Working memory is a mental storage system that keeps task-relevant information accessible for a brief span of time, and it is strikingly limited. Its limits differ substantially across people but are assumed to be fixed for a given person. Here we show that there is substantial variability in the quality of working memory representations within an individual. This variability can be explained neither by fluctuations in attention or arousal over time, nor by uneven distribution of a limited mental commodity. Variability of this sort is inconsistent with the assumptions of the standard cognitive models of working memory capacity, including both slot- and resource-based models, and so we propose a new framework for understanding the limitations of working memory: a stochastic process of degradation that plays out independently across memories.