Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by an inability to control one’s attention. If you have ADHD, you might struggle to initiate or maintain focus on boring projects—even if you can concentrate on your favorite hobby for hours. This inability to control attention likely affects you in a wide variety of ways in many areas of your life.
If you’re like many of our clients, one of the ways ADHD affects you has to do with your working memory. In this post, we explain what working memory is and how ADHD impairs it. We’ll also answer common questions, such as: “Is there any difference between short-term memory vs. working memory?” “Can working memory be improved?” and “How can someone with ADHD cope with a poor working memory?”
What is working memory?
Working memory allows people to retain, recall, and process information in the short term. It is a complex process that takes place in the brain’s frontal cortex. Thanks to working memory, a person can hold a piece of information—or several pieces of information—in their mind while simultaneously applying that information to a task or problem.
People with strong working memory ability are great at tasks that require intellectual multi-tasking, such as mental math. They also excel at things that involve visualization, such as navigation. When driving to a new place, they can hold an address in their heads while simultaneously visualizing the next turn. They have advantages in many functional areas—including reading, note-taking, planning, and following directions—compared to people who have a poor working memory.
Working memory vs. short-term memory
Many psychologists use the terms “working memory” and “short-term memory” interchangeably. Others define them in the same way we do: as distinct but related abilities.
In our view, short-term memory refers to a person’s ability to temporarily activate a long-term memory in the short term. Working memory enables that person to put that memory into use by focusing on a subset or “chunk” of it and processing it in a specific way. In other words, it’s the ability to store and manipulate information in one’s mind for a short period of time (usually 10-15 seconds).
For example, someone with good short-term memory ability can remember and repeat a short sequence of numbers in the same order they originally learned them. Unless that person also has a strong working memory ability, however, they might not be able to manipulate the order of those numbers if asked to, for example, say them backward.
The processing component of working memory requires a person to focus on a specific chunk of recalled memory long enough to process or use it. A key difference, then, between short-term memory vs. working memory is that working memory requires someone to ignore superfluous information and tune out distractions. This distinction begins to explain why many people with ADHD—including those with good short-term memories—nevertheless struggle with working memory.
How ADHD affects working memory in adults
One of the hallmarks of ADHD is how it affects executive functioning. As we explain in this related post on how to improve executive function in ADHD adults, executive function is the set of processes that allow a person to manage themselves and their resources to achieve a goal. A person is said to suffer from “executive dysfunction” if they have poor working memory or lack other primary executive functioning skills.
It’s possible to have working memory problems without having ADHD. It’s also possible (though rare) to have ADHD without any noticeable working memory problems. That said, researchers have identified strong links between ADHD and poor working memory. For example, a 2011 study of brain scans of children with ADHD consistently found “reduced working memory task-specific brain activation” compared to their non-ADHD peers.[i] Since ADHD is a lifelong disorder, these deficiencies in working memory persist in adults.
Can working memory be improved in adults with ADHD?
If you have ADHD and want to improve your working memory, we have good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad.
Brain games and other forms of memory training do not work to improve your working memory in any meaningful way. If you engage in memory games and exercises, you may gradually get better at the specific tasks you practice as your brain finds patterns and workarounds. The gains you make, though, will be limited to those specific brain games or tasks. It’s not possible to improve your working memory such that it will be improved in all areas of your life.
The healthiest way to cope with your ADHD and poor working memory is to accept that this is not a strength for you. If you try to force yourself to function as if your working memory were fully functional, you will only frustrate yourself or possibly fall into a shame spiral. Imagine if someone with diabetes refused to take their insulin; they would only be causing themselves harm by denying the reality of their situation.
The good news is that acknowledging your working memory deficit is the first step to moving past it. By learning new skills, taking advantage of supportive technology, and building new habits, you can work around your working memory problem. Even though you may end up approaching many tasks differently than your peers do, you should ultimately be able to accomplish the same things.
7 ways to work around ADHD-related working memory problems in adults
Adults with ADHD use a wide variety of skills and tools to overcome working memory challenges. What works for one person won’t work for everyone, so it’s often a process of trial and error. In our experience as ADHD specialists, the following strategies often help people with ADHD improve their lives by sidestepping working memory challenges:
1. Routinize as many things as possible
Once a task becomes habitual, it requires less working memory to do it. That’s why it’s possible to arrive home after driving a familiar route and not remember the drive. Building habits takes time and perseverance, so don’t get discouraged if a task seems hard at first. It also takes a lot of energy at the early stages, so don’t try to build too many new habits at once. Be patient with yourself and take it one new habit at a time.
2. Use lists whenever possible
It’s hard to focus on one step of a process while simultaneously thinking about all of the other steps (and all of your other to-do items). Avoid this pitfall by immediately writing down to-do items when you think of them. You can also jot down the steps required for a project before you start. That way, you can cross things off as you complete them. Keeping a good list will free up the mental space required to give each task your full attention.
3. Take advantage of technology
Standard smartphone apps such as Google Calendar and Google Keep are great for creating lists and setting up reminders. You can also download new apps to your phone. Figure out which features appeal to you in an app (phone-to-smartwatch reminders, task sorting, color coding, category tags, etc.) and choose a tool that meets your needs. For example, you might…
4. Go old school
Digital reminders don’t work for everyone. For some, picking up a smartphone is just a temptation to check social media or scroll through the news. Additionally, task reminders often get lost in the shuffle of the numerous other dings and buzzes coming through from text messages, emails, etc. If digital reminders aren’t working for you, go old-school with post-its, whiteboards, or journals. For example, you could tape a note onto your bathroom mirror to remind you to put on sunscreen in the morning. As long as your to-do item isn’t time-sensitive (like a scheduled appointment), these old-school reminders can be really helpful.
5. Don’t attempt to do more than one thing at a time
If something randomly interrupts you or comes to mind as you’re working on something else, try not to act on that thing immediately. Instead, write a note to yourself about what you need to do later, then go back to the task at hand. If you switch tasks every time you think of something new, you risk losing track of what you were doing, slowing down, your momentum, or never making it back to your original task.
6. Use objects as visual cues
Our clients love using object placement as a working memory workaround. For example, if they’re cooking a meal and happen to notice that they’re out of milk, they’ll continue to cook the meal. But they’ll leave the empty milk carton out on the dining room table as a reminder to add “milk” to the grocery list. You can use this same strategy in other creative ways. For example, when showering, if you sometimes forget whether you’ve already shampooed. Designate one spot in your shower for “before use” and another spot for “after use.” Move each object from the “before” spot to the “after” spot after you use it so that you can visually see what’s next in your shower routine.
7. Practice mindfulness to keep yourself in the moment
Thinking about the past and future will distract you from the task at hand. Ruminating can also cause shame, fear, anxiousness, and other emotions to creep in, making it harder to concentrate on whatever you’re trying to do at the moment. Try body scanning, guided imagery, or walking meditation exercises to keep your attention focused on the present.
Get Support from an ADHD Specialist
If you’ve been struggling with your executive functioning, working with an ADHD specialist can help you figure out neurodiversity-affirming strategies to address your areas of struggle. Send us a message to see how we can help you, or book a free 20 minute consultation call with one of our psychologists: Dr. Lee, Dr. Barajas, or Dr. Goldman.
[i] Fassbender, et all, 2011