What is Executive (Dys)Function?
Hey everyone, I’m the Endy Enby, and today I’m gonna be talking about executive dysfunction, which isn’t unique to neurodivergent folks. Lots of people deal with different levels and different frequencies of executive dysfunction at one time or another, thanks to things like depression, stress, or, like in my case, neurodivergency. But, to understand executive dysfunction, let’s first quickly talk about what executive function is.
Executive function is the ability to do the things that are supposed to set humans apart from other species, like remember things in detail, exercise self-control over our survival-brain instincts, and do complex tasks. Basically, the things that help you…function, at least in a way that’s expected by our dominant society and culture. A lot of executive function is managed by the prefrontal cortex, so when you have a disorder that affects the development of the prefrontal cortex, like ADHD…it can be a lot harder to do those things. That’s why I said supposed to set humans apart; obviously humans with executive dysfunction are still human, so take that, evolutionary psychologists!
Issues with executive function can make it harder to remember things, manage your time well, start and finish tasks, plan things out, pretty much anything that takes energy. Asking someone with executive dysfunction to “just do it” when they don’t have it in them is like if I asked you to fly. You probably could with enough effort, but at what cost? It can even affect tasks that seem outwardly simple, like emptying the dishwasher. You’re going to hear me use the example of emptying the dishwasher a LOT. That’s because that was always one of my chores, as long as I can remember, and I hated it. I would put off this five minute task for hours and it drove my mom up a wall, how much I would seemingly procrastinate it and how much I would complain about doing it. It was one of the first things I realized was affected by my lack of executive functioning.
And the world isn’t built to support people who don’t have consistent levels of executive function. At school or work, you might be able to take time off or get some leeway with work if you get physically sick, but most people won’t understand if you say “I literally just can’t do this right now.” They’ll think you’re being lazy or whiny, or just making excuses; you could do this task just fine yesterday, why can’t you do it now? And trust me, on low-function days, I ask myself the same thing. But my brain just isn’t equipped to handle all the same things in the same ways that a neurotypical world expects of me.
And when your job, your relationships, your family, your friendships, school, all expect you to be able to just “push through bad days” as they see it, executive dysfunction can harm not only your standing and satisfaction in those areas, but your own self-esteem. When you compare yourself to coworkers without executive dysfunction, even if you know you’re just as capable and hard-working as they are, you start to doubt yourself, and your ability to keep up in the “real world.” So executive dysfunction can be pretty impactful.
Buttons and Spoons and Forks, Oh My!
There are a lot of different ways to explain what it’s like to have limited physical, mental, emotional, and social functioning to people that have never really had to deal with limits on those. The most common one I see is Spoon Theory. It was coined by Christine Miserandino to describe how living with Lupus means she has to plan out her day, knowing she only has so much energy to do what she wants and needs for the day. For example, you might have 12 spoons in an average day. Showering might take a spoon. Taking meds and eating breakfast, another spoon. Socializing at work, that’s three spoons. It’s not an exact measure, spoons aren’t a scientific measure of energy after all, but it is a decent tool to explain how limiting disability can be. You still can have a very fulfilling life, you just have to do some planning, and recognize your own limitations.
Now, while I have been known to say “I don’t have the spoons for this” when I’m too emotionally exhausted for something, Spoon Theory never quite fit for me. Some days I could have 2 spoons, some I could have 200 and I won’t know until I wake up. Some days a task takes one spoon, another day it may take five. I may think a task is gonna take me one spoon, but it ends up taking five. This is true for anyone who uses Spoon Theory, but I just feel too variable for it to encompass my whole experience with executive dysfunction. It just doesn’t always feel like a practical way for me to describe my own experiences, and that’s ok.
Fork Theory was coined as a parallel to Spoon Theory by Jen Rose; instead of starting the day with a number of spoons that you lose with every task, you start the day off shiny and new (assuming you slept ok) and as the day goes on, you get stabbed with forks. It’s a play on the phrase, “stick a fork in me, I’m done;” get enough forks in ya, and you’re just. Done. Whether that means snapping at someone or going to bed or whatever else. It’s harder to measure and explain than spoons. But if you got stabbed with a fork multiple times, you’d probably get more and more irritated each time it happens.
Some events can be a small fork, while others are like a pitchfork; the same event could even have different impacts on different days (and the number of fork-related “injuries” sustained). I can’t empty the dishwasher right now, because I just got off a Zoom call for work and I need to recover from that fork wound for a bit. Maybe I can’t recover today and it needs to wait till tomorrow. So this one I feel is good for explaining irritability and exhaustion, especially since I can lay down, rest, recollect myself, recover from a fork wound, even midday.
Sometimes people combine these two to make Spork Theory, but even with Spork Theory, I felt like there were parts missing. What about when I haven’t expended any spoons or received any forks, but I still can’t bring myself to do something? What about the days where I have plenty of energy and plenty of things to do, but I just can’t force myself to do them? That’s where Buttons come in.
