Executive Functions and Organization in ADHD

What are Executive Functions?

To help explain why someone with ADHD often struggles with organization, it is easiest to look to the construct of executive functions, developed by Dr. Thomas Brown of Smart but Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD. The Executive Function area of the brain is what is affected in ADHD versus other areas like intellect. The executive functions are those subconscious processes that happen within the brain helping us to do many things that we do without really thinking about them.

For example, we can estimate how long it will take to do something like fill up the car with gas. Because we sense the passing of time and can automatically connect that to the activity, you know if you have time to do that before work or if you need to wait until afterwards. Additionally, we also plan and strategize by considering sequence and order, like the beginning, middle, and end of things. Or, we may use some other sequence like alphabetization, for example. Similarly, we consider the past, present, and future. Time estimation uses an inner sense of time and priorities are based on importance.

This is the mindscape from which we organize, prioritize, activate, and estimate time, all subconscious processes, which fall under the category of activation.

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In the ADHD brain these subconscious processes do not work the same way. The executive functions are “impaired” some will say. Others argue that the difference is by design and that ADHD is a difference in cognition and not a disability or impairment. Either way you look at it, the fact remains that the drivers, which help someone without ADHD to organize, prioritize, activate, and estimate time subconsciously, are different than what automatically drives the person with ADHD.

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You can see that interest, curiosity, challenge, and urgency are all what seemingly drive someone with ADHD in the area of activation, not importance, sequence, or order. So, it’s really no mystery why so many with ADHD wait until there’s finally urgency about missing a deadline before they get started. And you can also see why so many people with ADHD are misunderstood when it comes to being seemingly engaged in only things that interest them. It comes off as selfish, but actually it’s what their brain is doing automatically. With effort, they can engage with things they find boring, but it’s better to sparkle it up a bit and make it more interesting or challenging.


If you’d like to continue understanding ADHD further, access the first chapter here now,
ADHD: A Different Hard Drive?

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