Mythbuster: People with ADHD are Forgetful and Disorganizaed

By Dr. Caitlin Stamatis, Director of Medical Affairs

Research Roundup

The truth about ADHD and working memory

Forgetting where you put your keys. Asking your partner to repeat what they just told you. Missing a meeting that you were positive was scheduled for next Tuesday, not this Tuesday. If you have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some of these challenges may be all too familiar. The frustrating part? To outsiders, it’s easy to write off behaviors like these as being forgetful or disorganized—or even inconsiderate. But it’s time for Mythbusters! The reality is, people with ADHD aren’t just forgetful or disorganized. Rather, these struggles show up because ADHD comes with very real challenges to certain cognitive processes, such as executive functioning and working memory. Here are three things the science says about ADHD and working memory, and how they impact organization.

1. Most people with ADHD have deficits in working memory

Scientific research studies indicate that upwards of 80% of children with ADHD show deficits on objective measures of working memory,1 and more often than not, these memory challenges persist into adulthood.2 Working memory is a broad term, but generally refers to our ability to use top-down resources to manipulate information we’re holding in our short-term memory—for example, to follow instructions from your boss or remember a phone number while dialing it. Now that you have a better sense of what working memory is, you can likely see how having problems with and working memory could influence a lot of the challenges that come up with ADHD, such as forgetting to do something or having trouble staying on task. Forgetfulness is not a matter of not trying hard enough, but rather, a reflection of the way cognitive processes operate differently in ADHD.

2. ADHD is as much about executive function as it is about attention

Difficulty paying attention is often a problem for people with ADHD, but there are so many other symptoms that come with ADHD, from challenges with planning and prioritizing tasks to issues following through on goals. Many of these other symptoms drive a lot of the day-to-day challenges in ADHD, like meeting deadlines at work or misplacing important items, and they can be broadly categorized under the umbrella of executive function.3 

Executive function is an umbrella term that captures skills such as self-awareness, inhibition, planning and problem solving, and self-regulation. In fact, these skills are so central to the ADHD experience that some researchers have argued that ADHD should be renamed as an executive function deficit disorder! Given how strongly executive function deficits influence ADHD symptoms and behaviors, it’s not surprising that a person with ADHD would have problems staying organized, despite their best efforts.

3. There are treatments for working memory and executive function in ADHD

The good news is, there are many ways that people with ADHD can manage difficulties related to memory and executive function. With cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), people with ADHD can learn compensatory skills through a practice called executive function training, which involves developing strategies for planning and prioritizing tasks, creating systems for staying organized, and cultivating techniques to regulate emotions. 

There are also new digital therapeutics, evidence-based medical treatments delivered via apps or other digital formats, that show promise for directly addressing cognitive problems in ADHD. One such digital therapeutic, EndeavorOTC, has shown promise for improving attentional functioning and ADHD symptoms in adults with ADHD in a clinical trial.4 

The take home on ADHD and working memory

If you take one thing away from the research on ADHD and working memory, let it be that behavior that looks like forgetfulness or disorganization does not mean someone with ADHD is not trying hard or doesn’t care. In fact, people with ADHD are commonly hyper-aware of how their behavior may appear to others, and may beat themselves up for symptoms that are out of their control. So the next time you or a loved one with ADHD are struggling to stay on top of things, remember to show grace and compassion for what is likely a reflection of the very real impact ADHD has on the brain.

About the Author

  • Caitlin Stamatis, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and researcher focused on novel uses of technology for mental healthcare. Her 40+ scientific publications have been featured in leading journals such as Nature Partner Journal: Mental Health Research, Depression & Anxiety, and Emotion. Dr. Stamatis has spent her career leading clinical research and product development to build and evaluate new digital mental health treatments, at both big companies like Google and more rapidly growing, specialized digital therapeutics companies like Akili.



  1. Kofler, M. J., Singh, L. J., Soto, E. F., Chan, E. S., Miller, C. E., Harmon, S. L., & Spiegel, J. A. (2020). Working memory and short-term memory deficits in ADHD: A bifactor modeling approach. Neuropsychology, 34(6), 686.
  2. Alderson, R. M., Kasper, L. J., Hudec, K. L., & Patros, C. H. (2013). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and working memory in adults: a meta-analytic review. Neuropsychology, 27(3), 287.
  3. Roselló, B., Berenguer, C., Baixauli, I., Mira, Á., Martinez-Raga, J., & Miranda, A. (2020). Empirical examination of executive functioning, ADHD associated behaviors, and functional impairments in adults with persistent ADHD, remittent ADHD, and without ADHD. BMC psychiatry, 20, 1-12.
  4. Stamatis, C. A., Mercaldi, C., & Kollins, S. H. (2023). A Single-Arm Pivotal Trial to Assess the Efficacy of Akl-T01, a Novel Digital Intervention for Attention, in Adults Diagnosed With ADHD. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 62(10), S318.