This is another great example from ADHD Alien. The Alien didn’t cook breakfast, and the (presumably) neurotypical boyfriend can’t understand why the Alien didn’t just. Cook. Pina explained that even if she wanted to cook, it was like the stove didn’t have the buttons to turn it on. No amount of wishing is gonna make those buttons appear. Some things can help, like external pressure, social support, deadlines, meds, but sometimes, you can do all the right things and there just. Aren’t buttons. Neurotypical people without executive dysfunction have a whole lot of buttons. They may not always press all of them, but they’re there when they need them. It’s like they’re a fancy 11-function Instant Pot, and I’m a 20 dollar rice cooker with a single button that doesn’t always work.
Feel free to use whichever of these models makes the most sense to you, or combine all of them. I think all of them have a place in understanding my own executive dysfunction, and why I behave the way I do sometimes. Maybe I can’t talk in a staff meeting because I’ve done too much and I’m out of spoons for the day. Maybe I snapped at someone because I just dealt with too many forks and couldn’t deal with more. Maybe I can’t start a paper even if I have spoons and forks to spare because there’s just no button; if it helps, imagine the “create file” button is literally missing.
I will get stuck, for hours, because I can’t bring myself to start a task, any task. “I know I have to start this paper, but I can’t, so let me go do something I enjoy, but I can’t do something I enjoy because I feel bad about not doing what I’m supposed to be doing so I guess I’ll stare at a wall.” This might sound like an exaggeration but it unfortunately is not. All that because I couldn’t move my hand on the mouse and click to open a document? It sounds ludicrous, right? And I felt that way too, I still do a lot of the time. I feel like I should just be able to. Do it. But sometimes I just don’t have it in me. I have a different capacity for different things than other people, even from myself from day to day. There are some days where even microwaving food feels like too much work, so I just go hungry. It’s not laziness, it can even keep me from doing things I enjoy, like gaming or baking.
Ok. I know I’m throwing a lot at you. If you need to, take a break, process Spoons, Forks, and Buttons, reread or listen to sections, and come back when you’re ready.
Welcome back y’all. There’s one more part to my kitchen drawer of executive function theories, and I don’t think it has a name like the others, if someone before me has an official name for this, please let me know in the comments on my website. I call it Mountains/Molehills. I apologise for all the different analogies, but I wanted to cover my bases, and now you have options!
I’m not sure exactly what made me consider it, but at one point, I realized that I broke down tasks differently than my mom. Whereas she saw emptying the dishwasher as one task, “empty dishwasher,” I saw it as a lot more. I saw it as, “stop what I’m doing, get up, go to dishwasher, open it, empty top rack, empty bottom rack, empty silverware thing, put those things away, match all the plastic containers to their lids, make sure they’re dry before putting them away…” you get the idea. It wasn’t a conscious process, but it was how my brain broke it down. No wonder I found the dishwasher so much harder than my mom. She saw it as one task, I saw it as a double-digit number of tasks!
I asked Penaz, my reference Italian who does all the back-end coding for my website, to list the number of steps in simply making pasta. He listed 5. I listed 28. Every task has so many more steps to me, so it makes them seem very daunting before I do them, and more exhausting as I go. But all those extra steps can be used to my advantage.
How I Cope with Executive Dysfunction
Continuing with this “too many steps” example. This was one of the first ADHD coping mechanisms I found that I was like, “holy shit this actually works for me,” unlike Pomodoros that I get distracted during, or planners that gather dust after a month. Small molehill tasks seem like mountains to me. Mountain tasks seem like even bigger mountains. But, when you break a task into it’s smallest parts, you can make those mountains into molehills. We’ve all had that “this is too big, I don’t know where to start” moment, and the “just pick something” advice isn’t always helpful because the task is just too big, so no matter where you start, you just feel overwhelmed by it.
What I started doing was letting myself do as much as I could muster, and stop when I needed to. I see “just power through and get it done” a lot, and that doesn’t work for me. If it does for you, awesome. But if I’ve got this 10-step task ahead of me, doing one or two steps makes it much more bearable. I know I’m not committing to doing it all right now, I’m only committing to what I can do, and it’s ok if what I can do seems minimal to someone else. This started with the dishwasher. I started emptying the top rack, and leaving to go do something else. Then, the next time I was in the kitchen, I’d do the bottom rack. The second time I went back, it wasn’t as daunting because I knew it was already half done. It’s so much easier for me to say to myself, “just put away a few glasses” than to say “just empty the dishwasher.”
