By Philip White
When was the last time you looked at your smartphone? Was it within the last 30 seconds? The last minute? On average, Americans open their phones 58 times a day and spend three and a half hours online. Worldwide, millions rely on the little computers in their palms to do everything from look up directions to recall important information like birthdays, deadlines, and to-do lists.
For the most part, this is helpful. Smartphones organize our days, keep us updated on the news, and allow us to communicate with people out of our physical reach. But when it comes to growing and developing our memories, is technology helping or hurting us?
Unfortunately, when it comes to your memory, it’s often the latter. Smartphones have been shown to harm the brain’s ability to retain important details, according to one review from Oxford, King’s College London, Harvard, and Western Sydney University. In short, the research says that when people rely on devices to remember things, they often fail to actually learn them. This explains why, despite having visited your favorite restaurant several times, you might still rely on Google maps to get you there. You are not training your memory to recall information. Rather, you are training it to rely on external tools that can do so for you.
If you are a leader, these findings are worth your attention. Your memory is perhaps one of the most valuable assets you can build, and not for the reason you may think. While it is vital to establish yourself as reliable and trustworthy, memory is even more important for creating and maintaining the foundation of any successful business: relationships — with team members, customers, and clients. Forgetfulness is the erosion that eats away at those ties. Whether it’s calling someone by the wrong name, mistaking their title, or overlooking a meeting invite, forgetting small details can cause major rifts. In fact, feeling forgotten has been proven to do major interpersonal damage.
For leaders, this kind of attrition quickly adds up: When you forget small details about your customers and teams, you send the message that you aren’t interested in them as people or invested in your relationships. This is especially true during times of crisis when people are looking to you for comfort and support. Remembering their individual circumstances will help you adjust your communications and expectations around each person’s situation. In a state of emergency, technology will only get you so far.
I can speak to this because it is a challenge I face daily. As president and CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty, the power of recall has been key to building and sustaining a business that hinges on relationships — you can’t succeed in real estate without showing people that they matter to you. By making sure I can show the people around me that I value and remember them, I’ve been able to stay connected with agents in more than 1,000 offices in 72 countries. I needed my memory to keep my business running before the pandemic. Now, it is essential.
Over the years, I have developed a strategy that has helped me limit my reliance on technology and continue to develop the strong, active memory I rely on daily. Whether you are a business leader, the CEO of a company, or an individual contributor, you can use this approach to do the same.
Figure out your learning style.
Research shows that the way people best absorb information varies depending on how they are wired. One of the best-known models, VARK, breaks down learning styles into visual, auditory, read/write, and kinaesthetic. This simple questionnaire can point you toward your own learning preferences. Equipped with this knowledge, you can adjust your interactions with others to optimize your ability to remember details about them, their work, and their lives.
I, for one, am predominantly an auditory learner; I best recall and digest information when I can hear it spoken aloud. I encountered this when I shifted from my first job in banking to my current role in real estate. Today, my success is dependent upon my ability to memorize not only the names of my clients and their children, but also the agents whom I work with, other professional connections, and any significant changes that occur in each of their lives — including marriages, moves, and career shifts. This information comes to me through genuine conversations and requires a great deal of active listening.
But listening in itself is not enough. To really take advantage of an auditory learning style, here are a few tactics that I have found helpful:
- Repeat names often in conversations when you first meet someone — this will make their names and details more likely to stick.
- Leave your laptop behind during meetings. Taking notes on a computer may distract you from retaining information.
- Make it into a game. If you work in an office building, try to remember the names of everyone on the opposite side of the floor. If you visit other branches of your company at regular intervals, see whether you can bring the team their preferred snacks. For example, I test myself regularly by trying to remember which buildings in Manhattan each of our clients lives in. These details are crucial to thriving in my industry.
For non-auditory learners, other tactics will work better. Visual learners may favor diagrams, graphics, and flash cards. Others will find that reading and writing down information cements it into their minds — for them, note-taking is nonnegotiable. Kinaesthetic learners need hands-on experiences with models or activities that engage their bodies.
Be selective about what you delegate.
When I started in real estate, I used to stay late and answer phones. Sure, I could’ve delegated this task. But because of how I learn, I knew it would help me remember the ins and outs of the business faster than I could have by clocking out on time. Doing the extra work expanded my memory capacity, as well as my contact list — one that I still rely on today.
In the beginning, I kept track of people in a giant Rolodex, personally organizing each contact’s information and committing it to memory as I did. No matter what kind of learner you are, this is a useful practice. Even if your contacts today are digitized, input any new information you receive into your smartphone or customer relationship management tool yourself.
Though it may be tempting to delegate this seemingly menial task to someone else — especially when you’ve got a million other things on your plate — you sell yourself short on learning when you do. As you input information, think about where and when you met each person. This practice is one that furthers my relationship-building goals, and it’s become an essential part of my memory-strengthening routine.
My point isn’t that you should never delegate tedious tasks. Rather, you should regularly evaluate whether the tasks you do delegate could actually benefit you. Tasks that help you repeat and recall information aid in memory consolidation — the process by which short-term memories are turned into long-term ones. Repeatedly studying information strengthens the neural networks that form recollections, equipping the mind to remember details with higher accuracy later on.
Prioritize information by newness, not importance.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but when I prioritize what I commit to memory, I don’t focus on the most important information first. Instead, I prioritize the newest information. Studies indicate that committing something to memory as soon as you learn the information could be more beneficial than trying to add it to your memory bank after doing something else. This is because when you shift your focus from one bit of information to the next, you slow down your memory encoding for the first item you were dealing with.
Whether I’m attempting to retain faces or facts, shifting the focus from importance to newness helps fresher details stick for the long term. Instead of asking myself, “How important is it that I remember this?” I ask myself, “What can I do right now to remember this later?”
This practice has proven to be particularly helpful when it comes to remembering people. When I first began running my business, I had 130 agents in one location. I had recruited and hired them — I couldn’t just forget their names. I wanted them to feel like they were valued and appreciated. Shouting, “Hey, buddy!” every time I walked by an agent I didn’t know would have turned me into an “out-of-touch CEO” — the kind of leader people feel they can’t have a relationship with and don’t really want to work for. We all know that bad bosses are one of the biggest factors of under-performance. This is why I made a point of remembering, and therefore appreciating, my newest contacts first.
When it comes to learning new information, it’s, again, all about repetition — an exercise that is doubly important for business leaders. There’s a relational cost to forgetting the name of a regional manager or the family structure of a potential client. Filing details fast can save you in the long run. Use these tactics to practice:
- Look up new people you meet online. Seeing their names in different contexts can help you commit them to memory.
- Ask a lot of questions in conversations, even if you might have already learned the answer to a question in your online research. The repetition of information will help it stand out in your mind later on.
- When meeting new clients or job candidates specifically, regroup with your internal team to consolidate details. Run through the list of people you connected with and confirm your data against the group’s. What other people remember can help spark your own recall.
The above practices may seem challenging at first, but they will be well worth it in time. When the moment comes, my phone is no substitute for accurate recall. I more often find that I can remember the information as soon as I need it — a skill that has helped secure my relationships and, in turn, my business and my job.
Further, on an interpersonal level, if we’ve learned anything from this crisis, it’s that we need connection — not just as leaders, but as human beings. If nothing else, know that the ability to remember is the ability to show people that they matter, and alone, that is something rare and invaluable.