January 31, 2023

Understanding Executive Functions - Working Memory

In Episode 196, I am kicking off the anticipated Executive Function series! I’ll be breaking down the six key executive functions that are impacted by ADHD. Today’s focus is all about Working Memory.

Working memory is a temporary storage system that allows you to hold information in your mind long enough to do something with it. I like to think of working memory as an internal bulletin board where sticky notes get posted temporarily.

Did you know there are two types: verbal and non-verbal? Join me as I dive into understanding the mind’s voice and the mind’s eye that are both necessary to picture the steps involved in a task and get it done.

This is an easy one to give ourselves a hard time about. We think we SHOULD be able to do XYZ from start to finish, and we shame ourselves when we don’t. As you’ll find out in the podcast, my biggest lesson here is to embrace acceptance of our impairment and learn how to externalize these plans of action to help us accomplish them.

Ready to make a game plan for yourself to improve life with ADHD? I invite you to join my group coaching program FOCUSED, where adults like you receive regular coaching calls and learn how to hold themselves accountable in a loving but firm way.



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Kristen Carder

Welcome to the I have ADHD podcast, where it’s all about education, encouragement and coaching for adults with ADHD. I’m your host, Kristen Carter and I have ADHD. Let’s chat about the frustrations, humor and challenges of adulting relationships working and achieving with this neurodevelopmental disorder. I’ll help you understand your unique brain. Unlock your potential and move from point A to point B. Hey, what’s up? This is Kristen Carter and you are listening to the I have ADHD podcast episode number 196. I am medicated. I’m caffeinated and I am ready to roll.

How are you? How are you? How are you? It is a rainy and cold January day here in Pennsylvania. But I am elated. Because I have finally moved offices. And I am thrilled and I mean thrilled to be in a more quiet space. So much of my podcast recordings in the past have included me cursing and talking to my editor, who obviously is not here in the room with me. But I just like say things to her on the recordings. Like can you hear that? That’s so annoying. I could hear my neighbor talk. No offense to him. He’s got a great voice. He’s very, very nice. But oh my goodness, I could hear everything. I could hear doors, slam people talking in the hallway, et cetera, et cetera. I felt like I was always having to work around noise. And it was frustrating. So now I’m tucked away back in a far corner of the Office Suite. Literally no shared walls with anyone else and I am dying of happiness. It is so exciting. Plus a two walls of windows like how lucky am I two walls of windows. And wait, there’s more. I bought a standing desk, a standing desk. It’s one of the ones that you just like press a button, and it lifts up to standing. It’s so fun. I’ve been here a few days now. I’m doing a major happy dance because this space and set up. It’s just it’s a good fit for Kristen Carter. You know, I’m saying it’s just like a good fit. Big Gay energy.

So today, we are circling back to the executive function series that I mentioned two podcasts ago, it’s time it’s time to follow through on my promises. I did some major prep work for this one in getting my brain and my body willing to do it. And it is time to get it done.

Now, one of the reasons why this has been such a hard process for me is because there’s a lot of information out there and it’s not concise. It’s varied across platforms. And depending on which psychologists you’re reading, which website you’re on which book you’re reading. So my job is to read all the things and do my best to synthesize and simplify, okay, that’s my job, reorder things and then give you the parts that you care about only the info that has a direct impact on your life. So I worked really hard on that. And I hope that I can deliver, right. So you can trust that these next few episodes are going to be jam packed with useful info. And they’re going to be short enough for you to digest and make sense of. So in order to really help us simplify executive functions and understand what each of them do and how they work together to perform a big task, we’re going to picture an office building. The building that I’m in is like a white brick with lots of tinted windows, it has two floors, it’s pretty big. So I think it’s a good example, to get a picture of an office building in your mind any building that you want, but it needs to have like about 50 offices in it. That building is called executive function headquarters.

executive function headquarters, it’s got a beautiful sign up front. And it’s called the executive function headquarters. So in that office building, there are six different managers, the self awareness manager, the inhibition manager, the working memory manager, the emotional regulation manager, the self motivation, manager, and the planning and problem solving manager. Each of these six managers oversees the tasks for their specific department, but they don’t work in isolation. They all work together simultaneously, to make sure that the company is reaching its goals. Are you with me? Going to office building its executive function headquarters, there are six departments and each of the departments work on their own and together to make sure that the company gets to reach its goals. So let’s say the company and And that’s you.

