What is Executive Dysfunction?

shirtless man with executive dysfunction deciding what jeans to wear

Last Updated on

May 1st, 2024 05:19 pm

We’ve all got that family member who’s seen as a ditherer, lazy or forgetful. But these are all negative terms used to describe a lack of executive function. And, chances are if you don’t know someone like that, then it’s probably yourself.

But it might surprise you to know that executive dysfunction isn’t restricted to those who lack cognitive function such as dementia patients. It can affect anyone at any time.what is executive dysfunction

So what is executive dysfunction and what causes it in such a variety of people? Let’s take a closer look and see what we can uncover.

What is Executive Dysfunction?

Executive dysfunction, or Executive Function Deficit Disorder as it’s also known, is a condition that affects the frontal lobes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It affects the ability to plan, organize, and complete tasks. These are categorized as executive function skills that affect our everyday lives in some way.

It can be caused by damage to the brain or by medication side effects. Symptoms can include difficulty starting tasks, difficulty completing tasks, difficulty following directions, forgetfulness, and disorganization.

This cognitive impairment can in some cases affect inhibitory control. This means that your impulses are stronger than your will. In other words, you’re more likely to act on impulse rather than think about the consequences of your actions.

What are the Signs of Executive Dysfunction?

Executive dysfunction can manifest as difficulty with planning, organizing, problem-solving, initiating tasks, completing tasks, and self-monitoring. Other common symptoms include poor judgment, difficulty with multitasking, and trouble with shifting focus.

There are many symptoms of executive dysfunction. These include:

Memory Loss

Memory loss is common in those who struggle with executive function skills. They may have trouble remembering appointments, names, phone numbers, and other important information. They may also have trouble recalling where they put things or forgetting what they were doing just moments before.

Loss of memory in ADHD comes down to a number of factors. The hippocampus is responsible for short term memory while the amygdala is responsible for long term memory, and in people with ADHD, chemical imbalance can cause disruptions.

The hippocampus is located near the temporal lobe and plays an integral role in learning new information. When this part of the brain is damaged or there’s a chemical imbalance, it leads to problems with memory retention.

Difficulty With Attention

People with executive dysfunction often have trouble focusing on one thing at a time. They may find themselves distracted easily, unable to concentrate, and constantly switching between tasks. Conversely, this also means that people with ADHD can also hyperfocus on one task for prolonged periods of time.

Problems with attention can occur when the prefrontal cortex is not functioning properly. There are two parts to the prefrontal cortex; the anterior and posterior portions. The anterior portion controls higher level thinking and the posterior portion controls lower level thinking.

Lack of Motivation

Those who suffer from executive dysfunction often find motivation difficult. They may not feel motivated to do anything because they’re unable to initiate tasks or follow through on them. This could lead to procrastination and failure to complete work.

As you’d expect, this can prove detrimental in both the personal and professional lives of someone with ADHD. If you fail to complete assignments or lose interest in projects, you’ll end up failing classes or losing clients.

If you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, you might want to consider consulting with a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in treating ADHD. They can help you develop strategies to address these issues.

Difficulty With Decision Making

Those who struggle with executive dysfunction may make decisions based on emotions rather than facts. They may act impulsively without thinking about consequences. This can cause problems when making choices for themselves or others.

For example, if you’re trying to decide whether or not to go out with your friends tonight, you might be tempted to say yes even though you know you should stay home instead. This type of decision making is called emotional reasoning. It occurs when we reason emotionally instead of rationally.

Emotional reasoning is a symptom of executive dysfunction. People with ADHD tend to rely more heavily on their feelings than their logic when making decisions. 

Problems With Organization

People with executive dysfunction may have trouble keeping track of events at work and in their personal lives. They may lose items, misplace papers, and fail to pay bills on time. They may also experience difficulties with prioritizing tasks and commitments.

Erratic Behavior

When people with executive dysfunction attempt to complete a task, they may exhibit erratic behavior. For example, they may start several projects but never finish any of them. Or, they may get distracted easily and constantly change course.

woman has her head in a shopping bag looking for something she has lost
Executive Dysfunction is the reason why you keep losing your keys!

Time Management Issues

Many people with executive dysfunction have issues managing time effectively. They may have trouble getting started on tasks, finishing tasks, and staying organized. They may also have difficulty setting priorities and sticking to them.

Poor Impulse Control

People who struggle with executive dysfunction may find it difficult to focus, remember details, stay organized, and switch from one task to another. They may also have difficulty controlling their emotions and be frustrated easily.

Additionally, people with executive function issues may often do “fun” activities instead of work that needs to be completed, lose items frequently, and make decisions without thinking about the consequences. Lastly, they may have difficulty with social interactions, not listening when others are talking, and interrupting conversations.

What Causes Executive Dysfunction in the Brain?

