Executive Functioning Skills: Cognitive Flexibility

We are continuing our series on executive functioning (EF) skills. This article focuses on the EF skill of cognitive flexibility.

What does “cognitive flexibility” mean?

Have you ever gotten stuck? Not literally, but stuck in the sense that you were moving right along when something unexpected happened that stopped you in your tracks? Maybe you were in the middle of writing your term paper when your computer glitched and you lost everything. What would you do?

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to revise your plans in the face of obstacles, setbacks, new information, or mistakes. Essentially, it is your ability to adapt when a situation changes. Cognitive flexibility is strengthened when your brain has more neural pathways and connections. Neural pathways are like roads that connect two different areas of the brain. The more neural pathways created, the more roads available to make connections, which increases your ability to process information and the speed at which you can make decisions.

This video shows what can happen with a lack of cognitive flexibility. Enjoy!

Why is cognitive flexibility important?

While funny, this video clearly illustrates the importance of cognitive flexibility. The people were not expecting the setback of a broken escalator and they obviously did not have a backup plan. In their minds, escalators move you from point A to point B—when that didn’t happen, they got stuck, literally and figuratively!

There was clearly an easy solution to that problem, but sometimes things won’t be so obvious. Having cognitive flexibility allows you to analyze a situation and come up with alternative plans to meet your goals or requirements. It’s important to possess this skill so you don’t end up frozen in a situation where you can’t move forward to your next task.

Not only can cognitive flexibility help you when you’re faced with an obstacle, it’s also responsible for updating your belief system when presented with new or better information. For example, once an individual learns that texting and driving is a dangerous combination, he or she, if cognitively flexible, can alter their actions because they believe the new information. As a result, they will be better able to resist the urge to send a text while behind the wheel.

Being cognitively flexible increases your likelihood of success, too. This ability to quickly adapt to new situations increases one’s brain function and resilience to stress. Cognitively flexible people tend to have increased fluency and comprehension while reading and they have an expanded sense of awareness. Being cognitively flexible allows you to see different points of view with empathy and understanding, which is a particularly important skill in today’s diverse society! In general, people who possess this skill go further in life. Think about it, if you were a manager picking between an employee who is stuck in their ways and another who is open to ideas and easily adapts to a changing environment, who would you promote?

How can I improve this skill?

  • Learn the lingo...and use it! There are certain phrases you can learn to help you focus on improving your cognitive flexibility.
    • Plan A/Plan B: Once you realize that you’re “stuck” (which isn’t always easy to see), think of the phrase, “Plan A/Plan B.” When Plan A isn’t working, ask yourself about Plan B. If you don’t have one, make one! Think about any other way you could effectively solve your problem. For example, say you decided to do classwork in the library. Once you arrived, however, you realized your laptop battery was dead. Plan B could involve asking someone in the library to borrow their charger, using the computers in the library instead of your own, returning home to get your charger, or working from home after realizing that the afternoon will be quiet because your roommate is out of town. Being able to think on your feet and come up with a backup plan that works for you will always help.
    • Big Deal/Little Deal: When faced with a challenge or obstacle, try asking yourself if it’s a big dealor little deal. You’ll often see that minor happenings don’t seem so bad when put in the right context. Using the example from above, in the grand scheme of things, a dead battery is not a big deal and can be easily resolved. However, people who are not cognitively flexible tend to shut down in the face of obstacles. As a teacher, I can’t tell you how many students completely stopped working because their pencil broke or they ran out of lead. This inflexibility negatively impacted them because they fell behind on their work for a pointless reason (literally!).
  • Change up your daily routine. Routines are important, especially for those of you who need consistency to get things done. However, making a simple change to your routine will actually build and strengthen neural pathways in your brain, which in turn improves your cognitive flexibility. Try working in a new place (e.g., the library, quad, or a coffee shop) or ride your bike instead of driving. Go to a yoga class or take a hike instead of hitting the gym. These small, easy changes can make a huge difference.
  • Look for new experiences. Every time you have a new experience or learn something previously unknown to you, your brain develops more connections and gets stronger (not to mention you could have fun!). Similar to experimenting with breaking your routine, try learning or doing something new. This could be as simple as visiting an art museum or taking a cooking class, or as complex as learning a new language or computer program. Each of these new experiences will help develop and strengthen your cognitive flexibility.
  • Meet new people. Meeting people who are different from yourself allows you to learn new perspectives and points of view. This can often help you realize that there’s more than one way to do things and there are many “right” answers. Exposing yourself to people who challenge your beliefs results in increased cognitive flexibility and moral reasoning. You can meet people outside your social circle by traveling, volunteering, teaching, or even using social media!
  • Don’t always take the easy way. In today’s society, answers are usually just a Google search away. Technology has made many things easier (e.g., finding directions to a new place, performing calculations, or discovering the answer to pretty much any question). Just because the information is readily available doesn’t mean you should always turn to it. To increase your cognitive flexibility, put your brain to work. Use an actual map instead of your phone, do the math yourself, or have a conversation with a teacher to find the answer to your question.
  • Transfer your learning. Find ways to apply your current knowledge to different situations. For example, look for ways the skills you have learned as a student transfer to a professional environment. This strengthens the brain and improves learning, creativity, and adaptability, all of which are highly desirable in an employee. Being able to find ways to transfer learning improves cognitive flexibility because you are able to adapt stored information to new situations.
  • Exercise and play games. Both of these activities require coordination and some cognitive skill. Exercise and games (like chess) can increase neural pathways in the brain, and the more connections you make, the better able you are to adapt to new or difficult situations.
    Having cognitive flexibility skills makes you better able to adapt to a new or challenging situation.

    Igor Palamarchuk / Shutterstock.com

Many of these strategies encourage you to try new things that will change the context of your environment. This is the idea behind cognitive flexibility—the more new experiences you have and the more you challenge your own thinking, the better able you are to adapt in a new and challenging situation. All of these suggestions help build and strengthen neural pathways in the brain, and when those are strong, you won’t find yourself stuck.

Join us again on Thursday, October 26, when we will be talking about the executive functioning skills of organization and time management.

About Shannon Whitney

Shannon loves traveling, watching Friends, and all things Florida Gators. While she grew up in Northern Virginia, she left the state to attend the University of Florida in 2001. After earning a master’s degree in education, she returned home and has worked as an elementary school teacher for the past 11 years. Shannon recently decided it was time to put teaching on hold and venture down a new professional path. During her free time, Shannon is either traveling, cheering for Florida, binge-watching a Netflix series, or preparing to be an aunt!

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