ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Forgetfulness

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ADHD Symptom Spotlight is a series that dives deep into a hallmark or overlooked symptom of ADHD each week. This series is written by experts who also share their tips on managing these symptoms based on firsthand experience and research-backed insights.

For a long time, people with ADHD were seen as having loosely defined “memory problems,” and little distinction was made about exactly what processes or kinds of memory were impaired. Fortunately, that’s changed in the past decade or so as new research has not only revealed that it’s specifically working memory that's primarily impaired but also why traditional memory training techniques don’t seem to help.

Forgetfulness in ADHD

Working memory is where you keep information relevant to the task you’re doing right now. It’s the ability to walk to the kitchen and still know what you went there for by the time you arrive. It’s also the ability to follow the plot of a movie because you still recall events from the beginning by the time you get to the end.

When that’s impaired, it can lead to annoying and disruptive symptoms like:

  • Losing things, even things you just had a few minutes earlier
  • Missing appointments, dates, and other plans
  • Abandoning a task midway because you forgot you were doing it
  • Immediately forgetting something that someone just told you
  • Difficulties with recalling specific memories on demand (e.g., When was the first time you went to the beach? What was the last movie you saw in theaters?)

I forget what I’m doing while in the middle of doing it on a daily basis. Most of the time, I don’t even realize I’ve forgotten. I’ll put a pot of water on the stove to make pasta, and if I leave the kitchen while I’m waiting for it to boil, there’s a good chance I’ll forget I was ever making pasta, and the water will boil away until the pot’s empty.

I will lose items that I was just holding, forget plans I agreed to just moments ago, and lose track of conversations I’m in the middle of having. Meanwhile, without skipping a beat, I can recite entire poems from memory and tell you the exact dates of the Siege of Sarajevo. It’s weird.

The Root of Working Memory Problems

In the past few decades, research has revealed that alpha waves (one of a handful of electrical rhythms that can occur in the human brain) are involved in filtering out sensory input from our environment so that we can focus only on the information we want to focus on.

In simple terms: alpha waves block out distractions and irrelevant information so that we can work, study, or even just watch a TV show without consciously thinking about the sound of cars driving down our street or the texture of the chair we’re sitting in.

Studies of children and adults with ADHD show weak alpha modulation during encoding and retrieval stages of memory, meaning the brain isn’t efficiently separating relevant details from distracting and unimportant ones while creating the memory or while recalling it.

Without that filtration, encoding a clear memory is a bit like trying to record someone talking in a crowded club while synth-pop is pumping at maximum volume in the background. Retrieving a memory is like listening to that recording and trying to tune out the music and background noise so that you just hear what that person is saying.

What’s most interesting about this research on alpha modulation deficits in ADHD is that it helps explain why standard memory training exercises don’t always help.

Where many memory exercises focus on improving the maintenance (or storage) stage of memory, people with ADHD don’t show signs of a deficit there. Long-term memory works relatively well, and there’s no evidence that people with ADHD forget information after a delay any faster than people without the condition.

Retaining information isn’t the problem. Selectively focusing on a particular piece of it, either during encoding or recall, is.

Memory Retrieval Problems Can Look Like Memory Loss

One reason researchers used to think the entire memory system had gone haywire in ADHD brains is that many of the tests they use to measure memory rely on retrieval. It’s hard to test what a person remembers without asking them to recall it.

But to retrieve a memory, your brain not only needs to target that specific memory but filter out any competing ones. With weak alpha modulation, that filtering isn’t happening as well as it should, so it can be hard to tune out competing memories and give the specific answer that’s needed, even though it’s stored in there somewhere.

A study of adults with ADHD confirmed that this ability to inhibit competing memories was impaired. When you structure memory tests in a way that doesn’t require as much attention suppression or memory inhibition, people with ADHD perform well.

In the study, subjects were shown a collection of 48 category-and-example pairs (like “fruit: apple”). While categories appeared multiple times, no two examples in the same category started with the same letter. Researchers then administered three different recall tests. In one, just a category cue would appear on the screen (like “fruit?”). In the other two, the category was followed by either a one- or two-letter cue (like “fruit: a____”).

The results confirmed that individuals with ADHD have a deficit in inhibitory control of memory.

Memory Exercises and Tips to Help with Forgetfulness

Knowing that the problems are mainly due to difficulty filtering out distractions and competing information, tricks and workarounds that compensate for that are your best bet.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness exercises may help your brain get better at triggering alpha waves (those that help you tune out distractions) on demand. An ADHD-friendly mindfulness exercise that I’ve found more manageable than pure meditation is focusing on the five senses.

Set aside 5-10 minutes of your morning to go somewhere relatively quiet and do this exercise: Name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can smell, two things you can feel, and one thing you can taste.

For me, it’s easier than trying to clear my mind or focus only on my breath, as so many mindfulness exercises suggest.

Write Everything Down

I take notes all the time for everything. I’ve got a notes app on my phone that I use any time I agree to any plans, no matter how vague, or need something from the store or find a new show or book I want to check out.

As soon as the thing comes up, I make a note, even if it seems trivial. Having this ongoing record makes it so much easier to keep track of all the small things that tend to slip through the cracks the second the conversation ends or you leave the room.

Likewise, keeping a to-do list for the day can prevent you from forgetting appointments, due dates, and plans.

Use Tons of Alarms

Alarms can help jolt your memory and remind you of what you should be doing. For daily habits, set recurring alarms with labels like “take medication”, “eat lunch”, or “take the dog for a walk.” If you’re taking a “15-minute” break from studying or work, set an alarm for 15 minutes and label it “go back to work” so you don’t lose track of what you were doing.

Leave Texts and Emails Unopened Until You’re Ready to Answer

Reading an email or text and then saying “I’ll reply later” when you have ADHD is the equivalent of saying “I’ll be right back” in a horror movie. They’re not coming back. You’re not going to remember to reply later.

Either reply right away or leave it unread. If you don’t open the text, the app will have that little notification attached to it to remind you that you’ve got texts to answer. Likewise, unread emails will be easier to spot next time you check your email.

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5 Sources
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