It hurts, doesn’t it? No matter how much you try to remember stuff you need to remember, it’s like throwing a tennis ball into a bottomless pit. Handy formulas, important dates, clever quotes, even that super-useful framework for improving your productivity. Even if you think you’ve got it, the piece of information is never there when you need it. It’s frustrating.
Worse – it’s embarrassing, because, after all, you’re smart and you care about stuff you learn. But your lousy memory and rubbish concentration just make you look dumb and lazy. You know it jeopardizes your educational progress, your career, even your relationships. You know you have to change it. But how?
You’ve tried meditation, spent money on fancy memory games and focus-enhancing music or apps. And maybe some of them have even helped a little, but you had to wait long for results, which didn’t last anyway. And then it was back to tying knots in your handkerchief or writing everything down.
Do you really have to meditate regularly and use all those fancy apps to be able to remember the tips from the book you read last night, know how to greet your teammates in Spanish, or deliver that sweep-them-off-their-feet presentation?
These tips have been proven to improve memory and create laser-sharp concentration.
1. Master your environment for laser-sharp focus
Let’s start with the basics. The process of memorizing boils down to shifting information from our sensory (or instant) memory into our short-term memory, and then – into our long term memory.(I described this process in more detail here).
Allow your memory to register what’s happening
Anything that competes for your attention during this process is a threat to your focus. Whether it’s the TV running, people around you talking, notifications on your desktop or your phone flashing. Sadly, ‘multitasking’ not only reduces your ability to concentrate on any tasks, but also costs you extra time wasted on task-switching. All together, this can consume as much as 40% of your productive time. Plus, you’re more likely to make mistakes, which further increases your cost in terms of time and effort.
Take control of your environment to maximize the power of your focus.
This is the fastest, easiest way to improve your concentration and attention span. If you can only implement one strategy, I recommend this one. You’ll be surprised by the powerful effects of environmental tweaks on your ability to focus and sustain attention.
Turn all notifications off.
Try to minimize background noise, if you can. If not, use noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs. Use white noise or instrumental music to drown the noise, if you need, but be careful as this can tire you as well.
If you’re using music to help you concentrate – be mindful of the power of strong emotions it can evoke.
While emotions can enhance the learning process, too much excitement, sadness, or stress can have a negative effect on your ability to remember stuff. So be careful what you choose to listen to. For best results – learn to manage your emotions, so they always work in your favor.
Don’t underestimate the impact ergonomic work space can have on your productivity. Get your desk and chair height right. Make sure your lighting is good and there is no glare on your screen. One of my biggest discoveries was finding out how much more productive my study sessions were when I was sitting at a desk compared with my previous ‘system’ of trying to revising while lying on the sofa! This simple change shifted my ability to learn from an unimpressive ‘just pass’ to good grades, only because I wasn’t falling asleep within 30 minutes of opening a textbook, but I was able to study for prolonged periods of time.
And since we’re talking about sleep…
2. Don’t skimp on your zzz…
How many hours of your sleep have you sacrificed to prepare for an exam, only to discover that the quality of your work declined? We all have done it. And while you may be able to get away with it once in the while, sleep deprivation, particularly if prolonged, kills our ability to concentrate. One sleepless night impairs your performance as much as having 0.10% alcohol in your blood.
So if you want to improve memory don’t skip the sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep for an average adult. If you happened to sleep badly last night and your brain is not performing as well as it normally does, consider a power nap.
Power naps are 15-20 minutes long naps that help restore your brainpower.
It’s not recommended to exceed the 30 minute mark in order to avoid entering the deep sleep phase that can make you feel sluggish upon waking up.
3. The most powerful brain workout many people ignore
Have you ever tried any of so-called ‘brain workouts’? There are many of them out there, but the reality is those fancy apps and websites don’t really benefit much your ability to remember stuff or think faster.
Good old exercise – the usual type.
Yes. Exercise increases the flow of oxygen into our brain, and boosts the creation, survival and resistance of brain cells. So it maintains our physical and mental well-being.
And it doesn’t really need to be anything hard or fancy. Walking briskly for an hour twice a week will suffice. If you don’t like walking, find something else you enjoy: swimming, dancing, or even gardening – as long as it makes you break out in a light sweat.
4. Repeat after me: repetition is the mother of all learning
You’ve heard it so many times you may even believe it’s true.
In case, you doubt – yes, it is.
And here’s the evidence: getting a piece of information into your working memory is not enough to remember it. Unless you blessed with so-called ‘photographic memory, you need to now transfer that piece of information into your long-term memory storage.
That’s right – stuff stored in your short-term memory, will not stay there too long. Unfortunately, our ability to retain information deteriorates over time. So much so, that we tend to forget up to 80% of what we’ve learnt within 24 to 48 hours.
If you want to improve you memory, you need to make sure that whatever you want to remember is shifted to the long-term storage – your long-term memory.
How can you do it?
By repeating/revising/relearning the material.
Spaced repetition is a well-known strategy among language learners (I’ve used it to successfully achieve fluency in two foreign languages), but its effectiveness extends well beyond that. Your old teacher was right: revising, relearning and reviewing material in is the smartest way to learn – much better than trying to cram it all in.
5. Speed up your learning by making sense of it
OK, you may say – I understand the importance of revising, but how do I actually get that piece of information into my long-term memory? Do I just repeat it and repeat until I learn it by heart?
Well, learning by heart is a method of memorizing stuff, but it’s just one method, and definitely not the most effective or efficient one. We remember things that make sense to us.
That’s why the best way to learn is through understanding.
Meaningful learning not only has a long-term effect, it’s also the type of learning that allows us to use our knowledge in practice. So if you really care about the stuff you’re trying to memorize you need to make sure you understand it.
You can use metaphors, find connections with prior knowledge, or try what Scott Young, the learning better and faster guru, calls visceralisation. Even the method of loci (memory palaces) can be effective.
So next time you feel like your concentration is having a day off and your memory has gone missing, don’t despair. Instead of searching for another ‘miraculous’ game or ‘focus enhancer’, pause to consider if you’ve covered the basics in order to improve memory.
Sleep or exercise may not be ‘sexy’, but hey, they do indeed boost our brain powers. Spaced repetition and meaningful learning are the best learning strategies that exist.
As for mastering your environment – I can’t praise it enough. This is the easiest and fastest way to turbocharge your focus and memory, so if you really struggle – just do this one.
What are you waiting for?