Hacking Your Executive Function: Memory Tricks

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Ok friends, this is the final post for Working Memory, and we’re over halfway through my executive function series! I can’t believe how much I’ve posted already on this and how much is left. Thanks for hanging in there with me. This last section for Working Memory is a bit of a catch all, but mostly it’s about simplifying and preparing ahead so that your memory will be on point.

Let’s start with some preparation type hacks that you can use to make sure you aren’t trying to remember things last minute and panicking. I’d highly suggest checking out some Everyday Carry websites, which talk about ways to optimize what tools you need with you on a day to day basis. If you can get everything you need in one bag and you just have to remember one thing, that’s simplified your memory needs significantly!

You can also use those same principles to create a kind of “emergency kit”. If you tend to forget things or lose things, it can be a good idea to have a bag that has all the stuff you might need (a spare key, some money, a snack, etc.) and keep it in your car or create a tiny version to leave in a coat pocket or purse. The idea is not that you’ll be using these things on the regular. You still want to build the habit of bringing your normal keys and your wallet. But in case you forget, you’ll have a back up. I do this with a water bottle in my car so that when I inevitably forget to bring one to work out I’ll have some way to stay hydrated.

The next set of suggestions has to do with keeping things relatively simple so that you can focus well. Rule #1: DO NOT MULTITASK. What most people call multitasking is actually switching very quickly between different tasks. It’s not super efficient, and especially if transitioning is hard for you this will significantly decrease your ability to actually complete tasks since you’re using a lot of mental energy to switch tasks. Instead, pick one thing to do and work only only that task, even if it feels like you have too many things to complete.

Another way to simplify things is to break bigger pieces of information into smaller chunks. Instead of trying to memorize the full periodic table, just work on it row by row. Then you’ll simply have to string things together (hopefully none of your memory tasks require that much memorizing because that’s a doozy). For me this expresses itself in daily life more in how much I choose to do at a time. Instead of saying “I will do all of my ad sales management this morning” I say “I’m going to e-mail the people who haven’t sent me ad copy yet”. Once I’ve finished that piece I check in and take on a new task. A big part of this is breaking down one task into smaller pieces to start. How do I do that?

Planning! I like to write down each task that I have to do each day. Some people prefer visual instructions, and might prefer images or another visual system, but even having a written form is fine for me. I HIGHLY recommend that if someone gives you verbal instructions you take notes because it will be incredibly taxing on your working memory to try to remember everything if you haven’t written it down. Once I’ve written down the main task I like to write down each step of the task. I may not do it in a huge big list. I may choose to write the first step today, the second step tomorrow, etc. so that I am reminded when I need to jump back in and do the next piece.

Another helpful way to increase your working memory is to keep things that are similar together. I have a drawer in my desk at home that contains all of the extra technology I might need, so I know that whether I’m looking for an extension cord or an external hard drive, it will be in that drawer. In my planner I put all of my work related things in one box and all of my home related things in another box. Mentally, I might have a few tasks that need to get done around the house: instead of trying to remember all of them at once I’ll note everything that needs to get done in one room and try to do those things together.

You can also simplify what you’re trying to remember by using acronyms or mnemonics. These are great for sets of items or tasks you have to do repeatedly. I repeatedly forget to turn on the water when I’m doing my laundry before I put the soap and clothes in, so it could be great for me to create a mnemonic. Whack some cloth! Now it’s going to be hard for me to forget that weird saying and I’ll hopefully think of it when I go to do laundry next. That will remind me the steps I need to take.

Last but not least, the best way to hold on to new information is to integrate it with things you already know. So if you’re starting a new project, ask a lot of questions. Understand how it parallels other projects you’ve done. Find out if it relates to something else you’re working on. Can you connect it to something you like and care about? Sometimes those connections may not make sense to other people. I now distinctly remember why I shouldn’t rig an aerial apparatus to a tree because I was talking to a friend the other day and she said that trees make noises when you hang from them and I immediately thought of Ents. Now it’s unlikely that I’ll forget the Ent connection. Any time you can relate a new piece of information to something that’s already solidly in your brain, you strengthen the new memory.

