Five Ways To Improve Your Working Memory
Working memory, often known as short-term memory, is the ability to keep track of and manage information for a brief period of time. It's a bit like a mental sticky note. For those of us with ADHD, our sticky note is small and tends to unstick itself pretty quickly.
Everyone has issues with working memory from time-to-time, but for many of us with ADHD, it's a near-constant daily occurrence. Do any of these sound familiar to you?
Doing a food shop and returning home to find you've forgotten several key items.
Listening to a set of step-by-step instructions and forgetting the step in the middle.
Finding conversations hard to follow because you've forgotten what was just said.
Getting lost easily, despite just getting directions from someone.
Having to re-read something several times to retain the information.
Trying to join in a conversation, but by the time the other person has stopped talking, you've forgotten what you were going to say.
Planning to get some work done at home, but forgetting to bring some of the necessary items with you from the office/school.
These things are annoying when they happen once in a while. But when they happen to us every day, all the time, even when we're trying really hard to pay attention? That gets frustrating, demoralising, and can take its toll on our self-esteem.
So, how can we develop a great memory when we don't naturally have one? Thankfully, there are things we can do to help ourselves, and they fall broadly into one of two categories:
Using different parts of our brain that function better than working memory.
Getting the information out of our brains altogether by putting it somewhere else.
Here are five ways to get started on improving your working memory:
1. Break It Down
Take a large, arduous task and break it down into smaller, easier-to-handle stages. For example, trying to just "write a science paper" or "plan a birthday party" is harder than it first appears because it's actually a series of smaller tasks, all of which can seem overwhelming or distracting from one another when you try to view them in totality.
So, instead of just writing "plan birthday party" on your to-do list (or in your Bullet Journal), put a series of smaller steps underneath it—write invitations, send invitations, order cake, decide on food, clean house—and so on. Each of those steps in turn work towards completing the larger task. The whole thing seems less overwhelming, and you are much less likely to leave things too late.
2. Checklist Your Sticking Points
Perhaps it's the morning routine or the first hour of your workday that tends to be the most common source of frustration for you. Or maybe it's as you try to leave school or the office. Either way, it's that part of your day where you always seem to run out of time, you have to keep running back to grab something you forgot, and you end up flustered, irritated, and late.
Here's where you need a checklist. This seems simple, but it can be a real game-changer. If it's your morning routine, make a checklist of all the things you need to get done—in chronological order—before you leave the house.
To really tackle it, time yourself doing each of the tasks with a stopwatch so you know how long they take, and build those times in—if it takes you twenty minutes to make and eat breakfast, allow for that in the checklist. Once you've made the checklist, stick it somewhere you can refer to it easily to help you complete each of the tasks in order and on time.
The best part? Once you've done this for a while, it becomes a routine. You'll likely find that you refer to the checklist less and less frequently as it becomes a more automated part of your day.
3. Mnemonics and Narratives
When I was at school, I had to learn something called the Reactivity Series of metals. We had to know them in order to understand which ones would react in certain situations and which would not. Importantly, we needed to know it to answer our GCSE Chemistry exam questions correctly, which was kind of a big deal. But how the heck was I going to remember a big long list of metals, and in the right order?
I made a mnemonic.
By taking the first letters of each of those metals and inventing a silly rhyme that started with those same letters, I came up with something that allowed me to remember the Reactivity Series not just for my GCSE exams, but for the rest of my life up to this point (my GCSEs were, at the time of writing, 21 years ago—mnemonics definitely work!):
Potassium, Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, Aluminium, Zinc, Iron, Tin, Lead, Hydrogen, Copper, Silver, Gold*
Play Some Cool Music After Zoe Itches, Teachers Love Her Cos She's Good
*apparently the Reactivity Series has changed a bit now, but this is how it was taught to me 21 years ago.
Similarly, you could try creating a narrative to help you remember a list of things, such as a recipe. Take each of the ingredients and find an image you associate most with each of them—go with whatever comes to mind first—then link those images together into the most vivid narrative you can think of.
4. Monotask Instead Of Multitask
According to several recent studies, multi-tasking is a very inefficient way of getting things done. This is because multi-tasking is actually not possible for the human brain to accomplish. What we call multi-tasking is in fact task-switching—you're not actually doing multiple things at once, but rather rapidly shifting attention between each of the activities you are attempting. Think of the well-known and often lethal effects of using a mobile phone whilst driving, and you will realise how catastrophic this can be.
On a less deadly but still significant scale, task-switching has been shown to decrease productivity by 40%. All the distractions that happen at work—emails, pop-up alerts, phone calls—divert our attention and focus, creating a task-switching episode.
Of course, it's impossible to eliminate all these causes of task-switching, but they can often be reduced. Try dividing your workday into segments—perhaps the first two hours of the day are devoted to the most important task of the day, and nothing else. Let your colleagues know that you are not to be interrupted unless it's an absolute emergency.
Another way to divide your work hours is to check emails/phone calls for fifteen minutes at set times throughout the day—9am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm, for example—and at all other times your phone and email alerts are switched off. That way, the remainder of the day is uninterrupted by these task-switching distractions.
If you have ADHD and your workplace knows about it, try asking for these strategies as workplace accommodations. If your boss sees that you're trying to increase your productivity, they will likely be supportive.
5. Bullet Journal Your Day
If you know you have an important work lunch, a meeting with your child’s teacher at 3pm and you aren't sure what to make for dinner—plan ahead! Decide way ahead of time exactly when you need to leave the office to arrive at school in time for the meeting, then write it in your Bullet Journal.
Not sure how to start a Bullet Journal? Check out my free Bullet Journalling Guide and take a look at this article on how to create your ideal Bullet Journal in less than 1 hour.
Additionally, you can use alerts on your phone to remind you a few minutes before you need to leave, to make sure that you stick to your schedule.
Keep your Bullet Journal with you at all times and refer to it often. Using it will help you form a muscle memory each time you write down a task—the physical act of writing will help to improve your working memory far better than an online planner will.
Take it easy on yourself. Your working memory is never going to match that of the average neurotypical person, and that's okay. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.
But that's all the more reason to try out some of the tricks and tips above to help get the information in a better-working part of your brain, or out of your brain altogether and somewhere external such as a Bullet Journal or checklist.
Try as many of these as you like, and discover which ones work best for you.