(originally published July 4, 2011, updated January 6, 2021)
Many ADHD adults want a better memory. You, too? It’s definitely one of the challenges adults with ADHD find most infuriating. If you’re struggling with memory challenges you may find yourself at times saying some variation of the following:
- “I forgot I had that appointment.”
- “I’m sorry. I know I answered you’re text an hour ago and said I would stop at the store…
- “Uhm, never mind. I can’t remember what I was going to say.”
- “I think I wrote that on my to-do list…. somewhere.”
- “I know this stuff! I can’t believe it’s not coming to me right now.”
So, I don’t leave you in suspense I’ll share the punchline with you now. And that is, your ADHD brain is great for thinking and creating. But your brain wiring isn’t reliable for remembering something at the exact time and place you need the information. Sure, it may come to you, but maybe not when you need it.
That’s because your memory really is much more like Swiss Cheese than a trapdoor. 😉 I know it’s annoying, for sure. But it really doesn’t need to keep you from doing what’s important to you. Because, with the right combination of strategies and tools, you can rely less on your memory to accomplish what you want.
Now you’re really curious, right?
But, before we get to strategies and tools, I want to make sure you understand a little about long-term and short-term memory, as well as the related ADHD challenges. Because, when you’re equipped with this information, you can make a more informed choice about which strategies and tools to try.
Working-Memory Definition and Challenges for ADHD Adults
Working-memory is the brief storage (15-30 seconds) and manipulation/processing of information to be used to carry out a task.
For example, you look at a recipe and then choose the right measuring cup. As you’re listening to someone speak in a meeting you take notes. You respond to what somebody is saying in a conversation. That is, working memory is a process. You won’t remember the next day what measuring cup you used in a recipe for dinner last night, right?
In addition, the capacity of working memory is also limited. This means you can only hold and process a limited number of relevant chunks of information while not getting distracted by irrelevant information. And the amount of information you can hold is in part based on your ability to focus and attend.
I’m sure you see where this is going!
Your working memory is related to your executive functioning — your ability to self-regulate and not get distracted. And, because adults with ADHD have challenges focusing and attending, their working memory capacity may be even more limited.
Long-Term Memory Definition and Challenges for ADHD Adults
When you say you have a bad memory, you’re referring to your ability to either remember to do something in the future or retrieve information from your long-term memory, which is where you store information.
This, of course, assumes you’ve processed the information to get it into your long-term memory. For example, if you want to remember someone’s name you might repeat it several times or maybe connect their name with a visual. You’re trying to get it into your long-term memory to, hopefully, retrieve it later when you need it.
But, as you know all too well, sometimes your efforts pay off, and sometimes they don’t. 😉 Even when you do your best to remember information, it may not be available to you when you need it.
- So, you repeat to yourself, as you’re leaving your office, “get the milk, get the milk, get the milk,” and still forget to stop at the store. Then you get home, and look at your spouse…
- You finish up a report you’ve been working on for a long time and go to a meeting where it will be reviewed. But, when people ask you questions, you may have a difficult time recalling the details.
Some researchers believe this ADHD deficit is the result of the information not making it into your long-term memory. Others suggest the filing system in the ADHD brain is so disorganized retrieval is hard. Maybe it’s a little bit of both?
The good news is you can compensate for both your working memory and long-term memory challenges by using tools and strategies to focus and attend better and make better use of your working memory. I know. This is the part you’ve been waiting for. So, let’s get on with it!
Don’t Rely on Your Long-Term Memory
There will be times when you need to rely on your ability to recall information from your long-term memory without any assistance. For example, this is the case when you need to take exams. In these instances, you may need to learn specific strategies to enhance your recall ability.
But what if you don’t have to rely on your memory?
When your memory fails you, do you often say to yourself, “I should be able to remember…” And then, when you can’t remember something, do you heap shame and blame on yourself when you fall short? The problem may be you think you should be able to do something that you can’t. Just sayin…😉
The alternative is to accept the reality you have memory challenges. That doesn’t mean you have to like it. It just means you’re willing to acknowledge what is. Would you insist your 20/100 eyesight is perfect, and refuse to wear glasses/contacts? Of course not.
Similarly, once you accept you don’t have a good memory, you’ll likely be more willing to adopt tools and learn new strategies to compensate for your wonky memory. Rather than fighting reality. And, with this acceptance, you might also have a better self-esteem. Because you won’t be shaming yourself for your memory challenges. Nice, right?
What do you think? Are you on board?
I’m sure you already have a few strategies you use. Check out how to use checklists to remember what you need to do, as well as this list for more ideas, ADHD and 20 Ways to Remember What You Want.
