Smart and Distracted. Now What?
Updated: Nov 1
Sometimes when we think of gifted people, we think of the cliches of the absent minded professor, the mad scientist, the eccentric genius. What do they all have in common? They are bright people, with active minds, who are scattered, disorganized and usually have relationship issues due to missing important dates with loved ones, forgetting special occasions, being impulsive, being absorbed in their projects and being highly emotional.
Obviously their ability to think and solve problems is superior, but their ability to function in other areas is lacking and creates chaos in their lives and relationships. They have problems with "executive functioning". Executive functioning skills help us to plan, organize, stay on task, finish what we start, have impulse control and use good judgment. People who have great intellect sometimes have low executive functioning, especially compared to their intellectual functioning. Intellect uses one part of the brain, which develops first, while executive functioning is controlled by a different part of the brain which develops much later. This is something to consider if you know a young person, who has difficulty with executive functioning tasks like task initiation, staying on task (especially if it is boring), organization, maintaining organization, self control, planning, prioritization, envisioning the future and recognizing the consequences (good or bad) of actions taken in the present. The different skills develop at different developmental stages as a person grows.
These stereotypical geniuses aren't the only people to struggle with executive functioning. When people are young this part of their brain is simply underdeveloped. Gifted people often have asynchronous development, and may gain executive funtioning skills at a more varried rate than their same aged peers. People may have underlying issues such as ADHD, learning or developmental disorders, depression, anxiety, or PTSD making it difficult to focus, stay on task and remember commitments. Low executive functioning can also present with certain personality traits, or occur because the individual never learned necessary skills.
Current brain imaging research shows gifted people are not neurotypical to begin with. Gifted brains are wired differently, making them more emotionally sensitive, able to learn and process information more quickly (in at least one area), among other traits. If a gifted person also has ADHD, or Autism, for example, their brain is even more diverse, bringing additional areas of strength and weakness. As part of their different wiring, highly intelligent people often tend to be extremely curious, driven by their need to learn and pursue ideas, or so creative they are day dreaming all of the time, thus creating executive functioning deficits. A gifted person may be so consumed with an idea they are distracted, or are so deep in thought they lose touch with the world around them. A preoccupation with countless ideas can cause brilliant people to have multiple projects going at once, which they never complete. At times, they may have such a great sense of wonder, and use poor judgment to satisfy their curiosity. People lost in thought, or deeply involved in projects may likely loose track of time, causing them to miss deadlines, appointments and to over commit themselves. They may avoid boring or mundane task, and unintentionally allow important tasks fall through the cracks as a result.
If a gifted person happens to have ADHD, these traits will absolutely be amplified. Unfortunately, if they are relatively successful in life, their ADHD may never be recognized by professionals as a primary criteria of the diagnosis is "significant impairment" in multiple areas of life, which can be subjective to an observer. Additionally, asynchronous development can contribute to a delay in executive funtioning, espeically for highly and profoundly gifted children and teens per recent research. Unfortunately, all of these factors can make it tricky for gifted people to receive an appropriate diagnosis and access support they may need like medication, executive funtion coaching and accomomations at school or work.
Keep in mind, such a diagnosis is not a label as suggested by various people. It is a way of documenting differences to communicate between professionals. A proper diagnosis can give gifted people a reason for why they function the way they do, and a means to access needed support. It can also dramatically effect the way a person sees themselves in the world, and shift their inner narrative from believing they have character flaws which make them bad, to being a person who has has a learning difference and some skill deficits that can be supported, thus empowering them. There are also strengths of people who have ADHD that can be built upon, and used to support them. Current research suggests people with ADHD tend to be more creative. So, gifted plus ADHD can equal incredible innovation. ADHDers also have the ability to hyper focus, which means active minds hyperfocusing on what they love can lead to wonderful learning and exploration.
People can absolutely build executive funtioning skills over time, especially if you start when they're young. If you are a parent, be patient and try teaching one skill at a time, preferably the one your gifted child is most interested in building. It can be a slow process that takes years to develop. It is important, though. Building executive functioning skills, and having a strategy to manage an overactive mind can make a huge difference in a person’s ability to succeed in our time-driven, organized society, and can contribute to one’s ability to be high achieving if that is what they want for themselves. "High achieving" people, gifted or not, often have high executive functioning skills that make their relative success possible. If this is not a goal, that is okay too, it isn't the only reason to get some executive funtioning skills under your belt. Being able to manage your time, initiate tasks, complete things, and plan ahead can empower you to engage in the world more fully.
