ADHD and Working Memory: Three Strategies to Remember What You’re Forgetting

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

“Do you have a moment?” You look up from your task to find a colleague staring at you. “Sure, what is it?” you ask, shaking your head out of hyperfocus. “Can you remember to send that email to Jamie? We need it tomorrow." “No problem”. You consider noting it down but instead continue with your task. There’s no way you’ll possibly forget that...

For many people with ADHD, working memory struggles are a core part of the difficulties we face. Working memory is defined as trying to maintain something in your active memory while also being engaged in distracting or interfering activities [1]. So if you decide you need to do something, and a few minutes later can’t remember what that task was, this could be an issue with working memory. Although working memory issues were previously believed to exist mainly in ADHD children and adolescents, we now know they continue to adulthood [2].

So what can we do to support our working memory? One of the more researched options is brain training. While several brain training systems claim to help with working memory, a 2013 meta-analytic review of 23 studies found that brain training had some localised support but was not generalisable [1]. For example, training your brain to remember a specific pattern might help you learn that pattern, but it didn’t appear to be generalised to remembering other things.

Instead, like our discussion of time blindness, one helpful support might be to find ways to externalise your lost memories [3]. Below, I’ve outlined three ways you can externalise thoughts and support your working memory.

1. If You Can, Use Voice Notes

If you’re in a space where you feel comfortable speaking out loud, voice to text apps like Otter or OneNote or voice-activated systems like Alexa, are all good options to support working memory. Often if we’re engaged in a task, our hands are full, and transitioning to another job, or even writing a note can seem too difficult. Remember to set up a routine to check and sort these individual notes every day or week. This routine will help avoid you feeling overwhelmed by too many reminders.


2. Write it Down

If you aren’t in a space where you feel comfortable talking aloud, try writing in a small journal or on post-it notes. Taking a moment to jot down thoughts immediately can mean the difference between keeping them and losing them. If others often give you tasks practice saying, “Great, hang on, let me write that down now”. This will help you avoid forgetting by waiting until later to make a note.


3. Lean on the Neurotypicals Around You

One of our ADHD strengths is creative problem-solving [4]. In contrast, one common neurotypical strength is an excellent working memory. Working together can help us all to get the best of both worlds. For example, if you’re given a task but don’t have the time or ability to note it down, saying to a neurotypical colleague or partner, “can you remember I need to do this?” can act as a safeguard against forgetting the task later on. Alternatively, if it’s an email, you could respond with “no problem, and if you haven’t heard from me by [date], please remind me.” Minor changes like this can help you operate more comfortably regardless of working memory difficulties.

Overall, although struggling to remember tasks and appointments can make life more difficult with ADHD, using external supports can make it a lot easier to keep track. They free up your brain to focus on other things, like your favourite hyperfocus, rather than trying to remember for the third time that you have to take the washing out of the machine. Who knows, that extra brain space might be what you need to come up with something awesome! 😊


Talk again soon.


Skye



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References

[1] M. Melby-Lervåg and C. Hulme, ‘Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review’, Dev. Psychol., vol. 49, no. 2, pp. 270–291, 2013, doi: 10.1037/a0028228.

[2] R. Alderson, L. Kasper, K. Hudec, and C. Patros, ‘Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Working Memory in Adults: A Meta-Analytic Review’, Neuropsychology, vol. 27, pp. 287–302, May 2013, doi: 10.1037/a0032371.

[3] J. B. Meaux and J. J. Chelonis, ‘Time perception differences in children with and without ADHD’, J. Pediatr. Health Care, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 64–71, Mar. 2003, doi: 10.1067/mph.2003.26.

[4] D. Healey, ‘Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and creativity : An investigation into their relationship’, 2005, doi: 10.26021/7171.

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