Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re talking with your mom on the phone when suddenly you realize you have NO idea where your phone is. You start frantically tossing aside couch pillows, feeling between the cushions, until finally your mom asks you why you’re freaking out. As the words “I can’t find my phone” leave your mouth, you realize the hilarity of the situation and you both have a good laugh.
It’s happened to most people at least once. But for those of us with ADHD, this kind of thing is commonplace. Most of us have a nice collection of stories just like this one. From finding your keys in the fridge to forgetting why you walked into the bedroom… we have no shortage of laughs.
Have you ever called someone, then had to wait for them to answer so you could remember who it was you were calling? Maybe you’ve searched your entire house for your glasses while they were on your face. Or you started driving somewhere but halfway there totally blanked on where you were going. Yep, the life of an adult with ADHD is unquestionably entertaining.
But it’s not always funny. Sometimes being forgetful can have more serious consequences. Like forgetting it’s a weekday and not showing up for work, or forgetting an important meeting. Or what about forgetting you already took a medication, and taking too much?
My boyfriend (a fellow ADHDer) was studying to be an electrician many years ago. As an electrician it’s very important to turn the power off before starting any electrical work, otherwise someone could die. He knew he regularly struggled with his memory, usually with little insignificant things, but he was understandably afraid that one day he’d forget that one super important rule. He ended up deciding against that career path because the anxiety of not trusting his memory was too much.
Before I knew that forgetfulness was a symptom of my ADHD, I spent years secretly wondering if there was something wrong with me. For a while I thought maybe I was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. I would hear someone describing Alzheimer’s by telling stories like, “She started a bath, forgot what she was doing, and the bathtub overflowed” or “She walks into a room and doesn’t remember what she’s doing there”. It sounded just like me! I didn’t know what else to think.
And it wasn’t just forgetting what I was doing or looking for my phone while I was talking on it. I would also forget the words people said to me seconds after they said them. My mom called it Selective Hearing and I was always told that things people said to me went In one ear and out the other. I would hear the words but it was like they wouldn’t stick in my brain. They’d just disappear right away. The same even happened when I would read a book. I’d be a few paragraphs in before I’d realize that I had zero memory of anything I just read. So I’d have to reread and reread until finally the words began to stick in my brain.
So why does our memory suck?
First you need to know about something called Executive Function
This is basically your brain’s self-management system. I’ve mentioned it before in previous articles, but I’ll explain it again. Your brain has to do a lot of little things in order to execute a task to completion. It has to plan, prioritize and sustain effort towards completing that task. Executive Function allows you to resist acting on your impulses and to ignore distractions so you can stay on task.
In ADHD brains, Executive Functions develop more slowly than in neurotypical brains. Not to mention the fact that we’re also deficient in the neurochemicals that help them function in the first place (Norepinephrine & Dopamine).
How does this tie into memory?
There are 3 types of memory: Short Term, Working, Long Term
ADHD brains have trouble with Working Memory, and Working Memory is a component of Executive Function. You can think of Working Memory as a system for temporarily holding information in your head while you work with it. It is a crucial function in everyday life. It’s what allows you to remember that speed limit sign you passed so you can drive at the correct speed. It allows you to remember the steps to a recipe while you cook. This is a system you use in endless ways throughout your day.
Everyone can only hold a limited amount of information at one time in their working memory, but for the ADHD brain that space is often even more limited. This is why we might find ourselves asking someone to repeat what they just said to us, or why we might have been that kid in school that blurted out answers right away.
Think of your working memory as a whiteboard you use to write things down right away so you won’t forget them, but you always write really big so you keep having to erase the whiteboard to make room for more stuff. (this is an awesome example I got from this How to ADHD video)
Is there anything we can do to improve our working memory?
As it turns out, there are things we can do. But these things are not magic bullets, and anything claiming that it is a magic bullet should be approached with caution.
There’s a company called Cogmed, for example, that claims to have a computer program that improves working memory which is supposedly based on cognitive neuroscience. The first clinical trial done on this computer program ended up with amazing results, but trial had ties to the company and that should always be seen as a red flag. It wasn’t long before other people who were not affiliated with them started doing scientific studies on Cogmed, ending up with results that were not so great.
There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there who would love to charge you ridiculous amounts of money to fix your ADHD brain. So always do your research and don’t pull out your wallet as soon as you read about a new shiny cure-all. These things I’m about to list simply make it easier to remember things. They don’t solve or fix your brain, and they don’t cost you a bunch of money.
Here’s what you can do:
- Make Lists
I’m going to make an educated guess and say you’re probably already an obsessive list-maker. Pretty much every ADHD brain I’ve met is just as into list-making as I am.
Lists are great for helping your brain keep track of everything that needs to get done. And if you’re like me and find yourself always drowning in piles of sticky notes, you can level-up your list game a bit by trying out a Bullet Journal or by using an App (I included some of my favorites on this list I made).
- Try Monotasking
Instead of multi-tasking, try to only focus on one task at a time. That way you won’t forget to finish those five other tasks you started on earlier. You can read more about Monotasking here.
- Be a Planner
Keep a planner on you at all times or use a planner on your phone. Make yourself build the habit of entering things into your planner as soon as you find out about them. The longer you do this consistently, the more of a habit it will become. Once it’s an established habit, you can rely on your planner to help you remember things.
- Listen to Music
I’ve found that my memory works a lot better when I have music on. It’s like it puts me into this flow-state of sorts that allows me to focus and retain whatever I need to remember. When it comes to reading and writing I need music with no words because the words will get mixed up with the words I’m trying to read or write. But otherwise, any music works.
- Create Routines
I have a house full of animals I need to remember to care for. Knowing that I have that responsibility has helped motivate me to create a basic routine for my day so I won’t forget to do my animal related chores. That routine acts as a foundation that I can build the rest of my day on, which allows me to add in other things I need to remember. Like a daily workout, or taking my medication. I build those things into my routine and it makes it way easier not to forget them.
This was Part 5 of our Series on Symptoms of ADHD you probably didn’t know about. If you missed the Intro to the series or Parts 1-4, you can catch up on those below:
Sign up for the mailing list below and I’ll let you know when a new article is published. For our next article we’ll either be continuing with this series into Part 6 or we might take a break and talk about something else. Either way I’ll let you know.
Until Next Time, Keep Calm and Grow On
What about you?
- Do you have trouble with working memory?
- Do you have your own story of a time your working memory affected you either negatively or positively?
Let me know in the comments 🙂
Come join my new Facebook Support Group for Adult ADHDers just like you! It’s called ADHD All Growed Up (which is obviously a clever reference to both Rugrats and my Blog name)
If you want to learn more, check out the article I wrote about it: Article I wrote about it
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