Optimizing your working memory is more important than your IQ

11 minutes reading time

Your brain is the most important asset you have in life, especially in today’s creative society. Smart is the new sexy, they say. That’s why you want to get every drop of potential out of your brain. The best way to achieve that is to optimize the use of your limited mental resources.

Unfortunately, you can’t increase your IQ (although there are many different opinions about that), but there are absolutely several ways how you can get to your cognitive and creative maximum and become smarter. And that should be enough, since most people sadly live way below the potential they have.

The first thing you can do to become smarter is to employ the best learning techniques and consequently optimize the use of your long-term memory and crystallized intelligence. The second, equally important, way to get your brain working at full speed is to optimize your working memory.

Improving the strength and speed of your working memory, and properly managing long-term memory are at the end of the day even more important than your IQ. Because your IQ is more or less fixed, but you can definitely better manage these two types of memory.

Don’t worry if you got confused by all the fancy terms. This blog post will explain exactly what they are, why they’re important for your intellectual potential and on top of it all, how you can improve your memory and get the most out of your brain. So let’s start.

The three types of memory

Memory types

We know three types of memories – sensory memory, long-term memory, and short-term memory or working memory. Sensory memory is based on your five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch). It lasts only for a few seconds and you can store around 12 bits of information at once. Sensory memory and short-term memory are connected by attention (here is how to train your attention span).

You concentrate only on a few elements in your environment, and exclude all the other elements. What you pay attention to gets transferred from sensory memory into working memory. You can store around 4 bits of information in the short-term memory (some sources claim 7 +/- 2 bits).

Things from your working memory fade in about 30 – 60 seconds or even less. Thus you have to make a learning effort to transfer things from your working memory into the long-term memory (through revision, repetition and practicing recall). Luckily, your long-term memory is like a big warehouse where you can store almost everything you want if you put the effort in.

To summarize, there are three connected types of memory:

  • Sensory memory: What you pay attention to
  • Working memory: Everything you’re thinking at the moment
  • Long-term memory: Limitless capacity and almost permanent (revision is needed from time to time)

Everything you need to know about the working memory

In a sense, the working memory is everything that you’re thinking of at the moment. You need working memory all the time to operate on a daily basis – for reasoning, learning, and comprehension. It’s similar to computer’s RAM, it only gets tired with time.

Working memory helps you focus your attention, hold relevant information, play with thoughts and ideas, organize and operate with information, solve problems, analyze options (analytical thinking), make decisions, find new patterns (creativity), and so on.

With an un-optimized working memory, you have problems with learning, focusing, understanding, reading, memorizing, organizing yourself, meeting deadlines, not forgetting things, keeping track of things, finding objects, and so on. That’s why it definitely pays off to get the most out of your working memory.

And the good news is that you can train your working memory to become stronger and better.

Working memeory has downsides

The big downsides of working memory

The working memory is very powerful, but it has several big disadvantages. Here they are:

  1. It takes up a lot of resources
  2. It’s very small
  3. It gets easily distracted or overwhelmed by emotions

The working memory gets exhausted after a while. When you make one difficult decision, your ability to make an optimal second decision is reduced. It’s also easy for your working memory to be in an underperforming state and it can easily focus from one thing to another.

When something emotionally arouses you or distracts you, the information in your working memory is gone. We often call the working memory capacities the mental bandwidth and without enough mental bandwidth, your creative, analytical and learning capacities are greatly reduced.

Getting the most out of your working memory

Since your working memory is so small and easily distracted, you have to learn to manage it properly. That’s where you can optimize your intellectual potential, besides constantly learning new things.

It takes time and effort to boost your working memory, but it’s definitely worth it. Start with the easiest option for you as an individual and then build your working memory power from there. Now lets deep dive in all the techniques that can help you improve your working memory.

Do not disturb

Getting rid of distractions and avoiding multitasking

The number one killers of your working memory power are distractions. Your working memory gets so easily distracted and that’s a huge issue; because when you’re distracted, all the ideas in your head that you’re working with are erased.

When somebody or something interrupts you, it takes from 15 – 60 minutes for you to get back into the working flow. Sometimes you even can’t get back in the working flow at all. Your working memory capacity is spent on something other than what was planned to achieve. What a waste.

Thus the number one advice for optimizing your working memory is to timebox regular blocks of time without any distractions for work and learning. You want to minimize all the stimuli in the environment and really focus on a single task. That’s how you’ll get the most out of your working memory.