By the way, if you haven’t figured that out yet, you are the company. Let’s say the company has the goal of cleaning out the garage. The six different managers oversee their departments to make sure that this goal can be accomplished. Executive functions are the brains management system that work together to help us execute tasks and accomplish goals. Okay.

Now, in order to clean out the garage efficiently, the company will need each department to function well and work together properly to get the job done. The company needs self awareness inhibition, working memory, emotional regulation, self motivation, and planning and problem solving in order to accomplish this task or any task. Now, here’s the tricky part. adults with ADHD have a jacked up management system. Our executive functions are impaired. Our department heads are not good managers, they don’t like to work together, they don’t communicate well. And they’re just all around a hole sometimes.

Okay, so that’s probably par for the course when it comes to office buildings. This is why you struggle to accomplish tasks and pursue your goals, not because you’re a bad person, but because your executive functions do not like to function. So here’s what we’re going to talk about today, we’re going to talk about working memory specifically, and its impact on your life. So first, I’m going to explain what working memory is. Remember, it’s one of the departments in the management system. Next, I’m going to point out how its impaired. And last, I’m going to show you how that impacts your life as an adult with ADHD. I’m going to do my best to keep it short and concise. So take a deep breath. And let’s go right what is working memory. Working memory is a temporary storage system that allows you to hold information in your mind long enough to do something with it, you’re not going to remember this info forever. And you don’t have to, you don’t need the info forever, but you’re going to use it just for a little while so that you can stay on task. Think about your working memory as a bulletin board, where sticky notes get posted temporarily, your brain holds the info on the sticky notes just long enough to complete the task. Working memory helps people hold information long enough to use it in the short term, focus on a task and remember what to do next. There are two types of working memory, there’s nonverbal working memory, which is the mind’s eye, it’s your ability to picture or visualize something in your brain. And then verbal working memory is the mind’s voice, which is your ability to self talk and keep yourself going on that task until it’s complete.

Now whether you’re using the mind’s eye or the mind’s voice, you’re working with information temporarily, without losing track of what you’re doing. So I think it goes without saying that this management department is severely impaired and many of us with ADHD. Because we have impaired working memory, we are not able to hold things in our mind’s eye long enough to complete tasks, which means we hop around from task to task without completing much. It means that we don’t have that bulletin board where we can store things just for a minute or two in our mind’s eye will we get a job done. So instead, we don’t get the job done. Here are some examples of how poor working memory affects adults with ADHD. We have to read and reread information over and over. We have a hard time accomplishing multi step projects. So we’ll forget steps in the project. So even something as simple as taking out the trash, we might grab the bag, walk it to the trash can outside, but then we’ll probably forget to refill, put a new bag in the inside trash can. Yeah, so we forget steps along the way. You might decide what to eat at a restaurant. But then the waiter comes up and asks you for your order, and you have no idea what to say. You lose stuff like your phone and your keys all the time. You have every intention of stopping at the store for milk on your way home. But then you totally forget. You’re constantly rushing around, but you never arrive to your destination on time. And I want to say a few more words about that last point right there about time management. Working memory is one of the key managers that allows the company to be on time. Okay. Working memory is one of the key executive functions that allows you to be on time and so since your working memory is impaired, guess what? You’re often going to be late. How often do you set out to complete a task. But then forget what you’re doing and waste like 10 minutes or 60 minutes or 100 minutes before getting back on track. That’s a working memory issue. How often do you start the getting ready process in the morning, but get distracted and lose track and then you’re late to work like every single day. That’s a working memory issue. So let’s go back to our original example of cleaning out the garage, the company has a goal, the goal is to clean out the garage, the company needs all of its executives to function so that the task can be completed efficiently. So the company needs self awareness inhibition, working memory, emotional regulation, self motivation, and planning and problem solving. The working memory department is a temporary storage system that allows the company to hold the information in its mind long enough to do something with it. But this company’s working memory department is impaired, meaning it’s only functioning at let’s say 25% capacity, I don’t know, it’s going to depend on the person.

