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How to Beat Distraction and Remember Everything

Tips and tricks to overcome the 'age-old' problem of memory loss

By Suzanne Gerber

You might have seen an Internet joke that used to make the rounds and starts off like this:
“Recently, I was diagnosed with AADD, or Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. (It used to be called ‘lack of focus,’ but I feel much better now that it is a ‘disease.’) I decide to water my garden. As I turn on the hose in the driveway, I look over at my car and decide it needs washing. As I start toward the garage, I notice that there is mail on the porch table that I brought up from the mailbox earlier. I decide to go through the mail before I wash the car. I lay my car keys down on the table, put the junk mail in the garbage can under the table, and notice that the can is full. So, I decide to put the bills back on the table and take out the garbage first ….”
You get the drift. And it might be funny — if it didn’t ring so true.
Another thing that circulated I liked enough to post to my Facebook page: a pie chart called “How I spend my day.” It was divided into four unequal segments: 15 percent was eating, 21 percent was sleeping, 33 percent was working, and the rest was “trying to remember what I came into the room for.”
(MORE: The Lighter Side of Senior Moments)
What Causes Distraction?
Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, recently wrote a book called Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed and How We Can Stick to the Plan, which sounded like it would take aim squarely at this issue. In promoting the book, she did a number of interviews, including ones with The New York Times, and Scientific American.
I read all three, hoping to find a little help for my own AADD, but I have to tell you: I came away empty-handed (headed?). I read stories galore about her husband buying a fake Rolex in Dubai, an Italian motorcycle racing team, anecdotes from the Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life, and about what happened in experiments when participants knowingly purchased counterfeit designer sunglasses — but what I found conspicuously absent was any concrete info on “how we can stick to the plan.” In fact, I’m still not quite sure what “the plan” is.
This was discouraging, as my AADD doesn’t seem to be getting any better on its own, and when I bring up the subject with my friends — older and younger — they all nod in agreement. Over many a meal, people have started to tell me their own stories of how bad they’ve got it, then the waitress comes over and tells us the specials, and when she leaves, none of us can remember what the heck we were just talking about.
Reading the research doesn’t help. I know from years of writing health stories and having a sister who’s a psychologist that a big chunk of memory loss has to do with how we’re wired. Depending on what type of memory we’re talking about (long- or short-term, emotional, visual, factual), it could be processed by different parts of the brain. Yet no one seems to know anything for sure, let alone offer solid advice about overcoming the problem.
On top of that, there are plenty of factors that can affect memory. (WebMD has a handy list.) Once you rule out things like head injury, stroke and dementia, impairment could be the result of stress, depression, sleep deprivation, medication, alcohol, tobacco or nutritional deficiencies. My takeaway from all the research: People living on earth today are particularly vulnerable to memory loss.
(MORE: Power Foods That Can Save Your Memory)
Help for the Perpetually Distracted
In trying to find some helpful tips for this blog, I found a terrific recipe for a chickpea and avocado spread, some scary statistics about distracted driving, a site that I bookmarked with all kinds of hilarious pie charts, and important news about why sex in space is not safe.
I also stumbled upon something even more useful: ran a piece on distraction that included a checklist of actual actionable tips. In addition to some obvious good advice — plan ahead, work offline, break work down into smaller tasks — it included some less familiar ideas. Those included using a “time box” approach, meaning work on one project for a set amount of time instead of working until it’s finished, and utilizing an app that can block certain websites or calculate how much time you’re spending (i.e., wasting) on Facebook or Pinterest.
The article also suggested keeping your workspace cleared of everything that isn’t relevant to the task at hand (so I’m guessing a cat on the desk isn’t a good idea), taking frequent breaks and rewarding yourself when you reach a designated point in the project. For some people, it said, headphones help shut out noise and distractions. And of course, it noted, when you feel your attention flagging, get some caffeine.
I’m planning to try some of those techniques — I was intrigued by the “time box” — and no jokes here about “if I remember them.” I actually have a few little tricks that have served me well over the years. Since I was a kid, I always came up with my own mnemonic devices, playful ways to recall words, names or short lists.
I’m such a fan of them that when I was student-teaching, I shared the technique with an advanced English class. I asked everyone to come up with their own tricks for remembering the week’s vocabulary list. One girl’s worked so well that I’ve never forgotten it. Her word was "loquacious" ("talkative"), and her mnemonic was, “If you wear a low-cut dress, people will talk about you.”
Absolutely brilliant. But I digress.

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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