If I gave you a list of things to memorize, how many could you do? You might say seven, as well-known research on working memory suggests the magic number for memory is seven, plus or minus two. Newer research on the same topic puts the number closer to four, although it’s measuring something slightly different. In any event, don’t be misled by either research. They are specific to working memory. You can, and regularly do, remember things that are much more complicated than sets of four or lists of seven.
Working memory is just one type of memory. As humans, we have perhaps limitless other ways of using our brains to store and recall important information, such as things we need to do and how to do them.
When it comes to personal productivity, we shouldn’t feel trapped by a number. Rather, we should lean on functions other than working memory to get things done more efficiently.
Examples of Just How Much You Can ‘Remember’
If you can sing your way through the English alphabet, you can remember 26 concrete and separate pieces of information in a precise order.
Think back to a home where you used to live, or a friend’s or family member’s home where you spent a fair amount of time. Can you remember the layout of the house, such as which room you enter when you walk through the door, where the bathroom is, whether there’s a second floor?
Can you picture a route you travel frequently, such as home to work or home to the grocery store, or even one you used to travel many years ago? Imagine each step, from leaving the first location to making the first turn. Likely you can picture dozens of landmarks along the way, even if you don’t “remember” them until you pass each one on your mental journey.
Our brains store a lot of information without us being conscious of it or putting in any effort. Experts on the human mind and attention often bring up the example of driving a car. How many steps are there to driving a car? Inexperienced drivers must actively focus their attention on driving, such as whether the car is positioned in the middle of the lane, the amount of pressure their foot puts on the accelerator or brake, and in a manual car, when to clutch and shift gears. But the more a driver drives, the less attention she needs to put these actions. She’s still thinking about driving, but she’s doing it with much less effort and therefore her brain is free to carry on a conversation, listen to the radio, or work on more advanced driving skills, such as maneuvering into a narrow parking space. Most experienced drivers can do all these things at once without worrying about the limits of the brain.
There are so many examples of both physical actions and mental acts of remembering that feel like they are second nature because we don’t need a lot of mental resources to do them.
Make Your Brain Work for You
How can we take these same powers of the brain and use them to get work done more efficiently? In other words, how can we change how and what we “remember” to be more productive?
I guarantee you already have many processes at work that you do as easily an experienced driver can drive. Do you use a computer and a handful of software programs on a daily basis? Are there tasks that you can do without much thought now but the first few times you did them required detailed documentation and a long list of steps? We humans are already adept at remembering the order of operations for tasks we do routinely. Why not leverage that same power over procedures and processes that don’t have them inherently?
Create a Process
You can do this by creating systems for yourself. For example, if you come up with a file-naming convention, you will never have to think about how to name a file or what to search for to find it. Similarly, if you develop a system for how you process email, such as whether you archive messages or file them into folders, you won’t have to think about what to do with each email as you read it or act on it.
What you’re doing, in a sense, is eliminating decisions. If you come up with a process ahead of time for how you will process email, or name files, or delegate tasks, or give feedback to colleagues, you free your brain up to think about other things. As an more mundane example, if you always hang your keys on the same hook when you walk into your home, you never have to search for your keys before you leave. You trust that they are in the place where you have decided to always put them. Then, the process of deciding where to put your keys or looking for them later, or the process of figuring out what to do with your email inbox, becomes much more efficient.
Make the First Step Brainless
What’s the very first thing you do when you start your work day? Do you say hello to co-workers? Do you turn on your computer? Do you start your day by making a coffee or getting water to keep at your desk?
In many scenarios, it doesn’t really matter what we choose as the first step. When you fry an egg, do you take out a pan first, or do you get the eggs first? You might have a routine for how you fry an egg, but there are many action you could do first.
With some tasks, especially those that can be difficult or that you are prone to procrastinating, it doesn’t truly matter what you do first but it can be helpful to decide ahead of time how you will start.