But overall, it’s just not great. So the company’s goal to clean out the garage suddenly becomes a pretty big project. With a deficient working memory department, it’s not going to be able to hold a task in its Mind’s Eye long enough to complete it. So it’ll go over to the fishing gear and start to organize it. But then it’ll see the workout equipment and start putting that away. And then it’ll see the bikes and start building bike tires with air, it’s going to go to Home Depot to buy storage bins and then get distracted by the tools and not remember to purchase the storage bins, it’s going to put unwanted patio furniture in the back of the car to donate to Goodwill, and then drive around with it in the car for six months because it can’t remember to drop it off.

Now, of course there are more managers at play here. And they do work together with working memory. So it’s not solely working memories fault. But working memory is a big contributor as to why this seemingly simple project is actually anything but simple. Does that make sense? Do you recognize that in your own life? I feel like there are ADHD are all over the world screaming Yes, I see it. This is me. So what the heck do we do? The most important thing that you can do is accept that this is actually a real issue. Stop telling yourself that you should be able to remember, stop telling yourself that you should be able to stay on task, you shouldn’t. You’ve got ADHD, your working memory is impaired, your executives are not functioning, you should not be able to remember simple stuff, you should not be able to hold things in your mind’s eye for long enough to complete the task. So if that’s the truth, now what?

Now that we’ve accepted that we can make a dang plan, right. The big word that I want you to remember is externalize. Since you don’t have that internal bulletin board or inner voice, you need to develop an external replacement. Actual sticky notes, voice memos, reminders on your phone, a written plan of what to do step by step, the willingness to talk out loud to yourself to hold things in your in your mind, externally by talking out loud to yourself kind of like a crazy person. Because if I know I’m not going to remember, if I’ve accepted that this should not be easy for me. Then I make a plan. And the plan is externalize everything. But if I dismiss my weaknesses, and I think I should be able to remember that I don’t make a plan. And I keep making the same mistakes over and over. And I live a life of frustration. And I leave a trail of unfinished tasks. If I accept that I have ADHD, which means my working memory sucks. I make a plan. I implement scaffolding. I ask for help and support. I write things down. I leave myself bread crumb clues. I put everything in my calendar and then set reminders to look at my calendar. I use Alexa to remind me I use Siri to remind me I asked my husband to remind me I write myself notes. I put sticky notes everywhere I work with someone side by side is a body double instead of working by myself. It’s simple really once you accept The truth that this part is impaired.

So, let’s recap. Executive functions are the brain’s management system that work together to help us execute tasks and pursue goals. Working memory is one of those managers, your working memory is what allows you to hold information in your brain just temporarily, so that you can solve a problem or complete a task. If you have ADHD, it’s very, very likely that your working memory sucks. So set up all kinds of support for yourself. externalize everything, because you are a smart person, and you deserve to complete tasks and check things off your list. Right? I told you I was going to keep it short.

That’s it for today. I’ll see you next time. Bye. A few years ago, I went looking for help. I wanted to find someone to teach me how to feel better about myself and to help me improve my organization productivity, time management, emotional regulation. You know, all the things that we adults with ADHD struggle with, couldn’t find anything. So I researched and I studied and I hired coaches and I figured it out. And then I created focused for you. Focus is my monthly coaching membership where I teach educated professional adults how to accept their ADHD brain and hijack their ability to get stuff done. Hundreds of people from all over the world are already benefiting from this program and I’m confident that you will to go to I have adhd.com/focus for all details

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