The Top 6 Executive Function Skills to Work On

We all use executive function skills every single day. Strong executive function skills allow us to regulate our emotions and behavior, set goals and achieve them, interact with others effectively, and help us develop many other abilities as well!  If you’ve ever experienced trouble starting or completing tasks, staying motivated, organizing, or controlling your emotions or behavior, it’s worth learning about executive function skills and how working on them may help you. In this article, we’ll break down some of the top executive function skills to work on, and ways to develop and strengthen these skills.

Understanding Executive Function Skills

Executive functions refer to a group of complex, high-level cognitive functions that allow for self-regulation and goal-directed behavior. These functions include the ability to plan, organize, problem-solve, inhibit and control behaviors, and make decisions. Executive function skills build off of foundational cognitive skills such as memory and attention. Without these more basic skills, we wouldn’t be able to have complex cognitive abilities.

Let’s take a moment to think about how these high level cognitive abilities play a part in our daily lives. In school or work, your day will look very different depending on the strength of your abilities to plan, organize, make decision, and solve problems. If you struggle with executive function, you could fall behind in academic or professional settings. In your social life, you’ll have a very different experience if you’re able to regulate your behavior compared to if you don’t have this ability. Executive functions allow us to achieve goals and maintain healthy friendships and relationships. They also give us the tools to go from picturing our lives being a certain way, to actually taking the steps and getting there. As these examples demonstrate, executive functions greatly contribute to a healthy and happy life!

This leads to the question, how can we develop and work on improving executive function skills so that we can enjoy the benefits that they bring to daily life?

Top Executive Function Skills to Develop

Planning and Organization

Planning and organizational skills include the abilities to think flexibly, and think ahead into the future. The ability to plan includes the ability to envision your desired outcome, strategize how to get there, and take action on the steps that must be followed in order to achieve a goal. This is true for big and small plans! Whether you’re planning to apply to your dream job or simply planning to clean your house, you can take the same cognitive approach by making a plan and breaking it down into steps.

Organizational skills are included in the planning process, because you must be able to organize and order the steps that you need to take. In other types of organization, such as cleaning your home, you also need the ability to strategize and think ahead. Where does each item go so that you’ll be able to find it easily next time you need it? Being able to think ahead in this way is an important part of executive function, particularly in planning and organization.

Ways to exercise this skill:

  • Create to-do lists: Break down tasks into smaller, manageable steps and check them off as you complete them.
  • Use calendars and planners: Schedule your tasks and deadlines to keep track of your responsibilities.

Set SMART Goals: Ensure your goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Working Memory

Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind over short periods. An example of this is remembering a phone number long enough to dial it or remembering what task you were doing before you received a notification on your phone. Working memory is crucial for following instructions, problem-solving, and decision-making. A strong working memory enhances learning, comprehension, and the ability to perform complex tasks.

Ways to exercise this skill:

  • Memory exercises: Engage in exercises and puzzles that require you to remember sequences or patterns.
  • Chunking information: Break information into smaller chunks to make it easier to remember.
  • Practice repetition: Repeat information to reinforce memory retention.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt your thinking and behavior in response to changing circumstances. It involves switching between tasks and considering multiple perspectives. This also includes considering that we may be wrong in some situations, and being able to pivot our mindset in response to new information. Enhanced cognitive flexibility leads to better problem-solving, creativity, and the ability to handle unexpected challenges.

Ways to exercise this skill:

  • Try new activities: Engage in activities that require you to think differently, such as learning a new language or playing strategy games.
  • Practice perspective-taking: Consider situations from different viewpoints to develop a more flexible mindset.
  • Embrace change: Actively seek out new experiences and be open to adjusting your routines.

Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control is the ability to manage impulses and distractions, allowing you to stay focused on your goals. Strong inhibitory control helps you maintain attention, resist temptations, and make more deliberate decisions.

