What is the most effective way to enhance working memory?

You may not be aware of it, but you use your working memory (aka short-term memory) on a daily basis. So it’s no wonder you want to keep it in optimal shape!

There are 2 types of working memory: auditory (everything you hear) and visual-spatial (everything you see). And even though it sounds scientific, the bottom line is this:

Working memory is a thinking skill that helps you to

  • process new information
  • understand what this new information means
  • remember it when you need it
  • recall it (or play it back) immediately after you’ve processed it

A few real-life examples of when you use your working memory are:

  • whenever you learn a new sport
  • when you’re taking an exam
  • when you’re writing a shopping list or packing a bag for vacation
  • every time you follow a set of instructions or directions

So what’s an effective way to enhance this useful skill?

Here’s one: whenever you learn something new, teach it to someone else.

What are the benefits of teaching what you’ve learned?

This technique is easy to practice, gives you confidence by strengthening your knowledge of the newly-learned material, and boosts your memorization. You can review, recall, and retain what you’ve learned better and more effectively than just passively keeping it to yourself without taking any action.

How do you actually teach what you’ve learned?

Start with these tips:

  • Get an audience, real or imaginary. A real audience can be a close friend, study partner or family member. But if you’re too shy to speak to anyone about what you learned, you can pretend that you have a few invisible students who really need to learn the same thing, and talk to them. Even better: grab the family dog or cat and talk to it. Pets can be excellent listeners and a captive audience!
  • Create your own classroom. If you’re going to teach someone something, you need to create the space in which to do it. Take a large sheet of white paper (or tape together several sheets for a bigger writing surface), then tape it to your bedroom wall at eye level. Be sure you have some leg room to stand in front of it. Have a pen handy, and a thick black marker or different colored highlighters to underline important concepts. Now you have all the tools to begin.
  • Get to work. Here’s where you’ll have the opportunity to apply what you’ve just learned. Start with this simple sequence of steps:
    • Stand in front of the large sheet of paper you’ve taped to the wall, and write an outline of the most important points or concepts of what you just learned. It can be a set of simple directions on how to do something, or a few key concepts you’ve learned from a chapter in your textbook.
    • Then, go over each of the steps or concepts aloud one by one. As you’re talking, make you “lecture” more interactive by drawing diagrams on the side, small illustrations or even short lists of examples. You can also tell a short story or joke to add a touch of humor to what you’re teaching.
    • At the end, summarize the key parts of what you covered by going over the main parts of your outline once again, and highlight these sections with your thick marker or highlighter. This visual tip helps you recall details better and can solidify what you’ve learned.
  • Keep it top of mind. You’re already done teaching what you learned, so you completed the lecture part of the learning process. But it will help you if you keep what you learned top of mind the rest of the day. Whenever you find yourself on a long commute home, or doing a workout at the gym or nearby park, or as you’re running errands, ask yourself to repeat the key concepts again. This is a perfect time to go over them, remembering how you wrote your outline on the paper, talked about each point, and highlighted the main sections using different colors. Repeating newly learned material will reinforce your knowledge of it even more, and you’ll be optimizing your working memory in a way that’s useful to you, regardless of what you’re working on!

What are daily activities that can help me become more disciplined?

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. If we’re being completely honest, there’s nothing really attractive about the word disciplined. I don’t know about you, but to me is sounds harsh, almost like a punishment that is imposed by someone or something outside of ourselves. And if we frame this question in such a way, it’s much tougher to actually come up with a solution that is helpful to us.

But here’s a different approach that works for me.

For me, it’s a simple math equation:

Self-discipline = freedom.

Well, what does that mean exactly?

It means that when we are self-disciplined, we allocate our time more optimally so that we can afford to do what is important to us. Yes, this means getting our work and responsibilities done first so that we still can devote energy to doing the things that are important for achieving our personal goals. By being self-disciplined, we give ourselves the freedom to truly express our highest self.

Now back to the original question. Let’s rephrase it so it sounds like this:

What are daily activities that can help me become more disciplined and give me more freedom to do what I believe to be important?

