Models for coaching

Executive Function

Executive Function is a set of cognitive skills to help us manage tasks and goals. They contribute towards working memory, flexible thinking, task management and problem solving.

Useful in coaching for Building a Plan, Self-Awareness, Setting Goals, Understanding Behaviour 

Executive Function Model

What is Executive Function?

Executive Function is part of wider psychological thinking that explores the cognitive skills we need to manage tasks, practice self-regulation and solve problems. In our heavily task-oriented world these are the tools we draw on to get stuff done, achieve our goals and develop relationships with others.

Think of them as the underlying framework that controls your behavioural management system. Each performs a slightly different aspect but all are important to help us function day-to-day. They’re particularly important with task completion, controlling our behaviour and how we respond to stress.

Because modern life is so heavily built around tasks and achievements, any difficulty with executive function can make life challenging. This in turn can mean making change happen or completing things you start more of a struggle.

Executive Function is often used in child developmental psychology – particularly for children who may have developmental challenges. It’s a useful diagnosis tool and a framework to explore improvements.

For anyone struggling with Executive Function, it can be improved and developed. So, if it’s impacting your life, it is something you can enhance over time.

How can we use Executive Function in coaching?

There’s lots of ways Executive Function can be used in coaching because it covers so many areas. If you’re trying to make changes in your life, trying to get more stuff done or trying to improve relationships – it’s highly likely Executive Function will play a part.

There’s lots of factors that affect how we perform across Executive Function, and some people will naturally find the skills easier than others. They are, however, not an indication of overall potential.

How we can use Executive Function as a coaching tool to:

  • Diagnosis – it can be useful to use Executive Function as an early stage diagnosis tool, exploring areas or improvement or development.
  • Self-reflection – we can use one or all of the topics to reflect on ourselves, and dive more deeply into the “why” behind certain behaviours and feelings.
  • Planning – to use themes uncovered to create a plan for change. Focusing on areas that will give the most impact for the least energy investment.
  • Setting goals – as a way to articulate and set certain goals, which encourage the development of Executive Function skills.

It can also be a highly effective tool in more specific coaching environments, such as:

Coaching Children: Coaching young people often involves some aspect of exploring Executive Function, particularly if looking at developmental challenges. Therapists or coaches can to use it as a measurement tool in early diagnosis, and then in

ADHD/Focus Difficulties: Executive Function, because of it’s focus on task completion and behaviour, tends to play a role in Coaching for ADHD too. It’s a useful framework to explore current attention difficulty, hyperactivity and impulsiveness

Tasks / Goals: The size of the personal productivity market highlights how many of us would like to improve our task and activity completion. Executive Function can play an important role in realising these goals, and linked with an effective approach to making change it can improve the changes of sustainable change.

How to explore Executive Function in coaching

Executive Function is a huge topic, so we’re going to take a quick look at each of the 8 areas commonly associated with it.

It’s worth noting that we all struggle with these areas from time to time. They’re so fundamental to our day-to-day lives it’s hard for them not to play a part. They’re worth focusing on when they’re detrimentally effecting your life in more significant ways or impacting where you want to go.

The 8 areas associated with Executive Function

The 8 areas associated with the Executive Functioning Model

Broadly speaking, there are eight areas commonly associated with Executive Function. They are:

  1. Self-control
  2. Self-monitoring
  3. Emotional control
  4. Flexibility
  5. Task initiation
  6. Organisation
  7. Working memory
  8. Time management

We’ll run through each of them briefly.

1. Self-Control (impulse control)

Our ability to control our reactions and manage impulses

Executive Functioning Model - 1. Self-Control

Self-control (or impulse control as it’s often called) relates to our ability to control and regulate our emotions, feelings and behaviours.

It’s how easily and effectively we can control what we want to do versus how we eventually behave. In simple terms, it’s our ability to manage the emotional process from initial reaction vs considered response. A reaction being our instantaneous behaviour to the situation, and a response tending to be a more considered (and often less emotional) approach to the situation.

It’s also linked to how we control our feelings vs our feelings controlling us. A useful way to think about it who’s in the driving seat and who’s the passenger.

When we lack that self-control we often act impulsively or say the first thing that comes into our head without thinking. We also struggle to manage our instant gratification – preferring it over more deferred gratification. We can also struggle to control how we feel, leading to a sense of hopelessness or being out of control.

Examples of self-control looks like:

  • Our ability to stick with tasks we don’t enjoy or require deferred gratification.
  • The way we behave when emotionally challenged or faced with a high-stress situation.
  • Resisting peer pressure or being swayed by external forces.
  • Having healthy limits, self-control and balance with areas such as food and exercise.

2. Self-Monitoring

Our ability to observe and monitor our own behaviour

Executive Functioning Model - 2. Self-Monitoring

Self-monitoring is the ability to observe and monitor our behaviour. It enables us to think before we act and be self-aware of how best to navigate situations. It’s closely linked with emotional intelligence and plays an important role in tribal contexts.

Self-monitoring is also responsible for our self-perception – how effective we are at seeing how we come across, are perceived, sound like and behave. In this way, it’s how conscious we are of the way we are in the world and systems around us.

A lack of self-monitoring can come across as being self-unaware and oblivious. It often comes from a lack of insight into ones own affect on those around them. This in turn can make social situations difficult or cause people to act inappropriately within the social context.