This skill is critical in staying on task. For example, if you’re trying to complete an important task but you are easily distracted by your phone, having poor inhibitory control will make you check your phone constantly, get sidetracked, and take much longer to complete the tasks. While if you have strong inhibitory control, you can ignore your phone until the task is complete.

Ways to exercise this skill:

  • Mindfulness meditation: Practice mindfulness to improve your ability to focus and reduce impulsive reactions.
  • Delay gratification: Train yourself to wait for rewards by setting up small challenges that require patience. An example of this is using timers while working. Set a timer to determine how long you’ll work, then reward yourself with a break, and repeat!
  • Set clear boundaries with yourself: Create environments that minimize distractions and interruptions. For example, putting your phone in another room while completing tasks to avoid distraction.

Time Management

Time management involves effectively allocating your time to complete tasks and achieve goals within deadlines. Good time management leads to higher productivity, lower stress levels, and a better work-life balance.

Ways to exercise this skill:

  • Prioritize tasks: Identify and focus on the most important tasks first.
  • Use timers: Break your work into intervals using techniques like the Pomodoro Technique.
  • Review your schedule: Regularly assess and adjust your schedule to ensure it aligns with your goals.

Problem-Solving and Decision-Making

Problem-solving and decision-making skills enable you to identify issues, evaluate options, and choose effective solutions. These skills are crucial for navigating challenges and making informed choices in both personal and professional contexts.

Ways to exercise this skill:

  • Critical thinking exercises: Engage in activities that require analysis and logical reasoning.
  • Scenario planning: Practice solving hypothetical problems to enhance your decision-making abilities.
  • Reflect on past decisions:  Review previous decisions and outcomes to learn from your experiences.

Practical Habits and Exercises

Brain Exercises and Puzzles

Utilizing brain exercises and puzzles can challenge yourself in a way that help you grow your cognitive skills. Activities like cognitive activities like a daily puzzle calendar or worksheets, crossword puzzles, and memory matching games are excellent for this purpose.

These activities can be beneficial because of neuroplasticity. While it is all too easy for us to get into unhelpful habits, it’s comforting to know that our brains are always ready to be rewired and learn new skills. Utilizing cognitive exercises allows our brains to learn new skills that we can then gradually implement into daily life.

Mindfulness and Stress Management

Practice mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga to reduce stress and enhance focus. This can bolster our ability to focus and quiet the mind, which allows for greater ability to utilize all of our amazing executive function skills to solve problems, plan, organize, and much more.

Examples of mindfulness techniques that may be helpful include:

  • Counting breaths – this is a simple way to focus on the breath to cultivate mindfulness and focus. As you breath, count 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale, 4 on the exhale, etc. Do this until you reach 10, and then start over.
  • Guided meditation – this is a helpful method when you find yourself easily distracted, because there will be a voice to guide you! Apps like Calm and Headspace provided guided meditations, but you can also find them for free on YouTube.

Applying Skills to Real-Life

Notice where the executive function skills outlined in this article come up in your life. Which areas do you struggle with the most? Come up with a plan to address them in your life, starting with small changes.

For example, if you struggle with planning, you could try planning an outing or an event for you and your loved ones! You can practice utilizing the skills needed to organize transportation, create an itinerary, and list out the items you’ll need to bring. Or if you struggle with time management, at the beginning of a work day or study session, put your energy into prioritizing your tasks, making a to-do list, and using timers to keep yourself on track.

It’s important to remember that big changes don’t happen overnight. Start with small adjustments to your daily routine and gradually implement more!


  • Executive function skills are cognitive processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and manage multiple tasks.
  • These skills are crucial for effective problem-solving, decision-making, and managing daily tasks efficiently.
  • Think about which executive functions you struggle with the most. Make a plan to take small steps in the right direction by gradually incorporating practice of these skills into your daily life.
  • This can include practicing activities that challenge your planning, memory, flexibility, and self-control. Also, engage in brain games, mindfulness exercises, and real-life scenario planning.
Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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