Navigating Life’s Road Map without a Map

Navigation through life

If you get through your life by the seat of your pants, it all works out somehow, just in a dissimilar way than those of us who methodically plan.

I am a planner for a few reasons:

  • I truly believe that my childhood was so unique from a psychological viewpoint with tons of hospitalizations, surgeries, medical appointments, school and trying to squeeze in  normalcy whenever possible, for which I have to highly  commend my parents, that as an adult, I need to grab hold of control.
  • Lack of control as a vulnerable child with lots of unknown variables left to chance causes me stress.
  • I have an inordinate number of responsibilities I consider out of the norm at this juncture of my life, trying to carve out a rewarding pay it forward existence and future retirement and doing it all solo.
  •  I try to give myself permission to be that “seat of your pants” kind of person. However, admittedly, I need to do it more often!

What happens to people who are never captains of their own ship? Have you ever wondered?  Here’s a window into that world.

Executive functioning  is a psychological term often diluted to a mere buzz word. To understand this term appropriately as a series of skills, is to know your inner self and to know your relatives or your best friend and even your worst enemy. Organization is one of the tools in the tool box. Organization helps you plan a project, the vacation of your dreams or your wedding because you never know when you will be presented with a ring from Improper planning of finances is a leading cause of most problems.

Clinical Psychologist Joyce Cooper- Kahn explains it as a set of processes involving mental control and self-regulation – the “Conductor” of all cognitive skills (i.e. involving perception memory, judgement, reasoning.)  The 8 magic abilities help us manage life tasks.

The following storyline is similar, not a blueprint to the one offered by Dr. Cooper Kahn in her article.  “Marge” is a typical homemaker, married with children. She has a heart of gold and is well-intentioned in all things. However, she would be considered weak in executive functioning.

Marge receives a call from a good friend offering her accommodations on a family cruise, as another friend couldn’t make it, providing she could commit soon. Marge is thrilled to have received the call. Without thinking, without hesitation she says, “Of course we’ll take it. We wouldn’t miss it.” Her friend shares details over the phone. However, Marge is distracted, does not listen intently, can’t find a pen as she rummaged through her kitchen. She promises herself to call her friend soon to get it down on paper.

That evening, Marge enthusiastically tells her husband and three children about the offer. Her husband Bob asks about the date and Marge replies, “Some time in June saying, I don’t remember exactly.” Bob requests that she find out the details as he has to submit a vacation request in advance.  When Marge discovers that her children have set plans for the summer with a variety of activities which she forgot, Marge is livid, yelling, “Why are you all being so negative? This is supposed to be fun!”

Every week, Bob reminds Marge to get the information about the trip, but somehow the weeks slip by. Finally, Bob gets annoyed demanding she “Do it now! I’m going to stay right here in the kitchen until you call!” Marge calls and gets the information and he obtains approval at work.

Over the next month, Marge has fleeting thoughts of the trip. She thinks about how the kids will need to have things to do in the car since it’s a long trip. She thinks about taking food and snacks for the ride. She thinks about getting her work at the office cleared up in advance so she can be free of commitments for the vacation. She thinks, “I really should take care of that stuff.” But, she does nothing in advance.

A few days before it is time to leave, she does gather a few things for their trip. As they pile into the car to leave for the airport the kids ask, “Who will be taking care of the cats while we’re gone?” Marge is upset, “Oh no! I forgot about that. We can’t just leave them here to die and there’s no one to take care of them! Now we can’t go! “

Bob takes control, starts calling around the neighborhood until he finds a teenager who can do the pet sitting. The crisis passes. The cats will be fine.

Bob drives the first shift. He pulls out of the neighborhood, gets onto the main highway, and then asks, “So, what’s the game plan?”  Marge says, “Geez, I don’t know. I didn’t ask. We’ll just follow the crowd.”

Bob says, “You don’t know any more details than that? You know that our daughter has physical limitations. Why didn’t you check?” Bob sighs and shakes his head. “Another road trip without a map”, he says.  “Why didn’t you tell me you were having trouble getting it all organized? I could have helped.” Marge denied having any trouble, replying, “Everything is fine. What are you so upset about?”

(Do you think Marge made reservations for excursions on the cruise?  Do you think she budgeted what their charges might be? Of course, these and many other details, had escaped planning.)

A List of Executive Functions

With the illustrative story above, the specific abilities, with parts of the story as a reference, are listed under the umbrella term of executive functioning. This is the meat of the matter!

Can you identify which skills you possess and whether of not you have good EF skills? 

  • Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time, including stopping actions and thoughts. The opposite of inhibition is impulsivity. If you have weak ability to stop yourself from acting on your impulses, then you are “impulsive.” When Marge’s friend first called, it would have made sense to tell her, “Let me check the calendar first. It sounds great, but I just need to look at everybody’s schedules before I commit the whole family.”
  • Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation. When the children questioned who would watch the cats, Marge was puzzled. Bob, in stark contrast, began generating possible solutions and was able to solve the problem relatively easily.
  • Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings. Marge’s anger, when confronted with her own impulsive behavior in committing the family before checking out the dates: “Why are you all being so negative?”
  • Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies. Marge thought about calling to check on the date of the cruise but she procrastinated until her husband initiated the process.
  • Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task. Marge could not keep the dates in her head long enough to put them on the calendar after her initial phone call.
  • Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future oriented task demands. In this case, Marge lacked the ability to systematically think about what the family would need to be ready for the trip and to get to the intended place at the intended time with their needs cared for along the way.
  • Organization of Materials – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces. It was Marge’s job, for good or for bad, to organize the family things needed for the trip. However, she randomly threw things together regarding items and events for the trip.
  • Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected. Despite the fact that they’re going on a cruise, not thinking ahead about a child with a disability, having no map, virtually no planning, Marge still did not understand why her husband was so upset.


Executive Functions are diverse, related and overlapping skills.  If you see yourself in “Marge,” never fear. It’s all good. If you want to change, you can work on the most problematic ones! Carry on!



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