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Writing and Remembering: Why We Remember What We Write

Writing and Remembering: Why We Remember What We Write

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on note-taking skills. One common experience many people have, and that several people mentioned in response to that post, is that when they take good notes they remember things well enough that they rarely end up having to look at their notes again.

In fact, it seems that writing anything down makes us remember it better. On the other hand, not writing things down is just asking to forget. It’s a kind of mental Catch-22: the only way not to have to write things down is to write them down so you remember them well enough not to have written them down.

Oy.

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Curious about this, I decided to do some research into the psychology of writing and memory. As it happens, I have quite a background in the anthropology of memory, none of which did me any good reviewing the psychological literature. There’s not a lot out there, not that I could easily find anyway (not being familiar with the psychological literature probably hampered my search) but what I did find was interesting. Seems it’s not simply wishful thinking that lets us ignore our notes once they’re written; there’s good evidence that the act of writing itself helps us remember things better.

Not all things, though. What’s especially interesting is that writing things down appears to help us remember the important stuff, and that the better our notes are the more likely we are to remember.

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But first, some basic neuropsychology (!). The brain is divided up into several regions that process different kinds of information. There are separate regions that process visual information, auditory information, emotions, verbal communication, and so on. Although these different regions communicate with each other (for example, when we look at a piece of art we often have an emotional response, which we might then transmit to the language center of our brain to share verbally) each of them has its own processes it has to complete first. (OK, this is all a vast over-simplification, but what can I say? I didn’t take notes that day in Neuropsychology 101…)

When we listen to a lecture, the part of our brain that handles listening and language is engaged. This passes some information on to our memory, but doesn’t seem to be very discriminating in how it does this. So crucial information is treated exactly the same way that trivia is treated.

When we take notes, though, something happens. As we’re writing, we create spatial relations between the various bits of information we are recording. Spatial tasks are handled by another part of the brain, and the act of linking the verbal information with the spatial relationship seems to filter out the less relevant or important information.

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So here’s what happens: in one psychological test involving students watching a lecture on psychology (psychologists who work in academia have a virtually unlimited supply of research subjects — their students!) students who did not take notes remembered the same number of points as the students who did take notes. That is, the mere act of taking notes did not increase the amount of stuff they memorized. Both groups of students remembered around 40% of the information covered in the lecture (which as a professor makes me sad, but I guess that’s the way humans work). But the students who had taken notes remembered a higher proportion of key facts, while those who did not take notes remembered a more or less random assortment of points covered in the lecture.

What this and other tests suggest is that when we write — before we write, although indistinguishably so — we are putting some degree of thought into evaluating and ordering the information that we are receiving. That process, and not the notes themselves, is what helps fix ideas more firmly in our minds, leading to greater recall down the line.

Which is fine for notes, but what about other kids of writing? Apparently the same thing happens: in building a link between the spatial part of our brain that we need to use in order to make marks on paper that make sense (that is, to write) and the verbal part of our brain that we need to compose meaningful utterances to supply our writing hand with, we strengthen the process by which important information is stored in our memory.

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But there’s something else going on, too. When we write something down, research suggests that as far as our brain is concerned, it’s as if we were doing that thing. Writing seems to act as a kind of mini-rehearsal for doing. I’ve written before about how visualizing doing something can “trick” the brain into thinking it’s actually doing it, and writing something down seems to use enough of the brain to trigger this effect. Again, this leads to greater memorization, the same way that visualizing the performance of a new skill can actually improve our skill level.

The first thing just about every personal productivity writer in the world tells us is to write everything down. If you’re a “writer-downer”, you know how important this is, and you know that it works. Hopefully, now you know a little bit about why it works, too.

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Last Updated on April 8, 2019

22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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  1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
  2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
  3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
  4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
  5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
  6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
  7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
  8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
  9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
  10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
  11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
  12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
  13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
  14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
  15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
  16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
  17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
  18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
  19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
  20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
  21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
  22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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