Understanding ADHD Executive Dysfunction And How To Overcome It

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated March 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you have ADHD or someone in your family has been diagnosed with the disorder, it can be helpful to learn as much as possible about it. One of the hallmark signs of ADHD is experiencing deficiencies in executive functioning (aka executive dysfunction), which can present in a variety of ways. Understanding the link between ADHD and these deficiencies may help you or a loved one seek the appropriate care and treatment.

Symptoms of ADHD can make it harder to manage daily life

What is executive dysfunction?

Executive function is a term that refers to a set of cognitive processes needed for controlling behavior. If you have a goal in mind, cognitive function is what facilitates your attainment of that goal. We know from research that the brain's frontal lobe allows us to visualize a goal we've set for ourselves. It is an executive function that enables you to multitask, do things based on your experience, and avoid doing or saying the wrong things at critical moments. Executive function is also responsible for remembering critical details, organizing, planning, switching focus from one thing to another, paying attention, and managing time. 

In a typical human brain, executive functions are processes that we may not give a lot of thought to, but for those with ADHD, they can present many concerns.

Executive function is what's needed for you to focus on some objective, visualize achieving it, and then take the necessary steps to get yourself there. For those with ADHD, the brain has developed differently, and many of these individuals experience what are known as executive dysfunction.

If you have deficiencies in executive function, you might struggle with things like going to school or work, getting there on time, and focusing on your tasks while you're there. Executive dysfunction symptoms vary. Concentrating on your homework and turning it in on the due date may be harder if you experience executive functioning deficits. As an adult, executive dysfunction may make it difficult for you to hold down a job. You may have a tough time maintaining relationships or doing things independently. There are many different causes of executive dysfunction, but ADHD is one of the most common reasons why someone might experience executive functioning deficits. 

Impulse control and ADHD

In the case of someone with ADHD whose brain has developed differently, the frontal lobe isn't functioning correctly and operates in an atypical way. Poor impulse control is common in these individuals because of how their brains work. The child who cannot control their impulses may doodle in class, fidget, or talk to their fellow students rather than learn the lesson. An adult with trouble controlling their impulses might decide to stop and watch a street performer for half an hour, making themselves late for work and getting fired.

Remembering things, creative thinking, and organization are each critical skills to have both as a child and an adult. However, it’s important to recognize that ADHD and intelligence are not related. Those who meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD spelled out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual can be highly intelligent, just like anyone without the disorder. This executive dysfunction weakness in their brain's self-management system causes trouble, not a lack of intellect.

Spotting executive function deficiencies

Keeping an eye out for certain symptoms and signs can help you recognize when you or a loved one may have ADHD or issues with executive dysfunction. For example, you might observe that your child has problems with storytelling, either verbally or in written form. They might struggle to remember things, manage projects, or underestimate how much time a project will take. Starting new tasks and activities may not be easy, nor will shifting plans when a situation changes. People with ADHD often get hyper-focused on the task at hand, especially if it interests them. Therefore, it can be hard to switch tasks when needed. They may also shut down when a parent or a peer does not act as expected and might have trouble expressing what is wrong when this occurs.

How to manage dysfunction symptoms

Although people with ADHD struggle with executive function skills, that doesn't mean they can't live productively and responsibly. When it comes to the workplace, taking a systematic, step-by-step approach to executive functions can be beneficial. Relying on visual aids, like flash cards or color-coded systems, can help them get organized. They'll need to learn how to plan for shifts in activities and transition times so they won't get distracted. Asking for both written and oral instructions whenever it is possible to do so can also be advantageous.

Many people with ADHD find it useful to make schedules and look at them several times a day to know what's coming next. Tools like watches with alarms, computers, and time organizers can help them stay on track. Anything that can serve as a reminder of what they should be doing and when they should be doing it can come in handy.

Improving time management

People with ADHD can also take steps to improve their time management. In school, they can write the due date at the top of each one of their assignments. They can use calendars to keep track of things like chores, activities, and long-term projects. Breaking tasks into chunks so they seem more manageable may allow them to retain their motivation to complete them. Additionally, they can come up with realistic time frames for completing each one. 