Here are 5 different answers to this question. Try one out today and see how it can help you.

Answer #1. Begin each day by asking yourself this question: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?”

This technique trains your brain to focus on which goals are important to you right now, and it forces you to prioritize the goal you believe to be the most relevant in this moment. How do you practice this habit? Put it in writing. Write it in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Read it out loud as you start your day (for example, as you’re brushing your teeth or getting ready for work or school). Come up with an answer on the spot and answer it out loud. Then follow up by taking action: focus your energy throughout the day to completing your one thing.

Answer #2. Tap into your willpower early.

As soon as you start your day, chances are you’re overwhelmed with the amount of things you need to do, so it’s natural that you procrastinate on some of those things (okay, many!) and postpone them for later. Big mistake. Why? Because we all have a finite amount of willpower that takes us through the day. If you want to focus on priorities, work on them early. Do that task that you’ve been putting off all week before lunchtime. Write up a plan for the school or work week ahead of time. Finish up homework you’ve been putting off because you’d rather do something more fun. You’ll be glad that you did in the evening when it’s time to wind down and relax.

Answer #3. Train yourself to start the day with a quick yet effective morning routine.

There are many benefits to having a morning routine. It can make you feel super productive at the start of the day, it can give you focus, it can provide you with a sense of achievement early in the day, and it can even give those 24 hours your life more purpose. In addition to all of that, a morning routine gives you time (that precious commodity we all seem to be running out of!) to do what you consider important to your personal development, and gets you closer to achieving your goals.

Answer #4. Take care of your essentials.

Self-discipline is not something that is externally given to us. It is a choice we make every single moment of every day, and we become responsible for the choice (or choices) that we make. We are disciplined when we take care of the essentials: we know how to eat what’s healthy to give our body enough energy and optimize our brain’s performance, we make physical exercise a daily habit, and we practice a nighttime routine to help us unwind in the most relaxing way so we get the sleep that we need.

Answer #5. Create a peaceful place in your mind.

More important than tidying up your apartment or house, it will benefit you greatly if you regularly work on keeping your mind clean and uncluttered. Why? When it’s not full of jumbled thoughts, confusion and worry, it can work its real magic. And how do you do that? By practicing mindfulness through meditation. This small practice doesn’t require a lot of time, it’s simple to follow, and it has many benefits, including better focus and more concentration. You can try it early in the day so that you prepare your brain for the day ahead, or you can practice it at night so you have more restful and calm sleep. Download the Headspace app to start with a simple 10-minute session.

How can I stop wasting time and create more structure in my life?

Real life can get messy. We might wake up in the morning with great ideas and maybe even plans of what we want to do. It can feel awesome. And then things happen: we wake up late, have to rush to school or work, forget something along the way, run out of time. Or maybe we do none of those things and just sit and ponder. The hardest part in real life is navigating the path from idea to action, and making progress from wanting to do things to actually doing them.

What can help you navigate that path better?

Sometimes it’s just taking that first step.

For example, you can start with any of these 7 ideas for making that first step a reality:

Idea #1. Wrap your mind around it.

Before you start doing anything, especially if it’s new, get your brain on board with what you’re about to do. It helps you get motivated to take action and become fully absorbed in what’s in front of you.

How?

  • Instead of approaching what you’re doing as a chore, turn it into a choice. Tell yourself, “This is something I really want to learn more about!” The benefit? It gives you a greater sense of control about what you’re doing.
  • Remind yourself of the value of your efforts with this question: “Why am I doing this?” Make the connection with the initial reasons for working on something to begin with. It can be to learn a new skill, research a topic you’re interested in, study for an exam so you can graduate and start your career, explore a business opportunity, solve a particular problem, etc.
  • Visualize what you’re about to do. This is a technique called building a mental model, where you imagine all the steps you’ll be taking. For example, if you are researching something new, visualize covering a certain amount of material (chapters of a book), taking notes on important concepts (manually or typing them up), and writing questions to follow up on later. By telling yourself a story of what you’re about to do, you map out the entire learning process in a way that’s easier for your brain to understand.

