Hacking Your Executive Function: Working Memory

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It’s time to do some work…on working memory! I’m going to be honest here: working memory is something it can be pretty tough to improve, but it’s also something that can be accommodated with the use of external reminders, planners, and supports. If you’re looking for a solution that will make your memory better…I probably don’t have it. My method has always been to work with the memory I have and create environments that will cue my memory when I need them to. The good news is that you can live a pretty dang effective life without needing a better memory.

But working memory is more specific than just your ability to remember stuff. What is it? Working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind, to pull up relevant information, and to manage the information you need to solve a problem. If someone reads a list to you and asks you to repeat it back, that is a test of working memory. It’s in use when someone gives you a series of directions. Not only is working memory important in its own right, it also plays an important role in focus and concentration, so having good working memory can improve your ability to ignore distractions.

Working memory gives you a lot of the content that you use for other skills in working memory. So if you’re trying to create a plan, put things in order, see the relationships between things, or use another higher level thinking skill, your working memory needs to be strong enough to hold all of the pieces in mind while you manipulate them. I like to think of it as the “what” of executive function.

Examples of working memory include remembering what was said in a conversation and responding to it, connecting a new concept to old ideas, preparing a recipe (particularly if we’re also doing something else), or hearing a set of instructions and then following them. One thing to note is that verbal information tends to be harder on our working memory than visual information because sound is so temporary. We can continue to look at an image or a person and get continuous information, whereas if someone speaks we only get about a second for each word. This is yet another reason that visuals can be quite helpful for those who struggle with executive function.

There are a few general life changes that tend to improve working memory. If you really struggle with working memory they’re not going to fix all your problems, but they can help give you a more solid foundation to work on other helpful skills. They shouldn’t be a surprise: sleep enough, move your body, eat a decent amount of food consistently.

I talked about this some in the emotion regulation section, but to expand: one of the things that has been incredibly helpful in my life has been to not only sleep enough, but to sleep at about the same times each night. I know many people who use an alarm to tell them when they should go to bed as well as when they should wake up. I like to have a very set bedtime routine that cues me in to the fact that it’s time to get sleepy: get in to bed 30 minutes to 1 hour before sleep time, computer for 30 minutes, read for 30 minutes. If you have sensory sensitivities I also highly recommend checking out whether a sleep mask, earplugs, white noise machine, blackout curtains, weighted blanket, or other accommodation will improve your sleep. Having a sleep mask changed my LIFE.

I would also note that it’s easy for me to sit here and say “eat enough on a regular basis” but boy howdy is food hard sometimes. It’s hard to eat not too much and not too little, it’s hard to cook, it’s hard to get fresh food. Many folks on the spectrum also have feeding disorders or eating disorders, which complicates matters even further. I can’t go into deep detail here about strategies to manage food, but I strongly recommend checking out resources about eating disorder recovery, making a clear plan of when you will eat, and trying to stick to it. I do the best when I eat at the same time every day and when I have a relatively consistent diet: I go to the co-op for lunch, I buy a salad at Target on the way home for dinner. Some people do best when they meal plan or track their food, some people like to have reminders or another person check in with them, others prefer not to be social around their food at all. Some of these strategies also rely on executive function, so the more of these EF skills you put into place, the better you’ll be at taking care of yourself and the better you’ll be at EF.

Finding the best habits around food is highly personal but it’s worth it to at least take some data on when you feel better and worse around food, then see if you can maximize the “better” times, because if you are calorie deprived your mind will not work appropriately.

Finally, I will also say that moving your body does not have to be in a traditional “workout” format. I do aerial hammock, in the past I’ve done rock climbing and swing dancing, I know others who do Irish dance, or who use walking their dog as a way to get their body outside and moving. Any type of activity that feels good to you is acceptable, and will probably give you some small boosts to your working memory.

A final note on these strategies: for those of us who truly do have some executive dysfunction, exercise or sleep won’t cure us and suggesting it will is unhelpful and sometimes downright offensive. I offer these as ways to start, as a place to build up a strong base so that you can learn other skills that rely on adequate physical health. They make it easier to do the other things, but they aren’t a replacement for other strategies. As we move forward I’ll be offering additional strategies that can help out!