Executive Function

Executive function refers to skills that you use to manage everyday tasks like making plans, solving problems and adapting to new situations. The three main skills are working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibition control. These skills develop during your lifetime, often declining as you get older. But there are ways to keep and improve them.

Examples of executive function, like absorbing new information, managing emotions and balancing tasks
Executive functions are mental processes that we use every day to solve problems, make plans and manage emotions.

What is executive function?

Executive function refers to mental processes (executive functioning skills) that help you set and carry out goals. You use these skills to solve problems, make plans and manage emotions. Research suggests strong executive functioning skills make a difference in your mental and physical health and quality of life. Poor skills can affect your ability to do well in school, find and keep a job, or have strong social connections.

There are three main executive functions:

  • Working memory.
  • Cognitive flexibility.
  • Inhibition control.

Research suggests the main executive functions develop at different times throughout your lifetime, starting in infancy. Most types of executive function become less effective as you get older.

Working memory

You rely on working memory to make sense of information that you receive or events that happen over time. For example, say you get your news from a website that posts frequent updates. Working memory is how you integrate new information from a news update on a specific issue with what you read before to adjust how you think and feel about the issue.

Research shows that your working memory executive function develops during childhood and adolescence and reaches its peak in your early 30s. This function starts to decline after age 35 and into middle age and old age (age 65 and older).

Cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility comes into play when you need to adapt to change, whether that’s your personal situation or a change in your environment.

You show cognitive flexibility when you’re able to smoothly shift gears between tasks, thought processes and situations. You use cognitive flexibility when you multitask — for example, answering a colleague’s question while writing an email.

You’re also using cognitive flexibility when you use empathy — like thinking about an issue from another person’s perspective. Likewise, you use this executive function skill to change course when you must solve a problem and realize the solution you had in mind won’t work.

Some experts believe that children start developing cognitive flexibility at age 3 and complete development at age 12. Other experts believe this executive function continues to improve up until around age 29.

Inhibition control (inhibitory control)

This skill focuses on how well you control your thoughts, emotions and focus. By using inhibitory control, you’re able to manage your reactions to situations.

For example, you’d use this executive functioning skill when you focus on a conversation in a noisy office by consciously blocking (inhibiting) other conversations and noise. And if that office conversation takes a turn that makes you feel angry or anxious, inhibition control is how you resist the urge to do something you’ll later regret, like losing your temper and storming out of the office.

Research suggests inhibition control development begins in infancy and starts to decline when you reach your 60s.


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What conditions or issues can affect executive function?

The frontal lobe in your brain manages executive function. While anything that affects your brain tissue can affect your frontal lobe and your executive function skills, some neurodevelopmental (brain development-related) conditions specifically involve frontal lobe effects and symptoms.

Healthcare providers may refer to executive function issues as symptoms of executive dysfunction. Mental health conditions that can cause executive dysfunction include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder.

For example, if you have ADHD, it may be hard for you to manage your behavior (inhibitory control or inhibition control). It may be difficult for you to remember (store) information and integrate that information with new information (working memory).

Brain damage and degenerative brain disorders that can cause executive dysfunction symptoms include:

But experts say other factors, like stress, loneliness, lack of sleep and lack of exercise, can also affect your executive functions.

Are there ways to test executive function?

Yes, your healthcare provider (usually a neurologist) may do a neurological exam. They may order specific tests to evaluate certain types of executive functioning skills.

The Stroop test, for instance, evaluates inhibition control. In this test, researchers ask participants to ignore certain information and focus on other information.

For example, if you’re taking a Stroop test, examiners may display an image of the word “red” that’s written in green-colored text and ask you to say the word you see. To give the correct answer, you need to ignore the urge to say “green” and say the word “red.”


How can I improve my executive function levels?

Experts are researching different ways to improve executive functioning skills. That research ranges from ways to improve skills affected by mental health or medical conditions to boosting skills in people who don’t have an underlying illness. Here are some examples:

  • Computerized cognitive training: Research shows some children with learning disabilities may benefit from training activities to improve word memory and cognitive flexibility.
  • Neurofeedback training: Early research results show that neurofeedback training may improve cognitive flexibility. In neurofeedback training, you work to regulate activity that drives specific executive functions.
  • Mindfulness training: Practicing meditation or participating in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may help improve inhibition control.
  • Exercise: In general, research suggests regular exercise is good for your overall physical and mental health. But exercise that makes you use your brain (cognitive skills) and your body does more to improve executive function. For example, playing basketball puts demands on your executive functioning skills:
    • You use working memory to pass the basketball to another player because you’re processing real-time information about where that player is now and where they’ll probably go next.
    • You use inhibition control, whether that’s keeping your head in the game or resisting the temptation to take a shot instead of passing the ball.
    • You use cognitive flexibility to manage quickly changing circumstances, like an injury that puts one teammate on the bench and puts a new teammate in the game. If you haven’t practiced or played a game with this new teammate, you’ll need to predict their strengths and weaknesses and change your strategy.

Regardless of the activity you do to improve your executive function, studies show progress goes away once you stop the activity.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Ever have to change your mind, make plans or stay calm? Thank your executive functioning skills. The three main executive functions are working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibition control. Some mental health and medical conditions can affect your executive function skills. You may also lose executive function skills as you get older. Talk to a healthcare provider if you notice changes in memory or managing your feelings — these could be issues with your executive function.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 03/15/2024.

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