Executive functioning sounds like a time-management seminar for CEOs, but it’s actually a term used by psychologists to describe the brain functions that regulate little things like task initiation, persistence, and completion.
Executive functioning also oversees planning, working memory, and the ability to shift attention. In other words, most of the skills you need to plan, manage, and complete a thesis or dissertation hang out in executive functioning’s wheelhouse.
Needless to say, if your inner executive isn’t functioning so well, neither will your thesis.
Roughly a third of non-completers at the Ph.D. level “drop out” at the dissertation stage and I suspect that executive functioning issues are heavily implicated in this statistic. From a cognitive perspective, this makes sense. After all, coursework provides a plethora of enabling structures that reduce the load on your inner project manager. A professor provides a syllabus with readings, assignments, and most importantly, deadlines.
Coursework provides clear exigencies for thinking and writing. Though the pressures of coursework may not feel liberating at the time, many a thesis student looks back on them wistfully.
At the dissertation stage, however, the enabling supports of coursework mostly disappear, placing enormous load on your ability to start, stop, and structure your own work. Suddenly you must come up with the reading list, write your own assignments, and set deadlines. Many students with executive functioning issues depended on coursework deadlines to induce the adrenaline-fueled states they relied on to make themselves write. In the absence of deadlines, their productivity may grind to a screeching halt.
All of this demand for self-initiation and self-structure means that success in completing a dissertation depends on more than the intellectual capacity to do the work. It is entirely possible for a student to be able to conceptualize a meaningful piece of scholarship and still struggle with the work of planning and executing that research.
In other words, executive functioning can mediate access to your intelligence.
Because English relies on the completely inadequate word “writing” to describe the complex set of skills and tasks that go into getting words on paper, I frequently hear graduate students conflate executive functioning challenges with being a “bad writer.” It is not uncommon to hear thesis students say things like:
“I suck at getting started.”
“I think about writing all the time, but I never actually get my butt in the chair.”
“I tried Pomodoro technique, but I never come back after a break.”
“I’ve gone through four dissertation topics and I lose interest as soon as I start writing.”
“They say to write 15 minutes a day, but it takes me more than 15 just to get started.
“I hate letting my work go. I just keep picking at it.”
“I just keep starting over and over, but I’m not getting anywhere.”
“My notes and files are so disorganized I can’t find anything and I just get discouraged looking at them.”
Academic writers may benefit from understanding executive functioning because it can it can help us unwind the judgment that so often attaches to struggles with productivity. If you find your brain pumping out negative self-judgment, I encourage you to take a thorough inventory of your writing experience and translate your judgment into accurate description. Instead of saying, “I am lazy,” say, “I struggle with getting back to work once I put it down,” “I have a hard time sequencing tasks,” “I have so much to do and I don’t know where to start.” Be as detailed as you can.
Also notice which parts of the process are easier for you. “Getting words on the page is agonizing, but I love editing.” “I’m actually good at working under pressure, but this isn’t working at the moment.”
While executive functioning challenges often hang out with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Hyper Activity Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHS), we don’t have to have a diagnosis to have challenges with executive functioning. Becoming self aware of our specific executive functioning strengths and weaknesses can help us maximize our own work process and modify writing advice to fit our needs.
Changing our behaviors, especially when there are cognitive challenges, is not easy. While releasing self-judgment is not enough to make changes, I have often observed in working with graduate students, that the two go together: that behaviors change when we accept our own complex cognitive selves and learn the habits, tools, and workarounds that let us kick ass.
Most people with executive functioning issues need more structure, not less, so set yourself up for success by building support, structure, and accountability into your dissertation process. Remind anyone who tells you that you should be able to do it all yourself that this is not spoon-feeding; it’s a technology you need just like you need a pen and a computer.
If you are interested in learning more, try this excellent slide deck explaining executive functioning as it pertains toeducation (aimed at primary and secondary educators, but you can translate). On my blog you can find a few useful posts like Hacking Grad School for Neurodiverse Grad Students , Advising Neurodiverse Thesis and Dissertation Students and Resources for Neurodiverse Grad Students and their Advisors
Author Bio: Dr. Daveena Tauber is a composition scholar, consultant, and teacher who specializes in pedagogies related to graduate-level writing. Her practice, ScholarStudio, serves individual writers as well as with institutions, offering workshops, residencies, curriculum design, and faculty development.