One of the keys to success may be externalizing your memory.

Cindy JobsADHD In The Workplace, Health and Well-Being, Organization

I often tell my clients that our brains are built for survival. Its job is to remind us to eat, drink, sleep, and run from tigers. It is NOT our brain’s job to reliably remember meetings, grocery lists, and transitions.

So what do I mean by externalizing your memory? Creating cues from the environment to remind you to do the things you want to do.

For example:

Externalize your commitments:  Yes, we think we can remember that we have a dentist appointment Thursday at 10:00 AM, but we probably won’t. Especially if something more exciting and fun comes across our path that would conflict with that appointment. Again, our brains aren’t built to remember stuff when we need to remember it. We must put it in our calendars with reminder cues to ensure we don’t double-book ourselves and get where we need to be on time. 

Externalize timelines and specific tasks for projects:  Let’s use creating a new Procedures Manual as an example. The manual has to be done in 60 days, and it’s really not very high on your dopamine-producing list. We tell ourselves that 60 days is so far away; it doesn’t have to be worked on immediately. First of all, 60 days will fly by quickly, and we can get ourselves in a time jamb if we wait too long. Even if we put “work on procedures manual” on our calendars, it’s too vague for activation. Externalizing your memory and the timeline and tasks by creating a mind map of tasks and deadlines for each task. For example:

  • Tuesday, 10:00 – 11:00 AM: Mind-Map Procedures Manual Content
  • Wednesday, 10:00 – 11:00 AM: Organize Procedures Manual Content, Create Table of Contents
  • Thursday, 10:00 – 11:00 AM: Write Procedures Manual Introduction
  • Friday, 10:00 – 11:00 AM: Draft Procedures Manual First Section

Being very specific with the action item and creating near-term deadlines will help ensure the project is done more quickly and with less stress.

Externalize to-do lists by writing everything down and prioritizing: So many people keep their to-do lists flying around in their heads. When I hear this, I ask people to visualize the game show money booth. Picture those twenty, fifty, and hundred dollar bills flying around with no way to grab the most valuable one. If we keep our to-do lists in our heads, the crucial tasks fly around like elusive one hundred dollar bills. The only way to focus on the good stuff is to turn off the air, let all the bills (to-do items) fall to the ground, and sort them out by priority (hundreds first).

Externalize remembering at the point of performance:  Have you ever awakened to the sound of the garbage truck driving away at 5:00 AM? Most of us have experienced that or something similar. If we could only remember to put the garbage out the night before. Our brains are not built to recall the critical stuff when needed. Externalizing remembering at the point of performance may take the form of a sticky note on the last thing you see before going to bed. Or it could be a notification on your phone to remind you to take the garbage out the night before.

Externalize cues for transitions: Time flies if we are doing something we enjoy. When we start a fun task, we think we will remember to stop in 30 minutes to pick up the kids. Chances are, we won’t. Not transitioning to that task may result in significant consequences. Externalize the transition cue with an audible reminder on your phone or use something similar to the TimeTimer (my favorite productivity tool of all time).

Externalize problem-solving:  Have you ever had the experience of asking a friend to help solve a problem? Then as soon as you start explaining the situation, the answer becomes clear. Likewise, externalizing what’s bouncing around in our heads by talking it out, writing it down, mind-mapping it, etc., may very well quickly bring clarity. (Fun fact: If you don’t have someone to talk it out with, talking to yourself works well too.)

Externalize sources of motivation: If we have a task in front of us that we don’t want to do, finding intrinsic motivation is a long shot. Externalizing the motivation (extrinsic motivation) may be the ticket. What does that look like? Tell a friend of your intention and commit to following up with them on your progress. Promise yourself a treat if you complete what you intend to do. I have a client that has difficulty getting their patient notes done. They motivate themselves with their favorite beverage, but only when the task is complete.

It is nearly impossible to keep the most critical things straight if they are all flying around in our heads. E Externalizing your memory and creating reliable ways will create the opportunity for more clarity, higher productivity, and less stress.


Cindy Jobs, PCAC, ACC

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