Motherhood and Executive Functioning
The everyday demands of life can take their toll on anyone, but moms face extra challenges. Most moms strive for a balanced lifestyle in order to keep their families running smoothly. Achieving that balance relies heavily on using executive functioning skills. However, if you have executive dysfunction, this is a double whammy.
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In this post, I’ll explain what executive function is, the benefits of having strong EF skills, and the obstacles you might face. Then I’ll explore the ways in which moms can improve their executive functioning skills to achieve a more balanced lifestyle. I’ll cover topics such as identifying and overcoming obstacles, setting goals, and creating an action plan. With the right strategies in place, moms can become executive functioning pros.
What is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning is a collection of cognitive processes that allow us to regulate our behavior, focus on tasks, and plan, strategize, remember details, and maintain organization in our lives.
Executive functioning skills can also influence an individual’s ability to organize their lives and manage their time, as well as their ability to focus and self-regulate in stressful situations. Poor executive functioning skills can lead to problems with learning and memory, social functioning, and emotional regulation.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good possibility that you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, OCD, depression, or some other version of neurodivergence. All of those affect how well you develop and use executive functioning. And if you received that diagnosis later in life, you’re traveling a path of discovery that can be overwhelming.
Understanding the diagnosis is the first step. Learning about how it affects all parts of your life is the next. And THEN you can figure out how to mitigate the effect it has on your executive functioning so you can improve.
Benefits of Strong Executive Function Skills
People with strong executive functioning skills are better able to regulate their emotions, pay attention to the tasks at hand, and plan and prioritize tasks. These skills allow them to better manage their time and be more productive. Executive functioning helps you stay focused to reach your goals. In addition, strong executive functioning skills help reduce stress and increase confidence.
Sounds good, right? If you struggle with executive dysfunction, you probably run late often or forget appointments altogether, and feel overwhelmed because you don’t understand why you can’t get it all done.
The obstacles you face in relation to your executive functioning might be closely tied to the diagnosis or disorder you have. For example, people with ADHD tend to have major issues with time management and emotional control. Not everyone with ADHD will have those problems. For some people, they are great at managing their time once they get started, but task initiation is their hurdle.
What you need to do is take a step back next time you are feeling overwhelmed in a situation and assess it objectively. What caused things to spin out of control? What could you have done differently if you had the right tools?
Setting Goals and Creating a Plan
The first step to improving your executive functioning skills is to figure out what needs improvement and set goals. You might have a list of 4 different EF skills to work on, but tackling all of them at once is too much. You need to prioritize the skills. Which one or two create the most chaos in your life? Those should be first on your list.
Once you know what you want to work on, you need to develop a plan. Each goal needs to be broken down into smaller steps. You can’t just say you will become better at planning. What does that look like? How will you make it happen?
You won’t have all the answers, and it might take some reading or research to figure out, but resources are available.
Once your plan is set, you want to track your progress. Seeing improvements will motivate you to keep going.
Techniques to Improve Your Executive Functioning Skills
1. Make lists
This might seem overly simple, but so many of us try to keep everything in our heads and it’s not doing you any favors (especially if your working memory is one of your weaker skills). Every day, take a few minutes to make a list. It doesn’t have to just be a list of your daily tasks. Write down anything that occurs to you.
Doing a daily brain dump can be a lifesaver. You write down everything that comes to mind: appointments, kids’ activities, work stuff, household items. Having a full list will enable you to prioritize everything and keep you focused.
2. Use a planner
If you’ve been here a while, you know that I am a huge believer in using a planner. Very rarely can a mom remember everything that needs to happen without writing it down. If you have executive dysfunction, then I’m going to take it a step further and say you can’t trust yourself to just remember.
I know that many of you have bought and tried many different types of planners and it didn’t stick. Part of that might’ve been you not giving yourself enough time to truly establish the routine, but a bigger part might’ve been that you simply chose the wrong planner.
Having a planner that works with your brain is paramount.
3. Establish routines
Establishing and sticking to routines is an important component of executive function skills. Routines allow you to accomplish tasks without requiring extra mental energy. Having routines for yourself and your family can help make everything run smoother.
I’m not going to lie and tell you that it’s easy. Establishing routines can be hard. You’re forcing yourself (and others) to do things that you’re not used to doing. It requires dedication and practice.
In addition, anytime something unexpected pops up, it can cause your routines to crash. If the routines aren’t firmly established, regaining lost ground can be really hard.
When creating your routines, don’t be so strict that there’s no wiggle room. Allow extra time in case something happens to derail you.
4. Break tasks into smaller steps
Often, we get overwhelmed when we think of an entire project. We can’t figure out where or how to start. If you break things into incremental steps (there’s no such thing as too small), you’ll have a clear path to success.
Smaller steps are easier to focus on and easier to accomplish. Once you get something started, it’s also easier to go back to complete it later. In addition, with every small step that you complete, you’ll see the progress and be motivated to continue.
5. Practice time management
For many people with executive dysfunction, time management is almost unfathomable. Using your planner and following routines will help with your time management. But you need to take it a step further and practice the skills.
I always recommend setting alarms or reminders for staying on task. Many people with ADHD are time blind—they really don’t have an understanding of how much time has passed while they’re doing a task. They can’t recognize how long it’ll take to get somewhere or finish something.
Setting reminders to move along on your task or to-do list will help you practice. The more you attempt to estimate how long something will take, the better you’ll get at it. The important thing is to monitor your estimations. Were you close or far off? What adjustments do you need to make for next time?
When you are planning tasks for the day, make sure you build in breaks. Running nonstop will cause your executive functioning to falter. The more you push yourself, the harder it will be to focus and be productive.
6. Develop memory techniques
As a mom, you have so much to remember on a daily basis. If your working memory is weak, you need to develop coping mechanisms and practice techniques. Create mnemonic devices to help you get through a list of chores or items to pick up at the store.
Give yourself visual cues. For example, if you need to remember to pick up the dry cleaning, put the pickup receipt next to your coffee cup, so when you get your morning cup, you have a reminder.
The other things I mentioned, like using your planner and setting alarms will also help you build those memory skills.
7. Make time for sleep and self-care
I’m the first to admit that moms generally suck at taking care of themselves. We spend so much time caring for everyone else that we put ourselves at the bottom of the list. Being healthy and getting enough sleep are vital parts of strong executive function skills.
If you’re not in a good place physically, mentally, or emotionally, your executive functioning will suffer.
In conclusion, moms can improve their executive functioning skills with some dedication and effort. Although it might seem like an insurmountable goal, the benefits of having strong executive functioning are long-lasting and can even have a positive effect on our kids. With a few small steps, you can begin to map out the skills you need to work on and take charge of your executive function journey.