Idea #2. Tackle feelings of procrastination by replacing the words “I don’t feel like doing this” with “why not?”

We all feel like procrastinating at some point in our life (or every day!) because it doesn’t require a lot of effort to do so. In fact, it’s almost a default reaction to something challenging that’s in front of you.

How?

  • First, ask yourself if there is something else hiding behind procrastination. Maybe it is fear of not being able to do something successfully or not understanding why you’re doing it.
  • When you feel like procrastinating, rather than immediately saying “I can’t”, ask yourself where the resistance is coming from. Be honest with yourself. Start with explaining, “I can’t because….” so you know the source of your resistance.
  • Think of what you gain when you say “why not?” You win over fear and you start thinking beyond obstacles. There is something really powerful when you leave a little space open for possibilities, instead of shutting the door in your own face. It’s a subtle change in attitude that can have a tremendous impact in your life.

Idea #3. Create a laser focus to your day by asking yourself this question each morning: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?”

This technique trains your brain to focus on goals that are important to you right now, and it forces you to prioritize the goal you believe to be the most relevant in this moment.

How?

  • Put it in writing. Write it in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall.
  • Read it out loud as you start your day, and come up with an answer on the spot.
  • Follow up by taking action and by reminding yourself throughout the day about the commitment you made.

Idea #4. Make your work easier to do by preparing your workspace.

To boost focus while working on any task, it helps to declutter your workspace. Before you start your day, make sure you have everything ready.

How?

  • Gather all materials the night before so that you don’t waste any time in the morning looking for them. This applies to your books and notebooks, reference materials (bookmark them in your browser or write notes that you’ll have handy on your desk) and your daily plan (a checklist of tasks you need to complete for that day).
  • Don’t forget refreshments. Bring with you or set aside a bottle of water, an energy snack such as a power bar, banana, peanut butter, or a fruit and nut mix.

Idea #5. Find out how your brain works.

If the very thought of working for hours leaves you feeling overwhelmed, consider different ways in which you can optimize your brain performance so you can work smarter not harder.

How?

Try this simple technique. For one week, keep a log of all mental activities you perform in the morning, midday, afternoon and evening. You will notice a pattern in how your brain works at a certain time of day. Then, adjust your schedule to accommodate the activities depending on what’s right for your brain and when. For example:

  • Mornings can be great for doing deep work, i.e. work that requires a lot of your concentration. Some scientists call this the brain’s peak performance time, and it’s roughly 2-4 hours after we wake up. So, for example, if you wake up at 6, your peak times are between 8 and 10 a.m. Block this time off for your analytical brain to perform the most complex tasks that require a lot of focus.
  • Early afternoons are great for collaborating. This covers the 12-4 p.m. time range, when you take a lunch break and the few hours after, when you are more likely to socialize. It’s a good time of day to schedule meetings, brainstorm ideas with others, and work together on group projects where you can provide feedback and get recommendations on your work.
  • Evenings can be scheduled for strategic thinking. This is when the brain eases into a different tempo when it can be more creative. If you’re setting goals and strategizing where you want to be in 6 months with your personal development or career, this is when you can outline your next steps. It’s a great time for contemplating the big picture.

Idea #6. Turn it all off!

Sometimes it’s challenging to get anything done and focus on what’s in front of us because we have so many distractions in our busy lives. One example of a distraction is multitasking: you could be reading email and simultaneously checking your Instagram or Twitter feed. But when you turn off what’s distracting you, you have a better chance to actually do what’s important.

How?

  • Set your phone to Airplane mode when you need to focus without any disturbances, for example when you need to finish a project or homework by the next day.
  • Set expectations with others by letting them know you won’t be available in the next few hours, so they don’t interrupt you with their requests, questions or comments.
  • Check your email and social media apps only 2–3 times a day (for example, around lunchtime, later in the afternoon, and evening).
  • Avoid browsing the Internet or reading the daily news; leave these activities for later after you’ve completed what you need to do.

