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Executive Dysfunction by Sarah Palmer

If you have ADHD, you’re probably already familiar with the concept of executive dysfunction. While executive dysfunction is not exclusive to ADHD, most people with ADHD struggle with some level of executive dysfunction. Executive functioning allows an individual to control their actions with varying amounts of effort. Executive function is what allows us to overcome procrastination, to create a schedule and stick with it, and maintain interest in a task that may be difficult and not immediately rewarding. On the flip side, executive function also allows us to stop doing an activity that is rewarding (fun) in order to do a task that isn’t.

People with ADHD often struggle with impaired executive function: executive dysfunction. Something I wish the people around me understood is how genuinely difficult completing a seemingly simple task can be. As I write this, I have a month’s worth of schoolwork to catch up on and two exams in four days. I’ve been excited about writing this piece, but I haven’t had the energy to force myself to write until now, the day it is due. In the time that I was supposed to have been doing all of these things, what did I do? I spent an hour making a schedule detailing when I should be writing, studying, or relaxing that I successfully ignored for the entire month of May. I tried to shame myself into completing some schoolwork. I tried to appeal to my reward-hungry brain by thinking about how interesting it would be to write this article, and how disappointed I would be in myself if I didn’t finish it on time. I read thousands of pages of fantasy novels. I tried the Pomodoro method (twenty minutes on, five minutes off). I researched male pattern baldness for several days, even though I have no leg in that race. I just thought it was interesting. I tried studying alone, in the same room as someone else, with music, in silence. Evidently, none of my strategies worked, or this piece of writing would be much better quality and have much more direction than it does. Now, I’m desperately trying to finish this article in the middle of studying for exams, and I’m buzzing with nervous energy that can best be described as a hive of bees swarming in my brain.

When I try to tell my friends without ADHD about this, they say “oh, everyone has issues with procrastination. Everyone has difficulty sticking to a schedule.” This might be true, but I can’t help but think that my case is a little more than procrastination. Most people I know usually don’t have to ask for an extension for almost every paper they turn in. Most people don’t read several fantasy novels in the span of six days instead of their textbooks, at the cost of their sleep, diet, and hygiene. Most people I know are able to prioritize and dedicate a healthy amount of time to the priorities they’ve set. Though I’ve been diagnosed for three years and dutifully take my medication every day, I seem to have made very little progress on this front. Often, when I try to talk about my issues with executive dysfunction, people like to tell me I’m just lazy. I hate that more than anything else, because it devalues all of the effort I put into completing a task. It’s not that I think about studying and decide to blow it off, it’s that I think about studying and the thought of sitting down for an hour and reading notes physically paralyzes me.

Now, to be honest with you, I really don’t have any tips on how to hack executive dysfunction. I can’t say I’ve found one strategy that’s worked for me over a long period of time. What has worked for me, however, is accepting that sometimes my brain won’t do what I want it to do. Forgiving myself for missed opportunities. Congratulating myself for turning in a paper that is a day late, even if I get a 5% deduction, because I finished the paper and that’s worth something! Shaming myself into working has never been effective, it only makes me want to avoid doing the work more. If you struggle with executive dysfunction it can be very hard to acknowledge your own hard work, because often the amount you put out doesn’t seem to align with the effort you put in. Working your hardest every day is exhausting! It’s okay to take a break, and it’s okay to be less productive than your neurotypical peers. Sometimes you just need to sit down and play video games for 8 hours straight.

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