One of the best things about studying psychology is finding research that can be translated into real-world life tips. I love finding ways to be happier or more productive based on the concepts I study. It’s a nice way to feel an immediate reward and understand how research can be applied to improve people’s lives.
An area where I often need help is short-term memory and organization. On a typical work day, I am taking back-to-back calls, responding to emails, and working on a variety of deliverables. I need to be able to quickly transition between tasks, find documents and notes quickly, and not lose too much time switching between different conference lines and web presentations. Saving even a few seconds on some of these tasks can make a difference, especially in giving me an appearance of professionalism and punctuality.
Fortunately, there are several great practical applications of psychology that can help make people perform a little bit better in the moment by propping up short-term memory. Without further ado, here are three tips based on cognitive psychology that can help extend your short-term memory just long enough to improve your efficiency.
1. Create a visual. For example, if you need to remember something, write it on a brightly colored piece of paper in bold handwriting. Then, you anchor the information in your brain not just as a concept, but also as a visual item. You increase your likelihood of remembering it by adding a strong visual element. This tip operates on a similar principle as the method of loci and other mneumonic tips that link information with other cues.
2. Chunk information into fewer, bigger bits. There’s a general rule of thumb that the human brain can handle 7 + or – 2 pieces of information at any given time, but in reality we often easily handle more. For example, a telephone number is generally 10 digits including area code, but we can remember them with little effort. One reason why is chunking, or grouping subsets of the phone number into pieces that can be remembered as a whole. I know the Boston area code is 617 and the New York area code is 212, so when I am thinking of a phone number I don’t have to remember those area codes as three discrete digits. You can adapt this list for things like grocery lists–can you chunk together “deli items” or “ingredients for my favorite cake”? At work, I can chunk items on my to-do list and digits in the conference numbers I frequently dial. Speaking of conference numbers, I’ve also “chunked” the main dial-in by completely memorizing it; now, the only conference numbers taxing my working memory are the individual access codes.
3. Say it aloud. This is my favorite short-term memory tip. Our auditory register (also know as echoic memory) has a slightly longer lifetime than visual or conceptual memory. Think of how sometimes you hear something but you need a moment to process and understand it. During that processing time, your echoic memory is at work, holding what you heard in working memory so you can parse it. You can harness this sort of memory for efficiency in very-near term tasks. Have to dial a phone number but don’t have anything to write it down with? Say it aloud before you begin dialing. You’ll find you’re able to dial more of the numbers than if you’d just tried holding them in your head. This tip also transfers to effectively learning names when you meet new people; repeating the names aloud helps you encode them and also keeps them at the tip of your tongue a bit longer.
What tips do you use to extend your working memory a few seconds longer?