How ADHD Can Impact Executive Function

ADHD Executive Function: Understanding Its Impact

What are executive functions and how are they affected by ADHD? Executive functions are crucial cognitive processes responsible for managing tasks, controlling impulses, and planning for the future. In individuals with ADHD, these functions can be impaired, leading to challenges with organization, focus, and decision-making. Treating ADHD often involves strategies to bolster these executive skills, enhancing the ability to make good decisions, maintain motivation, and navigate daily tasks with improved health and organization. Recognizing and addressing these challenges can lead to significant progress in managing ADHD symptoms.

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Written by

Alice Gendron

Founder of The Mini ADHD Coach

Reviewed by

Tayler Hackett

TMAC Editorial Manager & Trainee Psychotherapist
In this Article

Reviewed by

Tayler Hackett

TMAC Editorial Manager & Trainee Psychotherapist
A word from our expert

Executive Dysfunction & Its Impact on Everyday Life

Struggling with organization, time and focus are all daily realities for people with ADHD. But why? How exactly does ADHD affect our ability to function effectively?

It’s all about executive function.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how ADHD affects our executive functioning and adds a little extra challenge to our days. 

We’ll explore:

  • What executive dysfunction is and the connection between ADHD and executive functioning.
  • The three areas of executive function: working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control.
  • Everyday examples of how executive dysfunction shows up. 
  • Practical strategies for managing executive function problems and improving your executive functioning skills.

You may already know how ADHD impacts your life. Now it’s time to find out why. 👇

The ADHD-Executive Function Connection

Before diving deeper, let's first understand ADHD and executive function.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, better known as ADHD, is a neurodivergent disorder associated with the lack of brain chemical production, such as dopamine and norepinephrine. 🧠

ADHD starts in childhood and persists into adulthood, contrary to popular belief. While there are common symptoms like lack of focus, concentration, and motivation, each person with ADHD has their own unique challenges and experiences. 

These symptoms can get worse without treatment and ADHD is also directly linked to many chronic mental health conditions like anxiety and depression that can co occur. This is why it’s important to seek an official diagnosis from a medical professional.

Executive Function

Executive functions are the mental processes that help us plan, organize, and remember details. Our executive functioning skills include working memory, flexible or critical thinking, and self-control.  

The comprehensive executive function inventory is a necessary process handled by our brain’s prefrontal cortex (within the frontal lobe). This is how we navigate our daily lives and do whatever we’re supposed to be doing.

Research shows that executive function skills start developing soon after birth, with the ages of 3 to 5 being a critical period for significant growth in these areas. These skills continue to mature through adolescence and into early adulthood, with development typically peaking around age 30.

Executive Dysfunction in ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is considered a developmental disability, often delaying early development by 30-40%, including the prefrontal cortex and its executive functions. 

That’s why both children and adults with ADHD typically have executive dysfunction, which means the brain's self-management system doesn’t operate as it should.

Now we’ve identified the link, let’s look at the three main executive functions.

The Three Areas of Executive Function

There are three areas of executive functioning:

  • Working Memory (including short-term memory utilization)
  • Cognitive Flexibility (problem-solving)
  • Inhibitory Control (self-control)

As you can imagine, we constantly need each of these in our day-to-day activities, so you can probably understand how ADHD can affect them.

Working Memory

Think of your working memory like the email inbox of your mind. 📨

All your incoming emails contain pieces of information to remember. Your working memory’s job is to filter these emails, temporarily storing the important messages until they are processed, or actioned. 

Basically, your working memory allows us to remember the things we need for a short period, long enough to perform a task. 

For an ADHD brain, this mental inbox can be easily overloaded or glitchy, occasionally missing or misplacing important information, or prioritizing the wrong things. We’ll often find ourselves forgetting verbal instructions and struggling to recall specific details. 

Our working memory is constantly struggling to retain and retrieve information efficiently, impacting the performance and attention of our brain.

If you’re always forgetting and losing things like I am, that’s working memory. 

Inhibitory Control

Inhibitory control is our ability to resist temptation. 

While the exact cause of ADHD remains unclear, dopamine's role as a key neurotransmitter in regulating emotions and motivation for rewards is being studied. 

Individuals with ADHD may have altered dopamine levels, with some research pointing to higher dopamine transporter density (DTD) in the brain. This difference could influence the search for activities or items that increase dopamine, such as certain foods or engaging in social media. 

This means that while others can resist that temptation thanks to good inhibitory control, we’re more likely to give into those urges, leading to procrastination and hasty decisions. 

Self-regulation, which is the difference between making impulsive decisions and taking the time to think before acting, is an essential skill we learn as we grow up. 

This function also provides self-awareness and monitors different environmental stimuli to respond appropriately. With this impairment, those with ADHD may struggle to control their thoughts and impulses and make bad decisions, often with undesirable consequences.

Critical Thinking Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to think of something in more than one way.

You may have already seen this in your own life, but scientific studies suggest that people with ADHD can be more creative with outside-the-box thinking. 

That’s because our hyperactive brains are constantly seeking stimulation, bouncing around from idea to idea. 

Of course, not only is this exhausting, but this critical thinking flexibility can also lead to difficulties in more mundane tasks that require focus and attention to detail, not creativity.

Following instructions can be tough because our brains want to think creatively, but that’s not always what’s needed. 

In a very literal example, if you’re putting together furniture, the best way to get the outcome you expect (the picture on the website) is to follow the instructions, not get creative.

