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# Methodology

Thinking About Thinking

Memory Techniques, Mental Organization, & Better Project Management.

Memory Techniques, Mental Organization, & Better Project Management

Alright, first things first – this blog post is going to get pretty nerdy, pretty quickly. So, tape your glasses together, strap on the ol’ pocket protector, and start thinking about how we think about thinking.

Wait…what? Exactly.

We don’t often think about the way we think because, well, that hurts our brains, but we all think and just like any muscle in the body, the brain (although not actually a muscle) can be exercised and conditioned to work more efficiently. For instance, Black Cab drivers in London are required to memorize the entire convoluted network of streets in the English capital in order to pass an exam known as ‘The Knowledge, after which they receive their licenses. Studies have found that over the course of preparing for this mental marathon of an exam, which takes about 2+ years, the hippocampi (which is apparently the plural of hippocampus) of the prospective cab drivers actually grows. That shit’s crazy!

Cool story, bro – but what does having a good memory have to do with good project management? Good question.

Well, ultimately good project management stems from good organization, and good organization has an awful lot to do with how we think about, group, and store information. And, funnily enough, memory techniques are entirely about grouping and storing information in creative and inventive ways. Of course that doesn’t mean that we should all start memorizing everything in our day-to-day lives. We’ve got a variety of project management tools in the office, smartphones to keep track of important dates and events, and, if you like to kick it old school, pens and paper to make lists. But, memory techniques can teach us a lot about how we think and how to become better thinkers when it comes to organization. So, first things first, let’s talk a little about memory techniques and this really cool book that I read.

“if you like to kick it old school, pens and paper to make lists”

Memory Techniques & This Really Cool Book That I Read

A couple of years ago I read a book about memory techniques called Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer. I loved it. I then lent it to a friend who ironically forgot to read it, but when I got it back, I re-read it and, aside from being a thoroughly enjoyable read, it really got me thinking a lot about how we actually think. It also got me slightly obsessed with trying to memorize entire decks of cards, which is surprisingly fun and not-so-surprisingly hard to master.

The book follows the author, a curious science journalist, over a year long quest to uncover the mysteries of memory and documents his coverage of, and eventual inclusion in, memory championships. Check out the book if you’re looking for more detail but long story short, you don’t have to be a genius to be able to win the memory championships. All you need are a couple techniques that exploit what we, as humans, are all inherently good at already.

We have an astounding and entirely innate ability to reconstruct the physical world around us in our mind’s eye. Our capacity for spatial memory (places and things) far exceeds our conceptual memory. Why is that? It’s because language and the concepts we associate with words are relatively new on our evolutionary timelines. Spatial awareness, however, is not. Being able to remember which parts of the forest are dangerous and which trails to take – that’s where humans and our ancestors really shine.

If I asked you, as Foer does in his book, to close your eyes and picture your childhood home, you’d be able to walk through it and remember the exact layout of your home, where specific items were, and even specific textures and colours. We’re so good at remembering spatially, that we’re not even aware that we’re doing it most of the time. It’s second nature to us. And, it’s not just limited to spaces that we’re really familiar with. We can walk through a home or an unfamiliar part of town once and remember it with surprising detail months or even years later.

In addition to having great spatial memories, we also remember best when we’re engaged or stimulated. It’s much easier to remember something interesting or outrageous. That’s why it’s easy for us to recall our favourite movie scenes or recall random facts about video games, or music, or Simpsons trivia. Everyone’s got a great memory for something as long as it’s interesting and it’s stimulating to them.

So if we’re “programmed” this way, then how can we use this to our advantage? By combining two very simple techniques: The Memory Palace and something called Elaborate Encoding.

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

“to close your eyes and picture your childhood home, you’d be able to walk through it and remember the exact layout of your home”

Building Your Memory Palace & Encoding Elaborately

Dating back to Ancient Greece, where orators would memorize entire speeches and books using the technique, the Memory Palace works by harnessing our capacity for spatial memory. Here’s how it works: key chunks of information are stored in imagined physical locations in your mind and this allows you, the creator of your memory palace, to essentially walk through a familiar space, like your house, and store information at key locations.

Elaborate encoding works by taking abstract concepts, like language, and adding associative hooks to them. There’s something called the Baker / Baker paradox that illustrates this really simply, and it’s how Foer explains the concept in his book.

