4 Brain Hacks to Fight Executive Dysfunction

February 19, 2019 Megan Griffith

Executive dysfunction is a frustrating symptom of most mental illnesses, but there are ways to fight executive function. Learn them at HealthyPlace.

Executive dysfunction is a major problem for people with all kinds of mental illness, myself included. Executive function is the ability to organize and execute our thoughts and actions, and executive dysfunction is the opposite: scattered thoughts, missed deadlines, and intense frustration over everyday tasks. Accomplishing even the simplest of goals can require a Herculean effort with executive dysfunction ("Depression and Cognitive Dysfunction").

Common Executive Dysfunction Issues

Some examples of executive dysfunction that I run into a lot are struggling to get out of bed, even though I want to, being paralyzed by my to-do list because I don't know where to start, or losing sight of my long-term goals and giving up on them. People who don't understand executive dysfunction might call this laziness, but that would be incorrect.

Everyone is lazy sometimes. Laziness is when you know you should do the thing, but you just don't want to right now. Executive dysfunction is different. I genuinely want to do things like make dinner or work on my art, but something goes wrong in my brain and I'm left feeling trapped and defeated.

Fight Executive Dysfunction with These 4 Brain Hacks

Even though executive dysfunction can be a big obstacle to recovery, there are ways to fight it. You just need to learn how to hack your brain. These are some of the best executive dysfunction hacks that I've found so far:

  1. Ask for help -- The kind of help required to fight executive dysfunction will probably feel embarrassing and you might not want to do it. Do it anyway. I know I have trouble starting and finishing tasks, so I try to be proactive by telling my teachers/bosses about this problem and asking for additional deadlines and personal meetings. This hurts my pride, and I know some people won't understand, but I've learned that if I want to produce my best work, I just need help.

  2. Lie to yourself a bit -- Executive dysfunction makes even small tasks into a large ordeal. A lot of the time, this means we don't start it at all. My favorite workaround for this is to lie to myself a bit. I'll tell myself that I just need to work on the task for half an hour, and then I can stop. At the end of the half hour, I convince myself to work for that same amount of time, just once more, really, then I can stop. I lie to myself like this for as long as I can, and most of the time, I actually get the task done.

  3. Talk to yourself out loud -- I can't count the number of times I've gotten ready for bed by talking myself through it. "Okay, put on your PJs now. Good, now walk to the bathroom. Take your pill. Awesome, now take out your contacts." It feels a little silly, but sometimes I am so scattered or anxious that I feel paralyzed, and talking out loud helps me simplify and organize my thoughts so I can act on them.

  4. Break up big tasks into little ones -- Sometimes I try to work on a long-term project during the weeks or months leading up to the deadline, but because the project is so big, my small, steady progress feels pointless and I just stop working on it. When I break up my big projects into lots of little projects, I get a great sense of accomplishment every time I meet a deadline, which gives me the motivation to keep going and meet the next one.

APA Reference
Griffith, M. (2019, February 19). 4 Brain Hacks to Fight Executive Dysfunction, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Author: Megan Griffith

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Nancy Olson
July, 11 2023 at 8:17 am

Until recently I did not realize I have executive function disorder, I thought it was just ADHD. There were times I would set a timer for only 10 minutes to start the process of accomplishing anything at all. This worked great for some house cleaning tasks. Lately nothing has seemed to motivate me to start things. I think it is time to seek more help. I do fine at work, but home has become overwhelming.

July, 20 2023 at 6:23 pm

Hi Nancy, thanks for sharing your story. I'm one of the current authors of the Recovering from Mental Illness blog, and I can totally relate to you. Timers were a good tool for me as well. I also can relate that I do better under work pressure, but home tasks can be a little more difficult. Nothing wrong with asking for help -- I've been there too!

Kim S.
June, 11 2023 at 1:36 am

Distraction cancels out the dysfunction and allows the release of the paralysis that prohibits beginning the task. Turn the news on TV or radio and start in 1 room...what is glaring and out of place....make the bed, hang up clothes and open curtains. Let the audio distraction cancel your self defeating talk. If that's all you can do today then move on to another room tomorrow.

March, 10 2023 at 10:32 pm

asking for help, isn't a brain hack
lieing to yourself is a short term solution that may be impossible for some,
talking to yourself outloud MAY work, actually good tip
breaking bigger things into smaller steps is LITTERALLY part of the issue with ex dysf
executive dysfunction can be life crippling for some, this seems to be good for mild cases, but is not a game changer for anyone with a chronic case

March, 13 2023 at 7:50 pm

Hey there Chris. I can see how what the author of this blog suggested wouldn't be a good fit for everyone. I can totally see where you're coming from with breaking bigger projects into smaller steps for instance—that's an area I'd struggle with too because then that just gives me more to worry and feel overwhelmed about. One size definitely doesn't fit all! Have you found any hacks that've worked well for you?

July, 16 2021 at 3:58 pm

I do a variation of #2 where I don't actually lie to myself: if after the set time I feel like I can't continue, I allow myself to stop. Otherwise, I do another increment. This works better for me because if I feel forced into a situation, I burnout faster and more deeply, and I might feel even more resistance the next time. I can't lie to myself, otherwise I don't trust myself.
Something else that has been very helpful has been buying noise cancelling headphones, and listening to music, podcasts, audiobooks while I tackle the Unmotivating Task. When I caved in and bought them, I wasn't expecting them to make such a big difference on my energy levels!

antonio martin
June, 30 2021 at 9:32 pm

This is actually good stuff. I do two of these things already but i failed to realize the possible magnitude of the outcomes. When I'm shopping for clothes I speak out loud to help me select clothing for myself to overcome shame or embarrassment to help invalidate stigma or supposed codes of clothing. I usually pretend people are not around.

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