Optimizing Your Working Memory – Part I

by Stephen Mills on November 28, 2009

Working Memory

Working memory is that part of the brain where you hold items in conscious attention.  It’s the scratch-pad where you manipulate maps in conscious reasoning.  It is a critical component of all kinds of intelligence (IQ, EQ, etc.)

The problem with working memory or your conscious mind is that it is very resource intensive, it is very small, and it is easily overwhelmed by distractions and emotions.  You’ve probably heard the average person can hold seven pieces of data in working memory at once.  That’s probably overstating the case because you can hold seven numbers in working memory at once if you constantly repeat them.  You cannot hold seven complex ideas in working memory at once.  They compete with each other for use of limited circuits.

A lot of new research is showing that cognitive effort depletes your mental resources and you perform significantly worse on subsequent tasks.  Make one difficult decision and your ability to make a second difficult decision is reduced.  All conscious thinking uses up these resources and the more conscious effort it requires the more the resources are depleted.  Will-power and self-control may not seem like the same thing as solving a complex problem, but they too rapidly deplete your brain’s thinking resources.

People who expend effort on a cognitively challenging task have measurably lower levels of blood glucose.  Restoring the blood glucose levels restores performance.  So one solution is to drink sugary drinks, but then that has a lot of other long-term and even short-term disadvantages.

The best solution is to learn optimize your use of your limited mental resources.

How To Optimize Your Working Memory

  • Save your conscious attention for your most important tasks

    In this case, less is truly more.  If you use up mental resources on the unimportant, you will have fewer available for the important even if you have the time. So much in the personal development world emphasizes time, when time may not actually be the most important factor. So don’t think when you don’t have to think.  Remember that the next time you are agonizing over what to wear, which movie to see, which restaurant to choose, etc.

  • Perform your most important and difficult tasks when your brain is well rested

    Do your most mentally challenging tasks first.  If you spend 30 minutes processing email before you think about prioritizing your day, you will have spent a great deal of mental resource reserve on a relatively simple and probably unimportant task.  Do the most important and most difficult tasks first, even though your brain will want to do the easiest tasks first.

  • Get things out of your head

    If you are holding ideas in your head, in working memory, you are using up valuable resources that could be better spent on comparing or manipulating those ideas.  This is why mind maps, lists, or any other physical representation of an idea works.  Instead of using your brain’s resources to hold those ideas, you are holding them out in the physical world.

  • Visualize where possible

    A picture is worth a thousand words and this is surely true in regards to mental resources.  Your brain is a visual machine and you can hold ideas more efficiently in pictures than in words.

  • Simplify

    Strip out the essential elements of complicated ideas.  Getting down to just a few core concepts makes it much easier to manipulate them in your mind.

I have more to say on this, but I feel like I’m probably overwhelming your working memory so this article will be continued…

Part II can be found here:  Optimizing Your Working Memory – Part II

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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Optimize Your Working memory :thebrilliant dyslexic
May 21, 2012 at 10:52 pm

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Lee November 28, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Hello Stephen. I really like these ideas on optimizing the memory, especially the tip on doing the most difficult tasks first. I once heard my Japanese teacher tell me we can cannot memorize more than 7 things in my minds at once, but like you say, I think we can hold 7 numbers, small items, etc., but we cannot hold or memorize 7 “ideas” at once. That would be cool if we could though. 🙂
.-= Tristan Lee´s last blog ..Made It Back Home and Happy Thanksgiving! =-.


Stephen Mills November 29, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Hi Tristan, it would be cool indeed! Thanks for commenting.


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills November 28, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Stephen, I love it when you write about this stuff. This is the kind of info that can really make a big difference in our lives, as long as we put it into practice that is. No wonder my brain works so good in the morning, and then not so good later in the day. Excellent job my friend!
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..How Your Beliefs Create Your Reality part 5 =-.


Stephen Mills November 29, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Thanks Jonathan, I find the topic really fascinating. Sometimes by 5:00 PM I’m practically brain dead. Thanks for commenting.


