People With 'Executive Dysfunction' Share 10 Chaotic Traits

Without executive functions, your emotions are all over the place.

frustrated woman Pexels, truebunny via Canva, - Yuri A / Shutterstock

As people, we rely on our mental capabilities and cognitive skills to do things like regulate emotions and navigate our day-to-day lives. Planning and organization, completing tasks, time management, and problem-solving are absolutely necessary if we are to be successful and functional.

All of those skills fall under the umbrella of "executive function," which plays a key role in your development, especially in educational settings, life, and career. The three core areas of executive function are working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition, which relates to selective attention and self-control.


But when you are underdeveloped in the area of your brain that is responsible for your memory and keeping your emotions in check, you are susceptible to executive dysfunction.

RELATED: 5 Immediate Steps To Take When You Get Stuck In A Nervous System Memory


What is executive dysfunction?

Executive dysfunction, also known as executive function disorder, is what happens when you have trouble performing executive functions.

Where executive function skills mean you are able to pivot when plans change, stay organized, remember important details, follow complex instructions, and execute projects from start to finish, examples of executive dysfunction include losing things, forgetting details, disorganization, lack of time management, frustration, and lack of impulse control.

There are several reasons responsible for developing the condition:

  • Irregular or slow development of certain areas of the brain: This can affect executive functions, making it difficult to remember information and to regulate your emotions.
  • Genetics: Executive dysfunction can also be a result of genetics. Those with family members who suffer from it are more likely to experience it themselves.
  • Imbalances in neurotransmitters: Noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin play a huge part in sending messages to the brain, and when those are not balanced, executive functions suffer.
  • Mental health conditions: This includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, schizophrenia, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, Alzheimer’s, and/or substance abuse. People with ADHD who have been diagnosed by a mental health professional have symptoms that align with executive function disorder.
  • Traumatic brain injuries: Studies have found that a traumatic brain injury, specifically to the front of the brain, can result in damage to the executive function, impacting the ability to stay focused on task.

Executive function disorder is not an official mental illness, but there are tests that gauge how well the executive function is working and are used to effectively diagnose the condition. These tests include:

  • Barkley Deficits in Executive Functioning Scale (BDEFS): This test will help to screen patients for problems with self-restraint, emotional control, organization, and time management. It assesses behavior over a period of time, which makes it different from others that give a point-in-time snapshot.
  • Comprehensive Executive Function Inventory (CEFI): This is a scale that looks at strengths and weaknesses in executive function in kids aged 5-18.
  • Conners 3-Parent Rating Scale: This particular test measures the behavior of kids who are 6-18 years of age. It looks for learning problems in areas like math, spelling and reading, as well as memory.

RELATED: The Value Of A Formal ADHD Diagnosis (& Why TikTok Is No Place For Accurate Info)

How does executive dysfunction relate to ADHD?

There is a lot of confusion about executive dysfunction as it relates to ADHD. Many appropriately conflate the two since several of the symptoms overlap and are interchangeable. In ADHD, circuits in the brain that are impaired affect things like working memory, emotional regulation, and timing, similar to executive dysfunction.

The core cognitive and mental processes that are disrupted in both executive dysfunction and ADHD are inhibition (self-restraint), self-awareness (attention to self), non-verbal working memory (saving imagery to your mind and recalling it), verbal working memory (inner-monologue), self-regulation (processing and altering feelings), self-motivation, and problem-solving (including planning).

In short, ADHD is an umbrella term for the deficiencies of the executive functions.


A lack of development in executive functions over time is a precursor and warning sign that someone may be suffering from ADHD. Treatment for that disorder can result in marked improvements in executive functionality.

10 Signs of Executive Dysfunction

1. You lose things.

If you find yourself losing things on a regular basis such as documents, work, or school materials, it’s possible that your executive function skills are impaired.

2. You have trouble controlling your emotions, mood, and behavior.

People with executive dysfunction are unable to control their emotions, are easily frustrated, and might lash out without meaning to. You might have executive dysfunction if your mood goes up and down on a whim and your behavior often matches the chaos going on within.

3. You’re unable to deal with setbacks.

Failure is a part of life that most of us deal with by learning the lesson and doing better next time. But when your cognitive and emotional functions are out of whack, you have a difficult time moving past setbacks.


4. You're unable to follow directions.

The ability to follow instructions is important in getting things done. If you are unable to follow instructions from the beginning to the end, you might be struggling with your executive functions. Sometimes one task might morph into many unintentionally.



5. You struggle with managing time.

Time management can be a problem for many. If you are late to everything or spend time on things that do not move your goals forward, you lack time management skills and that, combined with other symptoms, could mean executive dysfunction.

6. You're forgetful.

Forgetfulness is a part of life sometimes. But if you find yourself forgetting things frequently and are not suffering from diagnosed memory loss, you have executive dysfunction.


7. You have problems translating your thoughts into words.

Sometimes it is hard to get what you see in your head out of your mouth in a way that others can understand. The ability to translate thoughts to words is a cognitive function that is impaired when you have executive dysfunction.

8. You lack organization.

Organization is one of the keys to accomplishment. They say cleanliness is next to godliness, and if your surroundings are cluttered and in disarray, your mind will be as well. Disorganization is a telltale sign of executive dysfunction.

9. You're unable to remain focused.

Projects and tasks require the ability to remain focused throughout to see the expected outcomes. If you often find yourself losing focus during assignments, jobs or other important tasks, you have a disorder in your executive function.


10. You show a lack of motivation.

People can try to inspire you as much as they want, but true motivation comes from within. Others pushing and prodding can only get you so far.

If you lack the deeply embedded desire to get up, get out, and get something, you could be afflicted with executive dysfunction. This might come across as feeling "stuck" or paralyzed.

RELATED: 7 Critical Tools For Improving Your Life (For When You Need It Most)

NyRee Ausler is a writer from Seattle, Washington, and author of seven books. She covers lifestyle and entertainment and news, as well as navigating the workplace and social issues.