Executive function (EF) skills are a set of brain-based skills that we use to control our attention when solving problems. They include working memory (keeping information in mind), inhibitory control (staying focused and resisting impulsive behavior), and cognitive flexibility (thinking about something in multiple ways). EF skills peak in the mid-20s and then begin to decline, on average, but this decline can be prevented through deliberate practice.
Yes! We would not describe a person as having “no EF” skills. It is simply a matter of degree, where some individuals are more likely than others to use these skills every day and across multiple contexts. Everyone can benefit from strengthening their EF skills.
Reflection is when we pause to consider the situation and become self-aware. Instead of jumping to conclusions, when we reflect, we adopt a more distanced perspective on a problem, like a wide-angle lens, allowing us to see our options and alternatives more clearly. Together, EF and Reflection skills make it possible to keep our goals in mind, avoid distractions, and be flexible.
We can measure these skills quickly and reliably using a game-like app called Reflect/EF. This “gold standard” tool was developed by developmental neuroscience researchers at the University of Minnesota, who are also Co-founders of Reflective Performance. The measure is similar to “brain teaser” games and takes only 5 minutes. It has been normed on over 1,800 adults in the U.S.
Fortunately, research shows clearly that EF skills are malleable and can be strengthened using relatively simple strategies and exercises. RPI adopts best practices and principles for improving EF and Reflection. Our scientists have contributed to Harvard University’s information and suggestions about these core adult abilities, which can be found here.
EF and Reflection skills are personal, that is, we must learn to become self-aware and put in the effort. But social support is one of the guiding principles for improving these skills, and they can “rub off” onto others through positive modeling. In the workplace, when individuals are at their peak, there is a multiplier effect on group performance.
In addition to social support, several factors have been identified for cultivating these skills, including having agency (choices), appropriate challenge levels, and practicing across multiple settings, including work and home. RPI’s improvement programs adopt these proven best practices.
These skills are important for reasoning and problem solving, and moderately correlated with IQ, but they are different from knowledge. They help you put what you know into practice. In fact, research suggests that EF skills may be even more important than intelligence for achievement and success. In other words, it’s not so much what you know that matters, it’s whether you can actually use your knowledge in the moment to achieve your goals.
Understanding, measuring, and improving these skills contributes to individual and overall performance. When employees can stay focused on their short- and long-term goals, refrain from impulsive actions or decisions, reflect on the big picture, and think flexibly about alternatives, they will perform better at their job, no matter the industry or where they are on the ladder.
Hundreds of research studies have shown that EF skills are associated with positive outcomes, including education level, financial wealth, relationship success, and physical health, and fewer negative outcomes, like drug abuse and a criminal record. Many of these studies controlled for intelligence and childhood socioeconomic status. In business, our research has shown this translates to higher performance ratings, greater employee engagement, and lower absenteeism.