Understanding and enhancing executive function in ADHD

Executive function skills are a vital part of life. They enable us to plan, make decisions, start and finish tasks and regulate our behaviour. From the moment you wake up, executive function ensures you get out of bed and follow the steps needed to carry out routines such as eating breakfast, showering, exercising, and getting to work.


Executive function struggles can occur for anyone. If you are trying to get out the door to work while herding children off to school, you’ll know the challenge of keeping all those plates spinning at once. I’m sure many can relate to having forgotten to pick some essential items up on the way out of the house, lunch, gym kit, keys. When we are juggling too much stuff, our executive function can become more dysfunctional than functional.

With ADHD, the struggle is compounded by a brain that is working differently. 
Imagine your attention is like a spotlight, and tasks are objects on a stage. Normally, when a task becomes important, the spotlight shines brightly on it. This brings it into the foreground of your attention. Other less important tasks fade into the background, like props on the stage. This is typically how executive function works in Neurotypical brains.

In ADHD, this spotlight tends to shine on everything at once, keeping all tasks in the foreground. It's like having multiple spotlights on different parts of the stage, creating a chaotic scene where nothing stands out. Moreover, sometimes a task can get stuck under a super-bright spotlight.

This is a feature of ADHD known as hyperfocus. Even if this task isn't the most important or urgent, it captures all of your attention, making it difficult to shift focus. You might struggle to finish other tasks like getting to work on time or sending off that birthday card. When this happens, we call it executive dysfunction.

The impact of executive dysfunction is broad and deep. Imagine growing up in a world where everyone seems to effortlessly manage their tasks, stay organised, and control their impulses. Meanwhile, you struggle to keep up. Constantly losing things, forgetting deadlines, and feeling overwhelmed by the simplest of tasks. From a young age, you're bombarded with messages that imply your difficulties with executive function are a reflection of your character. They suggest that you're lazy, irresponsible, or just not trying hard enough.

This ongoing criticism and judgement can take a significant toll on your self-esteem and mental health. You come to internalise the belief that you're somehow flawed or inferior because you can't function like everyone else. It's like carrying a heavy burden of shame and self-doubt, believing that you're constantly falling short of society's expectations.

These negative messages not only affect how you perceive yourself but also how you interact with the world around you. You may become increasingly anxious and avoidant, fearing judgement and rejection from others. Constant pressure to conform to societal norms can lead to feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness.

ADHD 101 - poor executive function is not a moral failing. Just as someone with poor eyesight isn't morally flawed for needing glasses, those with ADHD aren't morally flawed for struggling with executive function.

So, what steps can individuals with ADHD take to help themselves? Many find medications invaluable. However, obtaining the diagnosis you need can be a lengthy process. This leaves many without immediate access to medication. So, what can you do in the meantime?

Remember, pills alone do not provide the solution. Building skills is an essential aspect of managing the challenges of ADHD.

1. Grounding

Grounding techniques can help you regain focus and manage overwhelm. This can include practises like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, or sensory grounding (focusing on the senses to bring attention back to the present moment). Calm the mind, and reduce the fizz. 

2. Brain dump

Get a piece of paper, or a phone/laptop, or do it on a voice recorder. However you choose to do it, this is your space to pour out anything and everything in no order at all. Things to do, what’s worrying you, how you’re feeling. Dump the whole lot somewhere and create some space in your brain. Sometimes it’s helpful to do a brain dump before grounding yourself.

Once you are feeling calmer, come back to the brain dump. With help, if needed, start to make sense of what needs to be done and in what order. Start by getting rid of anything that was just ‘in your head’ e.g. thoughts driven by hypothetical thinking and catastrophising. 

3. Clear space

People with ADHD are often surrounded by clutter. Unopened post, previous to-do lists, multiple tasks unfinished. Clear space even if it’s only a tiny space, so that you have very little in your vision to distract you.

4. ADHD toolkit

Building a personalised toolkit of strategies will make it much easier to navigate challenges and optimise executive function. This may include strategies such as grounding techniques, time blocking, using timers and reminders, brain dumping, self-care routines, checklists and visual prompts. Be prepared to change it up. Those with ADHD often need variety to stimulate focus.

5. Get help

You were never meant to be perfect at everything. (See point 9 for my views on the word ‘perfect’). Perfectionism is just what you learned as a strategy to avoid criticism but it’s an unhelpful belief that does not solve the problem. In fact, it often makes matters worse.

If executive function is your struggle, get help from friends, family, therapy, coaching, digital programmes, your GP, government schemes, community support groups or co-working/body doubling. We don’t expect to correct our eyesight without the help of an optician. Get the help you need to enable you to live the life you want. As a therapist/coach specialising in ADHD, I might be able to help – reach out here to make contact. 

6. Small steps

It may have been a giant leap for mankind the day we landed on the moon but in ADHD terms we want to keep it small. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is achieving, you only need to focus on what helps you move forward. If you make the step too big, you’ll be back at steps 1 and 2 in just the smallest amount of time. So, keep it small, celebrate progress and practise self-compassion. 

7. Practise good psychological and physical/hygiene

Using point 6, consider what you can do to improve where you are currently at. Cultivating good practices around sleep, eating, and exercise will benefit all areas of ADHD life. Don’t aim for perfect, aim for better than you were a moment, an hour, or a day ago. Nothing more. Inconsistency is a feature of ADHD so don’t beat yourself for perceived failings in any area. Be kind, pause, and move forward. 

8. Healthy perspectives

Get to know your inner critic, and recognise your self-sabotaging behaviours. Develop self-compassion, challenge negative thought patterns and replace self-criticism with self-acceptance and kindness. It’s the old adage – you wouldn’t speak to your friends like you speak to yourself. Be your own best friend. 

9. Don’t kid yourself

You won’t come back to this or that later. Forgive yourself for that washing that never left the machine or the fact that you’ve mislaid something. That’s ADHD life. But on those occasions when you recognise what’s about to happen, put the keys where they belong, take the washing out when you hear the beep of the machine finishing. You won’t be perfect – it’s a horrible word and an impossible goal. But sometimes you’ll win and you’ll get a little dopamine hit and a ‘woohoo’ boost that will carry you a bit further forward in your day. 

10. Reset

When you feel the ADHD fizz – go back to point 1 – ground yourself, clear your mind and choose your direction. Executive dysfunction is a feature of ADHD life, not something we can be rid of. Learning to live with it is far better than enduring the frustration it causes. 

By incorporating these strategies into daily life and embracing a holistic approach to managing executive function, you can optimise your abilities and lead a more fulfilling and productive life.

It's important to remember that executive function challenges are not a reflection of personal inadequacy. Navigating executive function difficulties requires a deep and enduring understanding of yourself and your needs. By knowing your unique strengths and challenges, you can develop the confidence to advocate for your needs and create environments that support your success.

Your value lies not in how well you conform to societal norms, but in the richness and diversity you bring to the human experience. Embrace your journey. Celebrate your victories. Be kind to yourself and continue to learn and grow along the way.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Ferndown, Dorset, BH22
Written by Kathy Wolstenholme, Reg MBACP, Dip Couns, Dip CBT
Ferndown, Dorset, BH22

Kathy Wolstenholme is a Humanistic Integrative Counsellor, CBT therapist and Coach working with adults. She is an ADHD/Autism advocate and supports Neurodivergent people in working through difficult past experiences whilst developing healthy strategies for day to day life.

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