In my work as a writer, I have a first step for writing an article. No matter which publication I’m writing for, I have a list of things that must go on the page, including the title of the article, my name, the deadline or date I intend to submit it, and sometimes a few special fields required by the publication or some special code. If I’m writing an article that relies on a lot of research, I copy and paste the references onto the page, too. There are a few reasons I add these elements as the very first step to writing an article. Primarily, it helps ensure I don’t leave anything out. But just as important, it means I never end up staring at a blank page. For me, there is no such thing as a blank page. I always have a starting point. I always know what to type first. Even when I’m not sure how the content of the article will shape up, or whether I will use the original title or end up revising it, I’ve already given myself something of a starting point, and that usually helps me get into the flow of writing.
If you have important tasks that don’t have a specific first step, would it help to create one?
Chunk Steps to Find the End
Sometimes, to get things done, we take a long multi-step process and break it down into component parts. For example, instead of thinking about writing a book, we can break it down into writing a description, coming up with the chapter names, outline each chapter, and so forth. Breaking down a large task into smaller parts makes each piece seem like it can be accomplished, whereas the whole thing on its own might seem insurmountable. It’s too big to tackle.
Conversely, there are times when we can take small tasks and chunk them together into one larger task to make them easier to remember and to create a flow of how to do them. An example that I’ve used before is doing laundry. “Doing laundry” to me means washing clothes, drying them, folding them, and putting them away. My task to “do laundry” isn’t done until the final step is done. If I’ve decided ahead of time that the laundry isn’t done until the clothes are put away, then I won’t wind up with a pile of clean and now wrinkled clothes on the couch for two days (despite my best efforts, it still happens from time to time).
Laundry is a unique example because there is some waiting involved when I can multitask, like while the washing machine is running, or when my clothes have to hang-dry, which might take half a day. So let me give another example, expense reports.
Creating and submitting an expense report takes several steps. You might have to organize, scan, and itemize receipts. Then you have to review the report for errors or omissions. Usually you have to give the report a clear name, possibly look up a cost code to put on it, and write a description of why you should be reimbursed. It’s very easy to setup the initial report, start adding your expenses, and then decide to take a break. But what would happen if you decided ahead of time to do the whole thing, all the way through submitting the report, in one go? When you make a decision in advance about what it means to “do an expense report,” you don’t stop until it’s submitted, and therefore you remove much (though not all) of the temptation to take several breaks and procrastinate.
Invest in Learning Early
The better you know your tools, the more closely work starts to feel like second nature. Spending a little time to learn your core suite of tools more deeply than you already do can result in huge productivity payoff. By “tools,” I specifically mean software here, although the concept of learning early applies to other kinds of skills and core knowledge as well.
Sometimes we know how and where our tools fall short. But every so often, it’s our lack of knowledge, rather than the tool’s lack of capability, that is the real hold up. Let’s say you spend at least half your day with Microsoft Outlook open on your screen. How well do you know Outlook? Are you a power user? Do you know the keyboard shortcuts? Are you aware of all the ways it interacts with other Microsoft Office apps? How skilled are you with some of the more in-depth features, such as tasks and calendar management?
If Outlook could make your life easier, you’d probably want to know about it. But Outlook is a massive piece of software that takes a long time to master. Still, reading up on a few of its features (and there’s no shortage of articles with Outlook tips) may help you uncover something it can do that’ll make your job easier and more productive.
Early in my career, I used layout and design programs, like In-Design and Illustrator, daily. But I wasn’t initially very good with them. I could draw simple diagrams and get text onto the page, but there were a bunch of shortcuts and tools that, if I took the time to learn them, would result in me working twice as fast as I did at the start of my career. So I spent time learning how to use my tools better. I would look up things I didn’t know. Sometimes I had to ask colleagues because I didn’t know the word for the function I needed. I kept notes in a paper notebook by my side. I wrote keyboard shortcuts on sticky notes that I hung on the wall behind my monitor. I didn’t become fully proficient overnight, but the upfront investment in learning paid off in the long run. That’s what a learning curve is all about.
Image by Ishan Manjrekar, CC.