Our Best Tips For Navigating Executive Dysfunction

With the recent rise in mental health awareness, executive dysfunction might be a term that's been on your radar. Executive dysfunction is a symptom of mental health conditions (and sometimes of brain damage or degenerative brain disease) wherein a person's ability to regulate their actions, thoughts, and emotions is disrupted (via Cleveland Clinic). So, in practical terms, this might look like constantly losing your keys or phone, forgetting that important dentist appointment that's been on the calendar for months, or having big emotional outbursts over small inconveniences that you just can't seem to control.


"Executive dysfunction itself involves deficits of planning, organization, self-regulation, goal formulation, problem-solving, and time management," Holly Schiff, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York and Connecticut, told Allure. "Those with executive dysfunction experience a wide variety of cognitive and behavioral disorders and difficulties." Let's go over some tips to navigate executive dysfunction — and remember, if you are recognizing signs of this sometimes frustrating symptom in yourself, don't lose hope. Executive dysfunction can very much be managed.

Executive dysfunction, therapy, and medication

Since executive dysfunction is a symptom and not a diagnosis, speaking with a mental health care provider to find the root cause of your executive dysfunction is key. From there, a treatment plan can be formed. This likely will involve therapy sessions and possibly medication. Whether it's a result of ADHD, autism, depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or another condition, understanding where your executive dysfunction stems from will bring a lot of clarity when it comes to living a more organized and fulfilling life.


It may feel intimidating to open this door at all, but it's an important step in the healing process. In addition to getting support from professionals, there's also a lot you can do at home to curb the difficulties of the daily disruption caused by this symptom. Chances are you'll feel more empowered and in charge as you tackle daily tasks from an aligned, conscious state of mind.

Keep to-do lists

It may sound way too simple, but small lists are more powerful than we might believe when it comes to living with executive dysfunction. While someone with a more typical brain functioning type might make lists to tackle large goals, those with executive dysfunction may need them just to get through the basics of a morning routine. And that's perfectly okay. Your morning to-do list might include: make the bed, brush teeth, eat breakfast, and put away the dishes. These tasks might be obvious to some, but that's the nature of living with executive dysfunction. Seemingly no-brainer duties may feel more like impossible mountains to be conquered.


Now, it's possible that a list could have the opposite impact and completely overwhelm someone with executive dysfunction, sending them into a kind of paralysis when it comes to productivity. Too many tasks could bring on an onslaught of anxiety. If this sounds like you, try grouping your day's necessary to-dos into smaller categories and give yourself the pleasure of checking off even the most mundane activities. You could divide your list by time of day, dividing up what needs to be accomplished morning, afternoon, and night. Or you could divvy up tasks by room and what needs to be done in each area of the house. There are many ways to go about dividing your day, and some experimentation will be necessary to find what works well for you.


Tackle tasks with something that brings you joy

One of the hidden tricks of coping with executive dysfunction is to pair an undesirable task with a desirable experience. So, if you are dreading cleaning the bathroom, but there's a new episode of your favorite podcast out, save it to listen to when you take on the bathroom. It'll feel far less scary, and is even likely to fly by, if your mind is preoccupied with something that brings you joy.


This could also look like making your favorite coffee drink to sip on while responding to a challenging email you've been putting off or playing an episode of your comfort show while you fold the multiple baskets of laundry patiently waiting for your attention. Only you know what will get you in the zone, and there's no shame in taking advantage of this trick. Maybe fidget toys or sensory stimulation will be the heroes when it comes to focusing on a task that needs your full attention. Don't be afraid to experiment and find the wave that keeps you above the surface.

Organize one small area at a time

They say the bird builds its nest little by little and so can you — which, as we all know, might be easier said than done for someone with executive dysfunction. But much like dividing your to-do list up into sections, you can think of your physical space as several smaller areas. This can help trick your brain into believing it's all totally doable — which it is. Just be sure to be patient and loving with yourself as you navigate life with executive dysfunction.


Not to get your heart racing, but say you have people coming over for dinner two days from now and the whole house needs to be cleaned. Yikes, where to start? Well, anywhere will do, but try setting a timer for twenty minutes in any given room. For that allotted time, that's your only responsibility. Whatever you can get done is an accomplishment. When the timer goes off, look at how much further along you are than you were twenty minutes ago. Give yourself a pat on the back and also allow for grace and patience. Oh, and after twenty minutes — move on to another space.

Meditation and positive affirmations

If you haven't tried mindfulness, meditation, or breathwork to ease the anxiety around your executive dysfunction, this could be your missing link. All the shame, futile forcefulness, and guilt-tripping that might come along with executive dysfunction could be greatly eased by a practice that connects the body, mind, and spirit. The self-awareness that accompanies mindfulness practices can help those who feel clouded, scattered, and lost. And if you're short on time, don't worry. Even just five or 10 minutes of meditation in the morning can drastically alter the course of your day.


Being gentle with yourself and emphasizing the tasks you do accomplish, no matter how small, is crucial to shift into a positive mindset surrounding your productivity levels and functioning. If you empty your wallet of old receipts that have been in the way for months, take a moment to truly appreciate your efforts. Addressing one small mess at a time (and reveling in the sense of accomplishment) could really springboard you into another small task — and into a stronger sense of self.