Guest Blogs

An Absurdly Easy Solution To Your Poor Working Memory

Since I was a child, I couldn’t remember anything, and had no idea why! When I realized my ADHD caused a working memory problem, I invented this process to deal.

String tied around a finger belonging to an ADHD person as a memory reminder
String tied around a finger belonging to an ADHD person as a memory reminder

I remember when I was a kid, I would sit in math class and take these detailed notes about how to do whatever type of math we were learning. Frankly, no matter what it was it was lost on me. Algebra, trig or geometry, it didn’t matter.

You know why? Because no matter how detailed my notes were by the time I got home and started my homework, those same notes were like trying to read Chinese. At the time I literally thought I must be stupid.

Why the h-ll can’t I remember anything no matter how hard I try?! I would berate myself, feel frustrated and give up. I gave up on a lot of my dreams because of a problem that I didn’t recognize clearly at the time.

I have ADHD, and I also have a pretty poor working memory. Even now.

Ask yourself this: If I gave you a 3-step set of instructions right now, would you remember my instructions in 10 minutes?

[Self-Test: Do You Have a Working Memory Deficit?]

If you are anything like me, you won’t even remember to TRY to remember the instructions. It will go in one ear and out the other. If this rings true for you, then join me in the Society of Poor Working Memory.

Working Memory Defined

After a quick Google search I found this article on the website I think it does a nice job of explaining what working memory is and how it works.

By definition, working memory is “the ability to store and manage information in one’s mind for a short period of time.”

If my memory is any indication, the period of time a person with ADHD can store information in his or her brain is relatively short.

In the same article I learned that we possess both auditory memory and visual-spatial memory capabilities. Auditory memory records what you are hearing, while visual-spatial captures everything you see.

[Say Goodbye to “Oh I Forgot”]

As a side note, humans instinctively respond to what they can see, which explains why so many of us with ADHD are better at visual learning. As opposed to a lecture that is all listening and no interaction with an instructor behind a podium or desk.

Ever had a 3 hour weekly course? Yeah, it is painful at times.

In some of us, a poor working memory makes it harder to grasp and then hold on to new information. So accessing the information about say, how to do a math problem 4 hours after it is shown to me is virtually impossible.

Working Memory and Distractibility

The other really interesting piece of information I took from the Understood article was this:

The same part of the brain responsible for working memory is also responsible for attention and concentration. True story!

All of a sudden it is startlingly clear to me that not only do I have ADHD, but my terrible, no good, very bad working memory has been affecting me for my entire life. How’s that for clarity?

My next question, and hopefully yours is, what can we do about it?

Let me tell you, there is an absurdly easy solution to your poor working memory: Monotasking!

Yep, I said monotask. Not multitask. The opposite of multitasking, actually.

I first heard about monotasking from Carla Birnburg. How had this idea never entered my consciousness? Everyone with ADHD should be monotasking.

Check out this short video from Sanjay Gupta.

Let me give you an example of what happens when I try to multitask:

  • First I pull out the ingredients to make a meal for my family.
  • While doing so I hear my phone ding that I have a social media message.
  • I check my phone while turning on the oven.
  • I get sucked into Facebook writing a long response to a community member.
  • As I finish my response I realize I forgot to respond to an email from my mother so I start that.
  • Now it’s 85 degrees in my kitchen because I was trying to cook, email and Facebook at the same time.

The above is a true story, it happens like twice a week in my house.

Here are my suggestions for how to improve your working memory by monotasking.

Focus on 1 Task at a Time (MONO=1)

If you are a list person, and many of us with ADHD are list people, only focus on one task at a time. In fact, limit your list as much as you can. I prefer to keep my list to 3-4 items per day.

Choose the task you want to start with and focus on that. Do not even look at your list again until you are finished with the first thing on your list. Trust me on this one.

Cut Back on Your Obligations

For most of my life I have been a “yes” person. I tell people I will do something, or appear somewhere, even when I know I do not have the time or mental energy to follow through. Then I end up irritable and overwhelmed with my schedule.

I suggest you/me/we start to limit our obligations. Commit only to the causes, meetings and activities that really matter to you. Focus on giving your full attention to your family and your career. (Or whatever moves you.)

Be the Man with a Plan-ner

In other words, if you know you have an important meeting at work, and a conference with your child’s teacher in the afternoon and you are not sure how you are going to pull dinner together – plan ahead!

Decide ahead of time when you need to leave your office in order to get to the school on time. Schedule it in.

Keep a planner with you at all times. Use your paper-based planner to help you form a muscle memory each time you write down a task/obligation. The physical act of writing will help to improve your working memory, as will the visual representation of your schedule on your calendar.

Then use a calendar app or Google Calendar to create a calendar for yourself. The key is to use something, anything, that will give you a visual and auditory reminder. We all know we need reminders.

Listen to Music

If you are a student or someone who needs to study specific materials, I will always recommend using music to help with your memory.

Try playing a specific type of music while you study a specific subject. For instance, I used to listen to classical music when I was studying for my literature degree.