Examples of self-monitoring looks like:

  • How we manage ourselves in tribes and groups.
  • How conscious we are of our tone, mannerisms and demeanour.
  • How perceptive we are of our behaviours and how they impact those around us.

3. Emotional Control or Regulation

Our ability to manage feelings to achieve goals

Executive Functioning Model - 3. Emotional Control

Emotional control relates to how we manage our emotional state – specifically in terms of achieving goals or tasks that we need to complete. It can be seen as the characteristics of grit and determination in the face of challenge or adversity.

Regulating our emotions helps us to manage our lives day-to-day, achieve tasks and balance ourselves in a social context. It also keeps us from giving up when things get difficult or cause us stress.

It’s related to our social-emotional learning capacity, our ability to build healthy relationships, behave ethically and function in a social context.

A lack of emotional control can make it difficult to maintain an emotional balance in social situations or regulate our emotions in adverse or difficult situations. This, in turn, can make seeing things through to the end more difficult.

Examples of self-monitoring looks like:

  • Our ability to remain emotionally balanced.
  • How we’re able to make ethical and moral judgements.
  • Our ability to form healthy bonds and relationships with others.
  • Levels of empathy and care towards others.
  • How we respond to feedback and differing opinions.

4. Flexibility

Our ability to adapt to changing conditions

Executive Functioning Model - 4. Flexibility

The only constant is change, as the old adage goes. In Executive Function, flexibility relates to our ability to adapt and change based on the situation and environment we’re in.

Flexibility allows us to change how we’re being based on the situation we find ourselves in. It involves cognitive reasoning and analysis of both our behaviour and the social context we find ourselves in. People with high levels of flexibility are able to thrive in ever-changing environments and are not as heavily affects by changes.

Difficulty in flexibility make it hard to flex and shift to different environments or situations. It can often mean the behaviour feels out of place for the situation. It also makes it more difficult to adapt to changes in the status quo.

Examples of self-monitoring looks like:

  • How we can change behaviour to fit the situation – at work or at home.
  • How easily we can flex when we’re faced with new information, context or situations.
  • Ability to see different perspectives and differences of opinions.
  • Being comfortable accepting others opinions and recognising them as valid.

5. Task Initiation

Our ability to start and finish tasks without procrastination

Executive Functioning Model - 5. Task Initiation

Task initiation is about our ability to “get started” and begin tasks – even if they’re not immediately appealing or require discomfort on our part.

It requires a range of skills such as problem solving, task structuring and responding to instructions or desired outcome. It relates specifically to our ability to achieve tasks in a considered, constructive way, and remain “on task”.

Difficulty with Task Initiation can mean avoiding tasks which aren’t immediately easy or pleasurable, or tasks that require significant problem solving or lateral thinking.

Examples of Task Initiation looks like:

  • Ability to respond quickly to task requirements.
  • Tackling tasks and not procrastinating or using deferral behaviours.
  • Tackling tasks in a constructive and considered way.
  • Being self-determined in beginning tasks.
  • Comfortable in starting tasks that aren’t immediately appealing or enjoyable.

6. Organisation

Executive Functioning Model - 6. Organisation

Organisation in executive function relates to how we manage our time, resources, activities and responsibilities. It’s our ability to stay focused and complete tasks.

Think of this as the way we manage the things we need to do, how we prioritise doing them and how we go about getting them done. These all require planning, action and the ability to see tasks to their completion.

A lack of organisation can make it difficult to prioritise the most important or prudent tasks, remain “on task” and have a clear process for completing tasks.

Examples of Organisation looks like:

  • How we manage our time through the day.
  • How well we manage current and future tasks.
  • Our ability to remain focused and see tasks to completion.

7. Working Memory

Executive Functioning Model - 7. Working Memory

Working memory is our ability to store information in our minds for the purposes of completing tasks, responding to situations and judging the appropriate behaviours in social situations.

Working memory almost acts as our built in RAM. Storing important or essential information that enables us to work on the task at hand.

Difficulties with working memory can make it hard to retain information necessary to complete tasks and recall important information.

Working Memory looks like:

  • Connecting disparate information to form analysis and develop conclusions.
  • Recalling important information such as numbers, times and locations.
  • Being able to complete multi-step tasks without the need to be reminded of information.

8. Time management

Executive Functioning Model - 8. Time Management

Executive Function looks at how well we manage our responsibilities, tasks and outputs and how we’re able to manage our time effectively to achieve these.

It it responsible for how we use our time, how this relates to task we need to achieve and how hard we find it to stay on task during the day.

Difficulties with time management can make it hard to complete tasks, stay focused or manage limited time effectively.

Examples of Time Management looks like:

  • How effectively and productively we use our time.
  • How we’re able top balance our priorities and time requirements.
  • Our ability to remain focused on tasks and use time to complete them effectively.

Summary of Executive Function

Executive Functions are important skills for our ability to complete tasks and function day to day. They are a learnable skill and can be developed and improved on. Difficulties with Executive Functions can make situations, tasks and social settings more challenging.

Executive Function Template

If you’d like to explore Executive Functions at work or at home, you can download the PDF template below. It’s a summary of the 8 key Executive Functions and their roles.

Executive Function Model

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