How Poor Executive Function Can Show Up In Your Life

how poor executive function can show up in your life

How does poor executive function show up in your life?

Consider this: Living with ADHD is all about self-regulation. Or lack thereof.

How many of us have good self regulation?

In the book Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, Russel Barkley explains:

“Executive functions are the specific self-directed actions that we use to control ourselves…Scientists label them differently, but executive functions generally include abilities like inhibition, working memory, emotional regulation, planning, and attention.”

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What does this mean for us on a day-to-day basis?

It means that all of those annoying little quirks that get us in trouble, or make us feel ashamed of ourselves, are demonstrating how poor executive function can show up in your life.

We know what to do, the problem is we cannot get ourselves to do it.

Poor executive function has a tremendous negative impact on our lives.

how poor executive functioning can show up in your life


how poor executive function can show up in your life.

Thomas Brown’s model of Executive Function Impairments.


On the table above, activation is described as organizing, prioritizing, and activating to work.

In your daily life this might show itself as:

  • – trouble getting started
  • – procrastination
  • – inability to prioritize
  • – issues problem solving
  • – chronic lateness

Imagine yourself at work in a meeting with your boss. How do you follow the conversation, prioritize what comes first, and then get yourself started?

And what if you arrived at work late today, and your boss is documenting?

Activation can cause real issues both at work and at home. Link to my article on activation.


The word focus means a lot more than just paying attention to one thing at a time. On Brown’s table it’s described as focusing, sustaining, and shifting attention to tasks.

In your life this might show itself as:

  • – trouble staying on task
  • – getting sidetracked repeatedly
  • – hyperfocusing at inappropriate times
  • – lack of awareness when NOT sustaining attention
  • – inability to regulate attention

Have you ever been reading a book with your eyes skimming over the words, and then all of a sudden you realize you have no idea what you read? No recall at all?

Your eyes were reading but your brain was not. This has academic consequences, and later in life interpersonal consequences.

Not to mention how hard it is to switch from a preferred task, to a non-preferred task. Shudder.

Link to my article on Focus.


The idea of effort is a complicated one. Many people believe that ADHDers are simply not applying enough effort. Again, it is much more complicated than trying harder.

Dr. Brown’s table describes effort as regulating alertness, sustaining effort, and processing speed.

This looks like:

  • – problems processing and applying new information (Not the same as intellectual disability.)
  • – slow to respond or complete tasks
  • – trouble making decisions
  • – issues keeping oneself motivated after the “newness” rubs off
  • – feeling sluggish or drowsy (for inattentive presentation)

Whenever I have to listen to anyone talk about a subject that is not of interest to me, I start to get drowsy. In fact, I do this with movies that I am not interested in as well.

Don’t even ask me to take notes, or answer questions. I won’t hear the questions.

You might also notice that it takes you longer to apply new learning. You know the information, you just cannot demonstrate it as quickly.

how poor executive function can show up in your life


The topic of emotional regulation is the heart and soul of my work with ADHD. I spend more time talking to women about the emotional toll of ADHD than anything else.

Dr. Brown describes emotion as managing frustration and modulating emotion.

This is how I see/hear the impact of emotion in our lives:

  • – very poor frustration tolerance
  • – feeling emotions very intensely
  • – chronic low-grade depression or disinterest in life
  • – overly reactive to criticism (real or perceived)
  • – tendency to ruminate and form negative thought patterns leading to anxiety
  • – complete shut-down
  • – low self-esteem

Emotional regulation is finally gaining some ground with researchers, but we are just beginning to understand how profoundly this executive function impacts our lives and relationships.

Link to my post on emotion.


Do you remember what you ate for dinner last night? Can you hold more than one item in your mind at a time? (I cannot.)

We ADHDers have a notoriously bad memory. Dr. Brown describes memory as utilizing working memory and accessing recall.

Dr. Barkley has an excellent breakdown of verbal and non-verbal working memory in the book I mentioned above. I highly recommend you check it out. (Affiliate link)

This is what it might look like for you:

  • – short term memory problems
  • – poor recall of past events/details
  • – inability to hold more than 1 thing on your “brain shelf” at a time
  • – inability to apply learning from mistakes in the past to current decision making
  • – losing things frequently
  • – forgetting dates, appointments etc.

This is the deal with memory: If we cannot apply our past experiences and learning to what is happening right now, we cannot make good decisions.

If we cannot hold more than one thing in mind at a time, we cannot run into the grocery store and grab the essentials. We will inevitably forget something.

Talk about frustrating!  Link to memory


Many people see the word action and assume it applies to hyperactivity. But action also applies to performing an action, or avoiding an action – physically making your body do it.

Dr. Brown’s action is described as monitoring and self-regulating.

Examples of EF issues with action:

  • – poor awareness in social situations (trouble reading the room)
  • – impulsive speech and movement
  • – impulsive decisions, spending
  • – trouble thinking before you act
  • – fidgeting
  • – poor handwriting
  • – inability to get your hands/body to do what you want

When you are shopping, do you think about every item of clothing you look at in terms of how it fits into your wardrobe? Or when you are on Amazon, do you impulsively click “buy now?”

Social situations are tough as well. Here is my post on action.

Now that you know how poor executive function can show up your life, you can see how it affects your self-regulation.

Poor executive function has a tremendous negative impact on our lives.

In my next post, I will create a downloadable with some handy tips to deal with the most common Executive Function issues.

In the meantime, here is my list of favorite ADHD experts.

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