Today’s tip talks about how improving your working memory is essential for writing. It’s the fourth article in our series on writing productivity based on the book Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time by Paul Hammerness, M.D., Margaret Moore, and John Hane. The first three articles are available on the blog. Find the links at the end of today’s article. –Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach
Every person you meet—and everything you do in life—is an opportunity to learn something. That’s important to all of us, but most of all to a writer because a writer can use anything. —Tom Clancy
So we’ve tamed the frenzy, focused on writing, and tugged our attention back to writing when our monkey mind got excited about something shiny and colorful. Whew! Isn’t that enough? Nope. The authors of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life say that in order to perform well, we need to learn how to “mold information.”
What it means to “mold information”: We rely on our working memory to remember and retrieve information in order to use it in our daily life. This might be using your muscle memory to remember how to drive through a skid when your car hits a patch of ice or recalling how our brains process new ideas so that you can help your child study for a math test.
What it looks like for writers: When we write, we are able to access our brain’s large amount of stored ideas, information, anecdotes, emotions, and more so that we can incorporate them into our work. When we can’t access this information, we say we have “writer’s block.” But we may simply be having difficulty accessing our working memory. That can happen when we are tired, hungry, or frazzled. But do not fear! We can nurture and protect our working memory so that when we need to access it for writing, we can!
How to do it: It seems almost magical when it happens: we write and the ideas flow easily. We suddenly remember snippets of information from all sorts of various sources that make our work richer and more fun to write (and read). We’ve entered the zone, the state that Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.”
While this may seem magical, it isn’t. And we can increase our ability to retrieve and use information while we are writing. Here’s how:
1. Create a healthy foundation. Our life habits can support or derail our ability to learn, recall, and use information. The following basic practices will help us:
*learn new information
*exercise your memory
2. Clear out environment. In Edward Hallowell’s article, Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform (Harvard Business Review, 2005) he talks about how having our circuits overloaded with information and tasks can literally cause us to lose our ability to pay attention. He recommends “keeping a section of your work space or desk clear at all times. (You do not need to have a neat office, just a neat section of your office.) Similarly, you might try keeping a portion of your day free of appointments, e-mail, and other distractions so that you have time to think and plan.”
3. Organize resources. Most writers have a few places they store information:
*physical resources, like books, magazines, and files.
*electronic resources, like eBooks, PDF reports, and documents.
*online resources, like blogs we follow, collections of resources (as on ScribD or Pinterest).
Often, we need to access information from these sources when we write. If you’re like me, you’re halfway through writing that article when you think, “I could add an anecdote about squirrels. Where did I read that squirrels forget where they bury their nuts?” Then you scour your brain, shelves, computer history, and bookmarks until you find the dang article. You can make this search a bit easier by creating systems to organize your physical, electronic, and online resources.
4. Herd ideas. Have you ever watched a rancher move a herd of cattle—usually with the help of a herd dog? It’s a perfect metaphor for what happens as we collect our ideas to write. We take the topic or scene we’re writing about, and jot down all of our ideas. I like to use a mind map, because I can collect the random ideas that don’t really fit but seem to want to be invited to the party. As I work on herding my ideas, I’ll remember stuff I learned or heard an eon ago! You might have another way you gather up ideas. One colleague creates a Pinterest board for each project, while another collects all of her documents in a new document folder on her PC.
5. Focus on work, stay open to inspiration. Inspiration usually strikes while you’re working. The information you most need to complete the piece of the project you’re working on right now probably does live in your brain—and it will emerge when you are writing with focused energy and open to receiving it. (I know—it sounds totally woo-woo—but it works every time!)
Your turn: What have you done to support and access your working memory? Leave your comment below.
Read the first three articles in this series: