Executive functioning is a set of cognitive skills every person develops over time to help them with everyday life. When you begin your firefighter promotional exam prep your executive functioning skills will be put to the test, so let’s explore ways to strengthen them so you can pass your exam.
Executive Function Explained
“Executive functions are a set of cognitive functions that help manage, control, and regulate your brain.” Whereas “Executive Dysfunction is a behavioral symptom that disrupts a person’s ability to manage their own thoughts, emotions, and actions.” You can think of executive functioning as the brains manager responsible for organizing information, setting goals, focusing, remembering things such as instructions and appointments (working memory), multi-tasking, self-control, flexible thinking, and creating a game plan for every situation we encounter. Executive functioning is a learned skill, not something we are born with. This is why young children struggle to stay focused, with impulse control and so on, much more than adults. They just simply do not have these skills yet. As people age they develop these executive functioning skills over time, just like they do any other skill.
Ways to Support & Improve Your Executive Functioning Skills
Use a Planner & Lists
If you are someone who struggles with executive functioning, using a planner and making lists is key, because you likely forget things easier than others do. Writing things down will give you a clear indication of what you need to get done and when, and reduce the chances of missing important events, dates, and appointments because they will all be right at your fingertips. There is much less chance of forgetting something when you write everything down. When it comes to studying for your firefighter promotional exam use this planner to schedule study sessions simply so you don’t forget to study. Making lists, as well as keeping a planner, helps tackle the memory part of executive functioning. As you finish study sessions write down where you left off and where you would like to begin the next study session. Remembering things can be challenging for those who suffer from executive dysfunction and having this information at your fingertips will save you so much time at the beginning of every study session if you know exactly where you left off.
Keep Your Body Healthy
A great way to improve your executive functioning is to maintain a healthy body. Get the appropriate amount of sleep, eat healthy foods, and drink lots of water. The brain is an organ like any other, it needs nutrient rich food and rest to function at maximum capacity. Exercise is another great way to maintain the health of your body and brain. As well, you must allow yourself plenty of down time to relax and recharge, especially in the midst of studying for your firefighter promotion exam. If you are sleep deprived and running on caffeine and junk food you are going to have a major decrease in executive functioning.
Participate in Activities that Require Executive Functioning Skills
A great way to improve your executive functioning skills is doing activities that require you to use a lot of them. Cooking, playing sports, dancing, and so on are all activities you can do that will help build your executive functioning skills. They do so because they require pre-planning and every time you do them, you will likely do them differently. In addition, they require you to follow a set of rules or instructions, such as a recipe when cooking, or rules of the game in sports. Conversely however, they also require cognitive flexibility, because none of these activities will go exactly as planned every time you do them because there is no one set way to do them, which also introduces problem solving. So the more you do activities that require planning, flexibility, focus, and critical thinking, the more you are exercising and improving your executive functioning skills. Studying requires executive functioning as well. So just the act of sitting down to study is improving those skills as well.
Do Things Differently/Improvise
A great way to improve your executive functioning skills is to do things in a way you normally wouldn’t because it requires a little more brain power; more planning, more focus, more thinking, remembering new things, and so on. So, when you are studying for your firefighter promotional exam you can do this by studying in new locations, studying with new people, or networking with other firefighters in a way you normally wouldn’t. This way you are studying for your promotional exam, but also building your executive function at the same time. Putting yourself in uncomfortable positions intentionally helps improve executive dysfunction because they require mental flexibility, and you have to create a new plan, activating your working memory, instead of following your usual. In addition, doing something new or differently requires more focus, as opposed to going about your life on autopilot.
Have Confidence in Yourself
One major way to help improve your executive functioning is to start building confidence in yourself again by eliminating negative self talk. Your mindset has a huge impact on your executive functioning. Those who suffer from executive dysfunction are often late, lose things, can’t focus, struggle to manage their emotions and impulses, and so on. All of these behaviors can take a toll on someone's mental health and make you feel worthless, hopeless, and ashamed. Unfortunately these negative feelings about oneself only worsen the executive dysfunction. So whether you are struggling deeply with executive dysfunction or just looking to improve your already good executive functioning skills, mindset matters. You have to have a positive outlook. Positive self-talk is key to being confident. This is not an easy change you make, especially if you are someone stuck in a negative mindset, but the more you talk yourself up and are kind to yourself the easier it gets. Managing your thoughts is a huge part of inhibition control when it comes to executive functioning. The best way to start changing the negative to a positive is to just stop it. You start to think you are an idiot because you made a tiny error, say stop. Then work on progressing to “I am not an idiot, this is a mistake anyone could make, I am smart because I caught it and fixed it quickly”, and so on. Start with small changes and the confidence will build itself back up.
Executive functioning is something many adults struggle with. As you begin to study for your firefighter promotional exam you could see yourself struggling with it even more. Remember though, executive functioning is a learned skill, one you can still improve on even as an adult. Try new things, stay healthy, write stuff down, and be kind to yourself and you will be on your way to improved executive functioning and promoting in the fire service in no time.