Idea #7. Always have a personal goal to aspire to.

Regardless of whether you’re a student, working full-time, or taking time off to be a parent or start your own business, you should do whatever is possible to work on your personal development. If you don’t, it will eventually catch up with you and may leave you feeling unhappy or overwhelmed with day-to-day activities.

How?

  • First, think about the big picture. Ask yourself: Where do you want to be 1, 5, 10 years from now? Who do you want to become? What is a dream scenario for you: a life in a specific city, having a partner to share your life journey with, being surrounded by smart and interesting people who contribute to your personal growth, being fluent in another language? Get specific.
  • Second, narrow it down. Set aside an hour or two this weekend to do the following:
    • Write down your top 3 personal goals.
    • Under each, write down 3 things you would need to do on a consistent basis to get you closer to each goal.
    • Then, create a schedule for the week ahead so that you can devote blocks of time to making progress in the areas you’ve identified.
  • When you’ve followed your schedule for a whole week, make an assessment of the progress you made. Did some activities take more time than you anticipated? What could you have done better? Then make adjustments for the following week to stay on track with your goal.

What is the best way to block out all sound for studying?

With a bit of preparation, assembling your tools, and picking the right place to sit, you should be able to study without interruptions and get more done in less time.

Here’s how to do it:

  • To block off most environmental noise, use silicone ear plugs if you prefer working in silence. They usually come in 6-pack or 12-pack packages, they’re easy to carry with you, and it takes just a few seconds to put them in your ears.
  • To block off noise while listening to music, use noise-cancelling headphones or just the earbuds for your phone. The noise-cancelling headphones are more powerful and are a smart investment, while the earbuds are small and light enough to carry in your pocket.
  • To maximize your music-listening experience, pick music that can boost your focus. Everyone’s taste in music is different, so you probably know what works for you. Need new ideas? Try these playlists of classical sounds, chillout tunes, or even sounds of nature. Use apps such as 8tracks or Pandora to find even more playlists by entering keywords such as “music for studying”, “classical” or “study mix.”
  • To minimize distractions, set your phone to Airplane mode. This will prevent you from getting distracted by incoming calls, text messages, and emails that you may be tempted to check frequently. If it’s difficult to switch off completely, then turn off the volume on your phone and turn the screen away or put it away entirely so you can’t see it.
  • To prevent any commotion from attracting your attention, get strategic about where you sit. Turn your back to doors, hallways, and areas where there’s a lot of motion. Sit facing a wall or window overlooking trees or a park if it’s possible. It’s much better for focusing than being in front of a window overlooking a busy and noisy street.
  • To prevent interruptions, set expectations with roommates, classmates, and friends. Let everyone know you need to focus uninterrupted for a couple of hours so they don’t come to your desk with questions. You can also let them know that you will catch up with them later once you’re done.
  • If all else fails, go to the library. It’s a great alternative to noisy apartments, dorms and coffee shops. Pick a table somewhere in the back where there isn’t much traffic, so you won’t be tempted to look up at people passing by. Also, prepare everything you’ll need for your study session so that you won’t need to leave for several hours: carry your reading materials, notes and notebooks, a checklist of items you need to complete, a bottle of water, a thermos with coffee or tea, and a snack for energy.

If you found these study tips useful, there are many more that I’ve collected and put together in an e-book called Your Study Smarter 30-Day Plan. This e-book is designed for the busy student who wants to improve the way they study, boost focus and concentration, stay motivated while preparing for exams, make the most of each study day, and still have time to unwind and have fun despite a heavy workload during the semester.

How can you benefit from a 30-day plan to study smarter?

If you’ve been following me on Quora, Twitter or this blog, you saw that I share many study tips and hacks that can boost productivity and make your learning experience as efficient as possible, and even enjoyable in the process! In the past few months I received numerous requests from students worldwide to put together these study tips in a book format so they’re easy to read, and also to suggest ways in which they can be incorporated into a daily schedule.

