When I first learned about the concept of executive function, in fact, I was astonished and, to be honest, angry. “You mean,” I said to my psychologist, “some people have a secretary in their brains? A secretary who takes care of all that scheduling, and staying on top of deadlines, and keeping track of paperwork? You mean, it’s not that I’m just lazy and other people are willing to work harder than me? They actually have a secretary in their brain that I am missing?”
I felt frustrated and angry about the years of shame and of feeling incompetent that I had, it seemed, unnecessarily endured. But I also felt hopeful: maybe I could get one of those secretaries—maybe medication and coaching and strategies and life hacks could add up to the secretary I was missing, and I could finally be “normal.”
“This certainly seems to be the single-minded focus—one could almost say hyper-focus—of a vast mental health and educational industry aimed at neurodivergent folks: to teach us executive functioning skills and make us normal!”
Which, on the surface, seems great, right? Who wants messes, and lost keys, and missed deadlines, when being a normal, competent, high-functioning adult is within grasp? Treating executive dysfunction, on the face of it, seems like an unmitigated good . . . but, I am coming to wonder, at what cost to our creative lives?
According to Janice Rodden in an article in Additude Magazine, executive function refers to “the cognitive or mental abilities that people need to actively pursue goals.” Executive functions, according to Rodden, allow people to:
Analyze a task
Plan how to address the task
Organize the steps needed to carry out the task
Develop timelines for completing the task
Adjust or shift the steps, if needed, to complete the task
Complete the task in a timely way.
Executive dysfunction—a condition widely associated with many neurodivergent conditions, including bipolar, ADHD, and autism—is typically understood to include a range of behaviors and traits such as impulsivity, problems prioritizing, disorganization, poor time management and difficulty focusing that make this linear progression from task analysis to task completion difficult.