And with that you have all of my tips for improving working memory. Next up we’ll start talking about initiating tasks.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Sensory Memory

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Sometimes no matter how hard you try to find ways to support your memory or accommodate and use a different tactic, a task just requires you to use working memory and it’s a challenge. Good thing there are ways you can actually improve your working memory. Let’s talk a bit about those today.

Today’s post is similar to a lot of the other things I’ve recommended in other areas because it fucking works bebes. But now we’re going to get specific for memory. Here’s the trick: USE YOUR BODY.

Simple? Yes. Hard to implement? Sometimes. Effective? Hell yeah. One of the things that is particularly taxing on working memory is that we either totally abstract things or use a single sense (usually visual or verbal) to try to remember things. If you can incorporate multiple senses into your memory, you’ll be strengthening the memory and making it easier to hold on to. You can use the senses later to trigger the memory.

Let’s talk specifics. Singing or rhyming introduces a new element to a memory. It might feel a little bit kiddish, but creating a short song that tells you the steps to a project or contains all the information will make it MUCH easier to remember. You might also associate a color or a shape to go with particular facts. If you have a visual in front of you that will help immensely, but even just visualizing it internally can help too. If you’re a doodler, embrace the doodle! When you’re figuring out a new process, you could doodle the steps instead of just writing them down.┬áSome people like to choose a specific place to look in order to remember information, so you tie the name of someone at a party to the red chair in the corner, and when you look at the red chair in the corner it will help you trigger “Jacob”.

Scent is an incredibly strong memory trigger, so while it could be hard to incorporate it into memory, if you’re really struggling you could try using essential oils to associate different memories with different scents. You could also imagine a scent to associate it with particular memories. Flowers or foods could be great places to start since they’ve got strong scents we know well.

Something that could be incredibly fun to play with would be incorporating taste into your working memory. Let’s say you struggle to remember all your possessions in the morning. What if you assigned an element of your breakfast to each item you need? Orange juice is your phone, yogurt is your keys, blueberries are your bag, strawberries are your planner. As you eat your breakfast you can take a mental checklist of all the things that you need. This can be comboed with scent fairly easily I’d imagine.

Moving around while you work to remember something can also improve the memory. It turns out that general physical exercise improves your memory, but some studies also indicate that gesturing while you try to remember something, or acting out what you’re trying to remember will improve your ability to hold on to it. Working out before trying to remember something increases retention, and if you’re having a hard time with your memory, getting up and moving around can improve your abilities.

When it comes to working memory that might mean doing some quick jumping jacks before you try to cook something so that you can hold a bit more in your brain while you’re following the recipe. Or it might mean power walking on the treadmill while you read instructions for a task you’ll do later, then rereading when you have to do the task. Or perhaps it’s spending 20 minutes working on a project, then 5-10 minutes on a trampoline or bouncing a ball. Even just working regular exercise into your weekly routine can make improvements in your working memory, so setting aside 30 minutes a day to go for a walk can help boost working memory.

The more consistently you focus a particular piece of information on a sense or tie it to an external marker, the easier it will be to remember, so if you have challenges remembering what order to wash in the shower, or you’ll forget if you already shampooed, you might add rubber duckies along the side of your tub and associate each one with a task you do in the shower. When you do the task, you could look at the ducky, or move the ducky from one side of the tub to the other. After a while these memories will be so routine that you don’t have to rely as much on working memory.

Again: none of these things alone will “fix” your working memory or make tasks like organization and planning easy. But it may make it easi-ER and that will allow you to start incorporating other supports until hopefully cleaning the house, or remembering where you are in a task doesn’t feel insurmountable or cause intense anxiety.

