Executive Function: What is it and How Can it Affect Your Success?

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Executive Function: What is it and How Can it Affect Your Success?
by Freda Deskin, Ph. D.

Over the past few years, research has shown us just how important executive function (EF) is in success in business and life. Some believe EF is more important than IQ or EQ (emotional quotient). Both are important, but they serve different purposes and measure different abilities. IQ, or intelligence quotient, measures a person’s overall cognitive abilities and potential for learning, while executive function is a specific set of cognitive skills critical for goal-directed behavior and decision-making.

Executive function is considered to be particularly important in daily life as it allows individuals to plan, prioritize, regulate their behavior and emotions, and make decisions. On the other hand, IQ can indicate a person’s ability to learn, understand, and apply information, which is important for academic and professional success.

It is not accurate to say that one is more important than the other, as IQ and executive function are important in different contexts. A high IQ may not necessarily translate to good executive function skills and vice versa. IQ and executive function can be developed and improved, and combining both can lead to greater success in many areas of life.

Executive function is a set of critical cognitive skills for goal-directed behavior and decision-making. It is the ability to regulate one’s behavior and thoughts to achieve a desired outcome. The concept of executive function was first introduced in the 1970s and has since been widely researched and discussed in psychology and neuroscience.

Executive functions are thought to be located in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region responsible for higher-level thinking and decision-making. These functions play a vital role in our daily lives, influencing our ability to focus, prioritize tasks, plan, and make decisions.

The primary components of executive function include:

Working memory: the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind for a short period of time.
Inhibition: the capacity to control impulsive behavior and delay gratification.
Emotional regulation: the ability to control and manage emotional responses.
Cognitive flexibility: the capacity to adjust to changing situations and switch between tasks or mental sets.
Planning and problem-solving: the ability to organize thoughts and actions to achieve a goal.

Executive function skills develop rapidly during childhood and continue to mature into adolescence and adulthood. Impairments in executive function can significantly impact daily life, including difficulties with attention, impulse control, decision-making, and problem-solving.

Various techniques can improve executive function, such as mindfulness meditation, physical exercise, and cognitive training programs. It can also enhance executive function by building good habits, such as developing a consistent sleep schedule, staying organized, and avoiding distractions.

In conclusion, executive function is a complex set of cognitive skills that play a crucial role in our daily lives. Understanding and enhancing these skills can improve our ability to make decisions, regulate behavior, and achieve goals.

Examples of Good Executive Function:

Being able to stay focused on a task despite distractions
Planning and prioritizing tasks effectively to meet a deadline
Being able to regulate emotions during a stressful situation
Flexibly adjusting to changes in plans or unexpected events
Making well-thought-out decisions based on the consideration of multiple options

Examples of Poor Executive Function:

Struggling to stay focused on a task and easily getting distracted.
Having difficulty organizing and completing tasks in a timely manner
Impulsive behavior, such as making hasty decisions without considering the consequences
Struggling to adapt to changes and sticking rigidly to plans
Difficulty regulating emotions and being easily overwhelmed in stressful situations.

It’s important to note that everyone experiences difficulties with executive function at some point in their lives, and it’s not a reflection of intelligence or overall functioning. However, persistent difficulties with executive function can impact daily life and may indicate underlying neurological or psychiatric conditions.

A person’s level of executive function can be determined by normed assessments that can be found on the Internet. Businesses are beginning to administer these assessments to potential employees and future leaders within their companies. Even students can now assess and have a plan for improving their EF.


3 Comments for : Executive Function: What is it and How Can it Affect Your Success?
    • Paul Moore
    • February 20, 2023

    Freda, this is very helpful information. Thank you for sharing it. Those raising children need to understand executive function. ADHD and other factors can have substantial effects on executive function.

    • Nancy Hyde
    • February 20, 2023

    Very interesting! Thank you for sharing!

    • Bart binning
    • February 20, 2023

    Fascinating discussion.
    As many know, I have had several strokes with a small spot in each of the 4 quadrants of my brain. After my last stroke, I was informed that my decision making ability might be impaired – I guess this is an executive function impairment.

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