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Executive Dysfunction: How's Your "Working Memory?"

I often deal with brain fog and feeling scattered. As someone with ADHD, I really struggle with executive function, and a lot of times, my brain veers into executive dysfunction. The set of cognitive skills I grapple with the most pertains to my working memory.

If you have deficits in working memory, you might not know how to break down the steps in

a project (even something as seemingly “simple” as cleaning the kitchen.) Maybe you lose your keys or cell phone regularly or want to add your opinion to a conversation but forget what you want to say by the time the other person stops talking. Perhaps you have many unfinished projects around the house or miss deadlines or appointments. As someone with a very poor working memory, I have to accept this fact (as opposed to being mad at myself for the way my brain functions), but I also want to develop strategies that allow me to be as scheduled and organized as possible.

Formally, working memory is defined as the ability to:

  • “Mentally play with ideas and relate one idea to another

  • Reflect on the past or consider the future

  • Remember multi-step instructions and execute them in the proper order

  • Remember a question you want to ask as you listen to the ongoing conversation

  • Make sense of anything that unfolds over time, as this requires holding in mind what happened earlier and relating that to what’s happening now"

Ways to improve your working memory:

  1. Mental Math: Literally the hardest thing for me to do- I write down even basic math. But I’m trying to calculate certain things in my head (and then double-check with a calculator 😅).

  2. Memory Games: I do digital memory games on an app called Impulse, but I also do traditional memory games with my kids. Games like Clue, Guess Who?, and, of course, Memory.

  3. Listening to audiobooks. This habit actually assists in our “self-control” skill set, too, which is another part of executive function. Following a story without visual aids is difficult for me, but I love books, so this is an area I choose to focus on.

  4. Breaking up tasks into bite-size chunks. I show this a lot in my cleaning videos because if I look at a whole project, it can seem impossible. My brain cannot discern what tasks are required to get from point A: the start of the project, to point Z: the completion of the project. What’s more, my brain can’t compute time adequately, so in my mind, I believe the tasks are going to take far more or less time than is accurate.

  5. Develop routines. I hear this one a lot in the ADHD community. However, I’d like to add the caveat that a routine is only functional if it is fairly easy to repeat. For example, I wanted to develop the habit of keeping my journal on my nightstand. Yet, the journal never made it back to my nightstand and was always in the living room somewhere. Instead of getting mad at myself for not putting the journal “back,” I thought about why I was having resistance to putting the journal in my room. The answer was simple- as much as I planned to journal before bed, it wasn’t happening; I was journaling in the morning on the couch. Once I moved my journal’s “home” to the bookshelves in the living room, it was put away 9 out of 10 times. So yes, develop routines, but make them as simple and logical as possible.

  6. Reduce multitasking. I grew up believing that multitasking was a superpower. And it is a pretty incredible skill when you have a lot going on. However, multitasking is actually linked to a shorter attention span, which those of us with ADHD do NOT need. It takes a lot of work for some of us to do one thing at a time, and sometimes it isn't possible. As often as possible, if I notice that I'm doing three things at once, I try to cut out at least one task to narrow my focus. This helps me complete tasks more quickly and with a lot less brain fog.

  7. Mindfulness matters. Mindfulness is not an elusive concept. I used to think it was complex and not approachable because I’ve always been busy and lacking in quiet time. But mindfulness is simply being quiet for a few minutes. It's training your brain not to gallop around like a stallion but to keep returning to focus on one thing. It takes a lot of effort (for me), but it is a way of training your brain not to be scattered all day long.

  8. Get more sleep...

  9. ...and stress less. I hate these two because they often seem impossible in this season of my life. But absolutely everything in your life improves if you get better sleep and stress less. So it’s worth exploring what that looks like for you. It’s also been my experience that aiming for no stress and seven nights of 8 hours of sleep sets me up for failure. Instead, I have pre-made lists of things I can do when I feel the stress building up. I also try to fit snippets of rest into my day when I haven’t gotten the sleep I need.

  10. Exercise. This one is also a heavy-hitter that is mentioned constantly. Focusing on regular exercise is going to be the most crucial step, in my opinion, and here’s why: the greatest factor in how significant our executive dysfunction is comes down to how we feel. We don’t have to do grueling or long workouts either- simply moving your body at your capacity is sufficient. The bottom line is that if we feel overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted, and overloaded, our executive functioning skills are very limited. Exercise reduces stress and can improve your quality of sleep, so that helps us in points 8 and 9. But also, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't kill their husbands, they just don't.” You can't argue with "Legally Blonde."

Along with working memory, there are two other cognitive skill sets that make up executive function: flexibility and self-control. If you want to hear more about improving the other two skill sets, just let me know. But I hope this has given you a few ideas or encouraged you to spend some time giving yourself the care and attention you need!

*Information for this blog post was taken from my lived experience and articles from ADDitude magazine and the Cleveland Clinic.

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Oct 13, 2023
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Good 101-level info! As an aspie, I have some of the same struggles as my ADD/ADHD sisters. The schedule/ routine (that makes sense) is so important! Even if you have to carry around a physical step-by-step checklist for a long time, repeating the routine over and over will build "mental muscle memory," as well as physical muscle memory, eventually making that routine... well, routine. I've just stumbled upon your blog, but I'll certainly be back!

Sarah McGlory
Sarah McGlory
Oct 25, 2023
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I have absolutely written each step down for my routines- that's a great point! Glad you're here!


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