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What are the links between ADHD and Executive Functions?

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

What are executive functions?

Have you heard of the term executive functions? It sounds very much like medical jargon, doesn't it?

Well, this is a term that originally came from neuropsychology but is gradually being used more in relation to ADHD and the ADHD brain.

Executive function is an umbrella term that covers the skills needed for self-regulation and mental control. In other words, it is a set of processes that are part of healthy brain function.

To use the analogy of an orchestra, the conductor plays an essential part in coordinating all the musicians and their instruments. Without a conductor, there could be real challenges when an orchestra plays a symphony! Certainly not very harmonious music.!

The executive functions do the job of the conductor within the brain´s systems and processes.

So what processes are we actually talking about? Here are some examples

  • Making decisions

  • Managing time efficiently

  • Prioritizing

  • Taking action to move forward say in a project

  • Finishing tasks

  • Meeting deadlines

Want more specific real-life examples?

For example, perhaps you prioritize the wrong things or get overwhelmed by big projects, or struggle to meet deadlines at college or in the workplace.

Executive functions can also be divided into different areas:

  • Self-awareness.

  • Working Memory:

  • Emotional Self-Regulation:

  • Self-motivation:

  • Planning and Problem Solving:

Another way of looking at executive functions is by looking at the work of an expert in the field of ADHD Russel Barkley

He came up with one of the early models for executive functioning in relation to ADHD.

He states that the main issue is the ADHD brain struggles to self-regulate and tends to fall into impulsivity. He believes that this is the foundation of many challenges of individuals with ADHD.

So this is how he breaks down executive functions into 4 areas-

The what circuit- the what circuit is linked to working memory and this, in turn, is linked to plans, goals, and the future and figuring out what to do with your future.

The when circuit is all about timing and coordination. This area is linked to for example- time management. the what circuit is linked to emotions and linked to the part of the brain known as the amygdala.

The Why circuit controls how we feel and when this is not working properly, this can result in emotions not being regulated- strong reactions, emotional sensitivity outbursts, and so on

The Who circuit: this final circuit is about self-awareness. How much we are aware of what we do and say and what is happening to us or around us.

Here's the thing! As I have mentioned before every person with ADHD is unique!

So there will be huge variation as to how the individual ADHD brain is impacted or how many of the above ¨symptoms ¨( I do hate that word ) a person has.

As well as what I have described above here are some other executive function issues or challenges that may be common with folks with ADHD.

Do any of these sound familiar to you? Can you identify with any of these?

  • Procrastination

  • Lateness

  • Difficulty waiting

  • Interrupting conversations

  • Being unaware of the time

  • Impulsive behaviors such as overspending

  • Having trouble figuring out how long it will take to finish a project either by overestimating or underestimating

  • Having trouble keeping still

  • Too much talking

  • Restlessness - either mental restlessness where you have way too many thoughts going on in your head or physical restlessness such as fidgeting or foot tapping.

What is important to understand here that these are all due to having a different kind of brain and due to impairment in the function of the ADHD brain.

It is not your personality or character, or as a result of your school or family environment!

it is plain and simple a difference in brain function. The ADHD brain is unique!

Don't feel any sense of shame about having these symptoms or feel embarrassed to talk about them. All of this is treatable.

If you think you have ADHD seek medical help and get diagnosed. Your physician will help you look at the options for the best medication to help you with the symptoms.

Consider getting the support of someone like an ADHD coach to work with you to manage your symptoms and develop strategies to deal with the unique challenges you might be facing in your personal or professional life

Finally, it is so important to also value your amazing strengths and your uniqueness which oftentimes can balance out your perceived weaknesses! Believe in your unique skills and talents!

Want to know more about ADHD Coaching ? Check out my website at

Or contact me by email at

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