3 Tips for Improving Executive Function Skills

Today we’re going to focus on 3 simple strategies that you can start using right away for improving executive function skills.

Many difficulties with executive function stem from problems with working memory. Working memory is often described as the “gateway” to the executive functions. It describes our brain’s process of chewing over information to decide what to do with it. If long-term memory is the brain’s hard drive, then working memory is like our brains’ RAM…it describes the process of manipulating incoming information, and either synthesizing it with other information to make a decision or action, or tucking it away for later use, to be stored into long-term memory.

Some examples of working memory in action include:

  • Remembering what you read at the beginning of a paragraph by the time you’re at the end of a paragraph.
  • Transferring information from attention into long-term memory.
  • Remembering the first part of a sentence/conversation/lecture to connect it to the next part and making sense of the idea as a whole.
  • Remembering the next step in multi-step directions.
  • Holding onto an important piece of information in the face of distraction (ringing phone, shouting sibling, etc.)
  • Connecting new information with information located in long-term memory to make an informed decision. (For example, considering how a new task/ project/ commitment will fit into an existing schedule.)

Since working memory is obviously so critical, many executive function strategies target it specifically. Today we’ll focus on the top 3 ways to boost your working memory.

Tip #1: Make the Important Things Stand Out!

  • Do Things Right Away

Don’t give information the opportunity to get knocked out of your working memory. If mom says take out the trash, then take out the trash…Now! Don’t give yourself the opportunity to get distracted.

  • Use Devices to Remind Yourself

A simple trick is to use items as their own reminders- if you’re trying to remember to check your schedule each morning, leave your schedule at the breakfast table, and when you see it in the morning, you’ll be reminded to check it. You could also use a reminder device- a “string around your finger.” Put a yellow highlighter in your pocket- when you find it later, you’ll be reminded…”oh yeah, ask mom about…”

  • Ask For Help

You’re not alone! It’s ok to ask people that you trust (mom, dad, teachers, etc.) to remind you of important things that you need to remember later.

  • Hi-Lite Information

When reading, hi-lite important info, underline – whatever it take to make the information stand out.

  • Use Notes and Technology

Put up yellow stickies to remind yourself of things, set reminders in your phone or your iPod. The idea is simply to get information out of your head, and to give it a concrete form that you can’t simply forget.

Tip #2: Get it Out of Your Head!

  • Write out complicated problems and scenarios on paper, don’t try to keep them in your head!

If you try to do everything in your head, it’s easy to forget the start of the solution by the time you reach the end.

  • Refer back to directions often!

Use notes to keep track of where you are, or what comes next. Don’t try to keep it all in your head!

  • Write yourself reminders or set alarms.

Do it or snooze it! Don’t just turn off alarms. Either deal with the item right away, or snooze it, so that you’ll get another reminder later.

Tip #3: Reduce Distractions

  • When it’s time for HW, turn off electronics (phone, Facebook, etc.)

You can use internet browser tools like Freedom to limit your access to certain websites for set periods of time (if 3p-5p is HW time, cut yourself off from FaceBook, for example, and turn off your phone.)

  • Get rid of clutter

When your work space is covered with different papers, books, magazines, etc, those are dozens of different little stimuli all vying for your attention. By cleaning out your workspace, you eliminate all that background noise.

  • If using to-do lists (awesome!) cross off items after you complete them.

Physically crossing items off your list helps to cue your brain to move on. Get them off your screen!


So, the 3 keys here come down to:

  • Reducing distractions
  • Making the important stuff stand out
  • Getting it all out of your head!

Take some of the burden off your working memory by using these simple tools for improving executive function skills.