Hacking Your Executive Function: External Reminders

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Alright, alright, so last post I introduced you to the concept of working memory but I’ll be honest: I didn’t give you a ton of super helpful ideas for how to manage bad working memory. I’m here to rectify that situation today! The first realm of supports that I use for working memory is external reminders. There are approximately one billion different ways to use your environment to remind you of different things but I’m going to give some suggestions and hints here.

It might seem obvious, but write everything down. EVERYTHING. The trick with this is not the part about writing it down, but the part about seeing it again when you need it. There are a few different tactics you can take to make sure that you’ve always got paper available and to make sure that you will see it again later. The first is to leave paper in many places; you can put post it notes on your light switches or other high traffic areas that you know you’ll encounter in your day to day life so that you’ll see the reminders later. You can have notepads kept around your house so that no matter which room you’re in you’ll be able to write something down. One potential pitfall of this is having so many reminders that you stop paying attention, so make sure that you remove things you’ve already completed and try to follow through when you see the reminder.

The other way, which is my preferred method, is to write everything in one place (for me it’s my planner), and to always have that with you and open. When I’m at work, my planner is always directly next to me and open. If I’m “on” at home (rather than just relaxing), my planner is out and open. I’ll talk more about effective planner usage in the planning and organization section, but the main take away for working memory is that if it’s going to be useful it needs to be visible.

Some people don’t love the written word though, and so they prefer to use other methods to remind themselves. There are lots of ways you can leave yourself reminders, depending on what you prefer. You might take photos on your phone and put them all in a particular folder for “reminders”. You could leave yourself voice memos. If you’re a very visual person and you tend to forget certain steps (like say turning off the oven after you’re done with it) you could leave a cartoon of the steps for cooking or a post it over the stove. You can set alarms and reminders on your phone, your calendar app, or your email that will pop up or beep or make irritating noises until you turn them off. There are some specific types of hacks for particular reminders, like this pill bottle that has a timer telling you how long it’s been since you opened it. If you’re struggling to remember a particular task, the internet may have something to help you out, so definitely check Google.

These types of reminders can also help with your physical objects. If you’re always forgetting what you need to bring with you, it’s a good idea to always leave those things in the same place. I have a bowl next to my door that holds my keys, and I leave my bag next to it. I don’t have to wonder what I need to bring with me in the morning, because it’s always right there. I also work hard not to move things around in my house. My laptop is always next to my bed. I have these glasses holders, one next to my bed and one next to my computer, so that my glasses always end up in the right place.

While it can be challenging to organize your physical spaces when you’re struggling with executive function, if you can set aside an afternoon or two each month to try to improve certain spaces, it can really help with memory. I try to ensure that each drawer of my desk holds one type of thing (cords and electronics, pens and pencils, gaming materials, etc.), and never leave things just sitting out as the place that they belong. Everything has a box or a drawer so that I know where it’s supposed to be. You might like to label everything, or organize it based on what makes sense to you (maybe you like to organize by color), but I generally find it helps to have the place that things SHOULD be so that I can always look there first.

In addition to these ongoing types of memory accommodations, sometimes you also need to remember something specific, whether it’s to thank your grandma for that card she sent you or to pay your bills. One trick is to pick an object that’s just full on weird. A plastic alien. A rubber duck with an eyepatch. Something that will stick out. Tell yourself that the object is your reminder to do the task, and leave it somewhere that you’ll see it when you can and should do the task. Maybe you buy yourself a mock Harry Potter Remembrall and it serves as your cue whenever you need to remember something. Use things that stick out in your environment as ways to kick start your memory.

Sometimes all of the reminders in the world aren’t going to help though. In those cases, I like to enlist some help from a friend. When I was really struggling with getting enough food in my body, there were times I would have someone text me at mealtimes to check in and see if I had eaten. Adding another person can give a layer of accountability that keeps the task in your mind for longer. It’s easy enough to turn off an alarm, but a bit more challenging to brush off a friend or family member who wants to help you. You may even want to ask them to do a task together so that you can’t get distracted or lose a step partway through. The more you practice common tasks, the less you’ll need to focus on each step, and the less you’ll need to rely on working memory. Asking others to be a part of that can help a ton!

We’ll get more into using routines and repetition to help your working memory in the next post, so look forward to it!