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Self-awareness of executive functioning is a superpower

When I say the words "executive functioning," most people think of meeting agendas and Monthly Business Review PowerPoint presentations. But executive functions are a bundle of cognitive abilities that control the skills required for goal-directed behavior.

Sara Lobkovich
Sara Lobkovich
8 min read
Self-awareness of executive functioning is a superpower
Just a sunset from our travel this time.

Part of the joy of my work is that I get to observe a LOT of people working together and individually toward goals so every day is a human behavior sandbox. It's never a dull moment.

I've been drawn to assessments and models for better understanding what makes us similar and different for a long time. At worst, assessments and models can be harmful when they slice us into "teams" or when we apply them with judgment.  At best, they may be helpful for building empathy and acceptance of differences with others; and self-acceptance around the ways we may feel different from others.

My fascination with assessments started with a conflict style assessment I took during my mediation training (that may have actually changed my life). Around the same time I read The Five Love Languages, and it blew my mind that people could have such different ways of experiencing the world (and such different needs, to feel and give love).

I remember finding value in the DiSC assessments (and less so, the Discovery Insights framework) we used when I was on staff at REI. I know my Meyers-Briggs type (INFJ), my Clifton Strengths (Strategic, Learner, Responsibility, Futuristic, Maximizer), and my sun and rising signs (Libra / Leo). I have friends who are into Enneagram but my results don't feel on point (Helper / Reformer – Reformer fits, but the "Helper" name fits in some ways, although may be more a measure of my conditioning, and the description doesn't fit at all).

(I wrote that paragraph yesterday and I'm writing this one today, and yesterday after writing that I had an epiphany about that Enneagram mismatch. Their descriptions have huge gaps around variability in executive functions. The Enneagram "Helper" description reads like I might be if I had the executive functioning the authors of Enneagram presume and I definitely Do Not. But more on that in a moment.)

In the very first OKR Coach Certification training I completed (as a student, that I now teach) a unit that stood out to me was applying Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm technology adoption bell curve to peoples' orientations around change – that there are some people who fall into "Fast Mover" groups around change, and a a large "Middle Majority" of more pragmatic and conservative change orientations, with "Laggards" or people who are skeptical about change needing more time and data to get comfortable with the idea of change.

Only a small sliver of the population can rattle off all these "types" and those of us to can and do are a "type." That orientation drew me to coaching (some wind up counselors). Part of my coach training was becoming aware of and skilled with some other typical assessments, and I do use assessments when I work 1:1 with clients not because the assessments are always "right" or because I believe the science behind them – but because they give us ways to question our assumptions or stories about ourselves AND develop empathy and a toolkit for working with others who may be similar or different from us with fewer self-based assumptions.

In the way my world and work goes, there's a winding together of my interest and curiosity around executive functioning.

When I say the words "executive functioning," most people think of meeting agendas and Monthly Business Review PowerPoint presentations. But executive functions are a bundle of cognitive abilities that control the skills required for goal-directed behavior.

Spoiler alert: I'm about to talk about some details of executive function – so if you'd like to do a quick assessment of your own executive function superpowers and challenges before you read any more, here's a very simple assessment to do so online although the one I prefer is in a (print) book called "The Smart But Scattered Guide to Success" (don't bother with the Audible listen, since it doesn't include the downloads; I can't say for the Kindle version, I haven't downloaded it)

(If you want a copy of the version I like best, drop me a reply – I only have a copy I took the assessment on and is no longer available as a download, but it's so helpful I need to make a clean copy for use with clients, so I'll send you one when I do).

then you can come back here and keep reading.

Here's the full dictionary definition:

And if you work in learning or have any connection to people who have ADHD or autism, you're likely familiar with this all. But if this concept is new to you, read on.

I'm not going to dive into the brain parts of it because I'm a coach / consultant, not a neurologist. But my layperson understanding is that the prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that governs – among other things – executive functions.

(An aside: there's a relationship between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala and child development that I'm fascinated with – the amygdala recognizes threats and sounds alarm bells. The prefrontal cortex signals the amygdala whether the alarm is justified. As I learn more about living with and managing my own anxiety and depression, the chickens and eggs here are a topic of endless fascination for me. I'm getting better at noticing what's firing first and how that affects my feelings of anxiety / where they feel like they're coming from – in a way that's helping me be more curious and less anxious and that's cool. Brains are amazing.)

Back to executive functions. Different authors identify them differently, but the list in the assessment I find most helpful is:

  1. Response inhibition
  2. Working memory
  3. Emotional control
  4. Task initiation
  5. Sustained attention
  6. Planning/prioritizing
  7. Organization
  8. Time management
  9. Flexibility
  10. Metacognition
  11. Goal-directed persistence
  12. Stress tolerance.

