Strengthen Memory Abilities: Five Proven Ways to Really Boost Your Unique ADHD Brain

Andrew struggles with keeping up with conversations. By the time he has the floor, he holds back from contributing, fearing he can't find the language to make a case for what he wanted to say.  

Shelley is late a lot. Her mind pings with everything she needs to do. She has a tendency to “do it all” right away before she forgets. Before she knows it, she is late yet again. 

Tom needs to make a quick stop for a few items at the store, but by the time he gets there, he forgets what he wants to purchase. He walks through every aisle of the store to jog his memory. 

Audrey has an accounting test, and although she knows all the material, she has trouble remembering all the steps to complete the problems. 

The above true examples (names substituted) indicate challenges with working memory, which is an essential ingredient to executive functioning and is a common obstacle in individuals with ADHD and other brain-based conditions. 


Working Memory and the Link to Attention   


Working memory, not to be confused with short-term memory storage, is the process of holding onto new information and manipulating that information. 

Working memory connects new information and organizes it into long-term storage.  This long-term memory organization can become chaotic and incomplete when you live with a brain-based condition, such as ADHD.

While attention is the process of gathering and selecting information, working memory is the process of accessing and using that information so that it’s meaningful. 

If information has not been absorbed in the first place, this can be an indication of difficulties with attention.  

Challenges holding onto new information, using that information to perform a task, and converting new information into long-term memory have more to do with working memory.


The Neurological Connection and Working Memory   


Recent research found that attention and working memory share the same neural mechanisms that reorganize and transform as they control behavior.

Researchers Matthew Panichello, and Timothy Buschman, at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, found in their research with rhesus monkeys that neurons in the prefrontal cortices that focus attention on sensory input are exactly the same neurons that focus on an item in working memory. They also observed the neural representations of those memories realigning as the brains of the monkeys selected which memories to act upon. (Panichello, M.F., Buschman, T.J. Shared mechanisms underlie the control of working memory and attention. Nature 592, 601–605 (2021).

This not only shows that shared neural processes in the brain control working memory and attention but also that the brain can manipulate working memory to guide actions.  Given our knowledge of the brain’s ability to change, grow and reorganize, the practice of boosting working memory over time is feasible and attainable.  

Here are five strategies to strengthen your working memory so you can access information and follow through with what's most important to you. 


Learn Something New 

When we stop learning we stop growing. We need to make the commitment to use our brains. Brain-training games, such as Sudoku, Concentration, and jigsaw puzzles improve recall and retrieval.

At the same time, any opportunity to learn something new offers long-term benefits where you make use of visual comprehension, attention to detail, and long-term memory.
Quick Tips: 
Get out of your comfort zone and get active with what you’re learning. This activates long-term memory so that you are not only manipulating new information but actively converting and accessing that information to and from your long-term memory bank. 
Don’t forget about the fun factor. It doesn’t have to academic learning. It can be ballroom dancing, writing a book, kayaking, or anything fun. 
Keep social. Interacting and communicating with others can enhance the learning experience. 


Imagine yourself performing the task before you jump in. Our thoughts influence our outcomes so it’s important to believe that you are capable. 

Picture yourself doing what you set out to do, one step at a time. Don't let missed opportunities get in your way. It’s important to shift to a new perspective of what you can accomplish and who you can be.


Quick Tips:

Picture yourself going through your day and imagine yourself doing what you’d like to make headway on. Perhaps you want to remember where you put your keys, wallet, and phone, or your very important things. Memory expert Brad Zupp recommends visualizing your keys exploding and burning a hole in the table you place them on! (Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife.)
Visualize what life will look like for you once this area of your life is resolved. 
Journal your thoughts or write down a few notes. For example, “I’m at peace and on time whenever I walk out of the house because I calmly locate my keys, wallet, and phone. I know exactly where they are. I leave feeling like my day is off to a great start. When I return, I put my very important things back in their homes, so they are waiting for me the next time I leave. 
See an image in your mind as you write. Add color, touch, movement, smell, and sound. 
Use crazy images to remember details and have fun with them. Veteran teacher and author or Memory Skills, Jim Sarris, suggests that if you want to remember a grocery list, attach a silly story with zany images to the list in a chain. For example, let’s say you want to remember a few items to get at the store, such as turkey, bananas, milk, apples, granola, carrots, and hot sauce, and you forgot to write them down. Create an absurd image for the first item, tie that image to the second, and so on. You can also add taste or sound to your image: "I see a turkey that’s eating bananas which looks like mushy apples, and a dancing jug of milk that's soaking granola mixed with carrots and hot sauce.” Sounds disgusting but it works! Try it!

