ADHD Tips: Use Your Executive Functioning Brain to Override Impulse

By Jeff Copper, MBA, PCC, PCAC, CPCC, ACG – May 15, 2023

Dr. Russell Barkley ( likes to think of the ADHD brain as a two-level system, that is, the automatic brain and the executive functioning brain. The use of the executive functioning brain is effortful because it takes great effort to step in and override the automatic brain.

This is the reason that over-learning, over-rehearsing, and over-practicing are more important for those with ADHD. It takes repetition so you don’t have to think about it anymore, so that it just becomes automatic or habitual.

For more insight on overriding impulses, please check out my video interview with Dr. Russell Barkley on the concept and get insight on practical implications and solutions to this construct.


Jeff Copper:  Welcome everybody to this edition of Attention Talk video. I’m your host, ADHD & Attention Coach, Jeff Copper, and we’re here today with Dr. Russell Barkley. Dr. Barkley, welcome to the show.

Dr. Barkley:  Good to talk with you again, Jeff. Thanks for having me on.

Jeff Copper:  You have a very simple way of describing the brain that I think is great for those with ADHD. You talk about the brain being a two level system. There’s the automatic brain and then the executive functioning brain and the executive functioning brain is very effortful because it’s got to step in and override that automatic brain. Can you talk about that?

Dr. Barkley:  Absolutely. I think if people want to read more about this, Daniel Kahneman had a popular book out last year called Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he describes this two level brain system. And the automatic brain, as you pointed out, is basically how we go about our everyday activities that don’t require a lot of thought, they over learn and they’re habitual, but the executive brain, which is the effortful brain, that’s the slower brain and that takes more time and more energy because it has to step in and stop the automatic brain and then go through a series of mental activities in order to guide your daily behavior in new situations or in stressful or problem-solving situations. Those are all the places where we have to step in and think about what we’re doing and that thinking that executive functioning is very effortful.

Jeff Copper:  Very effort. And the other thing that you described is think of the executive function brain has a more limited fuel tank for those with ADHD. So there’s only so much of that they can do in a day or till they have to go replenish that fuel tank because if it runs out, it’s a little bit of a problem. Can you speak to that?

Dr. Barkley:  Well, that’s true. Researchers call that the self-regulation resource pool. or the effort pool. And there’s only a limited amount that you have available in order to use this effortful executive brain. And so if you engage in activities that are time consuming as far as this resource pool is concerned, you’re using your executive functioning for long periods of time, you’re going to delete the fuel tank and guess what? You’re not going to be able to continue effectively. You’re going to be subject to more self-regulation problems in the next situation right after that because you’ve exhausted the self-regulation fuel tank. So it’s important that people understand that this is not an unlimited resource. It’s a very limited resource and use it too much too quickly too often you will run out of gas, so to speak, but there are ways that you can in fact boost that fuel tank.

Jeff Copper:  Exercise, sports strengths.

Dr. Barkley:  There’s a number of them. Let me run through some of these very quickly. You’ve named two of them and thank you for doing so. The first thing is to visualize the goal. What is it you’re trying to do? And that visual imagery is going to be very helpful. It’s like the locker room, pep talk. The coach is trying to get you to visualize the win. It’s like the golfer visualizing the winning shot to the green that’s going to win the tournament for him. Using visual imagery helps to activate that pool and put some fuel in there. The second thing is to surround yourself with a lot of rewards and other consequences that you’re going to be able to have access to as soon as you finish what you’re trying to do. Just the thought of having those rewards available. It’s going to help you to motivate yourself to get to that goal.

The third thing, as you pointed out, is physical exercise also very helpful. Another thing is to just give yourself some motivational pep talks about that you can do this, that you are able to succeed at this. This isn’t that difficult and activity that kind of self motivational pep talk can be very helpful. But at the end of the day, what this all boils down to is the amount of blood sugar that’s in the frontal lobe, in the bloodstream fueling the executive system.

And that’s why we tell people that counterintuitive, people used to think sugar was bad for you. It turns out actually a little bit of sugar in your bloodstream over time and actually be very good if you have these executive problems. So if you’re having to take an exam or work on a lengthy project or sit through a meeting that’s stressing your executive system, you need to be sipping on sugar containing substances like lemonade or a sports drink. Not a lot. We’re not talking swollen a 32 ounce big gulp here. We’re talking about just small sips periodically during the activity to make sure that your blood sugar is staying up so that you can keep that fuel tank as full as you can.

Jeff Copper:  As you described that, I began to think of all the effort that you’ve got, a cognitive effort you’ve got to do to implement all those things that we kind of talked about, which goes back to one of the big notions. It’s very effortful. And I like to use this construct when I’m talking to people that I’m coaching because I begins to explain is if you’ve only got so much fuel, that’s why habit and routine is so helpful for you because you can save that as executive functioning for other things. And it sometimes can explain when you’re traveling or you’re out of sorts and you are out of those routines, you’re more discombobulated because you’re having to do more executive functioning, use more working memory, more taxing, and so you stumble a little bit more because of the need to use the executive functioning and you’re depleting that fuel tank so quick.

Dr. Barkley:  Very much. So this is the value of over rehearsing, over practicing things that are new to you. If you are trying to do something and you’re doing it for the first or the second time where other people might be able to get by with that and then it sort of transfers the learning from this effortful brain to their automatic brain, it becomes habitual. They don’t have to think about it anymore. You’re going to have to think about it more. So I tell people, you need to practice that more than other people do. You need to run through those routines, even if you just do it mentally through visual imagery, like an athlete would practice a dive or a golf swing, just think that through repeatedly until it becomes habitual, you’re more likely to do it on the automatic brain and not tax this limited resource executive brain so much.

Jeff Copper:  And so I don’t want to get into depth because we had wrapped this up in a second, but I think what you’re hearing to a certain extent, is it harder for those with ADHD to create a habit because they actually have to stop and use their executive functioning brain to do it maybe a couple more times to ingrain it as a habit?

Dr. Barkley:  The short answer is yes absolutely. Which is why overlearning becomes even more important for them. And I think that’s where the value of coaching and using your loved ones and your supervisors and your mentors can help you with that. They can help you with the practicing. You can do more trial runs of things, and then you’re going to have it more committed to your automatic brain. So you’re absolutely right. These external things can help you with that over learning and rehearsal.

Jeff Copper:  This is awesome. I have a little aha. It’s harder to get a habit for those with AEC is fascinating to me. So anyway, everybody who’s watching this, I hope this construct helps put things into context and you can understand why, how, and be able to manage a little better. And so Dr. Barkley, thanks so much for coming on the show.

Dr. Barkley:  Thanks so much, Jeff. Be well.

Jeff Copper:  Take care.

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