Working Memory in ADHD

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ADHD : What is "Working Memory"?

A common ADHD characteristic is the difficulty in getting back to work, returning to the task, once having been distracted by the shiny thing in the room, or outside of the room. People with ADHD don't return to the task that they just left, they just move on to the next thing. Even when having been distracted people without ADHD can keep in mind what they have been working on and why. This is referred to as "working memory" which is different from either long-term memory functions or short-term memory functions. Working memory is remembering what you need to do, and how to do it, so that you can get it done before it's too late and while it still matters.

People with ADHD have impaired working memory. They have trouble keeping the information in mind that they need for the task so that they can complete the job or reach the goal. So they just wander from thing to thing, task to task, without ever completing anything really. This is a "working memory" deficit in ADHD. This is a time problem, a focus problem, a remembering what it takes to get the job done problem. And yes, it is what you see in older people as their working memory and executive functions begin to wane. In this sense ADHD is not a problem from a lack of skills or knowledge. It is a deficit of results - and results matter. It is a problem with performance.

Here's a good resource developed by some researchers at Harvard to help improve working memory. Its a computer based program to improve working memory in children and teenagers.

Working memory deficits also impact one's ability to tell time. Not as in looking at a clock and knowing what time it is, but rather being aware of how long something will take to do, or how long it has been since leaving for school, or whatever. ADHD causes an awareness of time deficit. ADHD causes people to live in the moment (which has now passed), without really thinking much about the future. Things in the future simply have little value when compared to what is happening right now. As a result it is common to see people with working memory deficits from ADHD to be unprepared when the future does arrive. Homework is not finished, the report not done. Preparations for winter not made. Its not procrastination as much as living in the "now". Both past and future have little value compared to the present.

This book section: What is ADHD?

Douglas Cowan, Psy.D., MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Tehachapi, CA who has been a counselor to children, teens, and adults helping them to overcome ADHD, find relief for depression or anxiety, and solve other problems in life since 1989. He served on the medical advisory board to the company that makes Attend and Extress from 1997 through 2011, and he is the Editor of the ADHD Information Library online resource at His weekly ADHD Newsletter goes out to 9,500 families. Visit his website at for more information on achieving greater health, personal growth, Christ-centered spirituality, stress management, parenting skills, ADHD, working out the stresses of being a care-giver to elderly parents and also being a parent to teenagers, or finding greater meaning in retirement years, Dr. Cowan can be a valuable resource to you.

Counselor counseling Tehachapi for ADHD, depression, anxiety, and more.

Douglas Cowan, Psy.D., MFT
27400 Oakflat Dr.
Tehachapi, CA 93561
(661) 972-5953

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