People with ADHD often experience memory deficits that go beyond mere forgetfulness. ADHD has been associated with memory problems that affect both a person’s long term memory and short-term memory (also known as “working memory”). Issues with working memory tend to be the most pronounced and impactful, however, affecting many aspects of an ADHD sufferer’s day to day life. We need our working memory to store relevant information as we perform complex tasks; without it, completing multi-step processes in a timely manner is impossible.
Fortunately, like all areas of the brain, the memory can be trained to function more optimally. Below, we’ll discuss some strategies that individuals with ADHD can use to strengthen their short-term memory, thereby improving their concentration and increasing their productivity.
5 Ways to Improve Your Working Memory When You Have ADHD
1. Don’t be afraid to use memory aids
Relying on aids, like “to do” lists, won’t make your memory worse. On the contrary, reinforcing information that you want to remember can improve your working memory. This is particularly true when it comes to writing things down by hand: Research shows that taking handwritten notes stimulates multiple areas of the brain because it draws on verbal, visual, and tactile skills. The act of handwriting requires greater organizational effort than typing and can therefore gradually improve related brain structures.
If you find handwriting cumbersome, you can pair digital note-taking with another source of stimulation in order to activate several regions of your brain at once. Some people find that listening to a song, looking at a picture, or performing a certain motion (like a dance move) while thinking about something they hope to remember later can improve recall. You can also try writing down important information in story form. Doing this makes disparate elements within said information feel more cohesive by putting them into a specific context.
2. Use games to improve your memory
Today, we have easy access to a wealth of brain-training games in the form of smartphone and computer applications. Some of these, such as Lumosity and GogniFit, are general purpose applications and some, such as Cogmed, have been specially developed for people with ADHD. Cogmed memory training program is the brainchild of cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Torkel Klingberg, and it is the only brain-training program endorsed by the American Psychological Association (APA). Cogmed training program requires participants to spend roughly an hour daily doing special exercises, and this is for the five weeks duration of the program. Despite being presented in the game format, these exercises are quite challenging, and, you have a bit of pressure, as every week there is a session with Cogmed coach to evaluate your progress.
3. Make adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise a priority
Most people struggle to find the time to exercise, prepare healthy meals, and get enough sleep. For those with ADHD, however, balancing commitments with self-care is especially difficult; their impaired organization and planning skills can make each day feel like a juggling act.
Unsurprisingly, research shows that people with ADHD are more likely to suffer from insomnia and have poor eating habits than neurotypical individuals, and this can have a significant impact on memory function. Sleep deprivation in particular has been proven to have a detrimental effect on working memory. Emerging evidence also suggests that eating a diet high in processed foods can exacerbate ADHD symptoms. This is thought to be the case because processed foods cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate dramatically, leading to periods of fatigue and poor concentration. Some chemical additives, like artificial food coloring agents, may also trigger ADHD symptom flare-ups.
To help your memory work better, you should make a point of eating a diet rich in unprocessed “whole” foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Eating fatty fish (like tuna or salmon) once or twice a week can also boost brain function and balance your moods. If you don’t like the taste of fish, try taking an Omega 3 fatty acid supplement instead.
To regulate your sleep cycle and improve your concentration throughout the day, you should consider starting your day with a brief walk outdoors. (Even a 15 minute walk can be profoundly helpful.) Exposure to sunlight early in the day has been proven to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm. Just make sure to practice excellent “sleep hygiene” in the evening, too: Turn off all backlit devices at least two hours before you plan to go to sleep and find something relaxing to do before bed.
4. If you take medication, choose one that facilitates better working memory
While no medication can directly boost memory function, some medications can create the conditions for improved concentration, making it easier for people with ADHD to process new information. For best results, you should select a medication that reduces anxiety, and not just the superficial symptoms of ADHD (like restlessness and impulsivity).
Some patients report that stimulant medications, like Ritalin, can actually increase their feelings of anxiety. If you fall into this category, you might find that your working memory improves if you switch to an SSRI medication instead. Specific SSRIs, such as Fluoxetine, have been shown to control the symptoms of ADHD without causing heightened anxiety.
5. Meditate daily
Meditation can be a challenging skill to master if you have ADHD, but the rewards are well worth the effort it takes to sit still and “slow down” for a little while. According to a randomized controlled study performed by experts at the California School of Professional Psychology, engaging in mindfulness meditation exercises for just eight days can create noticeable improvements in working memory.
Using a meditation app can be an excellent way to both learn how to meditate and keep yourself on track. Likewise, it’s important to remember that meditation doesn’t require a significant time investment: Research indicates that meditating for as little as ten minutes each day can produce improvements in memory function. It can also enhance your ability to concentrate, lower your blood pressure, and reduce symptoms of depression.
The five habits outlined above can make you a happier, healthier, and more productive person—all without taking more than an hour out of your day. Before you get started, we recommend talking to your doctor or a mental health professional. He or she will be able to help you adjust your medication (if needed) and give you practical tips on how to integrate these steps into daily life. With time, practice, and the right assistance, you’ll soon notice an improvement in your ability to solve problems and process information.