Working Memory and Monotasking – Because Multitasking Is a Myth
When it comes to making better use of your working memory try monotasking, rather than multitasking. Yes, I know. Not easy for ADHD adults. And you may even think you can do several tasks at once. You can’t. At least not well or efficiently. In fact, Dr. Ned Hallowell refers to multitasking as a:
mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.
If you’re trying to have a FaceTime conversation while reading a recipe and cooking, chances are the conversation will be a little wonky and it’ll take you forever to cook. Similarly, if you’re looking at your phone whenever it pings, you’ll probably miss what the speaker is saying and not have accurate notes.
Hmm, sound familiar?
The first step to turning this around is to reject the belief you can multitask. And then adopt a habit of monotasking. When starting a task tell yourself, “I’m doing this and not that.”
Also, resist the temptation to do “just this one thing” — one more thingitis. And don’t believe yourself when you say, “It’ll only take 2 minutes?” You may be tempted to do that one thing because you’re afraid you might forget it. But here’s the thing. It never takes just two minutes, right? Also, whenever you transition, you’re more likely to get distracted.
You may even forget what you intended to do before you decided to do just one more thing. And, before you know it, you’re off on an entirely different trajectory. Because, once you do that one thing, you may continue down one rabbit hole after another.
Instead, record those thoughts on a piece of paper so you have peace of mind you won’t forget them later. And remind yourself, “I’m doing this and not that.”
Give Your Floating Attention a Job to Do
Once you decide to do this and not that — monotask — you’ll still need to contend with managing frequent distractions, no doubt. Unless, of course, you’re able to hyperfocus. Most of the time, though, it’s not possible to focus 100% of your attention on one task.
If you can harness your ability to hyperfocus in the right context, it can definitely be an ADHD superpower. But you know you can’t always count on leveraging this strength exactly when you need it. If you want to monotask, it’s more likely you’ll need to figure out a way to manage your floating attention.
While everyone has a bit of floating attention, it won’t surprise you to learn adults with ADHD have a great deal of floating attention. Hence the plethora of “there goes the squirrel” jokes. I know. Sometimes it’s funny. And sometimes it’s really not.
To stay focused on your primary task, one strategy you can use is to give your floating attention a job to do. You may already do this if you use a fidget or listen to sounds/ music when trying to focus. If you haven’t tried this strategy, try a Spinner Ring, apps like SimplyNoise, or [email protected], or “focus music” on Spotify or Pandora.
When you give your floating attention a job to do, your working memory may function better as you will be better able to attend and focus on your primary task. And not pay attention to whatever the squirrels are doing outside. 😉
Be More Interactive for A Better Working and Long-Term Memory
Another strategy you can use to focus and attend better so your memory can do its job is to interact with the task better.
For example, interact with content when reading material you need to use. rather than skimming it as you might when reading the paper. Start by previewing it so you get the big picture. Then formulate questions for each section and make sure you answer the questions. For instance, before reading this section, you might ask yourself, “How can I be more interactive?”
Similarly, use an interactive method to take notes during meetings to help you focus and attend to whoever is speaking. And then make sure you process those notes afterward. For more on how to take and process notes, check out, ADHD and Meetings: How to Take and Use Your Notes.
Whether you take notes or not, if you can be curious about what the speaker is saying when in a meeting or conversation, you’ll be able to focus and attend better. To do this you might:
- imagine where the conversation is going. “I wonder if she’s going to share her reasons for choosing that method over the other. If she doesn’t share them, I’ll ask her later.”
- look for evidence. “Ah, that’s an interesting point. But that doesn’t seem like enough to support that direction. Maybe she has other reasons?”
- pay attention to nonverbal communication. “That was a long pause and she seemed to get a little anxious when Bob asked her that question. Hmm…”
By being curious you can stay engaged in the conversation, rather than letting your mind wander.
Practice Good Self-Care
Of course, strategies and tools won’t be as helpful if you’re not practicing good self-care. Because you know when you don’t get enough sleep, downtime, exercise, the right nutrition or the timing of your meds is off, you won’t process or remember information as effectively.
That is, your ADHD memory challenges are exacerbated when you don’t take care of yourself. I know you already know that.
Self-care also includes creating the right environment so you will have an easier time retrieving and processing information. This means having the right amount of stimulation for your ADHD brain. Too much or too little may hinder your ability to focus and attend.
What are other ways you can practice good self-care to minimize your memory challenges?
Accepting ADHD Memory Challenges
Once you accept your ADHD memory is a little wonky, you’ll have the opportunity to choose various strategies and tools, some of which I’ve shared above, to help you manage this challenge.
What is one particular memory challenge you find the most difficult to deal with? What tactic would you like to try to address this in the coming week?