3 Ways to Improve Your Executive Functioning 

by Masa Shah

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive Functioning refers to our cognitive ability to plan, execute, and complete tasks and projects. In other words, it is our ability to break down tasks and evaluate how we can complete them. Having strong executive functioning skills can make life a lot easier, especially in school and work. Research has shown that executive functioning skills are more predictive of career and educational success than IQ (Alloway and Alloway, 2010). People with ADHD especially have trouble with executive functioning skills. Like any skill, practice is essential. Here are three ways you can improve your executive functioning skills: 

1. Learn to Visualize Time 

Your psychology teacher tells you that your essay is due next week. You may think you have seven days to complete the task. However, you don’t take into account that the next couple of days you need to spend time studying for an upcoming test or practicing for your piano recital. How do you effectively visualize your time? 

Utilize a calendar/ planner: Oftentimes we hold a long to-do list in our heads. This can be very taxing to our memory and our energy. We can lighten the load by utilizing a calendar. You can keep a piece of paper or a notebook with you throughout the day and jot down new events/deadlines that arise. Then at the end of your work/school day, take 5 minutes to add these new events/deadlines to your calendar. Calendars are great at helping you prioritize what tasks are most urgent. 

Use a stopwatch: How long did it really take you to read a chapter from your textbook? We may not be aware of how long a task can actually take us to do. Using a stopwatch can allow us to learn about how long it really takes us to complete a task. With this knowledge, we can better plan for future tasks. Also, stopwatches can act as a source of motivation. If your attention begins to wane by 45 minutes, seeing a stopwatch almost reach an hour can motivate you to want to work a little bit longer before taking a break. 
Schedule Your Day: During middle school and high school, we were given strict schedules to abide too. Each hour of the day was accounted for and had a class for us to attend to.  In college and adulthood, we have a lot more liberty. One way you can easily visualize your schedule is by blocking out time. You may want to block time for your classes, your work schedule, your appointments, and even times for breaks and self-care activities. The benefit of doing this is that it allows you to actually see what time you have available to do tasks. However, I do want to emphasize the importance of being realistic. Just because you have three hours available to you to study, does not mean you are going to be able to study for that long. You have to keep into account your energy levels and your mood. 

2. Learn to Break Down Tasks 

Okay, so you planned your day and have all your deadlines in a calendar. You scheduled time to sit and read. But, you can’t get yourself to do it. Certain tasks can be very overwhelming. For instance, reading a dense 40-page chapter after a long day of classes. One way to overcome this is by breaking down large tasks into smaller and more manageable ones. 

There are two ways you can choose to break down a task: input and output. Input is when you break down a task based on how much time you spend on it: I will read for 20 minutes at a time. Output is when you break down a task based on how much of it you complete: I will read 15 pages at a time. Breaking down tasks by utilizing both methods allows for flexibility and clarity. For instance, your goal for the week may be to read 40-pages of your textbook. However, your daily goal may be to read for 20 minutes a day. By doing both, you allow yourself to easily visualize the progress you have made while also not being overwhelmed to start a task that you may see as unpleasant. 

3. Learn to Love Plan B, C,…

Rarely do things go exactly as planned in life. And when it comes to executive functioning, one of the most crucial skills is to learn how to overcome obstacles and pivot your plans. 

One way to get better at being flexible is by thinking ahead of time about potential obstacles. In other words, you want to strengthen your ability to problem-solve. 

Here are a few ideas for problem-solving: 

Change your Environment. One potential obstacle is that you are unable to focus because of your environment. You are spending too much time on your phone, or are having trouble sitting still. A change of scenery may be the solution. Even simply moving to another room of your house can be enough to allow you to regain focus. Have a list of different environments you can work in so that in times when you feel like you cannot study/work in one area, you have other options to go to.

 Change your Task. Sometimes you are just not in the mood to do a certain activity. In these circumstances, you should try to switch focus to another task that is more appealing and doable. Having a flexible to-do list can allow you to use your time and energy most effectively. 

Take a Break. Your obstacle may be that you are tired, hungry, and/or mentally drained. For this obstacle, the best action to take is to simply take a break. Breaks are essential for recharging your mental energy. To make your breaks the most effective, you should have a list of ideas of what your break can look like. Will you meditate for 15 minutes? Will you eat a banana? Will you go on a quick walk with your dog? Having these ideas at hand will make you much more likely to follow through.


Executive functioning is a skill that requires practice and consistency. By visualizing time and breaking down tasks, you can more easily understand how to execute tasks. And, by also staying flexible you can problem solve obstacles you will face. Factors such as nutrition, sleep, and physical health will play a significant role in your energy levels and cognitive abilities; thus, you should prioritize taking care of your body’s needs. 

Alloway, T. P., & Alloway, R. G. (2010). Investigating the predictive roles of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 106(1), 20–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2009.11.003

Leave a Reply