Next we’ll talk more about the mental ways that you can improve working memory, and then onwards!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Ritual, Repetition, and Routines for Working Memory

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Are you ready for one of my absolute favorite topics? ARE YOU!?!?!?! That’s right bebes we’re talking about creating routines and using them to your own benefit. One of the things that professionals often talk about in relation to autism is an overreliance on routine, and a lack of flexibility when routines are changed. It’s often cited as a problem that needs to be fixed. I’m not sure I’d agree. Instead I would say that routines can be immensely helpful. We just have to be aware when we’re using them, intentionally choose when we’d like to use them, and understand when it won’t be helpful to continue following through on the routine. That means practicing stopping a routine partway through, and sometimes practicing having alternatives.

But once you’re sold on the idea of routines, I have quite a few suggestions for what you can do to use repetition, ritual, and routine to improve working memory. First, create routines where you don’t have to remember as much. I like to use automation for this. Whenever possible I automate my bills so that I do not have to remember when to pay them (recognizing that I am lucky to have the ability to do this without worrying about overdrafts). It is possible to have groceries automated through online delivery services. You can automate certain functions on your electronics (there’s a phone app called IFTTT that allows you to set up if/then logic to trigger certain functions on your phone. I don’t fully get it, but if it makes sense to your brain you can streamline a lot of things). You can also get plugs that will automatically turn off after a certain amount of time if you tend to forget things like turning off your curling iron. Let something else run the routines so that you don’t have to!

You can also create your own rituals/routines. Sometimes they’re totally arbitrary: I like to find ways to time activities by doing other things while I’m waiting. For example when I’m making ramen noodles I let my noodles cook for as long as it takes me to get a bowl and spoon, then pour myself a glass of milk. With that routine I don’t forget my noodles and end up with icky overcooked mush. Other times you might just decide what order you do things in. It doesn’t have to be based on some kind of logic, but doing things in the same order each time makes it easier. For example when I get home from work I nearly always check the mail when I get out of my car, feed the cats when I get inside, look at my mail, then go to the bathroom. That helps me manage a couple of tasks that could be lost otherwise but since they always come at the same time (and after a clear trigger, coming home) it’s much easier to remember.

I also like to create rituals around things that I want to feel important. While this isn’t directly related to working memory, it creates a nice combo of working memory and emotion regulation because it can help you to carve out space for self care and remember to do specific things that feel good. For me that looks like buying bath bombs and candles for when I take a hot bath so that I can go through the ritual of setting it up to cue myself that it’s time to relax. Or it might look like scheduling a date with my husband and texting him throughout the day to make plans and get excited. Those ritualistic elements can help to set the stage emotionally for a particular task or type of event and get you more excited, in the right mood, or ready to do what you’re planning to do.

Another option that improves working memory is repetition. I use this in the way that I set up my planner. I will regularly write the same task 3-4 times in different places to ensure that I don’t forget it. No, I don’t just arbitrarily write it over and over again. I have one section in which I have calendars for the full year and I’ll write down events and tasks that are in the far future. Then I have a section for each month that I create at the beginning of the month, and I’ll add the task there when the time comes. Finally I have a weekly section where I write down the relevant tasks for each day, where I’ll finally place the task when I need to do it. Not only does this allow me to organize my time in a variety of timeframes, it also helps me remember things by writing them multiple times.

I also like to incorporate repetition into things that are very important by making it fun: that might include creating mnemonics or songs/rhymes to remember certain things, writing them in fun fonts, drawing pictures, or finding another way to burn the information in your brain so deeply that you can call it up at a moment’s notice. In general handwriting helps you hold something in your brain longer than typing it, so when I want to be particularly focused I leave electronics.

Finally, I encourage people to not be afraid to practice stuff. Even stuff that seems like you shouldn’t need to practice it. A lot of basic tasks actually involve quite a few smaller steps. If your executive function is less than stellar everything from cooking to getting dressed can be challenging because they require many steps put in the correct order, holding information in mind. It’s ok to do the same, simple thing a few times in a row to get it into your muscle memory. No shame at all! The more you repeat doing something the same way, the easier it will be every other time you have to do it. I have practiced my cleaning routines until I know how to do them so well I don’t have to think anymore. For tasks that aren’t too complex that you do a lot? Forget the working memory. Find a workaround.

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!

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!