Perform One Task at A Time

Multi-tasking is in reality the process of rapidly switching from one task to another. Switching between tasks results in less concentrated focus, less effective access to working memory, more mistakes, and more stress.


You may be familiar with your mind pinging back and forth with three or four ideas at once, perhaps about all the things you need to do. You might worry, "If I don't do it now, I'll forget, so I better switch to that task right now." You may then forget to switch back to the original task, get lost in the weeds of the secondary task, or get involved with yet another task, eventually losing track. 

Quick Tips:

Write it down by hand. The physical act of putting pen to paper taps into areas of the brain that typing does not. A 2017 study by Karin James of Indiana University on neuroscientific research revealed a neural pathway that is only activated when we physically write letters. Using the brain’s motor pathways through handwriting requires you to be more selective, deliberate, and engaged, allowing for more retention and analyses. 
Keep track of your fresh ideas in a physical notebook. Keeping a physical notebook in different areas of your home can be most helpful for retention. If you’re building a long list, or are looking to keep notes on a large amount of information, you can also try the Notes app on your phone or Evernote
Jot down ideas and tasks as they come to you and resist taking action on your fresh ideas at the moment. 
Send yourself a message to remind yourself to perform a task while you stick to the task at hand. 
• Create a weekly master list and visualize yourself going over your day in your mind as soon as you wake up. 
• Streamline tasks by dividing between project-related tasks and one-off tasks, such as making a doctor’s appointment. For a paper planner where you can categorize tasks, see
Schedule your tasks on your calendar. The calendar tells you when you will get the task done (the list tells you what). Don’t worry if you must move a task around. Most important is committing to getting tasks on the calendar. 
Break tasks down into the smallest possible “most laughably doable” step. You want each task to be easy enough you can almost laugh. 
Stay out of urgency mode so you can manage your priorities in plenty of time before deadlines. 

Reduce Your Stress  

Stress gets in the way of accessing executive functions, including working memory. When you’re overwhelmed and worried, your brain goes into a fight or flight response, and becomes flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol, which hijacks your ability to access your memory reserves, think clearly, and self-regulate. 


You may have experienced this when you’re taking a test or trying to recall information. Perhaps you found yourself going into a panic. If you grind through the problem or hyperfocus on retrieving that one item you lost in your head, you may find yourself getting all worked up. On the other hand, by moving onto the next question, taking some breaths, or thinking about something else, you unfreeze your brain.

When you get yourself out of a fight or flight situation, you can manipulate information that is relevant and meaningful. 


Quick Tips:
• Pause. Ask yourself, “what am I trying to accomplish,” and return to what’s important about what you’re spending you’re time on.
Take breaks throughout the day to reclaim your brain. Get a drink, eat a healthy snack, and give yourself permission to relax. 
Meditate, even for one or two minutes. Try apps such as Insight Timer, CalmHeadspace, or just sit quietly and focus on your breath. When you notice your mind wandering, gently bring your focus back to your breath without judgment.
Try deep breathing, focusing on expanding your abdomen rather than your chest. 


Do What's Most Important to YOU  

You may find yourself overcompensating for past failures or your perceived disappointment of others. You may also have loved ones with similar challenges who need a lot of your time and attention. 

As a result, you may be overwhelmed with a lot of balls in the air, making it difficult to selectively access your working memory reserves because everything you do is important. 


Quick Tips:
Prioritize by focusing on your top values. For example, if family is your top priority, work on leaving work at a reasonable hour, and hold yourself accountable to your top value.  
• If you have conflicting needs, such as the need for love and the need for being valued at work, try to resist an “either-or” situation. What are some options you can live with to honor both? 
• Decide on your optimal time of day to work on high-priority items, and do not allow for interruptions during that time. Block notifications, put your phone in another room, and allow yourself to focus on selected items. 
Do less. Period. 
Aim for short, consistent bursts of time to get things done. 
Stay in the driver’s seat. Select a "sacrosanct" time of day for yourself and another time of day for email and meetings. Try not to let others’ interruptions manage your day. When you focus on what’s most important to you, you streamline access to your working memory more readily, and you can calmly manipulate information with more relevance and meaning.  


To sum up, when you live with ADHD and other brain-based conditions, working memory can become chaotic and incomplete. Given our knowledge of the brain’s plasticity to change, grow and reorganize, the practice of boosting your working memory over time is feasible and attainable.  
To strengthen your working memory:

• Learn Something New

• Visualize

• Perform One Task at a Time

• Reduce Your Stress

• Do What's Most Important to YOU

Experiment with these strategies and let me know how it goes!




 PS. Need a personalized game plan to strengthen your working memory?

Contact me for an ADHD Strategy Assessment and we can talk about some clear and straightforward steps you can put into practice right away!


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