Paulyspurrr November 29, 2009 at 11:13 am

Hello and thanks for the informative blog. I really enjoy reading it. If I may, I would like to touch a bit more on the glucose factor… As you said, sugary drinks are a glucose hit, but won’t last. The body and the brain use glucose, but because it is depleted by mental tasks, the brain cannot recover without it and you will have mental exhaustion.

Carbs that are lower on the Glycemic Index (look for the GI load) will be retained in the body longer, making you feel fuller longer and allowing for steadier glucose and insulin levels. Always eat a healthy breakfast. Opt for more carbs then protein on days when you know you have more mental tasks, and more protein then carbs if it is a more physical day. Keep a low fat/sugar/salt oatmeal bar always in your desk for a big presentation or long haul of paperwork.

If your concentration wanes, munch on fruit and drink lots of water. Dehydration is a major cause of brain fatigue as well. Remember that it flushes toxins and moves the needed nutrients tthrough the body. Drink lots of water for better brain health. Hope you don’t mind I added this, but sometimes knowledge of what the brain uses to function has been forgotten and all the concentration and task manipulation won’t work if you don’t feed your brain what it needs.


Stephen Mills November 29, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Hi Paulyspurrr, this was a fantastic comment! It’s great information for my readers. Thank you soooooo much for sharing your thoughts with us. 🙂


Ideas With A Kick November 29, 2009 at 11:19 am

Hey Stephen,

There is one other useful idea I can thing of. Grouping information so that you create a max of 7 groups. This way, you abide to the rule about 7 things and you’re actually able to keep track of more info at the same time. However, groups dissolve the individual and that’s something to keep in mind.

.-= Ideas With A Kick´s last blog ..Learn how to have a sense of humor from James Bond =-.


Stephen Mills November 29, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Hello Eduard. That’s a great idea and one that I addressed in Part II. Thanks for your comment.


Karlil November 29, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Great article Stephen. I love this topic. I always find my memory lacking. I did a lot of visualization and typing it down, as you have listed out, along with focusing on what matters. Less is more, right?
.-= Karlil´s last blog ..Knowing Your Starting Point =-.


Stephen Mills December 1, 2009 at 8:53 am

Hi Nik, thanks for stopping in. Yes less is more in just about every way 🙂


timethief November 30, 2009 at 8:12 pm

This article also “speaks to me”. Following the head injury I suffered I became very worried about losing my memory. In this post you have provided excellent information and practical tips that make your post a must read for those who want to optimize their memory. Thank you.
.-= timethief´s last blog ..Timethief: An Interview with Myself =-.


Stephen Mills December 1, 2009 at 8:54 am

Hello timethief, it is so wonderful to have a commenter say an article spoke to them. Thank you very much.


alex - unleash reality December 1, 2009 at 11:48 am

stephen you legend!!

i happen to have had a fairly lusty affair with the whole memory business.

studied it at length and beyond all the cool tricks (ala memory palace, the “major system” to remember 100 digit numbers, and the whole fun of it with colourful pictures and more colourful linkages between ’em), beyond all that – i think it’s come down to knowing that it’s possible for you to remember things.

i used to use a bunch of mnemonics and from having done it over and over again, having done really well in exams to the point where i now study what everyone calls one of the “most difficult degrees at university”, i’ve shown myself that it’s possible to remember things.

but that’s the hard part 🙂


gave it a stumble too

hope all’s well mate.


Lana-DreamFollowers Blog December 2, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Great tips Stephen, short and to the point, exactly what I needed! Thank you!
.-= Lana-DreamFollowers Blog´s last blog ..Finding Your Life Purpose: Do You Know What You Stand For? =-.


Dragos Roua December 3, 2009 at 12:44 am

Very interesting, Stephen, I always like when you talk about brain, I think this is your “thing”, so to speak.

I totally agree with the tips here and I constantly schedule my most brain intensive tasks in the first part of the day. It makes me go through them really fast and with good results.

On the other hand, there is something to be said about your unconscious mind too. You can solve problems there too, in my experience. Pushing some of your ideas into your unconscious mind (self-hypnosis techniques, for instance) can also free some of your conscious brain resources. I’ve done it in the past and I still do it. Maybe if you have more info on that you could write on this topic too, I’ll be interested for sure.
.-= Dragos Roua´s last blog ..100 Ways To Screw Up Your Life =-.


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