Let’s use a computing analogy to flesh out the ideas, from Cognitive Science, about how we work on things mentally and how we use three interrelated tools, Working Memory, Short Term Memory and Long Term Memory to get things done.
Have you ever been working on some important document when your computer crashed? Anything you hadn’t saved got lost. That’s because as you are working on something, your computer is holding it in an area called RAM or Random Access Memory. It is volatile, meaning when it is no longer receiving power (electricity) it vanishes. Once you save your work, it moves from that risky workspace into storage, called ROM or Read Only Memory. You never write something directly to memory. It has to be brought into your workspace (RAM) before you can alter it, and once altered, you re-save it. Want to make your storage space larger? No problem. Add drives and back-ups forever. Storage is theoretically unlimited. Want to increase the workspace? Yes, within limits you can get more RAM, but only to a limit. One more piece of the analogy. Have you noticed that the more things you open at once, the slower your computer works and the more prone to crashing? The less you have in RAM, the better your system works.
Your mind has many similarities and a few key differences. All work, in terms of thought, creation, manipulation of concepts etc. takes place in a volatile area of consciousness called Working Memory. It’s your RAM. All changes take place here. You access your memories about a subject, pull in new data in the form or research or listening to a live speaker and combine the old and new, create new connections, generate novel ideas or whatever and then re-save the concepts (now updated). The storage of facts, concepts, feelings, etc. take place in Short and Long Term memory depending on the type. This is your ROM.
Key similarities in the mental and digital models; the more crowded we make our Working Memory, the less effective it is. We feel sluggish, unfocused and are prone to crashing. Also we need to elicit previous versions of our concepts (called scheme in the Cog Sci jargon) in order to modify them. This is actually critical. To induce change in consciousness we have to pull existing thoughts, beliefs and mental models in the working area and out of memory to learn new things. Key differences in mental and digital models include the ease of increase the storage space. While possible, increase either mental RAM or ROM is much harder.
Now let’s look at how this impacts our ideas about productivity. When you don’t have a system that you trust and review regularly that captures all of your commitments to outcomes (projects) and commitments to actions (to-do’s) you are unconsciously overloading your psychic RAM. Until you decide what all of the open items mean to you and what you are going to do about them, you can’t move them into storage and they clog up your available Working Memory. How do you know it’s over loaded? You feel sluggish, unfocused and you are prone to crashing.
More tomorrow on how to stay clear and focused by offloading the job of tracking the open items to your trusted system.
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