Working memory (Definition #4)

May 11, 2006

Your working memory (some people call it their short-term memory) is one of the weirdest tools of the mind. It is that mental space at the forefront of our minds where we put everything that we want to have available to us but don't yet know if it's important enough to keep in longer term memory. A few characteristics of this mental fanny pack (David Allen calls "psychic RAM") include:

  • Urgent, unfinished: The information is usually attached to some urgent, unfinished, task. Your brain assumes that it will get done soon, so doesn't bother trying to find any more permanent storage for the information.
  • Constantly recalled: This information acts like a rotating merry-go-round of information constantly circling back around to consciousness. This needs to happen or else it will fall out of memory and be lost. As a result, information in your working memory is constantly distracting you.
  • Stressful: Each piece of information carries with it a teaspoon of stress… this stress is the energy that it sends to you in order to give in another ride on the merry-go-round. Without the stress, you would stop caring about the information and it would fall out of memory. With the stress, you give the information a ticket to ride the merry-go-round one more time and hope that next time it comes around you might be more inclined or able to resolve the issue that the information is being saved for.

Realizing the characteristics, limitations, and strengths of your working memory is essential to making sure you use it correctly. For example, because this information literally uses distraction and stress as the mechanism for keeping itself in memory, you should make sure that the information you keep there is not only urgent but also important. Or, if you subscribe to the Getting Things Done model, you should attempt to remove almost all information from your working memory and capture it in ways that do not rely on stress and distraction for their survival. The desire to call your mom for Mother's Day need not make 100 cycles through your mind before you actually do it… just capture that information on a calendar once, make sure that you regularly check this calendar, and make it through the next three days with that much less stress and that much less distraction.

Link: Working Memory [Wikipedia]


2 Responses to “Working memory (Definition #4)”

  1. fencer Says:

    I admire your project here. I come by fairly often to see what interesting thing you might be going on about.

    All the best.

  2. Pronoia Says:

    Thank you, fencer. I’m not exactly sure where the end of this project lies, but I’ve had this suspicion for a while that so many of these unconnected things are really very similar. I guess the project is to see if they can be pulled together into one story.

    And I definitely appreciate the comments… it’s an interesting challenge to try to get a new conversation going from scratch these days.

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