There are a variety of causes for executive function issues. Some are neurological events that trigger changes in the prefrontal cortex, while others are neurodevelopmental disorders from birth. Some examples include:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Co-Morbidity

As well as ADHD, executive function may be affected by other comorbid mental health conditions, such as addiction or bipolar disorder. Such co-morbidity is common in neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD, since many of these conditions are affected by changes in the same parts of the brain.

Geriatric Depression

Executive dysfunction can also be caused by developmental disabilities such as geriatric depression as a result of old age. Very often, the onset of late-life depression comes from bereavement. But it can also be caused by other degenerative diseases and conditions that affect the frontal cortex.

Brain Injuries

Brain injuries can trigger these symptoms in patients who have suffered conditions such as Aphasia as the result of a stroke. Functioning skills can suddenly disappear in the healthiest of adults overnight, and complex tasks become a challenge.

Many things can interfere with executive functioning, including distractions, stress, and fatigue. When someone is experiencing executive dysfunction, their ability to think and engage in flexible thinking is impaired. This makes it difficult for them to complete tasks that they would normally be able to do easily.

How is Executive Dysfunction Treated?

Executive dysfunction can significantly impair daily functioning. However, there are treatments available that can help improve symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often effective, as is treatment for ADHD if it is the underlying cause of executive dysfunction. There are also self-tests available to help people determine if they might be suffering from issues with cognitive function.

Examples of treatment options include:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This type of therapy helps individuals learn new ways of coping with life challenges. CBT focuses on identifying negative thoughts and behaviors, learning how to change those thought patterns, and using this information to develop new strategies for dealing with problems.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists use tools and exercises to help patients regain control over their lives. For example, occupational therapists may teach patients how to organize their homes, set up systems, and plan ahead. It tends to be most common in trauma patients, such as those who’ve had a stroke or brain injury in an accident.

Daily Life Coping Strategies

Training in compensatory strategies can also help for those where CBT doesn’t work. Having support from an ADHD coach for example can help with organizing time. An ADHD coach will help you understand your strengths and weaknesses, and then provide you with tips and tricks to overcome obstacles. They’ll also give you suggestions about what activities you should focus on during the day.


Some medications can help boost certain aspects of executive function. These include stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall which can help with focus and attention. Other drugs, such as antidepressants, can help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Be sure to check these with a medical professional, of course.

Depression is a common side effect of executive dysfunction. Many people with ADHD experience depression as well. In fact, some studies show that children with ADHD are three times more likely to suffer from depression than kids without the disorder, so seeking help from a professional is a must.

Exercise and Physical Activity

Especially in those with geriatric depression, getting a good amount of exercise and physical activity is good for the brain. It boosts serotonin and keeps those neurotransmitter systems happy and healthy. For those of us with ADHD, exercise is very much a love-hate relationship. 

If you struggle with the concept of going to the gym three times a week, why not try dance classes or an unusual sport like roller derby? The benefits of exercise are huge, so it’s important to find something that works for your own body and mind, not somebody else’s.


Some common strategies that people use to cope with executive dysfunction include organizational aids, medication, therapy, mindfulness training, and assistive devices.

You can try most of these strategies at home, but if you can, it’s worth working with a therapist to determine which strategies will work best for you.

How is Executive Dysfunction Diagnosed?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, as the prognosis for someone with executive dysfunction will vary depending on the individual’s specific situation. However, some factors that can influence the prognosis include the severity of the injury to the frontal lobes in the prefrontal cortex, and how long it has been since the injury occurred, and whether any rehabilitation strategies have been put in place.

It is important to remember that executive dysfunction is just one aspect of a person’s overall cognitive functioning. Thus, other deficits such as language difficulties or memory problems must also be taken into account when assessing their ability to return to work or school. Every neurodivergent individual exhibits differences in cognitive ability and complex tasks.

A neuropsychologist will usually carry out an assessment of executive function skills after brain injury in order to gauge the severity of any issues and identify any potential rehabilitation strategies that may be helpful. It is important for caregivers of someone with traumatic brain injury and their family members to cope with the situation optimally, as there may be difficulties associated with this type of injury.

Take Steps to Improve your Cognitive Function and Memory Capacity

The most important thing to do is to take steps to improve your cognitive function and memory capacity. If you suffer from executive dysfunction, then you should take steps to lead a healther lifestyle as well as seek professional help.

Irrelevant of the diagnosis of a condition, there are many services such as Access to Work in the UK that can offer support in the workplace, or in the case of other services, in your home life too. That way, you can get back to living life to the fullest.

For more information keep reading and see what else you can uncover today!

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Rob Butler
30-Something Millennial with ADHD and suspected Autistic and Dyspraxic. Thought leader behind this website. Big visions of a better future for everyone, but forgets where he is half the time.Loves Rugby, his kids, and anything silly. Hates U2 and Marmite.

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