A Strategy to Help When Your Short-Term Memory Sucks
Have you ever wandered into a room and promptly forgotten why you went in there?
Do you find it difficult to stop yourself from interrupting people when you get excited and want to say a thing?
Do you feel anxious if someone lists off tasks for you to do, and you don’t have something handy to take notes?
All the damn time, probably, if you have ADHD.
ADHDers have a smaller working memory. We can hold about two things on our “brain plates” compared to the neurotypical’s five (!). That’s a significant difference!
I have a strategy I use to help me deal with my small working memory that may work for you.
It all started in the bathroom. Weird start to a story, right? My mum was a speech therapist and she had some American Sign Language (ASL) books in there. I guess she, too, found it boring to be in there for a few minutes without anything else to do (*cough ADHD is heritable cough*). This was back before cell phones were a thing. So, at age eight I started to teach myself the ASL manual alphabet.
I realized that in order to prompt myself to remember something a moment (or three) from now, I could use sign language as a strategy for coping with my teeny-tiny working memory. I would form the first letter of a word in my hand as an external cue to prompt myself to remember what I wanted to say or do.
This technique has definitely prevented me from burning down the house. When I had to leave the kitchen to grab beans from the pantry, I reminded myself with sign-language letter “b” shaped by one hand that I was going to get the beans, and with the other shapes as an “s” to remind me that I needed to hurry back because the stove was on. I’d clench the “s” so there would be urgency and I wouldn't forget. Otherwise, in the six steps it took to get out of the kitchen to get to the beans, one of several dozen thoughts could distract me and I might forget where I was going and why. Or I might get distracted by my phone or a knock on the door and be drawn into another activity. The ASL manual sign language alphabet has been a GAME-CHANGER for me.
Another example of the usefulness of this strategy is if I am listening to someone and I want to remember to ask them a question (let's say about their dog - usually it is) I would position my hand in a signed “d” rather subtly and without interrupting the conversation. When they paused or asked me a question, I could feel/see my “d” which would prompt me to ask them about their dog. Of course, it's not 100% foolproof; sometimes I forget what the letter stood for. But 90% of the time I’ve found it helpful to work around my good old goldfish memory.
It’s quite a helpful strategy for interpersonal relationship health. It reduces the risk of losing points from a relationship piggybank by floating away during conversations or bursting in with the thing you want to say. For ADHDers especially, it’s hard to maintain attention when someone is saying something that is not interesting to you. People usually know if you’re not really listening and they tend to dislike being interrupted. It’s a superpower interpersonal skill to learn to put your thought on hold in a way that you’re less likely to forget what you want to say and you can use your energy to be more present in the conversation. Of course, you only have two hands. If you need to remember three or more things, well, maybe take notes.
Inspired to learn to sign the manual alphabet? Awesome! It's important to note, however, that sign language is intrinsically connected to Deaf culture and a history of systemic oppression by hearing-people. Respecting the heritage of the Deaf community can involve learning ASL from a member of the community, for a start. You can simply search the internet for the alphabet in sign language taught by a Deaf/ASL speaker. (Also of note, ASL is one of many different kinds of sign language that exist in the world!)
And remember, it’s okay to be a forgetful human. Sometimes we just need to get creative to cope.
Kat Herbinson is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and the Founder and Clinical Director of The ADHD & Relationship Centre. Kat loves helping connect fellow Tigger-brained humans with mental health care and creative support for managing the challenging symptoms faced by neurodivergent humans.
Kat brings an evidence-based compassionate approach to client care and is most passionate about helping people to improve the quality of their love-relationships.