If you tell two people to remember the word ‘Baker’ but you tell one person that it’s a man’s last name, and the other person that the man is a baker by profession, you’ll get very different results. The person who was told that the man was a baker by profession will be much more likely to remember the word. Why? It’s because you can easily picture things associated with someone who’s a baker by profession. For me, the smell of bread, dough on a baking board, muffin trays, a flour-covered apron, and a big baker’s hat are all things that I associate with the profession Baker. These images rush into my mind without having to really think about them and help me encode the data. With ‘Baker’ as a last name, there’s nothing that I can visualize – I don’t know what this “Mr. Baker” looks like or anything about him and therefore I have no hooks to associate and encode the data. As a result, it’s easily forgotten.

Let’s combine these techniques and try and memorize a list of 4 everyday tasks. Here’s my list:

  1. Pick up laundry detergent
  2. Make a reservation at my favourite restaurant for Saturday night
  3. Email my cousin about the family BBQ
  4. Sketch out some potential logo ideas for a new client

Alright, that’s my list. Now let’s choose a memory palace. I’m going to use my apartment for the purposes of this example, but you can use any physical space that you’re really familiar with. Starting with the “pick up laundry detergent” task, I’m going to open the front door to my apartment. I can picture my doormat and the salt stains (this might just be a Canadian problem) on the hardwood floor. I can see the line of shoes running parallel to my front hallway. If I look up to my left I can see coats hanging on the wall and that crack in the drywall that seems to be steadily getting bigger. Looking forward towards the curling staircase that leads up into the main floor of my apartment I’m going to picture a bright orange bottle of Tide detergent. I can smell the fresh scent of lavender in the air and see the grooves in the dark purple cap. This isn’t an ordinary bottle of detergent though. This bottle has arms and it’s lifting weights. It’s got a headband on and it’s doing bicep curls. Tiny beads of sweat are slowly running down the neck of the bottle. I have to sneak past it and as I head up the stairs I start to hear a phone ringing. I turn left at the top of the stairs and walk into the TV room. I can see my green leather sectional couch and my cheap, black Ikea coffee table. On the table sits a phone and it’s ringing but it’s not like any phone I’ve ever seen before. The phone is made entirely of pizza. The buttons are made of pepperoni and the console is made of cheese. Floating above the phone is a tiny solar system. It’s our solar system and I can see Saturn and it’s iconic rings. As I step back, now wishing I had a pizza to eat, I turn and head towards the bathroom. I walk past the hot water pipes that lead into the hallway radiator and with each step that I take, the hardwood floors creak underneath me. I open the door to the bathroom and I can hear what sounds like a keyboard clicking away. It seems to be coming from the shower so I pull back the nautically themed shower curtain (also an Ikea purchase!) and to my surprise, there’s a massive drum barbecue in my shower. I open the bright red lid and there’s a computer slowly turning on a spit roast, the keys slowly clicking away. The scent of burnt plastic is overpowering. As I exit the bathroom and head farther towards the back of my apartment I slowly start to notice that the walls are starting to change. They no longer look real, as if they’re slowly fading from actual walls, to rough sketches of walls (like in the music video for Aha’s ‘Take On Me’). By the time I reach the kitchen, the entire back half of my apartment is a sketch and there’s a giant pencil still drawing the fridge.

That’s my memory palace. It took several minutes to write out here but maybe 30 seconds to think up. Essentially what I’ve done is gone task by task and thought up vivid and often outlandish images in distinct physical locations to represent each item I’d like to remember. If I walk through my memory palace quickly in my mind I can picture the weight-lifting bottle of Tide and I know that I need to pick up laundry detergent. I can see the pizza phone and Saturn’s rings and I know that I need to call and make a reservation for dinner on Saturday night. I can see the computer roasting on the barbecue and I know I need to email my cousin about the family barbecue. And lastly, seeing my apartment slowly turn into a giant sketch, I know that I need to make some sketches for that new client and that I kind of want to listen to that ‘Take On Me’ song now. In all likelihood, if I were to ask you what that list of items was several weeks from now, you’d be able to remember it with surprising detail.

Elaborate Encoding

This ultimately works as well as it does because of something called “chunking”. We’re giving each task that we need to remember it’s own physical space and assigning it highly engaging and visual chunks of information. It’s the combination of a familiar physical space with elaborate imagery that makes it so easy to remember. Of course that example was only four items and that wouldn’t be too challenging to remember anyway, but when you get into 20 or 30 items, or several decks of cards, the power of the method becomes very apparent, very quickly.