Why Do I Have Such a Poor Memory?


Have you ever been working on a project—doing some research, taking notes, or making a plan for something—and then come across your notes or plan for the very same thing—and you had already figured it out, months or years ago, but had totally, totally, forgotten about it? With no memory of it whatsoever?


Worse, have you ever gone into a meeting with clients, associates, or employees, and passionately described your ideas for the next steps of a project, only to be met with blank stares and confusion—because, as they later tell you, you had passionately described something else (perhaps something entirely different) the week before?

I have. And many of my business owner clients with ADHD have, too.

It used to make me feel like such an idiot when one of my employees would raise their hand in a meeting and ask, “Um, Marcia, does this mean you don’t want us to do what you told us to do yesterday?”

Why can’t we remember these really important things we’ve already done?

A lot of it has to do with “remembering to remember”

ADDers’ long-term memory is usually fine. It’s the short-term, or working memory, that trips us up. This is what most people call “attention,” which is why others often think we’re not paying attention.

This working memory is the part of our memory we need to watch. We get into trouble getting information that’s important to us from the practical level into our long-term memory. For some reason, it just slips through the cracks. We do something, or something happens to us, then POOF—it’s gone.

Prospective memory, or remembering to remember

Prospective memory is big for many people, including me. While I have three children, I have only given birth to one person in this world, ever. It was a big day for me, the day my son was born, and you’d think I could remember it every year so I could wish him Happy Birthday. Yet, most of the time, when March 23 comes around and it’s time to remember my son’s birthday, I forget.

I remember in January. I remember in February. I set reminders on my phone and digital calendar. I put up sticky notes. And then on the morning of March 23, my dear friend Jacqui, or my mother, or some other relative or all of these people together, send me emails reminding me of my son’s birthday. And that’s when I realize I didn’t send him a present or a card.

I remembered at some point, but I didn’t remember at the right time. I didn’t remember to remember. So when I needed my memory to help me out, I came up short.

Last year after I again forgot my son’s birthday (he’s very forgiving, by the way, and is happy to hear from me whenever it eventually happens) and I shared this story on Facebook, a reader wrote that she had invited ten people over for Christmas dinner and then didn’t remember to go shopping for the food. Ten people and no food! That’s not remembering to remember, big time!

Are you feeling pangs of your own “not remembering to remember?” That’s your prospective memory malfunctioning. It has a sense of time to it, the memory burden of carrying an idea from one moment in time into the future when it’s the right time to act on it. This weakness causes problems for us, for sure!

Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. There are many of us in the soup together! And there are things we can do to work around our weak prospective memory.

Here are two strategies that can help

1.) Keep only one notebook

This is my most favorite business strategy and it’s saved me (and many of my clients) more times than I can tell you. Please don’t dismiss this strategy because it’s so simple.

My “one-notebook” is my memory for my business and my life. I’ve always taken lots of notes . . . because I can’t remember things. Business notes, personal notes, reminder notes, sticky notes, you name it. I’ve learned to write things down.

But then I could never find the notes I needed at the time I needed them. (You, too?) That’s because they were on the backs of envelopes, napkins, time sheets, and various scraps of paper. And they were on my desk, in my purse, in my car, on my kitchen table, stuffed in files, and on the floor. I spent as much time looking for my notes as I did looking for my keys.

I tried organizing my notes in color-coded folders and organized filing methods, but I’m not organized and those didn’t work for me—I had filing cabinets full of stuff that I never looked at. There was loose paper all over the place. And I still couldn’t find the information I needed. No wonder I missed my son’s birthday and forgot the conversation trail one meeting to the next.

All notes go in one place

So I finally said the heck with all of those systems and bought an unlined sketchbook, and never looked back. Now, every note I write goes in my sketchbook: client notes, meeting notes, project notes, personal notes, business plans, conversations, ideas, reminders. If the phone rings, I pick up my notebook. If I go out the door, I grab my notebook. If I get an idea, I write it in my notebook. If I think I missed something, I pick up my notebook and check it out. I don’t allow myself to write on anything else. It’s all in there.

It’s messy. I doodle in it. There are bookmarks and sticky notes sticking out of it. But I know where all my notes are, because they’re all in one place, and only one place.

I check the notebook before meetings

Now, before I go into a meeting, I look in my notebook at my notes from the last meeting. Oh, yeah, that’s what we talked about. That’s what I suggested. I already did that part!

I date each page and save each book

Now, the things I need to remember to remember are in my notebook. I review them often. I don’t have to look for that list—it’s in my notebook. Yes, I still have to set up alarms on my phone and calendar. Yes, I still rely on friends and family for certain important dates. But I have my memory in one concrete place now, and I can refer to it. It’s calming and reassuring. I save the books and have them going back for years! Since I date each page, I can find notes from almost any idea or conversation easily, just by thinking about when it took place. Now I only have to remember to remember one thing—my notebook.

2.) Use talking points

Another of my favorite strategies is to use talking points. (You can write your talking points in your notebook!)

You know how public figures stay on track during interviews, no matter what the interviewers ask them? Sometimes it’s maddening to watch, because they may completely circle around the interviewer’s question and talk about what they want to talk about, instead of what the interviewer asked them.

You can use talking points, too. They can be especially helpful when you know you need to remember to stay on track with a presentation or even a phone call.

And it’s so simple—all you need to do is jot down your three to four main points and keep coming back to them. Make sure they’re written, and that they are clear and short.

This works really well for long-term projects, too, because if you get off track over time, you can just come back to your talking points. Talking points will:

• keep you from duplicating your efforts,

• keep you from coming up with new ideas in the middle of a program (and going off on tangents that confuse everyone else!),

• help you stay clear on your objectives,

• help you get through a phone conversation more quickly and more to the point,

• make you look super smart to your clients, and

• keep your employees on track, to name a few!

Once you start using talking points, you’ll find many other uses for them as well. Start using talking points now on something small and you’ll be hooked, I promise!

There may not be a lot we can do about the actual workings of our ADD memories, but these two strategies can help you bridge the gap with “remembering to remember” so your true genius can shine through.


  1. Paul Kulke says:

    The cruel irony is that my good long term memory only seems to help me remember all the problems caused by my bad short term memory!

    • Hi Paul,

      That IS cruel! :)

      Perhaps one or both of these strategies can help turn that around, and you can come back and say, “Hey! I just remembered an instance where I remembered to remember!” I look forward to that for you.

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