  • Turn off your phone, TV, emails
  • Turn on the website nanny or disconnect yourself from the internet
  • Don’t spend your mental bandwidth for news, gossiping and other mental masturbation
  • Put a “do not disturb” sign on your door
  • Remove anything from your environment that could arouse you (sexy backgrounds etc.)
  • Have as few items as possible in the environment (remove clutter etc.)
  • Don’t multitask but focus on one single task
  • Have no-interruption days
  • Deliberately train your attention span – the connection between sensory memory and working memory (in the world of constant distractions, it gets weird once you find yourself alone in peace in a room)

Emotions erase working memeory

Properly managing your emotions

Distractions can be of external or internal nature. Internal distractions are thoughts and feelings that occupy your working memory when you have more important things to do. So the number two killers of your working memory capacity are any severe emotions – positive and negative.

Severe emotional arousal fries your working memory. You become drugged, you see the world in a distorted way and you get completely distracted. You probably know that your working memory simply stops working when you are in love.

  • If there is something disturbing you emotionally, try to solve it as quickly as possible (open a conversation, ask what you are curios about etc.).
  • If it isn’t possible to immediately solve an emotional burden, take a few deep breaths, write it out, go to a gym or try other stress relief techniques
  • Learn how to properly manage emotional flashbacks
  • Sometimes you just have to wait for your emotional body to stabilize
  • Don’t overburden yourself or take too much on yourself. Learn to set limits to your obligations.
  • Properly manage information overload
  • Build yourself safety nets – emergency fund, many friends, insurances etc.
  • Work on your self-confidence
  • Meditate

Free your working memory

Free your working memory

You want to free your working memory (mental bandwidth) of trivial things, to have space for real learning and important intellectual operations. You can use to-do lists, reminders and checklists for that. Mark Zuckerberg wears the same design of clothes every day, so as to not use any working memory for those kinds of decisions. He uses all the memory he has to grow his business.

There are many ways how you can easily free your working memory:

  • Don’t think when you don’t have to think
  • Write down things and ideas on to-do lists
  • Do mind maps, prototypes etc. to have ideas out in the physical world and not in your brain
  • Visualize things – a picture is worth a thousand words
  • Always reduce the number of options by eliminating the ones you know you won’t choose
  • Have standard meals so you don’t have to choose what to eat
  • Have standard outfits so you don’t have to think too much about what to wear
  • Have different queues that will unburden you of decisions – movie watch list, reading list, learning list, travel list etc.
  • Properly break down complex tasks
  • Reduce daydreaming if it’s not directed into a creative solution
  • Simplify things and your life in general as much as possible
  • Automate, delegate, delete, reduce, downsize etc.
  • Meditate

Eat that frog – do the tough tasks when you are well-rested

Your working memory gets exhausted with time. That means it makes sense to do the tough challenging tasks while your brain is still fresh. Simply do the most demanding tasks first thing in the morning when you are still well-rested. The concept is also known as eating that frog.

There is a beneficial side effect in this strategy. When you do the toughest task first, every other task starts to seem like a piece of cake. It also makes sense to regularly refresh your working memory by taking regular breaks. Stretch, take a nap, go for a walk.

But even if your working memory does regain some capacity, it’s never as strong as it is when you wake up refreshed after a long quality sleep. So plan your work accordingly. The first workflow in the morning should be for the most demanding tasks and every next one for less demanding ones.

Never stop learning

The more you know, the more you can get out of your working memory

We know two types of intelligence – fluid and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is your ability to solve problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns.

Your crystallized intelligence is defined by how much you know, by your knowledge and experience. By knowing more, you directly improve your crystalized intelligence, but also indirectly influence your fluid intelligence.

When you bring something from the long-term memory into the working memory (by bringing something to mind), it occupies fewer working memory slots than it did initially when you were trying to memorize it. It gets kind of compact (like zipping a file), and that enables you to play with more ideas at once and connect knowledge in new ways. The more you know, the more creative and smart you can be. Isn’t that really cool?

Smooth physical repetition creates muscle memory, and smooth mental repetition creates knowledge chunks that take up less working memory; you don’t have to relearn or re-explain pieces of information to yourself. You just know it and can intuitively do it; you know it from memory.

That means you should:

  • Never stop learning, regularly do deliberate practice and focused learning
  • Always try and do new things
  • Learn to play an instrument or start a new hobby
  • Practice learning transfer
  • Regularly brainstorm ideas
  • Play brain games (your IQ probably won’t improve, but you do become better at certain mental tasks and it may prevent cognitive decline when you become older)
  • Interestingly, playing a “dual n-back game” does improve your working memory in the short-term

Brain food

Take good care of your body

Your brains are an organ that demands a lot of resources. They need your attention and proper care. Brains take approximately 2 % of your body mass and spend 20 % of energy. They need a steady flow of glucose (or ketones – BHBs as an alternative), they need enough oxygen, water and “rest”.

