Brain power

Jonathan KempThe key to increasing brain performance is understanding the structural features of the brain as it applies to day-to-day work and life, says Jonathan Kemp.

Short-term memory

Most people have a short-term capacity limit of around seven chunks of information. Memory also consumes a lot of the brain’s processing power so one way to expand short-term memory is to write things down. It sounds obvious but simply writing out ideas and thoughts relaxes the brain to do what it’s good at: analysis, questioning and linking.

Here are a couple of examples of where to apply this in a practical way.

1 Preparation for meetings, interviews or coaching sessions

Write a plan that details the most important considerations. Doing so will make you feel relaxed and in control during meetings. You can then absorb more of what’s being said and bring the meeting back on track.

2 Note-taking in meetings to capture key points

Write down key points, questions, ideas or actions. You listen better without worrying about remembering anything. It also enables you to return to these points at any time, increasing your control of what’s going on and enhancing your credibility.

Have at least three standard codes that signify whether you’ve written a question, idea or action. This enables you to quickly differentiate between these and key points.

Long-term memory

The brain’s long-term memory is designed to forget. After about 48 hours the brain naturally allows about 64 per cent of what you heard or read to fade away. After about a week this will increase until only a few facts or events can be recalled. So it’s very important not to give yourself a hard time; the brain is just doing what it’s designed to do, which is to forget.

To reverse this, write information down and go over what you wish to remember within 24 hours – whether that is after a phone call, meeting, event or passing conversation at the water cooler.

The next step is to review your notes and flesh them out because when you’re listening and recording your brain is trying to do many things and your notes are likely to be incomplete.

When checking notes afterwards, you want to fill in extra details so they make sense and add extra important information. This way they can be returned to months later with a high level of recall.

The fallacy of multi-tasking

The third and final key brain feature to acknowledge is the limits of mental multi-tasking.

The brain finds it very difficult to multi-task functions such as trying to remember and listen at the same time. To allow your brain to operate at its optimum, the trick is to focus on one mental activity at a time.

If you’re constantly switching between tasks, you’re not multi-tasking but ‘task-switching’ from one activity to another quickly.

The problem is that it takes one to three seconds for the brain to switch from one activity to another. It’s inefficient and tiring for the brain over the long term.

Ditch the mobile

Once you understand this you can then apply this knowledge to your daily routine – such as restricting use of your mobile phone.

When in a meeting, working with others, or doing any work that doesn’t involve your mobile, either mute it or switch it off. Looking at your mobile reduces your ability to listen. If you then refocus on the conversation or work it will take your brain one to three seconds to make this switch. If you’re doing this all day your productivity suffers as you’ll be doing neither task well and, again, it’s tiring for your brain. 

Jonathan Kemp is the founder of SmartWisdom 

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