Executive Function and Low Functioning Executives

Synopsis: a couple of thoughts on fatigue, quality of thinking and modern work that I can’t be bothered to reference properly.

In Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman he references a theory by Shafir and Mullainathan that ‘Scarcity consumes you, you’re less able to focus on things that are important to you’. Their theory addresses the issue of why people in poverty make bad choices. There is, they theorise, a link between cognitive limitations/mental bandwidth and poverty. And they say from their research it could be as significant as 13 or 14 IQ pts. Bregman then suggests this is the same impact as permanently being behind with sleep (more on that later…).

It struck me that there is more than one type of scarcity in this world. There is a scarcity of time as well. A scarcity of trust. A scarcity of blank space in people’s lives. A scarcity of company for others. I’m deliberately overextending the natural limits of this work (and indeed we have some research into some of the above), but the passage got me thinking about how much the conditions of success for good decison making are properly engineered in organisations. When was the last time someone said ‘I’ve got a lot going on outside of work’ or ‘I had a rubbish few nights of sleep’ and you discounted their opinion (not completely, but actually went to the trouble of recognising their choice making is impaired). There is still the perception – in places – that people should keep work and home life separate. But you only get one brain. I’m thinking less about thinking environments and more about thinking ecosystems.

At the weekend I saw a tweet on executive function. It was suggesting that telling people with depression to do yoga/sport was just adding to their to-do-list of things that they don’t have the mental resources to address. Not that doing yoga or exercise isn’t good, but that telling people who are suffering a compromise of executive function (the ability to address life’s to-do-list) is unhelpful. What might be helpful is to find a way to help or support them to do that.

The link between these two concepts has been bouncing around my head and I can’t quite, yet, land the connection. I think it’s to do with how many organisations might be led by people who are stupider (temporarily) than they might be and incapable of understanding the ability of others to act – or maybe the organisation. Saying it needs to happen doesn’t make it happen.

Both concepts draw on the concept of us having variable limits to our capacity (as individuals and in the aggregate) – and maybe we need to spend more time understanding those and the conditions around them.

And designing organisations that honour those learnings.

– a quick aside –

Recently I heard someone confidently say that two bad nights of sleep led to a drop in reaction times of 15 seconds. Imagine a world where that was true. We’d all be dead all the time. Everybody would be crashing into each other on the street and in cars. I like imagining this world of 15 second delays. It’s a nice thought experiment.

3 thoughts on “Executive Function and Low Functioning Executives

  1. David

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    You say:

    “Not that doing yoga or exercise isn’t good, but that telling people who are suffering a compromise of executive function (the ability to address life’s to-do-list) is unhelpful. What might be helpful is to find a way to help or support them to do that.”

    I must admit to never having heard the phrase “executive function”. You refer to a lifetime of getting things done — a GTD for life — but I’m assuming it doesn’t just relate to the workplace? Right now, I think the issue around functioning is the absence of a space at work to talk to people about how you’re actually feeling as opposed to what you want people to believe. Call it presenteeism or wearing a series of faux masks but too often people being asked how they are respond blithely: “I’m OK.” In my experience, that’s rarely the case. (I like the quote: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” ― Brad Meltzer.) How you open that space is the challenge of our times, particuarly with organisations where fear is the order of the day. I mean, if you can’t tell people how you feel despite or inspite of the pressure of work, where can you talk about it?

    Take care



    1. Thanks for the comment. The original observation on twitter wasn’t about work at all. It was about life. I’m all for more open conversations (regardless of whether it’s in work or out) and as you say the lack of that in most organisations is a worry. For those that thrive on fear there is even more impact.


  2. Really interesting post! I especially like how you mention how our cognitive deficits can be related to other facets of our lives. You also mention executive function and it may not be best to give someone a deficit in this function more things to do like yoga or other exercises. This is a really interesting thought to consider, as a suggestion that someone should do something does not always mean that they are going to do it. Nevertheless, I write about executive function and how it relates to our well-being in my own post. My passion for the field of positive psychology lead me to this topic, which asks what it means to live a meaningful and fulfilling life from a psychological perspective. Feel free to check it out sometime and I welcome any contributions you may have to the content. Great post, keep up the good work, and I hope you are doing well!


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