Believe it or not, I sometimes listen to rap when I am driving. (And if you are my friend you won’t repeat that.) I often listen to jazz when I am faced with a big project at work. Jazz music is calming for me.

Also, don’t be afraid to experiment with memory games, card games and that sort of thing either.

I feel like working memory is just the tip of the iceberg. Now that I figured it out, I am kind of obsessed with improving my own.

This post originally appeared on A Dose of Healthy Distraction.

[These 6 Healthy Habits Can Improve Memory & Focus]

18 Comments & Reviews

  1. There are 8 distractions in the body of this article, each of which invites the reader to wander away and multitask, even as one tries to monotask (that is, read the article). In fact the entire ADDitude website is one big distraction circus!! COuldn’t be worse design for people with ADD unless you added blinking lights.

    1. Seems like a lot of sites are built that way, commensurate on how much the organization is willing to cover the cost for their site. Free sites are available but at the mercy of an advertising circus. Even my aging smart phone is its own ad machine. What a shame. :/

    2. Unfortunately, it’s all about the money. Think about it like this:

      >More time spent on ADDitude = more advertisements being seen
      >More ads being seen = more ad revenue for the site. It’s how they make their money.

      Even neurotypical people are more likely to stick around if they see an interesting article. It’s all about creating a design that keeps the viewer there clicking more articles, seeing more ads, generating more revenue.

    3. LOOOOOL First i looked for a planner on amazon – then i created an account and now im replying to your comments so actually 9 distractions including you 😉

  2. I lost my planner.
    The other thing I want to mention to my fellow ADHD people is that if you have ADHD, you must get Adblock, and,for people with this disability, I think the world should accommodate us by not forcing ads on us by way of barring us unless we disable our adblockers. I can’t afford to see the stupid ads, not me, not my pocketbook. My ADHD is serious, and I have to live on disability because I’ve never been able to hold onto even one single job.
    Hey, don’t have a site like this unless you can tolerate some very angry comments. People with these disabilities cope with huge stresses. You can’t expect us to be perfect when you open a door like you’ve opened here. It’s infuriating to get a link that sounds like help, and then it’s not that you want to help, it’s that you’re trying to sell a book. To this site’s credit, though, there are some helpful links.
    I don’t see all the ads people are talking about, but you people running this site probably need to remove some of the ads that are hurting the very people you claim you want to help.
    Therapists think they have a right to earn a living at what they do. I disagree. If you want to dedicate your life to helping people, then you should accept some responsibility for helping those who have the disorder you want to help but are unable to afford your help because of their disorder. If you can make money off of my disability, then I should be able to make money off of my disability, too. Is that possible? No. Take some responsibility already.
    Cutting off the people who truly need help instead of only the ones rich enough to give you the money you need to build that new deck on your house means that you’re not really a therapist at all.
    Saints should have hands that even sinners can reach.

  3. The author seems to be conflating working memory and focus. Monotasking may help with your focus, but it’s not going to do anything to improve your working memory; you’re just avoiding the loss of focus that would expose your poor working memory, as in the example of her blowing her cooking by doing multiple things at once. Is her memory suddenly better if she focuses only on the cooking? Of course not.

    It’s also ironic that she pimps monotasking, but then later encourages listening to music while doing things you should be focusing intently on.

  4. All good with not taking up more tasks and obligations than you really can. But monotasking? I will forget what that one task was anyway.
    If I remember I had to do sth while I’m doing sth else, even grabbing my phone or agenda to write that down will make me forget what I was at, and I’ll also forget what I was about to write, or that I took my phone to add sth to my “to-do list”, or that I went to my room to get my agenda. How about things that you just have to wait for a machine to get done? Laundered clothes tend to sit in the machine for a few hours, but at my lowest times I’ve even had them there for 2 days, constantly remembering that I needed to hang them and forgetting before I did so.

  5. “Believe it or not, I sometimes listen to rap when I am driving. (And if you are my friend you won’t repeat that.)” Umm, did this comment stand out to anyone else? Intentional or not, this is racist. Ouch. Do your homework on this one, Liz, and make it right.

  6. Yeah the comment on rap got to me too. I made an account just to say so. It didn’t strike me as intentionally racist, but yeah…you may want to look into why you feel the need to hide your enjoyment of rap or why you think it would be unbelievable.

  7. I have terrible memory as well. Also had a lot of trouble
    with math. In addition to ADHD, I also have dyscalculia and sensory processing issues (ive tested positive for autism spectrum – what would have
    been Aspergers). Anyway – it’s very frustrating. I absolutely must see/write
    down or take photos (ie like of parking spots). Start giving me verbal directions and I grasp pretty much nothing.

  8. Also here to flag the very, very problematic “Believe it or not, I sometimes listen to rap when I am driving. (And if you are my friend you won’t repeat that.)”

    I flinched in the opening at “…those same notes were like trying to read Chinese” — there are 1.3 *billion* native speakers, and plenty of other ways to say you don’t comprehend something without other-ing — and then rap comment was bafflingly terrible — and doesn’t illuminate or explain anything that could possibly justify its use.

    Editors, how does this get past you? Please update this with an editor’s note.

Leave a Reply