Executive Function Has Nothing To Do With Productivity Culture

I’m not entirely sure how much or for how long I want to belabor this, but Jesse Meadows said something recently that I my brain hasn’t let go of since, so I have to get into it at least a little bit.

In a lengthy missive on gardening, Meadows starts off with a bit of neurodiversity.

In neurodivergent spaces, we talk about “executive function” a lot, a concept I have come to be quite critical of. There’s an implicit assumption that the ability to organize, plan, and prioritize is good, and lacking any of these skills is bad. Dis-ordered. But of course, these value judgements depend on context, and on what you value, and on where you want to end up.

Not all of us worship at the altar of production; nor do we all function like executives.

This is not executive function. Executive function is not just some rhetorical weapon wielded by capital to remind us that we always must be “of use”. To struggle with executive function is not to seek to worship at the altar of production.

In neurodivergent spaces, no one argues that, writ large, a so-called “ordered” mental approach is good and a so-called disordered mental approach is bad. Instead, the issue is that for many of us our executive function fails us even when we need it.

Yes, our executive dyfunction often gets us labeled as lazy or lacking in motivation, and so to that extent normative function is weaponized against us. I’ve never personally run into anyone in neurodivergent circles, however, who suggests that normative standards are right and we should be doing whatever we can to exhibit normative executive function as often as possible.

It’s a problem, to take one example, for me that executive dysfunction, along with solid helpings of anxiety and obsessive-compulsion (and setting aside the undiagnosed fatigue), keeps me from cleaning my toilet.

That’s not capital lashing me with a bootstrap because I’m not “functioning like an executive”, that’s a snag in my brain that I often cannot seem to control in order to prevent some degree of shit residue from building up in my bathroom.

Can normative executive function be politicized to cast us as lazy and unmotivated? Of course. Is executive function in and of itself some sort of dirty idea? Of course not.

Absent executive function, I would not manage to get dressed, wash up, and have breakfast in the morning. Or figure out whether or not I need to go to the store because I’m running out of cereal, and make sure I have with me what I need when I go to that store to buy that cereal.

Absent executive function, I would not be able to help out my old nonprofit with social media during this, their tenth-anniversary year. Absent executive function, in fact, I almost couldn’t do so for a specific recent social media initiative, because for days I could not for the life of me figure out how to put it together.

The opposite of executive function is not some sort of “letting go” or “going with the flow”. The opposite of executive function is not throwing a Luddite wrench into the machinery of capital.

The opposite of executive function is paralysis. It’s claustrophobia. It’s feeling trapped inside your own brain. It’s your nervous system feeling cornered.

Not everything requires executive function, but some very real-world needs very much do require it. It’s not some sort of concession to normativity. It’s not some sort of sop to productivity culture.

If you don’t believe me, I invite you at any given moment on any given day just to go and take a look at my bathroom.