In my own assessment result, my strongest scores were on metacognition (awareness of and understanding of one's own thought processes), goal-directed persistence and stress tolerance.


My weak areas were (as my husband could have told you without an assessment) organization (which may surprise some colleagues, since this is a place I appear to overfunction, but it's to compensate for my gaps), time management and working memory.


The only reason I remember these is that I'm looking at the assessment result right now: my working memory is so incredibly bad I can't summon up that simple list without my notes (and even worse right now because I'm so tired from the last few weeks of work and racing and travel).

I've started using this assessment with my coaching clients since I've found that awareness so helpful for me: it helps me recognize what's in my zone of genius and what skills are compensation (e.g. I've developed a strong planning toolkit at work to compensate for my weaknesses in organization and time management – but that planning toolkit is a coping mechanism, not a super power).

Over time I've also noticed that a lot of my feelings of little-a-anxiety come from my lack of time management (or even time awareness)(which may be time agnosia, which you might have heard called "time blindness" but that term is ableist and objected to by people who are limited-sight).

My experience of time is not fixed. I have no sense of how long a minute is. If I'm balancing the checkbook a minute feels like 15 (and I'm probably making a minute's worth of work 15 by doing other things too, like unloading the dishwasher halfway or moving the laundry to the dryer and forgetting it's there, or researching an idea that popped into my head or suddenly remembering that thing I forgot earlier today and then tackling it before I forget it again).

If I'm researching or writing, a minute feels like a second and the time passes like OMG how is it 9pm and I haven't eaten lunch yet.

This – as you can imagine – makes me interesting to live with.

I'm more aware of these tendencies now, so I'm working on management strategies.

But I find it fascinating that twenty years ago (or more) I started using the pomodoro method to focus and get through my work with less distraction and never even noticed that other people didn't seem to have to. I still, to this day, use pomodoro – there is a 20 minute timer set right now, as I write this, with 12 minute left on the clock, so that when it dings I take a 5 minute break to stretch and move and have a glass of water before setting another 20 minute timer to finish this post and then that's it – I have to stop writing, wherever I am, to make it to an appointment on time.

Lately, as I pay even more attention to my lack of time awareness (since it is such a stresser in the household and such a consistent contributor to my own anxiety) I've noticed that digital clocks don't help the matter. If I look at a digital clock, it tells me the present time, and that's cool. But it doesn't give me any indication of how fast time is passing. And I also can't "work backward" from digital clocks (which I've become acutely aware of managing our track timing when we're out for race rounds – if I have to do a workback time check for the team, I can't do it based on math and numbers even if I write them down. If I have to do the math on 60, 45, 30, 20, 15, 10, 5, 3, 2, and 1 minute countdowns to our pit-lane-open time I literally can't do it correctly without either literally writing out every step of the math or pulling up an analog clock so I can see the hands and then I can quick-think the workback based on the physical hands).

So I'm switching to a watch with the option for hands to display even if they're digital, and I'm adding analog clocks around the house since they give me a better idea of how fast time feels to me given whatever activity I'm working on so I can self-monitor better.

I use tools to try to balance out my gaps – with time stuff, the app Brili helps me get through my morning and evening chore routines because it keeps me on a timer, and I love these mooas timer cubes for helping myself set a time target for a task and then stop when the time is up whether I've finished or not

(did I already tell you all this? I think I may have – but man. That working memory gap. It's a thing)

and on the working memory and organization side, I've made the switch from paper (which helps my working memory but isn't sustainable with my organization gaps) to digital systems I can search so that organization isn't as much of a pain point and since my working memory is shot anyway, I might as well let computers help me out on that front.

But in all my years of therapy and healing around my anxious and depressed feelings, it wasn't until very recently someone (my new primary care doctor) asked questions that lead me to learn about executive functions. And that learning has unlocked a trove of possibilities for me in terms of adaptive approaches to help minimize the impact of my gaps and maximize the impact of my strengths. It's also helped me make decisions about where to add help in my business first – so that I have help around time management, organization and ways to reduce the impact of my memory lack.

I'm super curious to hear from you. Is this all a "duh of course everybody knows this stuff, where have you been under a rock?" or if you take an assessment, does it unlock new awareness for you? How have you adapted to your executive function superpowers and weaker areas? Do you make decisions and support yourself accordingly?

If not, could you?

That's it for this week and I am all ears for your experiences and learning – as an adult educator, I'm soaking up all the learning I can on this front to help improve my ability to work with diverse students. So I'd love to hear from you.

In the meantime, be proud of your superpowers and gentle on your weaker areas and take care of you.

I'll try to do the same.

P.S. I don't have a P.S. this week so I'll just put in a picture of a sunset from our last day at Brainerd last week instead.