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I can sometimes be so forgetful that I wonder to myself if something is wrong with me. The next room, the next sentence, the next mouse click all can be no match for my absent-mindedness.

I’ve learned though that I’m in good company. Being forgetful can happen to all of us at any age and stage in life. In fact I’m seeing traces of it more frequently with colleagues and clients alike.

It’s like a memory epidemic of organizational dementia.   Yet it’s a hidden burden that doesn’t show up in the monthly financials.

When Working Memory is Forgotten Territory

If you and your team suffer from personal or organizational memory challenges, you might relate here.

  • It restrains our workflows with start/stops. Literally, it’s difficult to get and stay in flow if we don’t have timely recall of what to do next.
  • We forget why decisions were made and slowly over time do things that may no longer need to be done. Remember the story about Grandma’s ham?
  • We harbor a lack of confidence because subconsciously we know we don’t know something. Or worse, we don’t know what we have forgotten.
  • Team functioning lacks consistency and a sense of shared mission.  Systems are the operational habits of business.  When organizational memory lapses, those operational habits begin to drift.  Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence suggests working memory is a basic executive function. I would suggest that goes for organizations as well as individuals.
  • If you have ever forgotten something important – an anniversary, a deadline, or a follow-up, you know the inherent costs of that.

Working memory is a precious commodity.

Yet it’s natural supply is being usurped by competing attentions that threaten our productivity, sanity, and every other -ity you might need to have around someday.

Why We Forget

There are many reasons behind our forgetfulness. Some are legit and some are not. Some have an easy remedy and some do not. I became all too acquainted with the difference during my mom’s 14 year long battle with Alzheimers.

Much of our working memory is preoccupied with extraneous data, unfiltered information, and needless banter. Call it information overload. Call it data waste. Call it micromanagement, bureaucracy, or the Internet. But we end up bogged down in the weeds of work as they overtake the fields in which we intended to produce value and income.

We only have ourselves to blame.

The more we allow into our lives, the more critical becomes our skill for cultivating and budgeting our working memory.  And it’s not an information storage and retrieval problem.

Alongside our best information and database tools must come intentional acts of memory cultivation. As one author put it, “we strain the memory instead of cultivating the mind.” And that is not from a popular management guru. That statement is from John Lubbock, a 19th century educator.

Working memory serves as a present bridge between our past and our future. If that bridge is out, there is no way to connect the two.  That memory bridge is important. It providers a forward moving confidence as we make decisions and take actions.

Cultivating Working Memory

We would do well to work at not forgetting to remember.

Finding your memory mojo means establishing the particular ways you need to remember and compensating for those ways you can’t.

Here are five adjustments we can apply on a personal, professional, and organizational level. And believe me, I need these as much as anyone reading this post!

Record – An internet full of information is useless unless you record the one thing it takes to make it useful:  context.  The most knowledgeable pilot is helpless unless they know where they are.  Recording context such as why something is important, how it is to be used, and when to use it make things that could be remembered, actually worth remembering.

One team tip here: meeting notes should consist mainly of key decisions, rationale and action items. Not a play-by-play of what everyone said.

Retrieve – Alongside recording only what is worth remembering is the act of retrieving only what is needed.  Too many times we load up conversations, meetings, agendas and projects with way too much information.  I’m the worst at this.  I constantly have to set aside much of what I retrieve.  Because I love me some data.  However I have to remind myself that retrieving is an act of editing, not of stocking up.

Remind – This is a process, not an event – a systematic way of cueing what should come next. We need reminders. They are not just clock items but calendar items. Projects and systems as well as people and processes.  Use them liberally.

Ritualize – Set fixed dates and means of remembering. Rituals can play a helpful role in cultivating memory. Personally this might look like a weekly review of goals, project deadlines and task lists. Organizationally this might look like a KPI dashboard, or a leadership log of key decisions, actions and rationale.

Rejuvenate – every moving part of a business needs scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. Including its people and it’s processes. Whether it’s personal rest or process reviews, investing in downtime keeps people and organizations functioning well.

In a weekend of hot-dogged determination to remember the people and events worth honoring, it’s appropriate to be reminded how to remember.

Left uncultivated, our capacity to remember really can atrophy. But with a little cultivation, our working memory – both personally and organizationally – can remain vibrant, healthy and effective.

Make Life Count