Best Strategies For Enhancing Your Executive Skills, Even If You Don’t Have ADHD

Ben came to me because he couldn’t get organized. He runs a rapidly growing software startup and every day he felt like he wasn’t making near enough progress with his workload. He usually fell further behind at the end of the day, and this was starting to cause him tremendous anxiety. As part of our coaching work together, I turned to ADHD research to find some strategies for Ben’s situation.

While everyone with ADHD has executive function challenges, so do many leaders without that diagnosis of neurological diversity.  We can learn a lot from the ADHD literature on how to be more productive leaders. I like the definition from Smart but Scattered, “executive skills are underlying brain processes that help people manage their everyday lives, get things done, control their emotions, and help them manage obstacles that interfere with productivity and behavior change.

Executive skills are numerous. They are managed from the pre-frontal cortex and take approximately 25 years to reach full maturation.  Here is a partial list based on the order that they emerge: delayed gratification, working memory, emotional control, flexibility, sustained attention, task initiation, planning, organizing, and time management.

In one short article, I can’t relay all the work that I did with Ben to help him feel less anxious and more satisfied with his daily progress, but I can give you a roadmap for getting on the right path if you are wondering why your workload is so out of control.

The first step is to accurately define the challenges.  Given the number of different executive skills, you will have more success if you can target strategies in your most challenged areas.  Which executive skills are your strengths, and which are your problem areas?  For instance, for a leader who can easily sustain attention but has trouble initiating tasks, the strategies will focus on overcoming procrastination rather than a long-term focus.  I recommend the Dawson/Guare Executive Skills Questionnaire to identify your executive skill strengths and weaknesses.

The second step is to research strategies for your specific executive skill challenge.  In Ben’s case, the assessment helped him understand that his biggest challenges were task initiation (procrastination) and planning/prioritization.   Ben didn’t have issues focusing once he started his work; rather, he struggled to have a realistic plan that he would start without too much delay.

Typically, you will find that you have more than one executive skill weakness.  Thus, the third step is to choose one of the challenges as an initial focus.  Overwhelming yourself with too many goals, strategies and new tactics are usually counterproductive.  Ben decided that realistic planning was where he wanted to start.  (Note: An added benefit was that Ben’s motivation increased by having control over the process.)

I introduced Ben to a couple of popular planning systems.  The most well-known being Getting Things Done by David Allen.  To be honest, I don’t know many people who have implemented the system 100% but I have numerous clients who have implemented pieces of it with great results.  Ben and I worked on a planning system that worked for him and developed a master list of projects, a weekly planning process for the week ahead, and a daily “to do” list.  He also decided to utilize a paper-based system, rather than an online version.  Research from Princeton indicates that using pen and paper for note-taking is more effective, and we decided the same might be true for planning.  Critically important is the maintenance of a planning system.  In other words, you must make time regularly (I suggest weekly) to update your planning documents.  Without regular maintenance, no planning/prioritization system will work. It took a few weeks to ramp up the planning systematically, but Ben reported dramatic improvements both with his sense of daily accomplishment and his reduced anxiety.

Finally, if you aren’t ready to take on this assessment of your executive skills just yet, there are two generic strategies that will help improve the functioning of all executive skills: sleep and exercise.  Without sufficient sleep, it’s harder to focus, irritability increases, and task persistence is impeded.  Research shows that a lack of sleep affects the body the same way drinking alcohol does. After 17 hours without sleep, our alertness is like the effects of a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%, “impaired” on the legally drunk scale.

Google “benefits of exercise” and you will find tens of millions of results.  We know exercise is important for our body and our mind.  Exercise reduces the brain fog that comes with age, prevents depression, stress, lowers blood pressure, and lowers the odds of having heart problems, according to Whole Brain Health.  Research also indicates that exercise increases learning and memory and lowers the risk of developing cognitive impairment. Need I say more?

We have many options today to support us in our journey to improve our performance as leaders and managers.  On the one hand, you don’t have to be neurologically diverse to benefit from strategies and tactics that have emerged from ADHD research.  On the other hand, two of life’s most basic and accessible activities, sleep and exercise, offer us out-sized benefits if we can prioritize and habituate them into our lives. 

Final note. Are you wondering if you might have ADHD?   The first step is to get tested. There are numerous online tests that will give you a preliminary answer.  If you get a positive response, then you can seek out a therapist locally who will lead you through a more rigorous testing process.

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