Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 19, 2020

What’s Executive Function?

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Executive function (EF) is a set of basic, important mental skills. They regulate how you process information, remember, make decisions, react to situations, and manage time. Problems with EF can affect your self-control, focus, and relationships. Symptoms look similar to those of ADHD but can be due to many things, including genetics, depression, brain injury, and medications. It doesn’t have anything to do with how intelligent you are.

Lose or Misplace Things

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Do you seem to always forget where you left your cellphone or keys? Losing or misplacing items is a common executive function problem. You may be disorganized. You can’t keep track of your things. You may forget to bring a file to a work meeting or to grab your jacket on a cold day.

Can’t Tell or Remember a Story

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EF problems can affect how you remember names or events. You may have trouble when you tell someone a story or email them about an issue. You may forget important details. Or you jumble the order of how things happened.

Can’t Multitask or Get Started

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Do you have trouble when you have to juggle tasks or start a new project at work? You might often seem overwhelmed. Executive function helps us organize thoughts and time. If you have EF problems, you may struggle to plan long-term projects, get started, or multitask at the office or around the house.

Ants in Your Pants

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Do you find it hard to settle down? EF problems may make you feel as if you’re in a rush as you move from one task to the next. You’re easily distracted when you try to do anything. You’re impatient and can’t wait your turn in line.

Always Late

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People with executive function problems don’t manage their time or tasks very well. You’re always running late to work or social events like dinner at a restaurant. Your friends or family think you’re disorganized, a poor planner, or just rude.

Lose Your Train of Thought

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EF problems may mean you can’t stay focused on a task or a conversation. You don’t pay attention when someone else is talking to you. You often can’t concentrate, and you get distracted by what’s going on around you. Your mind wanders.

Read the Same Page Over and Over

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You may have an executive function problem if you can’t retain any information. You may read a page in a book without remembering what you just read. You tend to flip back and read the same passages over and over.

Can’t Finish a Task

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Do you sometimes feel stuck? Not being able to finish tasks and then go to the next item on your to-do list is one executive function problem. You may not be able to judge how long it takes to complete something. And you may leave projects unfinished.

More Than One Step Is Too Many

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People with executive function problems may be overwhelmed by tasks with lots of steps. You can’t remember long directions or instructions. You may not know how to decide what step to do first or what’s most important.

Can’t Remember Anything

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One of your executive functions is working memory. That’s when you hold pieces of information in your mind so you can use it to complete a task. You might forget the date of an event as you go to write it on your calendar, or you might not be able to recall how to use a program at work that you’ve used a zillion times.

Poor Impulse or Emotional Control

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Executive function problems can also affect how you feel. You may have mood swings often. You may not be able to keep your emotions in check. You’re impulsive. You interrupt and blurt things out when other people are talking.

Messy and Cluttered

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Is your closet cluttered? Can’t find what you need because your desk at work is covered in piles of paper? Your executive function problems may mean you don’t organize your home or workspace very well. You’re messy.

Miss Deadlines

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When you have executive function problems, you may not be able to set or follow a schedule. You miss deadlines all the time at work. You’re just that person who doesn’t follow through when something needs to be done.

Why Is Everyone Else Upset?

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Executive function problems may affect how you monitor your behavior. You may forget that next week is your mom’s birthday party. But you don’t process why this makes your family or friends upset. You can’t measure your behavior against what’s normal.

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