People with ADHD struggle with time management because keeping to a schedule is a form of following instructions. If you’re anything like me, ‘getting creative’ with time just sounds like another way to say ‘late’. 😂

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The Daily Challenges of Executive Dysfunction

Living with ADHD often means navigating the hurdles of deficits in executive functioning skills, where our brains may process and store information differently from neurotypicals. 

Here are some real-world executive dysfunction examples of how executive dysfunction manifests in our daily activities:

Task Initiation

Initiating tasks can be a daunting feat for individuals with ADHD, often due to a lack of drive or motivation to actually start. 

While we may hyperfocus on details, especially if we’re excited about  long term projects, it’s usually the execution where we fail. 😬

Starting activities, sustaining interest, and completing tasks, especially under time constraints, pose ongoing challenges. The difficulty in organizing and maintaining momentum (not to mention perfectionism) can leave us feeling unmotivated and overwhelmed.

start working

Regulating Impulsivity

Since we struggle to plan and organize, juggling all the different tasks, projects, and priorities we impulsively said yes to doing can be impossible. 

We can perfectly plan and time block our days, certain we have the time, energy, and interest to finish everything on our to-do lists. And then we end up watching hours of YouTube instead (usually as avoidance behavior because we’re overwhelmed). The sun sets and nothing is finished. 😭

Often self-restraint can seem non-existent.

regulating impulsivity

Managing Emotions

Personally, one of my biggest ADHD challenges is managing and regulating my emotions. 

Personally, managing and regulating my emotions has been a significant ADHD challenge for me. As a kid, I experienced a lot of overwhelming anger and sadness when I should have been able to manage it (if I was neurotypical). Criticism and feedback often resulted in feelings of deep rejection. 

ADHD experts suggest that by age 10, children with ADHD encounter far more negative feedback compared to positive reinforcement, impacting self-esteem and sensitivity to rejection right into adulthood. 

As a result, learning self-monitoring and emotional regulation techniques is crucial, not just for navigating social interactions but also for bolstering self-esteem and fostering healthier relationships.

managing emotions

Memory Challenges

Since people with ADHD haven’t got the best short-term memory, we tend to miss deadlines and misplace things.

Our working memory functions differently, making it difficult to recall information in sequence or prioritize tasks effectively. Having a list of items to buy or do isn’t always enough.

utilizing memory

Paying Attention Amid Distractions

Fun fact: I usually get distracted while writing these articles. 

In the time it takes to write this, I’ve probably checked my emails three times, signed up to two newsletters and scrolled through my feeds (yes, multiple). 

For individuals with ADHD, distractions are a significant barrier to productivity and focus. The tendency to shift attention from one stimulus to another, often unrelated, task is common, complicating the ability to concentrate on priority activities. 

Whether it's an unexpected noise, a buzzing phone, or just random thoughts, these distractions can derail efforts to stay on task. 😵‍💫

staying focused

Practical Tips for Managing ADHD Executive Dysfunction

Living with ADHD and executive dysfunction brings daily challenges, but there are things we can do. 


  • Use visual aids: Create to-do lists, calendars, or visual schedules to outline tasks and deadlines. Checking off to-dos can give you dopamine! 📝
  • Break tasks into smaller steps: Divide larger tasks into manageable chunks to prevent overwhelm and encourage progress.
  • Give every belonging a home: Create spaces for important items, such as keys, wallets, and documents and stick to it. 🔑📱
  • Build routines: Daily routines and habits (while difficult for us) can be incredibly helpful to add predictability and structure to your day.

Time Management

  • Set timers and reminders: Use alarms or smartphone apps to break tasks into manageable time blocks and stay on track. One way to avoid a ‘wasted day’ is to divide your days into four time blocks and treat each as a reset. New block, new day. ⏲️
  • Always give yourself more time: With our time blindness, nothing rarely takes the time we think it does. Make sure you always account for tasks, meetings and travel overrunning. 
  • Limit distractions: Minimize distractions like clutter, noise, and unnecessary notifications and you’ll whiz through your tasks.
  • Schedule regular breaks: Don’t forget to take short and regular breaks to prevent burnout and maintain productivity. 🛋️

staying focused

Emotional Regulation

  • Practice mindfulness: Many adults with ADHD swear by mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or meditation, to regulate their emotions and reduce stress.
  • Move: Regular exercise is proven to release pent-up energy and promote emotional well-being. If exercise isn’t an option, just try to add more movement into your days.
  • Seek support: Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, family, or mental health professionals who can offer guidance and support.
  • Develop self-awareness: Learn to recognize early signs of emotional dysregulation and learn coping strategies, such as taking a break or engaging in a calming activity, to regain control.

By incorporating these practical tips into your daily routine, you can better manage executive dysfunction associated with ADHD and navigate life with greater ease and confidence. 

If you feel like you need professional medical advice or support with your executive function skills, always reach out. People want to help you! 💖

How ADHD can impact executive function
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How ADHD Can Impact Executive Function: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

How does ADHD affect executive function?

ADHD impacts executive function by making it harder to manage tasks, focus, plan, and organize. This can lead to challenges in completing tasks and regulating emotions due to difficulties in managing the cognitive processes that guide goal-directed behavior.

What does ADHD executive dysfunction feel like?

Individuals might feel overwhelmed by daily tasks, struggle to start or finish projects and find it hard to prioritize. This can result in feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and being constantly behind.

Do ADHD meds fix executive dysfunction?

Medications can help manage symptoms of ADHD, potentially improving executive function by increasing attention and concentration. However, medication effectiveness varies and may be more effective alongside behavioral strategies for comprehensive management.

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