The result? I just completed an e-book called Your Study Smarter 30-Day Plan.

Who is this e-book for?

Your Study Smarter 30-Day Plan is designed for the busy student who wants to improve the way they study, boost focus and concentration, stay motivated while preparing for exams, make the most of each study day, and still have time to unwind and have fun despite a heavy workload during the semester.

How can you benefit from this e-book?

The key idea behind this e-book is to help you study smarter by building very small habits and gradually incorporating them into your day. There are several benefits of this method: it will help you structure your day and establish a routine for you to follow, it will show you how to make small changes for maximum effect in the way your study, and it will introduce something new that you can master over time through repetition. The plan will provide you with a framework of things to choose from, habits to grow, and new ideas to implement into your day.

How is this e-book organized?

This e-book is divided into 4 main sections, one for each week of the month. In each week you will introduce a couple of new habits to your usual daily routine that will help you structure your day and study in a focused way so that you can perform better in your classes. Then, you will practice the new habits throughout the week so that you can get used to them, which will in turn help you reinforce the new behavior to stick better. Each section consists of the following elements:

  • An outline for each week
  • An introduction to new mini-habits to practice for that specific week
  • A list of practical suggestions on how to practice each mini habit
  • A motivational tip of the day to boost your focus
  • A daily checklist to monitor your progress

When and where can you purchase it?

The e-book is available today. Get a copy of Your Study Smarter 30-Day Plan here.

Questions? Add a comment below!

How do I study smarter? There’s a cool resource in the works for you to check out!

How do I study smarter?

That’s the #1 question I keep hearing on social media, websites, and directly from people I interact with regularly. Many students post questions to me on Quora, my Twitter account, directly via email and on my blog. It’s a great question!

The good news first:

There are a LOT of excellent answers, ideas, and suggestions out there. If you just follow some popular hashtags such as #productivity and #studyhacks, you will see thousands of ideas on how to improve your study technique. Some suggestions are concise while others go more in depth; some provide plenty of diverse suggestions while others focus on one tip to follow. Either way, you’ll never find a shortage of studying advice.

And now for the challenging part:

In the sea of advice, students often lose the way. They get distracted: how do you know which advice you should pay attention to? Or they feel overwhelmed: there’s so much to read, how can you possibly learn everything? Or they feel stuck: sure, the advice you read sounds motivating enough, but how are you supposed to put it in practice?

After spending years as a student (for a grand total of 3 degrees, of which two are graduate ones!), I know personally how challenging all this can be. So I wanted to do something helpful. That is why I am currently working on an e-book called The Study Smarter 30-Day Plan. As the name suggests, it won’t be just a compilation of ideas on how to study smarter, but a real plan that you can incorporate into a 4-week period. You will get a breakdown of each week, plus a daily schedule, all in a fun and easy-to-read format. And all you need to do is just follow it. That should take a lot of the guesswork and the planning out of the equation, right?

That’s the goal.

I’m almost done with putting the e-book together, and I will share details with you in the next few days. Stay tuned!

How can I increase my concentration?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could tune into our optimum brain power so that we can study effortlessly, remember everything, and still have plenty of time left over for doing things we like to do?

It’s not impossible. In most cases, it’s just a matter of implementing a few new ideas into the way we study.

Take a look at these 5 tips and see how you can improve your concentration and manage your study time better than before.

Tip #1. Get to know your brain better.

