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Working Memory: How it Affects Productivity

Imagine you are a customer service representative. You listen to a customer’s request, process their information, and formulate a response. To resolve their issue, you may need to recall specific details about a customer’s account, access relevant documentation, and navigate between different software platforms. This is your working memory in action.

Working memory affects every aspect of our lives—in the classroom, on the road, and at work. But our working memory is limited. Overloading it might cause you to miss important details or result in poor work performance.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at working memory and why it matters for productivity, and we’ll share five tips to improve it.

What is working memory?

Working memory is how we process, organize, and use new information. It helps us to manage our memory storage system. Every day, we absorb fresh information through our working memory. For example, imagine driving in a car while listening to a podcast. Your navigation system is in the background, letting you know when to turn. Your working memory will prioritize the directions over the podcast, ensuring you reach your destination.

Working memory is linked to the prefrontal cortex and is a key component of the brain’s executive functions. Three parts make up your working memory:

  • Phonological loops: Uses auditory devices to remember new information (e.g., learning someone’s name and repeating it back to them)
  • Visuospatial sketch pad: Allows you to picture information in your mind (e.g., remembering where you left your keys by visualizing your house)
  • Central executive: Maintains the two systems above and chooses which part should assist with information processing (e.g., if someone asks you a math problem, you may visualize the numbers to solve the problem.)

Working memory vs. attention

Working memory does not operate alone. It relies on other executive functioning skills, such as attention. Attention control helps keep your working memory alert. As you take in new information, attention determines what material is worth noting. Attention also ensures you remain focused over time. And it is vital in transferring information to your short-term memory, also known as encoding.

Working memory vs. short-term memory and long-term memory

When defining working memory, it can be helpful to distinguish it from short-term and long-term memory. All three differ in function, capacity limits, and duration.

Short-term memory refers to your brain’s ability to store information for a limited time. For example, you may memorize relevant statistics in the days leading up to a presentation but forget most of them afterward.

Long-term memory refers to memories stored over a lifetime. Long-term memory lets you remember your address without looking it up when driving home or shipping an online order to yourself.

Working memory operates in the background. It processes new information so your short-term memory can retain what is essential. At the same time, working memory structures new information for long-term storage.

How does working memory impact productivity?

Working memory is critical for productivity. A strong working memory can store and sorta lot of information, improving comprehension and efficiency. For example, your working memory lets you absorb new information and participate simultaneously in an important meeting. Working memory also plays a vital role in the following:

  • Learning new information
  • Reading comprehension
  • Asking appropriate follow-up questions
  • Prioritizing tasks
  • Switching between tasks
  • Performing complex tasks faster
  • Strengthening problem-solving skills
  • Improving decision-making
  • Resisting distractions
  • Taking in new information without derailing your current task

If your working memory is overloaded, you may have trouble remembering key details from a meeting with your supervisor. Or a distraction, such as a phone ringing, can throw you off during a presentation and make it hard to recover. 

5 tips to improve working memory

Effective working memory is essential for success in the workplace, but several factors can affect working memory, including information overload, distractions, stress, mental health, and time constraints. At the same time, employees with learning disabilities, auditory processing difficulties, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or other executive functioning challenges may have difficulty with their working memory.

Planet Neurodivergent is an online community and resource center for people who identify as neurodivergent. “When it comes to compensating for poor working memory, it’s all about creating an external system to take the burden off your brain,” shares a member in a recent blog post.

Here are five strategies to improve your working memory capacity.

1. Set meetings up for success

Meetings can put significant stress on working memory. Employees must take in new information, interact with colleagues, and manage constant distractions.

  • Develop routines: By creating a predictable meeting structure, employees can anticipate what will happen and better prepare.
  • Establish an agenda: An agenda helps teams “chunk” information or organize topic discussions. As a result, teams will be able to focus on one subject at a time and relevant information.
  • Use visual aids: Presentations, graphs, or other visual aids can assist non-auditory learners.
  • Allow time for processing: Individual differences can affect the memory system and processing speed. Leaders should build in breaks or provide questions beforehand to allow time for processing and increase participation.
  • Take notes: Employees can better retain information by taking notes. Note-taking can also act as a resource that employees can refer to when needed. 

But note-taking can also be a distraction as employees try to engage while jotting down important information. Companies can ease this burden by appointing a note-taker or using a note-taking app—like Supernormal—to automate the process.

2. Reduce distractions

Our working memory constantly takes in new information, decides what is relevant, and puts it into context. Excessive distractions or multitasking puts strain on your working memory capacity. A 2017 Stanford study examined the effects of “media multitasking” over 10 years. The study found that people using many media types at once performed “significantly worse” on basic memory exercises.

Reducing distractions is critical to maximizing working memory. Find a quiet workspace, put away your phone, and avoid opening unnecessary websites or applications on your computer. You can also play instrumental music to minimize external stimuli, like a dog barking, your colleagues chatting, or the pinging of a Slack notification.

3. Exercise

Numerous studies have shown that exercise has a positive impact on cognitive function. A 2022 study followed 113 participants and tracked their physical activity using Fitbits. Each participant had to perform a series of memory exercises over time. The study found that physical activity improved memory performance, but the type of exercise mattered. Those who participated in lighter activities had better episodic memory, which helps you recall previous experiences. Those who exercised intensely showed improved spatial memory, which helps you remember the location of specific objects.

4. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness practices, including meditation and breathing techniques, can also boost your working memory performance. A 2018 study found that mindfulness exercises improved working memory by reducing proactive interference, which occurs when old information prevents you from learning new information. The study also found that mindfulness increased hippocampal density (the hippocampus is a brain structure that plays a vital role in learning and memory).

A more recent study confirms the benefits of mindfulness on working memory . During the study, researchers administered working memory tests to junior high students in both stressful (i.e., timed) and non-stressful conditions. In each scenario, there was a positive correlation between mindfulness training and working memory. These exercises help you stay present, focused, and calm. Even a few breaths when starting your day or switching tasks can enhance your ability to concentrate and strengthen your working memory.

5. Maintain a healthy sleep schedule

Proper sleep is vital for a functioning working memory. Rest gives our brain a chance to process the events of the day and properly store information. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can negatively affect our immune system, mental health, and cognitive ability. This includes our attention span, memory retention, and the quality of information stored in the brain.

Boost your working memory with Supernormal

Working memory plays a crucial role in everyday life. Whether you’re cooking, studying, or in the office, working memory enables you to process the amount of information your brain receives every day. Putting too much strain on your working memory can hinder your performance.

Supernormal protects your working memory in meetings. Powered by AI, Supernormal takes notes and generates action items. By removing the need to multitask, you can fully concentrate on the conversation, and you can refer back to the notes at any time to ensure you captured the right information.  

Ready to stop overloading your working memory during important meetings? Sign up today and get 1,000 free minutes of AI note-taking with Supernormal.

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