Tag Archives: memory

Checklists As Memory Aids

6 Jan

I heard this bit on NPR yesterday about Dr. Atul Gawande’s new book, The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right. It made me think a lot about the value of documented repeatable processes, and how often I fall into the trap of thinking I’m too smart to have to use a checklist.

Dr. Gawande spends his “leisure” time writing for The New Yorker when not performing operations at Dana Farber. Clearly, he is a man with time management on his side. The bottom line, he says, is that no one is too good for a checklist. In fact, we should use them more often. When he asked surgeons whether they would use the checklists, 80 percent said yes. For the holdout 20 percent, he was curious. Would they want THEIR surgeon using a checklist prior to operating on them? Ninety-four percent said yes. No surprise.

The doctor analyzed pilot reliance upon checklists and applied that practice to the O.R. — with very positive results. He catches himself at least weekly forgetting something from his checklists, and his colleagues report similar results. My sister-in-law is a surgeon, and I know smart when I see it. If a surgeon can admit to needing a checklist, it must be worth doing.

And I read this piece last night on The New York Times site, about a new study confirming what the “middle-aged” crowd (defined as 40-60, therefore including me) already knows:

We forget more, but we can claim mastery of locating patterns in the midst of chaos. And we can become quickly distracted.

Shiny ball syndrome is our weakness. An apt quote that pretty much sums up my daily existence:

Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to late 60s, also get more easily distracted. Start boiling water for pasta, go answer the doorbell and — whoosh — all thoughts of boiling water disappear. Indeed, aging brains, even in the middle years, fall into what’s called the default mode, during which the mind wanders off and begin daydreaming.

I look forward to using this “default mode” excuse the next time my gray matter wanders astray. It gives meaning to something I’ve always blamed on character weakness.

Where was I? Oh, yes.

One point from the memory study is that we middle-ageists can resuscitate our memory abilities by learning new information, in particular information that runs contrary to our own set of beliefs or expands our current knowledge base.  Simply put, we need to take the road less traveled, in order to keep our thinking young.

It strikes me that memory-building involves both Dr. Gawande’s recommendation for relying on tried and true to-do’s and the exercise of stretching our brains to connect up neural pathways through new learnings. In other words, we can make ourselves smarter with memory aids like checklists and becoming (or continuing to be) lifelong students.

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