16 Jun Your Memory and Attention: Invaluable, but dangerously distracting
Memory is defined as the retention of information or learning. Our memory contains everything we know about ourselves and our world and if we lost this we would be quite literally lost too. For me this was one of the most interesting areas of psychology when I was an undergraduate. The experiments that have been developed to look at how our memory works are fascinating and there were some remarkable stories of people who had had brain injuries that had left them without their short term memory so unable remember what they had just done, but able to play the piano like they had before the accident.
How much can we remember?
We have a vast long term memory that holds all our knowledge and experiences and we have a short term store that deals with current information. This is called the Working memory and together with the part of our brain that deals with attention they provide us with a processor for information that we receive through our senses.
Our working memory holds the current information that we need to understand what we are focused on. If we rehearse or use this information enough it goes into long term memory in some form. As a general rule most people can hold around 7 pieces of information in their working memory at any one time. If the information we are using is very familiar to us such as a phone number we ‘know’ we can recall it quickly from our long term memory whilst working, new information however is easily ‘lost’ or forgotten as we can only hold it for a short time.
Information from the outside comes in constantly though our eyes, ears, skin, nose and taste buds. Our attention system filters out anything we don’t need to focus on for the task we are currently doing. Receptors in our brain scan these incoming signals for any signs that might pose a threat to us and interrupt our thoughts to bring things to our attention as necessary e.g. it’s getting cold find a jumper, that smell is smoke get out of the building, hungry get a biscuit (oh I know I’m obsessed with biscuits!)
Unfortunately for us our attention is as focused on the things we don’t really need to be doing as it would be on the things we do. We have to control what we pay attention too if we are to stay on task. Some things take our attention from the task in hand, especially if it’s one we don’t want to be doing, phones ringing, bleeps to show a new email has arrived, the post dropping in your in tray, an email link to an interesting website….
Do you allow things to take your attention away from what you should be doing? Skipping from one task to another might feel like achieving many things or juggling them badly, the important thing to note is what tasks you find yourself most distracted from doing. Your brain is a problem solving machine and will try to give you what you secretly desire and if that means no time to call that stroppy client then so be it!!
So what controls our attention? Well mostly unconscious thoughts we are unaware of together with our consciousness that can justify our behaviour making us feel better about our lack of sales calls or client follow we’ve made, or guilty and stressed about our under achievement. Many more factors make up whether you feel the former or the latter, the consequences as you see them, your personality traits, your beliefs about work ethic and goal attainment, the value you place of doing a good job etc. So how can you stop this distraction? You need to take control of your conscious thoughts and decide to act on the things that are most important to achieve. Plan your time and give yourself deadlines to getting things finished this uses that problem solving in your favor. Look at the things you don’t get done and you should not be surprised to see these are the things you don’t really like doing!