If you want to optimize your working memory, you need all that. You need to take good care of your health.

  • Regularly exercise; especially anaerobic training can have a positive influence on your memory
  • Any hyperactivity or overdoing is hurting your brain and working memory
  • Have several smaller meals with low GI foods (complex carbohydrates or healthy fats)
  • Drink an enormous amount of water (pure water, not sugary juices that mess with insulin levels)
  • Learn to breathe from your belly and take regular walks in the fresh air
  • Eat brain foods – berries, omega 3 fats, nuts, seeds, green veggies etc.
  • Only occasionally help yourself with caffeine or sugar (there are big downsides to this)
  • Meditate – as you can see, meditation can help a lot with optimizing your working memory
  • Get plenty of sleep

In the end, you can also influence your working memory with cognitive-enhancing drugs (Adderall, nootropics etc.) and electrical brain stimulation, but there hasn’t been enough research done to know all the side effects that well. So I would suggest you avoid them.

Let’s not forget about the long-term memory

Much like you can optimize your working memory, so there are a few strategies for optimizing long-term memory performance.

Long term memory

In general, we divide long-term memory into two big groups: Explicit/declarative, that’s conscious recall, and implicit/nodeclarative, that’s non-conscious recall. Both long-term memories have two subgroups:

  • Explicit (declarative) long-term memory: Things you know you can tell others
    • Semantic: General facts and knowledge
    • Episodic: Personally experienced events
  • Implicit (without conscious recall) long-term memory: Things you know you can show others, doing things
    • Procedural: Motor and cognitive skills, actions (driving a car)
    • Dispositions: Classical and operant conditioning effects (using a word you heard recently, salivating when you see your favorite food etc.)

First of all, only with repetition and recall do you get things from the short-term memory into the long-term memory. If you want to store a knowledge chunk into the long-term memory, you have to deeply process it through focused and meaningful learning and thinking (connecting new chunks with existing ones).

When a knowledge chunk is in the long-term memory, you can recall it when you need it (if you refresh your knowledge often enough). Practice and repetition create a new neural pattern. Well, the basic idea of learning is to get a knowledge chunk into the long-term memory. That means that you can get the most out of your long-term memory only with regular learning and deliberate practice.

The long-term memory works on a “use it or lose it” basis. That means you can optimize your long-term memory especially by:

  • Improving encoding (for example, dual coding – visual + verbal memory)
  • Simplifying patterns
  • Connecting chunks of knowledge
  • Regular review and rehearsal
  • Regularly using knowledge in practice
  • Refreshing knowledge from time to time
  • Teaching others
  • Making things mechanic if possible (like driving)

To get things into your long-term memory, repeat and recall. And to keep things there, use knowledge as often as possible. Regularly using what you know means taking good care of your long-term memory, like a warehouse where all the boxes are in place and nothing gets lost.

Summary and action steps

We’ve said a lot about memory, so let’s summarize everything that we’ve learned – you know, as the first revision. Optimizing your long-term and short-term memory is extremely important for getting the most out of your brain. Probably even more important than your IQ.

The best thing to do to optimize your crystallized intelligence (and directly long-term memory and indirectly short-term memory) is to employ the best learning techniques:

  • Stick to learning formulas (SQ3R, OK4R, TLR)
  • Build yourself a semantic tree (mind map)
  • Employ the chunking strategy
  • Properly encode knowledge chunks (use more senses, mix learning styles etc.)
  • Interleave practice
  • Do elaborative interrogation
  • Do self-explanation
  • Use mnemonics and analogies
  • Use imagery for text learning
  • Recall, revision, and practice things until challenge turns to boredom
  • Self-test and use flashcards
  • Do proper summaries and notetaking
  • Apply knowledge to practice

There are several other approaches that can help you become smarter:

  • Always stay curious and ask yourself and others “why” a thousand times
  • Regularly brainstorm ideas and play with concepts in ridiculous ways
  • Practice learning transfer
  • Build, prototype and do validated learning
  • Always try new things and do usual things differently
  • Spend as much time as possible with smart people

To optimize your long-term memory explicitly:

  • Improving encoding
  • Simplify patterns wherever possible
  • Connect chunks of knowledge
  • Regular review and rehears things
  • Regularly use knowledge in practice
  • Refresh knowledge from time to time
  • Teach others or blog about things you know
  • Making things mechanic if possible

And for optimizing your working memory:

Happy learning and good luck with getting the most out of your brains.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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