Executive Functioning & Motivation

This is the time of year we hear a lot about motivation. We’ve made our New Year’s resolutions, some time has passed and now that the excitement has worn off we’re trying to figure out how to keep going.

When I’m talking to clients about motivation, I tend to hear a lot of “shoulds,” “I just need to…” “other people don’t have trouble with this,” “I’m lazy,” etc. I will often encourage clients to move away from self-judgment and move toward curiosity about why it isn’t working or why things are so hard. Rather than self-guilt or “bootstrapping” our way toward motivation I find it more helpful to learn about our internal system that helps create and control motivation, sometimes called executive functioning. 


What is executive functioning? I recently listened to a podcast about executive functioning by therapist KC Davis. Her guest, Dr. Lesley Cook says this about executive functions: “Executive functions are the 8 core functions of our internal “control panel” that tell our body how, when, why, to what extent, when to stop etc.” She goes on to share the 8 core functions of executive functioning:

  1. Abilities to inhibit (Stop ourselves)
  2. Shift from one thing to another
  3. Control our emotions
  4. Start a behavior
  5. Remember things as we’re learning them
  6. How to plan and organize
  7. How to monitor what we’re doing in the middle of it
  8. How to monitor how we’re feeling about we’re doing

What are some reasons why our executive functioning gets disrupted? We all have disruptions in our executive functioning, whether we have diagnoses or not. What diagnoses and symptoms impact our executive functioning? A few main contributors are ADHD, Autism, Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD. 

In the podcast, Dr. Cook describes several ways she spots disturbances in executive functioning in her clients. She describes clients who say “I’m bad at…” or share a level of guilt and shame associated with tasks (cleaning, cooking, care tasks, keeping track of appointments, hygiene, work responsibilities) as people who may be experiencing difficulties with their executive functioning. She also describes inconsistent performance as a clue that there might be something else going on here. This inconsistent performance occurs despite effort and energy from the individual. For example, someone who keeps up on work responsibilities but cannot seem to motivate themselves to keep up on their laundry at home. Dr. Cook goes on to say, “You cannot motivate yourself into better executive functioning.” *insert brain exploding emoji* That’s right, just “trying harder” is not the way to improve executive functioning.


Now let’s talk about motivation. Dr. Cook says “Motivation is the desire to do something or the acknowledgement of it would be really good if this gets done now.” It’s more of a feeling or a sensation. Task initiation is a behavior. We can even break this down further. Task initiation involves the signal to the body to move. When you do not have an executive functioning disturbance, these steps usually flow freely without much effort.  When someone has a disturbance in their executive functioning (usually caused by ADHD, depression, anxiety etc) these signals do not flow freely. Sometimes this can look like this: You are staring at the sink full of dishes, you know they need to get done, you know you would feel better if they were done, you know you would function better if you didn’t have the dishes weighing on you, and yet you cannot seem to actually get your body to grab a sponge and start scrubbing. This is how motivation and task initiation work together.

As I mentioned earlier, many of us end up using shame and guilt as ways to move from motivation to task initiation. Unfortunately, shame does not create long term change or intrinsic motivation, and instead it often makes a negative impact on our self-image. 


So now what? What do we do if we have difficulty with motivation or executive functioning?

If there is a disturbance in the internal structure (executive functioning disturbance) we need to create an external structure that works for us AND enhances our image of self. This structure is going to have to be highly personalized for each individual and must be able to accommodate the inevitable disruptions in executive functions. For some it’s a routine, for others it’s something looser, like a rhythm. Regardless of the system, it cannot depend on shame of guilt as a motivator. 

If you have executive functions you will have executive functioning disruptions. These often come in the form of overload and anxiety. Those without clinical executive dysfunction also experience disturbances in executive functioning. The difference between these two types of executive functioning are the predictability and its response to intervention. If you are noticing any of these disturbances I highly encourage you to talk to your therapist or psychiatrist about it. 

If you want to learn more about executive functioning check out the podcast Struggle Care: https://www.strugglecare.com/podcast-rss/01


Blog by Sara Pogue, MSW, LICSW
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich via Pexels