How to Improve Memory if You Have ADHD

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, we've known for a while that the claims that 'scientifically developed' brain games can help improve memory are false.  Instead, what they do is improve your skills at taking certain types of tests - specifically the ones in the brain training tasks.  When it comes to ADHD treatment, ADHD-specific research shows the same results.  While one improves at doing the specific skills in the training (such as reciting numbers backwards), there is no 'transfer' to other tasks, or overall improved memory.  An article in this week's Washington Post provides the most recent research overview.

This is sad news for those of us seeking ways to address the very real issues that adults with ADHD face when it comes to remembering things.  It's disheartening to have a conversation, think you've come to an agreement, and then find out later that the ADHD partner not only doesn't remember the agreement, sometimes s/he doesn't even remember the conversation!  Many partners not used to working with ADHD think this is a cover-up or a lie.  In the vast majority of cases, it's not - the ADHD partner truly doesn't remember.  To make matters worse, it's often a source of deep embarrassment for the ADHD partner.  "Other people remember things...why can't I?"  So, what to do?

6 Reasons ADHD Adults Forget

As a brief overview, ADHD often severely impacts the way adults with ADHD remember in the following ways:

  • Brain chemistry: ADHD adults have less of the neurotransmitters that convey information in the brain to store it effectively in short-term memory ("working memory"), then move it to long-term memory, 
  • Different info:  Those same neurotransmitters are in the reward and attention system, which means that ADHD adults are often distracted - they may not take in all of the information that they are supposed to remember in the first place
  • Lots of miscellaneous info:  The ADHD brain doesn't 'filter' much, which means that sometimes they interpret things quite differently...and sometimes what seems 'obvious' to a non-ADHD partner as really important is just "another piece of (lots of) information coming in.  So what is being remembered might vary from what a partner expects.  Put another way, ADHD brains are less 'hierarchical' by nature, which can cause partners to interpret things differently.
  • Little internal organization: The ADHD brain can be described as 'the Library of Congress without a card catalog' - organization and reminder systems are challenging for those with ADHD (one reason creating 'external' (i.e. outside the head) reminder systems such as alarms and lists is so important.   ADHD adults who don't have a great reminder system that works for them often forget what they have committed to
  • Distraction pushes the item out: Something else comes along that is 'interesting' or shiny, and captures the attention - moving it away from what was supposed to be remembered
  • Speedy brain: I've heard the ADHD brain called a 'popcorn brain' (a lovely visual!) - with lots of ideas and information bumping all over in disarray.  It's hard to mentally 'grab' the right information from all of this to try to tuck it into memory

How to Remember Better if You Have ADHD

What the reasons above mean is this - poor memory for those with ADHD isn't about willpower or not caring/wanting to remember.  It's about brain chemistry.  Which means that the way to address it is two-fold.  Improve the brain chemistry with Leg One physiological treatments (download my free e-book from my home page about optimizing treatment for all the details on this) and accept that memory is a chemistry issue.  To deal with it you don't 'try harder,' you must 'try differently.'  What that means in this case is to create an 'outside the head' reminder system (since inside the head memory works sometimes, but isn't reliable).  Here are 11 specific ideas that have helped those with ADHD remember better.  I urge you to experiment with any that sound appealing:

  • Use a paper calendar that shows you at least a week at a time.  That way you can see what is coming up.  Carry it with you everywhere.
  • Use a bullet journal - this is a variation on a calendar that helps you sort through what you might be doing this week vs over the longer term.  I, actually, use a calendar to schedule specific events, and a modified bullet journal (weekly, monthly, and long-term tracking only)  For me, sitting every night to move bullets would make me crazy.  For my daughter (who introduced me to bullet journals) it works really well.
  • Use the 'personal kanban' system.  This is good for prioritizing and staying focused on a few tasks you really want to complete, while not letting others drop through the cracks
  • Use sticky notes.  This one can get out of hand as notes can get lost if you use a lot...but they are very good if used sparingly for reminders of 'what I'm trying to change now.'  I often recommend that people put up notes on their bathroom mirrors with words like "Kindness" if they are trying to approach their partners and their lives with more daily kindness - that way they run into the note at least twice a day
  • Alarms.  These are a favorite of many with ADHD as they bring something that is out of mind (or in the 'not now') back into the now at the right time.  I believe they are best used for very regular reminders of boring but important stuff (ex: taking meds) and for really important promises to a partner.  I've noticed that those who use alarms for everything soon give up the method all together and ignore the alarms
  • 3x5 notecard.  My husband used to carry around a 3x5 notecard and a pen.  Every time he thought of anything he needed to remember, he jotted it down.  At the end or beginning of the day he would transcribe what he had captured into his calendar system.
  • Mind-mapping software.  For some, this is a good way to capture longer-term projects
  • MINT.  This is a program that aids memory around finances.  Among other things, it imports your credit card spending and reminds you as you near pre-set budget limits so you don't over-spend.
  • White boards.  Because these are 'stumble upon' reminders, putting one in your kitchen or other high traffic area can remind you of what's on today's agenda.  They don't capture long-term things so well because of size limits.
  • 'Recipe for success' task management system.  You can find this in the back of my first book, The ADHD Effect on Marriage.  This is a system of coordinating tasks with a partner, agreeing to a few, and tracking progress weekly.  Used regularly, it provides a path for gaining accuracy for how much you should plan, as well as reminding you of what needs to be done.
  • Lists.  This works for some, but not for many with ADHD.  They tend to get lengthy and feel overwhelming.  Other systems here (such as Kanban and bullet journals) help cut through the content better and improve organization as well as memory.
  • Journals and contracts.  For some particularly important agreements, use a written agreement to remember what you've negotiated and have both partners initial it.  Not only does putting things in writing eliminate 'he said/she said' arguments when you later revisit the issue later, it also helps you clarify up front that you are both agreeing to the same thing.

Memory - The Bottom Line

There are many reasons both ADHD and non-ADHD partners forget.  And memory isn't static - it gets revised as our lives change.  The further you are away from something, the more likely you will have 'revised' memories.  Further, research done at Harvard suggests that we notice and remember things much less accurately than we remember.  Researchers nicknamed this the 'illusion of memory.'  We think we record things like a video.  Instead, we block things that aren't of interest or we let much more in than is important...then store it in bits that we reconstruct later in a way that makes sense at the time of reconstruction.

Bottom line is this - EVERY person with ADHD needs a good, external reminder system to address the biology of ADHD.  For that matter, so do non-ADHD adults.  We are all busy and forget things, even if we insist (as I used to, before I learned more) that we remember well.