How to Focus

Improve Working Memory: Brain Training Tricks

Everyone occasionally loses her keys or forgets an important date. But when it’s a habit, you may be dealing with poor working memory related to ADHD. Learn how making checklists and developing routines can get you on track.

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

Losing your keys, leaving your wallet in the refrigerator, forgetting your husband’s birthday, asking the store clerk to repeat the directions to the gift-wrap department. You might think that these are all examples of inattention.

After digging into working memory studies, I have realized that, while these are examples of inattention, they are mostly signs of poor working memory. Working memory deficits are a symptom of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), autism, and learning disabilities.

What Is Working Memory?

You might be familiar with the term “short-term memory,” which is used interchangeably with the term “working memory.” Both refer to thoughts or information you hold temporarily in your memory, so that they are available when you need them to complete a task. Think of working memory as a shelf in your brain. Imagine you are going to the store. You need milk, eggs, and bread. While you’re in the store, you suddenly remember you need cereal. You head to the cereal aisle, but as you focus on Special K, the eggs fall off your mental shelf. You arrive home with cereal, milk, and bread, but have forgotten the eggs.

The number of items you store in your working memory might not be as many as the number your best friend can accommodate on his mental shelf. Research shows that young children have limited working memory skills, being able to hold only one or two items in memory. WM continues to develop until around age 15, but not everyone develops at the same pace or has the same working memory capacity. Some people can store more information than others.

Researchers disagree about the number of information “bytes” that can be held by the brain. Some say it’s as many as seven items, and others claim it’s four. You can increase your working memory capacity by grouping items together. A telephone number is typically 10 digits long, but we often break the number into three groups (555-555-5555), allowing us to use only three working memory slots to remember 10 digits.

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

When Do We Use Working Memory?

You use working memory every day, in many situations: to read, write, plan, organize, follow a conversation, do mental math, or follow multi-step directions. It helps you stay focused on, and engaged with, a task.

Working memory is essential at school. One study, done in the United Kingdom, looked at 3,000 grade-school and junior high students and found that weak working memory was more indicative of struggles in school than was a low IQ. According to researchers, almost all the children with weak working memory scored low on reading comprehension and math tests.

The following are examples of how poor working memory affects your daily life:

  • You want to join in a conversation, but, by the time the other person stops talking, you forget what you wanted to say.
  • You consistently lose your keys, cell phone, or wallet.
  • You get lost easily, even when you were just given directions.
  • You have trouble following a conversation because you forget what the other person has just said.
  • You have many unfinished projects because you become distracted and forget about the first project.
  • You plan to do some work at home, but you forget to bring needed items with you.
  • You have to reread a paragraph several times to retain the information.
  • You miss deadlines at work because of your disorganization and inability to follow through on projects.

No matter what you do, you need your working memory to help you do it.

[Total Recall: Great Gadgets to Jog Your Memory]

There are a number of products and services, such as CogMed and Play Attention, that you may use to help train your brain and improve your working memory. Some research has shown that they can increase your working memory, but that the benefits may not last beyond the training session. Other research has shown that brain training delivers significant improvements in working memory if you commit to sticking with it.

The first step to better working memory is to understand how memory works and to accept your limitations. That doesn’t mean saying, “Oh, I forgot,” to excuse yourself. It means developing and using strategies to compensate for forgetting. Many people with ADHD use reminder systems to keep things in order. They might use a notepad app on their phone or tablet to keep a running to-do list or a list of items they need at the store. They might use a timer or calendar app to remind them of appointments.

How to Improve Working Memory

Break big chunks of information into small, bite-sized pieces

Focus on one or two of them before moving on to the next instruction. Suppose you are getting ready to host a party in your home. You are overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done: shopping, cooking, cleaning, and setting up for the party. Focus on one area, such as shopping. Ignore the rest of the tasks until you are done shopping.

Use checklists for tasks with multiple steps

You might create a checklist for your first hour at work. It might include: listen to messages, return calls, check and answer e-mails, review yesterday’s progress, check with supervisor for important tasks to be completed immediately.

Develop routines

Create a routine when you return home from work. Place your cell phone and keys in the same place every time, as soon as you walk in the door.

Practice working memory skills

Use the brain training programs mentioned above or create your own. Write down six unrelated words. Start by trying to remember the first two words without looking at the paper, and add another word as you succeed.

Experiment with various ways of remembering information

You may remember a list more easily if you create a song or make up a rhyme. Others find that visualization helps them remember multiple items. When you are heading home from work, visualize yourself stopping at the store, picking up milk, cheese, bread, and yogurt. Imagine going to each section of the store, and see what it looks like. Because images are more powerful than words, you are apt to remember everything you need at the store as you follow your visualization.

Reduce multitasking

According to a study completed at the University of Sussex, multitasking can actually shrink certain areas of your brain, and is linked to shortened attention spans. Complete one task and then move on to the next.

Use mindfulness to minimize distractions and sharpen working memory

A study, completed at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that daily mindfulness exercises increased recall and allowed participants to tune out distractions by regulating sensory input.

Add exercise to your daily routine

Some studies have shown that working memory increases with daily exercise. While the reasons for this aren’t fully understood, scientists believe physical activity improves the health of brain cells. It can also indirectly affect memory by improving mood, helping you sleep better, and reducing stress – areas that can affect cognitive abilities.

[Solutions to Your Working Memory Problems]

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