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The Executive Functioning STOP SignBy Mark Vecchio
What is executive functioning? Picture, if you will, an executive. Now notice some things about this picture. Most images of executives are lofty in a number of ways: working on the top floor, formally dressed (even on “dress-down Fridays”), with clean (not labor-soiled) hands; workers are under the executive; the population at large is held at a distance from the executive’s door, and can only get in for a consultation by making an appointment well in advance, not on the spur of the moment. These are not necessarily distinctions of importance: after all, an executive is of little value without workers. The distinction I’m pointing out is one of separation.
People with ADHD tend to have a whole lot of trouble with one executive in particular—their own inner executive. One leading theory is that the primary deficit in “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” is predominantly one of executive functioning (“EF” for short). One of the most highly respected ADHD researchers, Dr. Russell Barkley, offers this list:
- Inhibition—self-restraint: having a response, yet deciding to hold it back
- Foresight—projecting experience into the future: imaginatively seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and moving at a future time
- Hindsight—reflecting on past sensory and movement experiences and learning from them
- Self-awareness—being conscious of what one is thinking, feeling, wanting, doing
- Sense of time—feeling time passing; correlating self-movement with time passing
- Working (short-term) memory—recalling multiple pieces of verbal and nonverbal information (i.e. speech and images) for work; e.g. hearing a ten-digit phone number and later dialing it accurately
- Planning—hierarchically ordering actions
- Problem solving—revising, reframing, conceiving multiple scenarios…in effect, self-directed playing
- Self-motivation—harnessing one’s will, which is the motive force that drives one’s actions (unharnessed will, for example, can manifest as hyperactivity)
- Emotional self-regulation—feeling strong emotions and letting them pass without becoming overwhelmed by them; self-evoking emotion in the service of one’s goals
The number one essential characteristic of executive functioning, from a usefulness point of view, is that it works with representations of the experiences with which it is concerned. That is, executive functions don’t handle down-in-the-trenches work directly; rather, they handle reports and projections of that work. Executives don’t respond to stimuli. They get a report that a stimulus has been received. They analyze the report. They make a decision. They call in their administrative assistant and instruct the assistant to respond to the stimulus, or delegate the response to a worker. Executive functioning isn’t the hands-on work itself; it considers what work has already occurred in the past, determines what work will be done in the future, plans the work, monitors the work, thinks about and assesses the work, solves problems that arise in the midst of the work, and weathers the ups and downs of the work by keeping the big picture and long-term goals in mind.
Consider the common ADHD symptom hyperfocus, the on-task equivalent of the word banana(nananana—easy to spell, but who knows when to stop?). In a state of hyperfocus, an ADDer can work on a task for—well, let’s just say well past bedtime. To use myself as an example, when I was doing the research on EF that in part resulted in this post, I got interested in the subject, and just kept going. I periodically noted the time, as hour after hour inexorably wheeled by, but I did not feel that the day—and then the night—was getting progressively later (time insensitivity). Instead, I felt a continuous, unchanging sense of being in the moment of doing what I was doing.
Most of the symptoms of ADHD have this in common: being in their own moment of doing whatever the ADDer is doing—daydreaming and not noticing that they’re daydreaming, tapping and humming without noticing they’re tapping and humming, blurting out “Egad, what happened to your face?” to the scarred woman in the elevator without noticing.… In the midst of doing there is no noticing, and thus no self-regulation of the doing.
Something else to notice about the executive: the CEO is responsible for the well being and success of the corporation, in this case the body of the self.1 If we ADDers are to empower our inner CEOs, we have to perform those executive functions. And the only way to perform executive functions is to STOP working.
Don’t worry (or don’t rejoice)—I’m not proposing going on strike from all work. I just mean we have to put up stop signs at important intersections, and actually come to a full stop before proceeding along our route.
(My cousin Sidney tells my favorite stop-sign story. Sid pulls up to a stop sign and sees there’s a cop around the corner, so he slows waaaaaaaay down, till he’s moving like a three-toed sloth, one M.P.W. (mile per week). Sid looks to the right. Sid looks to the left. He eases like a gentleman in a Cadillac through the intersection. Immediately—siren, lights. The cop pulls him over. Sid protests, “Officer, sir, what did I do wrong? I stopped at the stop sign.” The officer flips open his summons book and replies: “Sir, your wheels never stopped turning.”)
David Giwerc, MCC and Founder and President of the ADD Coach Academy, calls this kind of stopping “The Power of the Pause: The Difference Between Reacting Impulsively and Responding Rationally.” Even in the marathon of hyperfocus, ADDers have moments of self-awareness. The main difference between such self-aware moments in an ADDer and a neuro-typical is that for the ADDer these moments don’t automatically result in recoiling and saying, “What the heck am I doing?” Instead, we tend to blow right through those moments of awareness. Even if we slow waaaaaaaay down, our wheels never stop turning. We can take our summons one of two ways: either as a call to appear before the judgment of our external circumstances, which usually results in a hefty fine—a penalty of sleep or productivity or time with loved ones…whatever our hyperfocusing typically costs us;—or we can take the summons as a call to our own inner judgment. Stop and ask some executive questions: What has happened when I’ve done this before? Tomorrow, what will I wish I had decided to do right now? How much time is passing for other people close to me while I’m engaged in this activity? What goal did I originally set out to accomplish when I started doing this? Problem solve. Plan. What does your heart feel is the course of action most in alignment with your intentions and values?
These are not light questions, and the answers you give to them are consequential. Before getting into them, though, I recommend taking them into your office—the biggest, cushiest, highest-up, picture-windowed corner office you can imagine. Take a few moments. Breathe. Relax. Take as much time as you need to arrive at a decision in your head that feels right in your gut.
“Corporate,” from the Latin corporatus, means “formed into a body.” ↩
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