I’m sitting down for coffee with a colleague of mine, a marketing professional who works with several large brands. He casts a cursory glance at his phone as he sits down. I can tell his mind is racing even as we exchange greetings.
That’s nothing new. His mind doesn’t really have an “off” switch. He’s constantly jumping from one project to the next, constantly dreaming up new concepts and ideas.
More than once, he’s admitted that he’d be lost without the plethora of apps he uses to stay organized. In many ways, he’s the archetypal scatterbrained artist. And while I can’t say I fully understand his thought process, I greatly respect it.
Because absent-minded as he is, it’s his tendency towards forgetfulness that actually helps him excel in his chosen career.
It’s really not such a strange concept, really. The absent-minded professor is one of the most common tropes in modern fiction. According to a new study from the University of Toronto, the romanticized concept of a forgetful genius isn’t that far removed from reality.
“The real goal of memory is to optimize decision-making,” explains Assistant Professor Blake Richards, who co-authored the study. “It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world. We always idealize the person who can smash a trivia game, but the point of memory is not being able to remember who won the Stanley Cup in 1972.”
“The point of memory is to make you an intelligent person who can make decisions given the circumstances, and an important aspect in helping you do that is being able to forget some information,” he adds.
In other words, if you’re forgetful, it may be because you’re more focused on the big picture. Your brain is cutting out the things it views as trivial and irrelevant in order to make room for deeper knowledge and insights. Of course, that offers little comfort when you overlook critical stuff like deadlines and important meetings.
To that end, I’d like to wrap this piece up with a bit of advice on improving your memory. Or at the very least, how you can cope with your absent-mindedness.
- Prioritize your physical well-being. Consider how poorly a desktop computer runs if you don’t take care of it by clearing off malware, replacing outdated components, and dusting it. Our brains are basically hyper-advanced biological computers. They cannot function effectively without a healthy diet, regular exercise, and a good night’s sleep.
- Meditate. Just as the body can be honed through cardio and weight-training, the mind can be sharpened through mental exercise. Through regular meditation, you can increase your productivity, make it easier to stay focused, and improve your memory. Start with a simple daily routine, guided by a meditation app such as Headspace. From there, you can explore the techniques that work best for you.
- Avoid multitasking. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. People aren’t built to multitask. It’s not how our brains are wired. Train yourself to focus on one task at a time, or you’ll end up getting very little done, no matter how busy you are.
- Find the right tools. The colleague I mentioned earlier uses several different apps to help ensure his memory doesn’t have a negative impact on his career. This includes a digital kanban board, a scheduling app, and a consolidated inbox, all of which are accessible on both his desktop and smartphone. You might consider following suit.
Absent-mindedness can be a weakness. But it’s very often a sign of great creativity and intelligence. Embrace your forgetfulness. Just don’t let it spoil your career in the process.