Memory — Our Fifth Executive Function
Welcome back to the ADHD: Bitesize Guide to our Six Executive Functions!
Last time we took a look at Focus, the fourth of our executive functions. We examined how ADHD affects our ability to focus on one thing at at a time, shift our attention from task to task, and stay focused for a period of time. We talked about how those impairments can impact our lives.
We also looked at ways we can improve our focus, avoid distractions, and effectively shift our focus from one thing to another. If you missed it, you can read it here!
This time we're looking at Memory—the fifth of our six executive functions.
Working memory is the specific aspect that most of us with ADHD report as problematic. It's the ability to keep track of and manage information for a brief period of time, 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 occasional issues with memory, but for many of us with ADHD it's a near-constant, daily occurrence.
The result can manifest itself in the following ways:
Doing a food shop and returning home to find you've forgotten several key items.
Listening to a set of instructions and forgetting some steps in the middle.
Difficulty following a conversation because you've forgotten what was just said.
Getting lost easily, despite just getting directions from someone.
Re-reading something several times because you're having trouble retaining 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.
Forgetting where you just put your keys, wallet, phone...
Do any of those sound familiar to you?
The Trouble With Our Memory
Our lives are affected in several ways by these Memory impairments.
Forgetting things, tuning out of conversations, and getting lost are annoying when they happen occasionally. But when they happen to us daily, all the time, even when we're trying really hard to pay attention? It's frustrating, demoralising, and takes its toll on our self-esteem.
People can assume we aren't listening to them, or that we don't care enough about the task we forgot the details of, when really it's that we have trouble tracking a conversation, remembering all the items in a list, or following instructions.
We can lose minutes or even hours each day looking for the items we constantly misplace. Not to mention the stress of frantically searching for the things we need to get on with our day. Scrambling around for our keys and wallet each morning can contribute to being late for school or work.
We can often miss deadlines that we've forgotten about, or forget the key items we need to complete a school or work assignment. This can affect our performance and result in penalties from teachers or bosses.
Our school, work, home, and social lives are all affected by these impairments in our Memory. Additionally, we often find it hard to hold all the information in our heads that we need to plan our personal lives, affecting our sense of self. I refer to it as feeling as though I can't "adult" successfully.
Why Do We Have Trouble With Memory?
Several recent studies have been conducted using a brain scanning technique known as an fMRI. This is able to measure the brain's electrical activity in real time. These studies have focused on regions of the brain called the frontoparietal brain networks.
These networks are critical for co-ordinating behaviour in a timely, accurate, flexible, and goal-driven way. These regions are impaired in the ADHD brain, and significantly affect the following aspects of memory:
Short-term memory. The ability to hold a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time.
Working memory. The ability to manipulate and work with temporarily stored information for a short period of time.
Retrospective memory. The memory of people, words, and events encountered or experienced in the past.
Prospective memory. Remembering to perform a planned action or recall a planned intention at some future point in time.
Source memory. Recalling the source of learned information, such as knowledge of when or where something was learned.
There is still ongoing study into exactly why these areas are impaired, and how these impairments can be treated.
What Can We Do About It?
How can we develop a great memory when we don't naturally have one? Thankfully, there are things we can do to help ourselves. Here are several things you can start right
away to flex that working memory muscle!
Medication. Studies have shown that medication can improve short-term, source, and prospective memory in the ADHD brain. Medication doesn't "fix" our memory (or any other) deficits, but it can help significantly as part of a holistic treatment program. Remember, always talk to your doctor about starting, stopping, or changing medication for ADHD.
Maintain eye contact. It's much easier for us to take in information given to us verbally if we maintain eye contact as much as possible when the instructions are being given.
Repeat back in your own words. If someone gives you instructions, summarise back to them what you've been asked to do in your own words. That way, you'll find out immediately if you've missed out anything important, or interpreted something incorrectly, before you make the mistake in the actual task.
Get specific. Generalised instructions such as, "Bring everything you need to the meeting" are not very helpful. "Bring your laptop, a notebook and pen, and this week's sales report to the meeting" is much easier to understand.
Read everything before starting. As we are often creative types who don't stick to the rules, we're prone to going "off-piste" and interpreting the instructions differently from neurotypicals. Important context can be missed if we read only step one and assume we know where the project is going.
Then read it again, one step at a time. Having read everything, it's tempting to then rush ahead. But it's easy to miss something important that way. I find it helpful to use a piece of paper to cover up all the steps I'm not currently working on. That way, it's easy to focus on just one bit at a time.
