Our ability to regulate attention, emotions, and behavior depends on several brain functions, arguably the most important of which is working memory. From an executive function perspective, working memory is the brain function that enables us to use our experience and long-term memory to understand and manipulate our immediate environment. For example, if you are an experienced driver getting into an unfamiliar rental car, the arrangement of dials, buttons, knobs, etc. will briefly throw you off. Your working memory will take your general knowledge of how cars work, where things usually are, and what the little symbols and lights mean and use that information to help you make sense of how to drive the new car. Before you know it, you are driving out of the rental car parking lot. These same functions help you do everything from solve math problems to know what to do when you meet your in-laws for the first time. If you or someone you know experiences the following, you may have a deficit in working memory:
- Finding new situations or problem-solving to be challenging.
- Having difficulty remembering multiple directions or a list of steps to follow.
- Struggling with organizing writing, understanding what you've read, or doing mental math.
- Frequently lose items and find it difficult to keep track of things.
As you can see from this short list, working memory deficits have a pervasive, negative effect on daily life. Below are three strategies to help you reduce their impact:
Pinpoint Problem Areas:
Seek to understand where working memory deficits have the greatest impact on you. Review common contexts, such as social interactions, daily routines, and work or academic tasks. Here are the things to which to pay attention:
- Are there things you have more difficulty doing than other people you know?
- What activities or subjects do you avoid because they require thinking that feels draining?
- Are certain tasks, assignments, projects, or work consistently left incomplete or done incorrectly?
- Do you have a trusted friend, life-partner, or coworker whom you can ask in which areas you struggle to function optimally?
Bring Full Attention to Complex Tasks:
Have you ever wanted to make popcorn while watching an engaging movie to get into the kitchen and wonder why you're there? This example illustrates what happens when you attempt to do one thing while giving your attention to something else, and it highlights the essential role of attention in effective working memory. If you are not attending to something, it can't be remembered under the best of circumstances:
- Make sure you give your full attention or that you have the full attention of someone who must follow complicated instructions or multi-step directions.
- Do something with the information once you receive it.
- Visualize the steps you will follow or what you plan to do.
- Verbally repeat the instructions.
- Circle, underline or highlight key information.
Engineer Your Environment:
Working memory is a capacity. If you use less of it for a task, you will have more available. Using visible reminders, over-learning basic facts, and moving information to long-term memory will help reduce the load on your working memory.
- Use checklists, to-do lists, and other external tools. For example, provide your child with an end-of-day checklist of what to bring home from school.
- Put visual reminders near where you will have to perform the activity. Use whiteboards, signs, labels, and desktop and cell phone reminders.
- Use outlines or graphic organizers in formal writing.
- Employ active reading strategies to reinforce comprehension when reading for school or work.
- Over-learn basic math facts such as multiplication tables (division facts, too) and memorize steps to solving math problems.
Memory functions handle more than long-term storage. They are an important part of regulating behavior, attention, and emotion. An executive function skills coach can help you identify and customize working memory strategies for home, work, or school. Don't let working memory deficits prevent you from living a productive and fulfilling life.
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