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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 June 26, 2020

How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

How to Stay Motivated and Reach Your Big Goals in Life

It is hardly a secret that the key to successfully accomplishing one goal after another is staying motivated. There are, of course, tasks which successful people may not like at all, yet they find motivation to complete them because they recognize how each particular task serves a greater goal.

So how to stay motivated most of the time? Here are 5 simple yet effective ways on how to be motivated and get what you want:

1. Find Your Good Reasons

Anything you do, no matter how simple, has a number of good reasons behind it.

You may not be able to find good reasons to do some tasks at first but, if you take just a few moments to analyze them, you will easily spot something good. We also have many tasks which don’t need any reasoning at all – we’ve been doing them for so long that they feel natural.

If you’re ever stuck with some tasks you hate and there seems to be no motivation to complete it whatsoever, here’s what you need to do: find your good reasons.

Even when you set goals, there needs to be reasons behind these goals. They may not be obvious, but stay at it until you see some, as this will bring your motivation back and will help you finish the task.

Some ideas for what a good reason can be:

  • A material reward – quite often, you will get paid for doing something you normally don’t like doing at all.
  • Personal gain – you will learn something new or will perhaps improve yourself in a certain way.
  • A feeling of accomplishment – at least you’ll be able to walk away feeling great about finding the motivation and courage to complete such a tedious task.
  • A step closer to your bigger goal – even the biggest accomplishments in history have started small and relied on simple and far less pleasant tasks than you might be working on. Every task you complete brings you closer to the ultimate goal, and acknowledging this always feels good.

Here’re 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams.

2. Make It Fun

When it comes to motivation, attitude is everything. Different people may have completely opposite feelings towards the same task: some will hate it, others will love it.

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Why do you think this happens? It’s simple: some of us find ways to make any task interesting and fun to do!

Take sports for example. Visiting your local gym daily for a half-an-hour workout session sounds rather boring to some. Yet many others love the idea!

They like exercising not only because they recognize the good reasons behind it, but simply because it’s fun! At certain time of their daily schedule, they find going to gym to be the best thing to do, simply because nothing else will fit their time and lifestyle so perfectly.

Depending on how you look at it, you can have fun doing just about anything! Just look for ways of having fun, and you’ll find them!

A simple approach is to start working on any task by asking yourself a few questions:

  • How can I enjoy this task?
  • What can I do to make this task fun for myself and possibly for others?
  • How can I make this work the best part of my day?

As long as you learn to have the definite expectation of any task being potentially enjoyable, you will start to feel motivated.

Some of you will probably think of a thing or two which are valid exceptions from this statement, like something you always hate doing no matter how hard you try making it fun. You’re probably right, and that’s why I don’t claim everything to be fun.

However, most tasks have a great potential of being enjoyable, and so looking for ways to have fun while working is definitely a good habit to acquire.

3. Change Your Approach And Don’t Give Up

When something doesn’t feel right, it’s always a good time to take a moment and look for a different approach for the task.

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You may be doing everything correctly and most efficiently, but such approach isn’t necessarily the most motivating one. Quite often, you can find a number of obvious tweaks to your current approach which will both change your experience and open up new possibilities.

That’s why saying “one way or another” is so common — if you really want to accomplish your goal, there is always a way; and most likely, there’s more than one way.

If a certain approach doesn’t work for you, find another one, and keep trying until you find the one which will both keep you motivated and get you the desired results.

Some people think that trying a different approach means giving up. They take pride in being really stubborn and refusing to try any other options on their way towards the goal.

My opinion on this is that the power of focus is great, but you should be focusing on your goal, and not limiting your options by focusing on just one way to accomplish it it.

4. Recognize Your Progress

Everything you may be working on can be easily split into smaller parts and stages. For most goals, it is quite natural to split the process of accomplishing them into smaller tasks and milestones. There are a few reasons behind doing this, and one of them is tracking your progress.

We track our progress automatically with most activities. But to stay motivated, you need to recognize your progress, not merely track it.

Here’s how tracking and recognizing your progress is different:

Tracking is merely taking a note of having reached a certain stage in your process. Recognizing is taking time to look at a bigger picture and realize where exactly you are, and how much more you have left to do.

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For example, if you’re going to read a book, always start by going through the contents table. Getting familiar with chapter titles and memorizing their total number will make it easier for you to recognize your progress as you read. Confirming how many pages your book has before starting it is also a good idea.

You see, reading any book you will be automatically looking at page numbers and chapter titles, but without knowing the total number of pages, this information will have little meaning.

Somehow, it is human nature to always want things to happen in short term or even at once. Even though we split complex tasks into simpler actions, we don’t quite feel the satisfaction until all is done and the task is fully complete.

For many scenarios though, the task is so vast that such approach will drain all the motivation out of you long before you have a chance to reach your goal. That’s why it is important to always take small steps and recognize the positive different and progress made. This is how your motivation can sustain in long term.

5. Reward Yourself

This is a trick everyone likes: rewarding yourself is always pleasant. This is also one of the easiest and at the same time most powerful ways to stay motivated!

Feeling down about doing something? Dread the idea of working on some task? Hate the whole idea of working? You’re not alone.

Right from the beginning, agree on some deliverables which will justify yourself getting rewarded. As soon as you get one of the agreed results, take time to reward yourself in some way.

For some tasks, just taking a break and relaxing for a few minutes will do.

For others, you may want to get a fresh cup of coffee and even treat yourself a dessert.

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For even bigger and more demanding tasks, reward yourself by doing something even more enjoyable, like going to a cinema or taking a trip to some place nice, or even buying yourself something.

Your progress may not seem to others like anything worth celebrating but, take time and do it anyway! It is your task and your reward, so any ways to stay motivated are good.

The more you reward yourself for the honestly made progress, the more motivated you will feel about reaching new milestones, thus finally accomplishing your goal.

Mix and Match for the Best Effect!

Now that you have these five ways of staying motivated, it is a good moment to give you the key to them all: mix and match!

Pick one of the techniques and apply it to your situation. If it doesn’t work, or if you simply want to get more motivated, try another technique right away. Mix different approaches and match them to your task for the best results.

Just think about it: Finding good reasons to work on your task is bound to helping you feel better; and identifying ways to make it fun will help you enjoy the task even more.

Or, if you plan a few points for easier tracking of your progress and on top of that, agree on rewarding yourself as you go; this will make you feel most motivated about anything you have to work through.

More Tips to Boost Your Motivation

Featured photo credit: Lucas Lenzi via unsplash.com

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