Why Memory is Hard(er) and What To Do About it

What was I just doing?

What did I work on last week?

I was just about to do something…

Ok, I forgot to do that thing, I’ll do it now….. (repeats)

Where did I see that thing?

I’m pretty sure someone said something about that on a call… that happened… sometime… shit.

These are things I say either out loud or to myself daily, and it sucks. I’m trying really hard to remember the important things, to finish the things I started, and to access the information I know entered my brain at some point. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to get these types of things buttoned up.

Guess what? The reason it’s so f***ing hard… is science!

If you’ve ever had trouble remembering what you were doing ten minutes ago, it’s likely that your working memory is at fault. Your working memory is your brain’s short-term storage system—the place where you hold onto information briefly while using it to complete a task or think about something new. Working memory isn’t as long lasting as long-term memory (which we’ll talk about in more detail in the next section) but it is much more flexible.

Working memory and ADHD

Working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind while you work on a task. It’s the short-term storage that allows you to remember what you’ve just read or performed, and plan your next steps. Working memory plays an important role in learning and problem solving, as well as managing language (e.g., reading) and remembering where something is located (e.g., finding your keys).

Brain imaging studies have shown that people with ADHD have significantly less brain activity in a part of the brain that helps people organize their thoughts.

The working memory is a system that enables the brain to hold and manipulate information while you’re thinking. It’s like your mental workspace, and it allows you to think about multiple things at once.

Working memory has been linked to learning, problem solving, decision making and more. This is why these things are harder for people with ADHD and also why we tend to be very driven by them.


If you were to ask me what I’m best at, I would say:

  • Learning new things
  • Solving problems
  • Making decisions

Weird how that works out, right? Based on my research so far, I think this personal trait is tied more to me having developed a growth mindset as a way to get my dopamine fix. I’m basically pushing myself towards the things that are hardest for me to do. More on this later.

Encoding and Decoding Information

Research suggests that people with ADHD experience a variety of memory problems including poor short-term and long-term memory. Many of the symptoms of ADHD, particularly difficulties with paying attention, can affect how information is encoded and stored in memory.

I’m not sure if this is technically accurate from a scientific perspective but philosophically:

We’re not designed to remember things. The brain is designed to focus on the present and the future, not on the past. It doesn’t have a good way of remembering things and storing information long-term.

The short-term memory is typically lost within seconds after we stop concentrating on it (this is why you forget someone’s name as soon as they introduce themselves)… and the next 5 times you run into them.

Our brains are also wired in such a way as to actively avoid having too much information at once (a phenomenon known as cognitive load). To keep things manageable, they tend toward filtering out unnecessary details while focusing on what is new and surprising—this means that if something doesn’t feel relevant or urgent enough for your conscious mind (for example, when you’re trying desperately not get pulled down into Facebook), then your unconscious mind will simply let go of it!

Im Ready Doc Brown GIF by Back to the Future Trilogy - Find & Share on GIPHY

For example, Without a list, you may remember that you need to work on a specific piece of a specific project. You probably won’t remember all of the different pieces that need to happen and/or when they need to happen.

Key Takeaway: It’s actually biologically and neurologically difficult for us to process and remember information.

This type of scenario can result in you putting a lot of time into something but not getting the most important things done. For me, this is embarrassing and incredibly frustrating. This type of scenario tends to cause a big drop in our self-confidence and can sky rocket our anxiety.

There are two pig pieces to the puzzle when it comes to being able to avoid scenarios like this. The first is being able to identify what is essential, the other part is organizing the information you need and making sure it’s readily available.

Starting a List and Keeping Track of It.

Creating and caring for a living list of your priorities is one of the best things you can do. You can revisit the list anytime you aren’t sure what to do next, or are feeling bored or distracted.

A lot of people swear that the best place to keep your list is on paper and in a dedicated place: like on top of a desk where it will be visible at all times.

I personally struggle with keeping track of sheets of paper, notepads, and even notebooks. I use a notes app and I keep it open and visible on my second monitor so I don’t forget it’s there. Using a cloud-based app also helps make sure it’s available in different environments. I can add a to-do for myself from my phone, or check my list if I’m outside working from my iPad. It’s the same list wherever I access it so it’s a lot harder to end up in a scenario where I can’t check my priorities or write something down.

Whether you go with a physical or digital list, you need to figure out what works for you. I’ll also say that consistent placement IS important. I can lost my to-do list for days at a time simply by restarting my computer, minimizing the app, or opening a browser window and letting it hide my list.

Structuring Your List

The ideal way to structure your list is the way that works best for you.

I don’t really care what the science says about this, I’m fairly confident this is going to be something each individual needs to determine for themselves. In my opinion, this isn’t any different than people having different favorite colors, design preferences, etc.

I like to organize my list by what I want to do today, what I want to get done this week, and what I am going to try and get done in the next month. I also keep a section for all the things I get to mark as done. This is an excellent way to remember what you did earlier today, yesterday, last week, etc.

Other ways to organize:

  • By due date.
  • By how hard something is.
  • By how long it will take you to complete it.
  • Based on what mood you’re in e.g. if you’re feeling focused and really motivated you might want to take on research vs if you’re feeling anxious and a little scattered you might want to take on a lot of smaller tasks like testing progress, catching up on emails/messages, etc.
  • By whether or not it’s blocking other people’s work.

You can mix and match all of these to figure out what works best for you based on your role and responsibilities.

Learning to Lean on Lists

Making a list and checking it frequently is one of the most basic ways to help you optimize your impact. Going from 0 to list-lover takes time. Here’s how to start building a good routine.

  • Add a calendar event for just you to spend 10-15 minutes updating your list first thing in the morning. You can then keep it open and update it as you work through messages and emails.
  • Look at your list and cross off what you have completed before you take a break — even a short one. Move completed tasks out of your view for what still needs to be done.
  • Look at your list before you commit to taking on something new or give anyone a timeline for something getting done.
  • Experiment with keeping your personal and work to-dos in the same space. I personally suck at remembering to do the personal stuff unless it’s right there with everything else I need to get done.
  • Break down big tasks into smaller ones so you can check off more to-dos more often. If I had to assign an activation metric to using a to-do list it would definitely be crossing tasks off. You can spend hours setting it up and getting it organized, but you won’t feel the reward (dopamine) until you start being able to associate it with accomplishments and progress.

I’ll probably write more things and you might just want to read those too.

Subscribe to make sure you don’t miss any of the good stuff.

Blog at WordPress.com.