more, hop over to my blog that goes into more detail about a range of topics, including how executive functioning develops, neurobiology of executive functioning, and much more! Or, read a brief overview of executive functioning.

~I want to note that these are skills that are really beneficial to have when living in a capitalist society, if you want to participate in that society under it's rules. Some of these have no bearing on the quality of life of people in non-capitalist societies, such as living in indigenous or some communal structures. Also, some neurodivergent people will find these difficult or impossible to improve, or not want to improve them — that's totally ok. Being good at these does not inherently make you "better" than someone else. They are simply skills you can choose to work on in order to increase the ease with which you engage in a capitalist society and how much you 'fit in' and 'succeed'.~

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