Executive Dysfunction: Why Everyday Tasks Can Seem Like An Uphill Battle

September 21, 2022
Asifa Rapaiee

About the author: I’m Pippa, I've been a writer for many years. I have a daughter aged 23 and a son aged 18. Both of them have additional needs which include dyspraxia, dyslexia, and autism. I have dyspraxia, fibromyalgia, and my own mental health story.

Have you ever been faced with a task you knew you needed to do but no matter how hard you tried you just couldn’t make a start on it? Ever felt like the smallest thing on your to do list was like pushing a boulder up a mountain? Ever procrastinated so hard your quality of life started to be affected? Ever  found yourself thinking ‘Why can’t I just get it together and do it?’ Perhaps you’re a parent and you just don’t know why your teenager can’t tidy their room or a teacher who can’t understand why that really bright pupil hasn’t handed in homework yet again this week?

 

The reason might be executive dysfunction. So what is it, how does it affect people, and what can be done about it? 

The Cleveland Clinic website describes executive dysfunction as:
“A symptom that happens with conditions that disrupts the brain’s ability to control thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.”

Executive dysfunction can cause problems with focusing, memory, staying on task and avoiding distractions, multitasking, emotional regulation, and adapting to new information or changes in one’s environment. 

So who is likely to be affected by executive dysfunction and in what way?  Executive dysfunction is a broad spectrum symptom affecting people with a wide range of mental health issues as well as people with ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, and people who have  brain damage or dementia. It can affect people in a variety of ways but remains wildly misunderstood by professionals.

One of the most obvious ways it can affect people is in the area of self care. A decline in self care is often said to be one of the earliest signs that someone may be struggling with their mental health and is cited as a symptom in numerous disorders including depression, PTSD, and psychosis.

So why then do people still associate it with laziness? According to child psychologist J Weber, teenagers in particular are often labelled as lazy prior to being diagnosed with depression. Such labelling is unhelpful and, if anything, is more likely to perpetuate the problem. 

What will help with executive dysfunction? Strategies involving time management are often suggested. These may include:

  • Breaking down tasks into more manageable chunks. Take any big task. Now break that down into three or four smaller tasks. Then approach each one individually. 
  • Set timers and schedule breaks. It can be tempting to carry on until a whole task is completed but this can often be counterproductive as it is easy to lose concentration that way and lead to feeling overwhelmed. Breaks are important. 
  • Use planners, memos, or sticky notes. These are to help with memory and, more importantly , to stay focused on tasks. 

There are also systems to help specifically with household tasks, for example the FlyLady system and the Clutterbug system. Whether these help or not depends on the individual, and their mental state. Of these the FlyLady system is arguably the best for people who just don’t know where to start whilst The Clutterbug system seems to rely on a person already having some level of organisational skills. There is help available. 

So that is why everyday tasks can seem like an uphill battle to people with mental health issues. It is important to remember that it is not a choice. 

Useful resources:

Myths about children’s mental health

How to help someone with depression

How to make the week work for our wellbeing?

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