Over the past few years (since I started doing a creative job, coincidentally or not) I’ve noticed myself struggling more and more with working memory. My brain feels clogged up, “low on RAM”, and just generally clunky.
I’ll have moments where I lose track of what I’m meant to be doing. I’ll catch myself waking up from a mental time-out, suddenly realising I’ve not been doing whatever it is I’m meant to be doing. And then having to work to remember what that’s meant to be.
Since discovering that I’ve most likely living with ADHD (update: I’ve got a psychiatrist assigned to my case! The ball is rolling!) this is just one of the things that’s been given context. I enjoyed writing about that, and I’ve had several people reach out and tell me it’s been useful, so I thought I might do some follow-up posts about specific symptoms and how I’m dealing with them.
A month or so ago, I was at work, and I was having a stressful morning. This is not unusual. I’d not long arrived, and I had a head full of thoughts — things I needed to remember, things I needed to do, ideas for games I’m currently working on, the list went on. Sophie caught me leaning back in my chair, eyes wide open, staring at a fixed point on the ceiling. When she asked me what was wrong, I struggled to get the words out. “Brain moths,” I managed.
What I was trying to convey was a specific frustration that I’ve become more and more aware of recently. When I’m in a certain state of mind, and my head is full of ideas, I really struggle to order them. Or even make sense of them, or record them. As soon as I try to focus on one, the others all seem to dissolve away. They’re like moths around a solidary light on a moonless night. Try to grab for one, and the others flit away into the darkness. They might come back, or they might not.
So I regularly find myself frozen in this limbo. Unable to do anything because there are all these important ideas and I don’t want to lose any of them, but as soon as I try to write a list to capture them all, I focus on one and I lose several others.
From my research into ADHD, this sounds like it’s a fairly common symptom. I wonder if it’s related to the impulsivity that’s also common; it almost feels like a natural progression. “I need to act on this thought right now, otherwise I might forget all about it and never remember it again.” Since I’ve been viewing myself through the lens of ADHD, I’ve realised how much I act on impulse; blurting out puns or snippets of wordplay as they pop into my head, regardless of whether it’s an appropriate time; starting a conversation about an idea that’s burning into the back of my eyes without first checking whether the other person’s in a position to want to converse; switching from whatever I’m doing to whatever I’ve suddenly remembered, and repeating this several times within the space of half an hour.
(I actually did a spreadsheet one day, noting down every time I found myself doing something that I wasn’t supposed to be doing. It was an eye-opener.)
As I said in my original post about ADHD, I’m still waiting on an official diagnosis before I say I definitely have it, but I’m not wasting any time in putting some tools to use. One thing that’s been helping prevent brain moths is noting thoughts down as they occur to me, so they don’t pile up. I found a shop on etsy selling ADHD-friendly day planners (Imperfect Inspiration — no promotion here, just sharing a small business!), and I loved the idea. They didn’t quite match up with how my brain tends to work, so I made my own version and started using it at the start of every work day. (Well, almost every one, at least.) I’m onto my third iteration now, and it’s really helping.
Having the day and the date at the top is surprisingly helpful; just taking note of the day, date and month when I sit down to work helps me contextualise everything else. Pouring the foremost thought into that big box at the top helps me shift it aside so I can think about other things. I make a note of how energetic and focused I feel in the Stamina box, and that helps me set an expectation for the day — some days are just a write-off, and acknowledging that helps me not beat myself up when I hit the end of the day and feel like I’ve achieved nothing.
“Priorities with Consequences” is a direct lift from the original, because I love how it’s worded. “There is a consequence if this doesn’t get done today” is a fantastic way to cut through the fog and find some drive; it’s why so much of my career has been defined by devastating week-long sprints to the finish. I’m now getting better at setting regular, smaller deadlines / checkpoints within projects.
Quick Wins are jobs that take less than five minutes; I power through them first thing, which gives me a sense of accomplishment and gets them done before they become an issue. Soon and Later are for jobs which are important, but not urgent.
With all of this stuff written in, I make a note of any key times (meetings, picking Lily up from school, etc). Then I go to the “blocking” bar and divide my day into chunks, based on the jobs that I’ve written in the boxes above. I make sure to include an hour for lunch and a walk; having this planned in, with work either side of it, means I’ll actually do it. If I don’t, I’ll hit midday and get stressed about how much I need to do, and just devour a sandwich while working.
Finally, anything else that’s on my mind throughout the day goes into Braindump, and I write anything that’s causing any anxiety into Worries & Concerns. These two boxes might not be directly work-related, but having them helps me a) avoid distractions by just writing things down instead of doing them straight away, and b) confront things that are niggling at my brain before they develop into full-blown panic.
So there we go. It’s not a perfect system, and I’m not for a moment saying that I’ve managed to “fix” my working memory issues with a bit of paper. But my goodness, it doesn’t half help.
If you live with ADHD, do you have any similar systems in place? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.