What is Executive Function?

Executive function encompasses a set of mental processes that enables individuals to plan, organize, initiate, monitor, and adapt their actions to achieve specific goals. In this blog I hope to provide a comprehensive definition, introduce key elements, explain why the term is important and why it has garnered so much attention from psychologists, schools and parents. 

Defining Executive Function

Executive function is a complex and dynamic cognitive system that regulates and controls various higher-order mental processes. It is often described as the brain’s “CEO,” responsible for managing and directing cognitive resources effectively. A concise and comprehensive definition of executive function can be formulated as follows:

Executive function refers to a set of mental processes that enable individuals to plan, organize, initiate, monitor, and adapt their actions to achieve specific goals. It involves a range of cognitive functions, such as working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and decision-making, all of which are intertwined to facilitate goal-directed behavior and adaptive problem-solving. In simpler terms it helps us to stay organized, keep our priorities in order, stay focused, perform tasks and solve problems. Learning about and improving our executive function skills is critical if you are a single parent or a teenager trying to develop life skills.

Key Elements of Executive Function

  • Working Memory: Working memory is one of the central components of executive function. It refers to the cognitive system that temporarily holds and manipulates information required for ongoing mental tasks. It allows individuals to remember and process information, make decisions, and perform tasks efficiently. Working memory capacity varies among individuals and influences their ability to focus on tasks, solve problems, and learn. In one of my previous blogs, I mentioned how my working memory and cognition declined as a result of the stress from being a single parent. You have the ability to improve your working memory, as I did, by implementing a consistent exercise routine, improving your diet and practicing the executive function skills mentioned in this blog.
  • Inhibitory Control: Inhibitory control is the ability to suppress automatic or impulsive responses, enabling individuals to regulate their behavior. It plays a crucial role in self-control and decision-making. Without inhibitory control, individuals may struggle to resist temptations or act impulsively in emotionally charged situations. This element of executive function helps maintain focus and prevent actions that may lead to undesirable outcomes. This is incredibly important as a single parent. You need to learn how to regulate your behavior, control your temper and not let your emptions get in the way of your everyday decision making. You will also help your children develop self-control by regulating your own behavior.
  • Cognitive Flexibility: Cognitive flexibility involves the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and switch between different tasks or cognitive sets. It allows individuals to break free from rigid thinking patterns and adjust their strategies when facing new challenges. Cognitive flexibility is particularly important in problem-solving and creative thinking, as it facilitates the exploration of alternative solutions. This is a critical aspect of becoming resilient. You will become an expert in finding solutions for unanticipated challenges and will be able to navigate through almost any hardship that comes your way.
  • Planning and Organization: Planning and organization are key aspects of executive function that involve setting goals, devising strategies, and arranging tasks in a logical sequence. Individuals with strong planning and organizational skills are better equipped to manage their time efficiently, set priorities, and complete tasks in a systematic manner. This process is simple for some and torture for others. The key with planning and organizing is to have your priorities in order and start small. You should wake up each day with a list of priorities divided into 3 groups, which is also known as an ABC list. The A’s are imperative. They need to get done today. The B’s are next on the list and should get done the same day. You work on the C’s as soon as you complete all of the A’s & B’s. Eventually, you will use this to plan weeks in advance and sometimes even months in advance.
  • Decision-Making: Decision-making is the process of choosing the best course of action among various alternatives. Executive function influences decision-making by considering long-term consequences, assessing risks, and evaluating the pros and cons of different choices. This element is crucial in both personal and professional life, as it affects choices related to health, finance, relationships, and career.

The Importance of Executive Function

Executive function plays a paramount role in various aspects of human life, and its significance can hardly be overstated. Here are several reasons why executive function is so important:

  1. Academic Success: Students with well-developed executive function skills are better equipped to succeed in school. They can organize their study materials, plan their study sessions, and manage their time effectively. These skills are particularly important in tasks that require problem-solving, critical thinking, and creative reasoning.
  • Social and Emotional Regulation: Effective emotional regulation is closely tied to executive function. People with strong executive function skills can manage their emotions, make sound decisions during stressful situations, and maintain healthy relationships. These skills contribute to mental well-being and interpersonal success.
  • Professional Achievement: In the workplace, executive function is essential for productivity, task management, and decision-making. Employees with developed executive function skills are often more successful in their careers, as they can set and achieve goals, manage complex projects, and adapt to changing work demands.
  • Daily Life Management: Executive function plays a critical role in daily life activities. It enables individuals to plan and prepare meals, manage finances, organize their schedules, and complete household chores efficiently. Without these skills, daily life can become chaotic and overwhelming.
  • Health and Wellness: Executive function also impacts health-related behaviors. People with strong executive function skills are more likely to make healthy choices, such as exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and adhering to medical treatments. Conversely, poor executive function can lead to impulsive decisions that negatively affect health.
  • Cognitive Development: Executive function continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. As children acquire these skills, they become better at solving problems, thinking critically, and adapting to new challenges. This cognitive growth is essential for lifelong learning and adaptability.
  • Neurological and Developmental Disorders: Impairments in executive function are associated with various neurological and developmental disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, and traumatic brain injuries. Understanding and addressing executive function deficits is crucial for interventions and treatments in such cases.


If you are a single parent or teenager, it is easy to understand why executive function is imperative to having a fulfilling and successful life. These elements work in tandem to facilitate goal-directed behavior and adaptive problem-solving, which for a single parent means overcoming the obstacles, stigmas and hardships of having to raise a child or children on your own.

For teenagers it means developing life skills that will help you prepare for unexpected challenges in high school, college and adulthood.  The importance of executive function cannot be overstated, as it influences academic success, social and emotional regulation, professional achievement, daily life management, health and wellness, cognitive development, and the management of neurological and developmental disorders. In my next blog I will focus on how to improve your executive function skills.