Here are 13 tips to help you or your gifted child strengthen executive functioning skills.
Get help creating and maintaining a schedule until you (or your child) can do it alone. Scheduling daily tasks helps people to keep track their time, and complete what is important. You can also anticipate what is coming next which is calming. Structure can actually give us a sense of control over our time.
Work on turning tasks into habits. Less thought and energy will go into completing uninteresting or menial (but necessary tasks) if they become part of your daily life that you don't have to think about. For example, every time you come home from work or school, put your purse or back pack in the same place. This will eventually become habitual, and you'll always know where to find it.
Keep a digital calendar with alarms and multiple reminders. With practice, this works great, even for children. You can also use calander to block time for things you want to do.
Make lists. Make lists of tasks to be accomplished, and prioritize the list in order of importance of what needs to be done first. This takes what needs to be done, and helps you to organize it in a meaningful way. Your “have to” list will be more manageable, you won’t forget to do things, and it can reduce your stress because you can realistically anticipate what needs to be done. There is a caveat, however. Organization and priorization are different executive funtioning skills and may not come naturally to you or your child. If this is the case, working with another person to identify which tasks are important may be necessary, as well as how to organize the list in a meaningful way like color coding, or numbering. Like everything else, this will take some time to master.
Separate large or multiple projects into smaller chunks to avoid feeling overwhelmed, which can lead to avoiding the project altogether. This can also be done with time. Work on something for a set amount of time, take a short break and then go back to it for set amount of time, and take another break. This may help you avoid mental and physical exhaustion. Analog visual timers are a great tool in helping with time management as they will give you or your gifted child a visual representation of the passage of time.
Document your ideas, or make audio recordings. If you keep track of your ideas you won’t lose them, and can develop them further at a later date. This will help you to stay focused when working on something else, and could eliminate the need to have multiple projects going at once.
Finish one thing before starting another, whenever possible.
Get things done. If you have time to complete something, just do it instead of procrastinating. It will eliminate the task from your list and lower your overall stress level. I know this may not always be as easy as it sounds. Task avoidance can be a tough thing to overcome. You may need to create motivators for yourself or your child like turning the task or the completion of the task into a game, listening to fun music while doing the project or doing one small piece at a time until it's done. Using a person's strenths and interests can also help to create motivation to do things they aren't interested in. In may take some creative thinking, but it is worth the effort.
Be aware of your impulsivity and try to mitigate it. If you know the situations where you are most vulnerable and likely to be impulsive you can have a plan of action for that situation. Some areas of impulse control people often struggle with are blurting out answers, interrupting others, asking inappropriate questions, inappropriately “stating the obvious”, correcting people, working on projects you want to do before finishing things you need to, physically reacting like hitting or pushing, buying things you don't need, and more. An in the moment thing you can do, if you are able to catch yourself quickly enough, is STOP, BREATH (take at least 3 deep breaths with long exhales), and THINK before acting. This will help you to calm your emotional mind, and bring your thinking mind back on line. When possible, you may also need to remove yourself from the enviornment that is intensifying your feelings, or have something on hand to distract you like a hand fidget or strong flavored gum.
Get enough sleep and eat a nutritious diet. Proper rest and nutrition help your brain to work at its optimal level.
Move around. Getting regular exercise reduces stress, works different areas of your brain and can relieve nervous energy caused by an overactive mind.
Pick one skill to work on at a time. Remember, many tasks, require multiple executive functioning skills to complete. Be patient with yourself and your loved ones. There isn't a presecribed amount of time it should take to develop skills, and in reality may take years.
If you are working with your child, a student, or an employee, stay positive with them, and work to maintain a good rapport. Having a good relationship is important between people in general, but especially those who are struggling to engage. If you are frustrated, take some deep breaths and count to ten before you talk to them. Show an interest in what they care about and show that you like and value them as people. It will go a long way to gaining their buy in to what you want to teach them, and will help them in their own personal development.
With diligent practice, you can improve your executive functioning and more efficiently reach your goals whatever they may be. If you continue to struggle in this area, technology can help, and there are professionals who can teach you strategies and support your efforts while using the strengths you already have. For more research about gifted people, check out GRO Gifted. For more ideas for supporting executive functioning needs check out Smart But Scattered, by Peg Dawson.
About the Author:
Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. She has over 13 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have suffered past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body. If you or your child are struggling, feel free to reach out for the support you need.