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The Lever #026: The Power of Seven (Plus or Minus Two)

Read Time: 4.3 minutes

Welcome to issue No. 26 of The Lever

Being productive means remembering what you should be doing.

But there is a limit to your working memory.

Here is why, and how you can use this to your advantage.


But first:

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World Record Memorization

In 2020, Emma Alam from India was able to memorize 410 random words in 15 minutes, setting a new world record and winning the 29th Memory World Championship.

Four hundred and ten.

If you have ever wondered how many things a human being can store in their working memory, this is the upper limit.

To achieve this, Alam (who has been competing since she was 17), used advanced techniques practiced by memory athletes.

But what about the rest of us?

The Magic Number

George Miller was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to the fields of cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics.

In the 1940's into the 1050's he was busy researching human memory and information processing. The goal was to test the limits of perception and memory, and he did this by understanding how people processed and remembered information.

Things like letters, numbers, and words.

The end result was Miller's now famous paper, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two".

"…there is a definite limit to the accuracy and completeness of the perception, judgment, and memory that we can achieve. The limitations are such that seven ± two units are virtually the extent of consciousness for the majority of human beings."

The paper concludes that the capacity of the human information-processing system is small. It must be used to respond to immediate events, plus store information for later. So when asked to learn or remember something, the limiting factor is the amount you are able to process at one time.

Stretching Your Limits

In the same paper, Miller recognized a powerful method for expanding on the amount of information that could be remembered at one time. A kind of side door around this informational bottleneck.


By combining single items, like numbers, into bigger groups it is possible to remember seven of those groups (plus or minus two) resulting in remembering a larger total amount.

Take a phone number for example.

You wouldn't try to remember each number individually. This is too close to the limit.


That's ten numbers.

But if you chunk them into larger pieces it looks like this:


That's three chunks. Well within the limits of working memory.

Of course, if the chunk is too large it becomes difficult to learn, use, or remember.

Out of Your Head

Everything you try to remember becomes an open loop.

Remember the Zeigarnik Effect:

"An incomplete task has greater psychological tension than a complete task, and is thus better remembered." (Zeigarnik, 1927)

A new task creates a new open loop. These spin around in your head causing psychological tension until completed and closed. And because of the limits of working memory this tension gets higher and higher as a relatively low number of loops are opened.

This means that the more loops you open, the more tension you create, and the LESS cognitive function you have available to actually get the work done.

You use most of your working memory remembering what you need to do, instead of actually doing it.

The solution is a simple one:

Write it down.

To paraphrase David Allen, the mind is for having ideas, not storing them.

Writing down everything that is on your mind takes all those spinning loops out of your head and puts them on paper. The psychological effect is that because you are no longer trying to remember all these things, your brain is able to focus on the task at hand with full capacity.

That is a powerful shift.

Simple Tools = Powerful Results

If you read different takes on productivity you will get different advice. Some people love to do lists, others say to forget them and use your calendar instead.

I say use both.

A to do list is more than bunch of tasks. It is an extension of your memory.

Most of the things you write down won't ever get done. And that's okay. The value of the list is in the fact that these potential loops are taken out of your head and stored somewhere until actioned or purposefully forgotten.

Things seem more important in the moment than they often are. When you have the idea, any idea, add it to a list.

Review that list periodically and, if one of the items actually IS valuable and IS a thing that needs doing, assign it some time in your calendar. Be proactive about completing, not reactive in the moment.

Limit the number of loops you open, and when you do choose to open one do so with the intention of working it through until it is closed.

Have a relentless focus on finishing.

Half-finished tasks have no value. Zero.

The value is only realized when the task is complete.


To limit psychological tension and free your cognitive capacity:

Write everything down

Choose tasks with intention

Open as few loops as possible

This will allow you to bring your full mental force to the task, deliver the value of the finished task, and do so in the least amount of time.


When you are ready, here are a few ways I can help:

1. Subscribe to The Lever (if you haven't already)

This covers a science-based productivity concept each week, in about five minutes. Try a free chapter of my new book when you subscribe. And if you like it...

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This short course will teach you the fundamentals of a powerful timeblocking system to make sure you never miss an obligation and always show up prepared. Give yourself the space you need to create the life you deserve.

Smart systems to make you productive, prolific, and profitable | Find me on Twitter @SeanPHogue | Sign up here for the weekly newsletter, The Lever, and create some leverage in your life.


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