How many times a day do you run through your mental to-do list and convince yourself there’s no way you’ll forget that important presentation that’s due next Thursday, or that great idea for a new project–only to realize later that it totally slipped your mind and now is gone for good?
Obviously, it’s impossible to keep everything in your head, and the main reason is that our brains’ short-term memory capacity is finite. The trouble is that many of us believe it’s bigger than it actually is; you may think you can hold around six or seven “chunks” of timely information in mind at once, but some researchers believe the average may be closer to four.
Cramming too much data into your short-term memory clogs your brain. It’s like having too many tabs open on your web browser, slowing the whole system down. Trying to use your short-term memory for long-term storage can lead to chronic stress, fatigue, and memory issues, yet many of us do this all the time completely unwittingly. Here’s how to avoid it.
Your Brain Is An Overcrowded Waiting Room
Nearly a decade ago, University of California, San Diego, researchers found that the average American was consuming some 34 gigabytes and 100,000 words of information per day, most of it from digital media. It’s unlikely those figures have dropped significantly since then. Indeed, internet and social media users report struggling to focus at work as a result of all that information overload.
But it may not be that Twitter and a constant stream of news alerts are entirely to blame. A key reason your short-term memory capacity may feel so taxed is because of how you’re processing all that data on a daily basis–or, rather, failing to process. After all, we aren’t usually taught in school how to process and store information–memory training wasn’t on the syllabus. Some people are naturally better at remembering things than others, but it’s a learnable skill.
The challenge is to stop trying to squeeze details you’ll need to recall later on into your short-term memory, which–true to its name–is better suited for things you’ll need to remember right now. When they sit too long in your short-term memory, all those unfinished and underprocessed tasks start to clog your brain. It’s like waiting your turn at a hopelessly backlogged DMV, where the line stretches out the door and the whole place grinds to a near standstill. The solution isn’t to try and process more driver’s licenses faster. It’s to cut down on the number of drivers showing up in the first place.
How To Declutter (And Speed Up) Your Short-Term Memory
These simple hacks can get your short-term memory moving:
Once a week (10 minutes). Make a list of all of your current projects. Include everything from work stuff to “organize garage.” Review this list briefly once a week and write down the next single-action step you’ll need to take for each project. This does not mean completing the project–just making the next bit of headway on it. This helps you make sure they aren’t lodged forever in your short-term memory. Keep your weekly to-do list in one place from week to week, whether it’s in a task manager app, a note-taking platform like Evernote, or just a paper planner.
Once a day (5 minutes). Start the day by writing down your “must-do” tasks that have to get done today–the stuff that absolutely can’t be put off. This is your daily shortlist of items to tackle first thing in the morning. Try to keep the total number of tasks to five or less. The more you can knock off by lunchtime, the fewer things you’ll need your short-term memory to carry around through the rest of the day or into tomorrow.
As soon as your daily shortlist is done, start a second list of any less pressing to-dos–whatever else is on your mind this morning but not necessarily top priority. Write those down, too, knowing that it’s okay to let your mind process these items later (i.e. forget them for now!).
On the go (under a minute). If you can’t open your task manager or paper journal first thing in the morning, keep an app on your phone or a notepad in your bag that you can grab at other moments in your day–during downtime in your commute or while hustling between meetings. This gives you a go-to place to jot down things that pop into your head unexpectedly. I find the Google Keep app works well for this and can be used as virtual sticky note, replete with labels, colors, and pins. At the end of the day, browse anything you’ve recorded in there haphazardly to see where it fits into your next day or week, and whether it’s urgent or non-urgent.
Each of these quick habits can help empty your brain’s inbox, freeing up short-term storage space so the things you need to remember–both now and later–are safely recorded outside your own head.