Organization and management of space

Those living with ADHD experiencing executive dysfunction may be more prone to misplacing things and can also struggle with spatial management. So, it can be helpful for them to have separate work areas for different projects. They might have different sets of supplies for various activities as well to help with executive functioning. 

Cutting down on clutter is essential, as is keeping their workplaces organized. Scheduling weekly or even daily times for cleaning those workspaces can help ensure it doesn’t become overwhelming to keep the spaces tidy. The younger they are when they fall into these patterns, the more likely they’ll be able to stick with them as they get older and join the adult world with its various responsibilities.

Improving work habits

Whether someone with ADHD executive functioning deficits is a child or an adult, it’s important to develop work habits that allow them to keep pace and stay on-task. One way to accomplish this is to make a checklist for assignments. For instance, in the case of a student, the list might include getting out a pencil and paper, putting down the due date and their name, reading the directions, etc. Meeting with a teacher or supervisor can help them stay on track, increasing their chances of success. 

Tutoring or coaching for ADHD

Specialized coaches and tutors can help those with ADHD and executive function challenges learn how to manage their daily tasks more effectively. These coaches are often behavioral professionals who have experience working with people who have ADHD. This allows them to understand the unique struggles and challenges these individuals face.

An ADHD coach often makes a positive impact on the lives of those they tutor because they believe in their clients’ potential for proper executive functioning. This attitude is contagious, and those with ADHD who receive tutoring from the right coach often can reinvest in their lives with renewed vigor.

Finding assistance to improve executive dysfunction

ADHD executive functioning deficits can affect anyone, whether it is you, your child, a friend, a relative, or someone else close to you. Understanding how ADHD works and impacts a person’s higher level executive functions can help you support them in the most effective ways. It’s important to listen well and try to meet the individual where they’re at with their executive functioning. While you can try to assist them in meeting their goals, managing their time, and getting into a routine, they will ultimately need to learn how to do these things on their own. Propose solutions, such as seeking therapy, or consider getting them to speak with a doctor about potential medication options.

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Symptoms of ADHD can make it harder to manage daily life

Online therapy with BetterHelp

Whether you are experiencing signs of executive dysfunction and ADHD yourself or are supporting someone else, it’s important to take care of your mental health. ADHD is complex and affects everyone differently, meaning every person will require a different level of care and treatment to overcome their executive functioning deficits. You can connect with an online therapist through BetterHelp to discuss your potential options, including cognitive behavioral therapy.

Online therapy can be a convenient way to get the support with executive functioning that you or a loved one needs to thrive. Those with ADHD may feel more comfortable connecting with a professional from the comfort of their home rather than in an unfamiliar environment such as a therapist’s office. They can chat over video, through messaging, or over a phone call, allowing them to take more control over their therapeutic experience. This may make sessions more productive and allow them to open up more. 

The efficacy of online therapy

Online therapy can help address a variety of emotional issues, concerning behaviors, developmental disorders, and mental health disorders and help with managing executive functioning. Research has shown that those living with ADHD executive functioning deficits can benefit from talking with an online professional. One study focused on the effectiveness of an internet-delivered intervention for adults with ADHD. Participants reported high satisfaction with the treatment and experienced “a statistically significant reduction in [their] severity of inattention.” Researchers also found that participants’ stress levels fell, and their quality of life improved. 


Problems with planning, managing, and carrying out daily tasks may indicate existing executive function deficiencies. While many different things could cause these issues, including brain injuries and other mental health conditions, ADHD is commonly a factor in executive function disorder. There are several ways to treat executive dysfunction ADHD, each of which works more effectively for some people than others. Whether you’re living with ADHD or supporting a loved one with it, talking about your challenges and struggles can be a much-needed outlet. Connecting with an online therapist allows you to discuss your options for treatment so that you can get back to living a healthy and productive life.
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