Sub-divide large projects. Sometimes it's hard to follow instructions for a large, multi-step project. So if you have a school science project, don't just write down, "Do Science Project." Instead, write something like, "Write Hypothesis. Write Materials and Methods Section. Summarise Main Findings.", and so on.
Keep subdividing until each step is manageable. If you find this difficult, ask a teacher, colleague, friend, or family member to help you subdivide it effectively, and follow the steps to complete the project in order.
Checklist your sticking points. If there's a part of your day where you never seem to have enough time to get everything done, try making a timed checklist for it. Start by listing out all the tasks you need to complete—get a loved one to help you if you think you might be missing something—then time yourself doing each task.
Write the times next to the tasks on the checklist, then put the checklist into a sensible order (if you haven't already). Finally, stick it somewhere you will see it when you need it, or add a series of timed reminders to your smartphone to prompt you at the right moments.
Use Collections in your Bullet Journal. This is a great way to remember things you spontaneously think of. For example, if you think of a great gift idea for a loved one, but their birthday is still months away, start a Collection in your Bullet Journal titled, "Gift Ideas". Write down the person's name, the gift idea, and where you saw the item.
Later, when their birthday is fast-approaching, refer back to the Collection to see what it was you thought of. Every time you think of a great gift idea for someone, you can record it in the Collection for later reference.
Use List Trackers. These are a great way of recording and categorising ideas as you have them, and they help with foresight and hindsight. List trackers can help take that information out of our heads and onto paper.
A planning list tracker is a list of things in a specific category that you would like to achieve (foresight).
A recording list tracker is a list of things in a specific category that you have already achieved (hindsight).
List trackers can also be both planning and recording in one.
An example of the difference is "books I want to read" (planning/foresight) vs. "books I have read" (recording/hindsight). Combine both by listing "books I want to read" and checking them off when you do.
Make your list trackers more fun! Instead of just writing the books you want to read in a list format, draw a bookcase with books on it and add the titles to the spines. When you've read them, colour them in!
Bluetooth-trackable tags can be attached to your keys, phone, wallet, and anything else important (or expensive) that you tend to misplace. If (more like when) you lose something, you can use an app to help you find it.
Calendar apps are useful to help you record and plan commitments, events, appointments, and more. Set reminders and alerts that will help you remember the events before they are due to start, bearing in mind that when the alert should be sent will differ depending on what you're doing—it wouldn't do much good to set an alarm for five minutes before your dentist appointment if the dentist is a twenty-minute drive away.
Alarms on your phone are great for giving you a little memory jog to keep you on track. I have several alarms set throughout the day for a few minutes before key tasks or events are due to start — meal time, writing time, housework time, family quiz night time — to give me a chance to transition out of whatever I'm doing.
The Pomodoro Technique is another great way to use alarms to trigger your memory. Set a timer for 25 minutes and start work on a task. After 25 minutes, the timer will go off. Put a tick on a sheet of paper. If you have fewer than four ticks, take a short break of 5 minutes. After four ticks, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes, then erase the ticks to start the cycle again.
It's important to use a mechanical timer and a pen and paper, because the physical act of winding the timer confirms your intention to start, the ticking externalises desire to complete the task, and the ringing announces a break. Flow and focus become associated with these physical actions and feedback.
Write everything down. Our brains are pretty good at telling little white lies to us. "I'll remember that," they say, "I don't need to write that down." Don't listen to that little voice! Those prompts often make the difference between remembering something or forgetting it entirely. The tasks, notes, and events system in your Bullet Journal is a great way to organise these.
Have a place for everyday things. If you always forget where you put the same things every day, such as your keys, wallet, schoolbooks, or diary, reserve a specific, obvious place for them (by the door works well) and always keep them there.
Make it really obvious—you can even get an old cardboard box, cut off the lid flaps, put brightly-coloured wrapping paper over the outside, label it "VITAL THINGS" and write a list underneath of exactly what should go in there: KEYS, WALLET, PHONE, BAG.
Have one at home, at school (you can label the inside of your locker door), at work. Whenever you first arrive at that location, immediately load the box with all the things that should be inside it. When you come to leave again, you won't waste time trying to find the things you need.
The harmful results that can often occur as a result of our impaired Memory executive function can be mitigated or avoided altogether with support. Options include professional therapy, prescription medication, ADHD-focused life coaching, and self-help strategies.
Join us next time when we take a look at Effort—our sixth executive function. Learn why we often have trouble sustaining effort and managing energy levels, the ways in which we are affected by these things, and powerful solutions to help. See you there!