A quantitative investigation of the ability to carry out a variety of cognitive tasks was performed in 3 patients who had sustained traumatic injuries which involved prefrontal structures. All 3 had severe difficulties in 2 tests which required them to carry out a number of fairly simple but open-ended tasks over a 15–30 min period. They typically spent too long on individual tasks. All patients scored well on tests of perception, language and intelligence and 2 performed well on a variety of other tests of frontal lobe function. Explanations for their difficulty on the multiple subgoal tasks in terms of memory or motivational problems could be excluded. It is argued that the problem arose from an inability to reactivate after a delay previously-generated intentions when they are not directly signalled by the stimulus situation.