You can optimize your brain performance by working smarter in less time than you think you need. Here’s a technique yo can try: for one week, keep a log of all mental activities you perform in the morning, midday, afternoon and evening. You will notice a pattern in how your brain works at a certain time of day. Then, adjust your schedule to accommodate the activities depending on what’s right for your brain and when. For example:

  • Mornings can be great for doing deep work, i.e. work that requires a lot of your concentration. Some scientists call this the brain’s peak performance time, and it’s roughly 2-4 hours after we wake up. So, for example, if you wake up at 6, your peak times are between 8 and 10 a.m. Block this time off for your analytical brain to perform the most complex tasks that require a lot of focus: learning new material, reviewing, recalling, problem-solving.
  • Early afternoons are great for collaborating. This covers the 12-4 p.m. time range, when you take a lunch break and the few hours after, when you are more likely to socialize. It’s a good time of day to brainstorm ideas with others and work together on projects where you can provide feedback and get recommendations on your work.
  • Evenings, usually around 5-9 p.m., can be scheduled for strategic thinking. This is when the brain eases into a different tempo when it can be more creative. Use this time to set goals of what you want to do with all the knowledge you’re acquiring. For example, if you’re studying for an exam, think about what you will do after graduation, which career you see for yourself, which jobs you’d like to apply for, etc. It’s a great time for creating and contemplating the big picture.

Tip #2. Make it a ritual.

Rituals are beneficial because they set the tone to your work, they train your mind to get used to doing things at certain times of the day, and they give you a sense of control over your day. Here are some ritual ideas to help you concentrate better:

  • Find a place where you won’t be disturbed. If you’re working from home, it’s easy: it can be your desk, a comfortable couch, or a big armchair. If you’re at the library, it might be a table tucked away in the back, next to a wall, so you’re not disturbed by people passing by.
  • Block away environmental noise with noise-cancelling headphones, and listen to music (it can be classical music or simply sounds of nature). Don’t want to listen to music? Get a good pair of soft silicone ear plugs like these and read in silence.
  • Have a small cup of coffee. Getting a caffeine boost can help increase focus. Keep in mind that it usually takes about 30 minutes to kick in, so time it well by drinking a cup ahead of time before you start working. Don’t drink coffee? Try green tea instead, as it also contains caffeine.
  • Take a walk to boost memory and increase focus. Performing some form of physical exercise, even if it is targeted and short, improves your brain’s cognitive performance, problem solving ability, and even boosts long-term memory. Use your lunch break to walk for 30 minutes. If your neighborhood is noisy, take your headphones with you and listen to music.

Tip #3. Remove distractions that are in your way.

Distractions can easily take you away from the work you are focusing on, and can waste time without you even noticing. Reading email and constantly checking your Facebook or Twitter notification prevents you from focusing and can make you feel overwhelmed. Studies have shown that this multitasking can lower your IQ by 10 points! Make a conscious effort to avoid distractions. A few ideas to try include:

  • Avoid browsing the Internet or reading the daily news early: leave these activities for later after you’ve completed all your important work for the day.
  • Set your phone to Airplane mode when you need to focus without any disturbances, or simply turn the volume off and move your phone away so you can’t see it while you’re working.
  • Set expectations with others by letting them know you won’t be available in the next few hours, so they don’t interrupt you with their requests, questions or comments.
  • Check your email and social media apps only 2–3 times a day. For example, you can check them at lunchtime, later in the afternoon, and in the evening.

Tip #4. Use a timer.

Don’t spend endless hours reading and working without taking breaks; if you do, you will likely lose focus as well as motivation to continue. Learn how to manage your time better with one simple tool: a timer.

  • Set your timer to 60 minute increments to allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way.
  • Try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
  • When you’re done with one segment, take a break. Step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to work to give your brain a chance to rest: get some fresh air, go for a quick walk (even 10 minutes will work), grab a cup of coffee or tea.

Tip #5. Train your brain with some quiet time.

If your day is crammed with different activities that all require your attention, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and be in tune with what is really important to focus on. There is one simple yet very effective practice that can help, and it’s meditation.

  • The benefits: Meditating can declutter your brain of thoughts that distract you from the brilliant work you could be doing. In addition, you will notice better focus throughout the day, more concentration, improved ability to cope with the day’s events, and a greater sense of calm.
  • How to get started: There’s a free app you can download to start training your mind, and it’s called Headspace. Start with a 10 minute session. It’s fun and easy to use, especially if you’re a complete beginner.