I suddenly have lots of little molehills instead of a big mountain, and I can go recharge between molehills. Plus, since I’m someone that doesn’t like doing the same thing for too long, unless I’m hyperfocusing, bouncing between molehills keeps me from burning out or getting bored. I don’t have a problem with feeling like I left the mountain task “unfinished;” in fact, I’m proud of myself for getting over a molehill, and I end up thanking my past self for doing some of the work already. I get even more little pats-on-the-back. Need to clean your room? Try doing it for 30 seconds. I’m not even joking. You can make progress, and you’re not committing to a daunting task, like “cleaning your room,” you’re committing to “tidy for half a minute.”
I’ve started applying this to everything. Bring the laundry downstairs now, put it in later. Then the next time I think about my laundry, it’s ready to go, and I don’t have to worry about having a “carry basket downstairs” Button, or enough Spoons or Forks. Just make the Google Doc with the header and come back to it. Then later, I don’t have to make a document and Google APA format (again), I can just get right into writing. Hell, I even wrote this episode that way! And I often find myself getting carried away once I do start. I was just planning to put in the notes about the origins of Spoon and Fork Theory, and then I wrote like half the thing! In bed! On my phone!
Going hand-in-hand with that, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. You don’t have to do something all at once, and you don’t have to do it perfectly. In a lot of cases, doing a bad job is better than not doing it all. Turn in a bad paper and get a 50, that’s better for your GPA than a 0 from not turning it in at all. Perfectionism is hard to let go of, but doing a task and accepting that it won’t be perfect can take a lot of the pressure off. And you hold yourself to a higher standard than outside observers do, anyway.
That’s my biggest coping mechanism with executive dysfunction, making molehills out of mountains, but there are lots of others that help me in other ways too. Since I have trouble with my memory, keeping my meds on my desk helps me to remember to take them; if I don’t see something, I will forget it exists. This includes food, so I try to not keep my fridge too cluttered so that I don’t “lose” anything in it and find spinach I forgot about 2 week later only because it was starting to make the fridge smell. Putting a keyhook up helps too; granted, I have to remember to put the key on the hook, but it does help to be able to see it and know where it is. I’ve also tried the Post-It notes on the wall thing for visual stimulus, but eventually they just fade into the background and I start to forget about them, but it might work for you. Make stuff easy to see and easy to access. Any step you can remove can help you, and any extra step you add could keep you from doing something when your functioning is low.
Body-doubling is also something I find useful. This can be either finding someone to work on a task with you, or to just keep you accountable on a task. If I need to clean my room, I have an easier time of it if I can talk to someone while I do it. I’ll see if I can get someone on a Zoom call while I study, or ask my roommate to make sure that I eat and drink water. I cannot overemphasize the importance of asking for help when you need it. If you can’t get up to get water, get your meds, get food, and there’s someone who can do that stuff for you, there is no shame in asking, and that can help give you a leg up on your executive dysfunction.
There’s also apps that can help keep you accountable with executive function things too. I started using this app called Plant Nanny (not sponsored) that guilts me into drinking water (which I will otherwise forget to do) because I will kill an adorable plant if I do not. Everything goes on my Google calendar. If I’m making an appointment, I will not get off the phone until the appointment is in my calendar. I have to accept that I will forget things; “I’ll be able to remember this!” is a trap, do not fall for it. I also use my phone’s assistant to set reminders, take voice memos, transcribe texts, and more.
There’s also the executive function things that can be a little less accessible, like therapy or medication; obviously those are great if you can get them, but I know they’re not accessible to everyone. But I will say my executive dysfunction isn’t as bad on medication. As long as I also drink water. Taking care of your body is an important part of maintaining executive function too. My executive function gets worse when I’m dehydrated (hence the plant app) which happens a lot.
Finally, this is going to sound cheesy, but the biggest thing that helps me deal with my executive dysfunction is…accepting that I have executive dysfunction. There’s a lot of argument over “is ADHD a disability, is it not, does disability define you,” so on and so on, but for me, recognizing how debilitating my executive dysfunction can be helped me to accept and deal with it. Before, if I couldn’t do something because my brain just wouldn’t let me, I would get frustrated with myself for not being better. Why was I like this? Why couldn’t I just do it like everyone else seemed to be able to? But now, I’m much gentler with myself when it comes to my executive dysfunction. I’m not as ashamed to ask for help. It helps to keep me from spiraling and making my depression and executive dysfunction worse. Nothing is going to make my executive dysfunction go away entirely, and fighting that fact is just gonna make me feel worse.
I hope that at least some of these tips are useful for you, or that you learned a little more about executive dysfunction. If so, please consider supporting me on Patreon or Ko-Fi. I would love to be able to get a better mic to record for y’all, and you get ad-free episodes at any sub level on the Patreon! If you have more tips on how to cope with executive dysfunction, questions about what executive dysfunction is, etc, drop a comment on my website where the transcript for this episode will be. Until then, I’m the Endy Enby, and I’ll talk y’all soon.Like this content? Share it!