Executive Functioning Skills: Attention and Working Memory


Executive Functioning Skills: Attention and Working Memory

We are continuing our series on executive functioning (EF) skills. This article focuses on the EF skills of attention and working memory.

What do “attention” and “working memory” mean?

Attention is, in vaguest terms, the act or state of applying your mind to something. It allows you to select and focus on what is important at a particular time. Attention is the first step in the learning process, making it necessary for any and all learning to take place.

Working memory is the ability to hold onto and work with information stored in your short-term memory in order to complete a task or activity. It involves both auditory memory (things you hear) and visual-spatial memory (things you see). Auditory memory, for example, could be remembering the phone number that someone just told you, while visual-spatial memory could be remembering a license plate number you saw.

Working memory is necessary for you to be able to control your attention, making these two inseparable. On the flip side, inattention prevents working memory from doing its job. Think about it: If you need to remember five items on your shopping list (working memory), but you were not paying attention when your roommate told you the list, that inattention will prevent you from remembering every item.

Why are attention and working memory important?

As mentioned above, attention is necessary for any learning to take place. To actually learn and retain information, you must first pay attention to it. This makes attention skills imperative to every aspect of learning and working. It makes sense, then, that inattention weakens your reading and math skills, which ultimately lowers academic success because math and reading form the basis for learning in all subjects. If you were to study for a history exam while simultaneously watching television, for example, it wouldn’t be surprising if you did poorly on the test.

Working memory helps you hold information in your brain long enough to actually use it. It helps you remember everything from phone numbers to the instructions your professor gave about the next assignment or how to make mom’s meatloaf off the top of your head. Working memory affects reasoning, comprehension, and learning, all of which are important skills for school and the workplace.

Together, these skills help you concentrate and follow directions, which has a positive impact on both academic and professional success. They also help you stay focused on a task long enough to actually achieve it. Attention allows you to focus while working memory allows you to remember what needs to get done. You need both to successfully complete your tasks and goals.

Ultimately, attention and working memory will make you more productive. If you know what you need to do and focus on accomplishing that task, you will get more done with less wasted time. This will lead to an impact on your overall happiness—when you accomplish your goals, you tend to have less stress and feel happier.

How can I improve these skills?

  • Think out loud. Remember when we said that working memory involves both auditory and visual-spatial memory? Well, if you take visual information (that you’ve read) and say it out loud, you are engaging both the auditory and visual parts of the brain. This increases the likelihood that you will remember the information. So the next time you’re studying for an exam, try reading your notes out loud and repeating information to yourself, especially the parts that you’re struggling to remember.
  • Teach someone else. Teaching someone about anything is one of the best ways for you to study and retain that information. This is similar to thinking out loud in the sense that you will, once again, need to physically speak about the information. What makes this different is that in order to teach someone something, you have to fully understand it. Attempting to teach information forces you to pay attention and find ways to put that information in your own words. It’s a great tool to use to improve both attention and working memory, not to mention it’ll help you ace an exam!
  • Play games. All games are designed with rules. Working memory is what allows you to recall those rules in the middle of a game, so the more games you play, the more exercise you are giving your brain! Most games rely on you paying attention as well; you need to know which cards have been played, who is looking for which card, etc. So pick up a deck of cards and play any game: Go fish, spades, rummy, poker, or even solitaire! There are lots of free apps designed to improve attention and working memory. Try Simon online, or search for the Simon app on Apple or Android devices!
  • Group information into smaller pieces. This process is called “chunking,” and it forces you to pay attention to important steps and helps you remember what needs to be done. For example, when tackling a messy room, try chunking the tasks. First, you might pick up and put away all the clothes from the floor, then you can organize your dresser, followed by the closet. Once the steps to picking up are done, you can move on to deep cleaning activities like dusting or vacuuming. When you take a big project and break it into smaller pieces, it helps strengthen a variety of your EF skills, making it a great strategy to use!
  • Use checklists. Just like chunking, this strategy forces you to pay attention to what is important. By making a checklist, you can organize and prioritize your tasks, as well as make a list of steps that need to be completed. For example, your checklist for a term paper might include researching, planning, drafting, editing, and finalizing. This list will help you pay attention to each step as you come to it and avoid getting overwhelmed by the huge process that is writing a term paper.
  • Reduce multitasking. We’ve talked about multitasking before. While a lot of people think multitasking is a good thing, it actually leads to a shortened attention span because you are constantly jumping from one task to another. To improve attention, it’s better to complete a task fully before moving on to the next one. This also helps your working memory because your brain only needs to recall the steps for one task at a time, not multiple steps for multiple tasks.
  • Connect information. A common and effective strategy for remembering information is finding a way to make connections. Consider using mnemonics. For example, to remember the order of operations, you may have learned the phrase “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally,” representing parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. There are also acronyms, including ROY G BIV for the colors of the rainbow or visible spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). There’s a reason you probably learned these as a child—they work! The next time you’re struggling to retain and recall information, see if you can create an easy connection to help you out.
  • Meditate. When you meditate, you put all of your attention on one thing and work to limit all other outside distractions. It’s no wonder that practicing mindful meditation is a great way to strengthen your attention skills. Plus, it helps you calm your nerves and reduce stress. Win-win!

These are just a few of many ideas for ways to improve your attention and working memory. It’s important to remember that this is a list of suggestions, and you should not try to do them all! Rather, select the one(s) that will work for you in whatever situation you are facing. A quick note: Attention and working memory (like most EF skills) require constant “exercise,” so using these strategies just a few times and then giving up will not give you lasting results. You have to stick with it if you want to see improvement.

Join us again on Sunday, November 19, when we will be talking about our final executive functioning skill: emotional control.


About Shannon Whitney

Shannon loves traveling, watching Friends, and all things Florida Gators. While she grew up in Northern Virginia, she left the state to attend the University of Florida in 2001. After earning a master’s degree in education, she returned home and has worked as an elementary school teacher for the past 11 years. Shannon recently decided it was time to put teaching on hold and venture down a new professional path. During her free time, Shannon is either traveling, cheering for Florida, binge-watching a Netflix series, or preparing to be an aunt!

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