Working Memory

The Executive Function Chronicles: Chapter Two

Listen to my podcast episode on working memory here.

Possibly the most frustrating component of ADHD is how contradictory it appears from the outside. We need structure, but vehemently oppose it. We can’t focus long enough to fold our laundry, but we become so engrossed in an interesting task that we forget to eat. One of those contradictions is our fickle memory.

Perhaps to the chagrin of their loved ones, many ADHDers actually have pretty great memories – especially for experiences or interesting details. Also to the chagrin of their loved ones, many ADHDers tend to struggle with remembering those things the day-to-day requires. Like turning off the stove. Or locking the door. Or adding water to the coffee pot. Or starting the dishwasher. Or –

We think of memory as just short and long term: what we remember about yesterday and what we remember about a year ago. But what about what’s in between? Where do our memories go while we are still remembering and re-remembering them?

Working memory is a shelf in your prefrontal cortex; it’s what holds information accessible in the side of your brain until the front of your brain needs it. That’s how you can follow multi-step processes, like baking. Your brain actively remembers the recipe in its entirety and simultaneously focuses on one ingredient at a time. But with ADHD, our shelf isn’t so accessible. Living with ADHD is like living in a house where the kitchen is downstairs and the pantry/refrigerator is in the attic, and you can only carry one ingredient down the stairs at a time. Is it possible to bake cookies? Sure. But it’s really, REALLY, *&%#!@$ exhausting.

There are two types of working memory: verbal and nonverbal.

Think of working memory as the brain’s GPS. Verbal working memory is like that irritating navigation voice in the GPS that’s always telling you to “turn left” and “make a U turn.” It’s where you can access an internal monologue that leads you step by step.

Nonverbal working memory is even more important. This is like the maps stored in a GPS; it’s the ability to visualize where you’re going. With ADHD, this part is extremely hard. We can’t hold images in our head long enough to see what the end of the road looks like. When you don’t have service and your phone’s Maps app can’t access the….satellites..(?)….it freaks out, right? The screen goes blank and the little arrow spins around, so lost and sad. That’s what it’s like. ADHD is driving in the rain with no headlights and no map.

You can imagine how this can quickly lead to slower processing speed, overwhelm, anxiety, and a lot of incomplete chores. You can probably also see how this would challenge emotional regulation; how can you rebalance yourself when you can’t picture what “balanced” looks like?

So here’s what helps.

Make everything visual!!! I have a feeling I will be repeating this phrase endlessly all over this site. It is too much work for your brain to scale all those stairs and make it up to the pantry in between every single piece of a task. Give your brain a break. Make a pantry down here. Every ADHDer I know has tried all the Post Its and to-do lists and has endured neurotypical people exclaiming “just set a reminder on your phone!” as if it’s the first time we’ve ever heard of such a thing. I won’t bore you with that BS. I know you’re already trying your best. Don’t work harder; work smarter.

  • Write it out, make it real. It’s really tempting to put our lives in our phones, and they have made many things easier. But if you can, write what you need to remember in a tangible, hold-it-in-your-hands way. I don’t know about you, but the number of times I have opened my phone to check something and then closed it five minutes later after looking at everything except what I need, or I have forgotten in which app I entered this Very Important List, is too many to count. Don’t have a conniption, neurotypicals, I still have a lot of reminders and alarms. But when it’s something you need to access often, make it something you can touch.
  • Google what “done” looks like. Part of the reason starting tasks is so overwhelming is because we can’t visualize the finish line. I have written and rewritten my resume so many times, and still every time I open it to make edits I freeze. So I search “resume,” look at lots of fake sample resumes, and pour my information into that mold. At work I have progress note templates that I reuse and edit. Before starting tasks, try to make a habit of capturing what the task will look like when it is done. And refer back to it frequently.
  • After starting at the end, work backwards. It will feel silly, but after you’ve seen what the end product will be, write out the steps or necessary components to get there. You don’t have to follow it to a T, but it will help to have a path.
  • Talk to yourself. We tend to be pretty good at this already, and it’s actually helpful for everyone, not just ADHDers. Make your internal monologue external when you can. It helps support verbal working memory. Every time I print something for a client from my office, when I walk them out I say “I am walking down the hall and I am going to remember to pick up those papers from the printer.” It doesn’t boost my cool points very much, but damn it is effective.
  • For God’s sake, be kind and patient with yourself. You’re not crazy, or lazy, or incompetent. You’re not exaggerating or making it up. This really, truly, is harder for you. When someone’s vision is blurry, we don’t tell them to just squint and shut up about it because everyone else can see just fine. We give them glasses. Just because you do some things slowly does not mean you do them poorly, or you are incapable. And if, at the end of the day, you are still exhausted but you feel that you have less to show for it than others, you’re not weak. You had to run up and down the staircase of your brain so many times the carpet is threadbare. You should be exhausted. Take the rest. You always, always deserve it.

What do you use to support your working memory?

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3 thoughts on “Working Memory

  1. Not sure if you’re still looking at comments for these older posts, but a weird question that you may not be able to answer… Suggestions for making things visual if you’re also blind? I suspect, much to my dismay, that I have been put in a body with a visually processing brain, but non-functioning eyeballs. I know you may not be aware of all the tools available to someone who’s blind, and that’s fine, just wondering if you have any advice on what visual strategies might be outsourced to what parts of the brain most effectively. Just trying to figure out how to manage…everything without drowning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello! Thank you so much for your comment! This is an amazing question. I thought about this a lot while I was writing this….what if the visual tools aren’t accessible to everyone? If you have come across things that have helped you with working memory, please share! I imagine there are many others in your predicament.
      A few months ago I was scouring the internet looking for a device that would vibrate every hour or at different intervals, in order to help me end my therapy sessions on time and help me stay aware of time passing – you know, like those old school digital watches that beeped every hour? Turns out those don’t really exist anymore. Can you believe it? Very frustrating. Anyway, in the course of my search I did come across some resources that provide devices for visual impairment. You probably have a way better impression of this technology than I do, so I might be telling you things you already know or do, but this is what I found:

      This is like a talking alarm clock/audible reminder device. There are a few other things on this site that were kind of cool also, with the similar goal of audible alerts and reminders that you can repeat, which could help with struggling working memory:

      I wonder also if some recording devices could be helpful to remember multi-step processes…like, record instead of writing something down? I’m constantly saying “I have to get X and X from the kitchen” and by the time I get to the kitchen I forget what I needed. Maybe a device that can repeat back to me what I need when I’m in the kitchen could help? Here’s a link of some recorders:

      I think I find the most things when I search “tools for visually impaired seniors”. It might feel weird, but I think that’s a population we share some needs with.

      If you have any other tips or just things that have helped you, I would absolutely love to hear them! Thanks again for bringing up this extremely important topic!! ADHD never exists in a vacuum, so I’m sure your experience is shared by many many others!


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About Abby Chau, LMFT, ADHD-CCSP

I am a marriage and family therapist based in Seattle, WA. I also have ADHD! And I love learning more about it, by myself and with my clients. Join me as I create an ADHD Owner's Manual! (she/her)