If you intend to lead in any way, shape, or form, then performance--e.g., giving speeches, delivering a practiced pitch--comes with the territory. If you anticipate those performances too much, though, you might struggle to remember what happens before they take place, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo.
Anticipation messes with memory.
As described in a press release, researchers led by Noah Forrin conducted four experiments with 400 undergraduate students. These experiments built on previous work on the production effect, which asserts that the articulation, audition, and self-reference in reading something aloud help encode memories.
The researchers found that, when participants knew they'd have to read forthcoming words later on, they struggled to remember words they'd previously read silently. Put another way, it was harder for them to recollect information they got before the anticipated performance, compared with when they just thought they'd have to read forthcoming words silently.
The powerful brain doesn't like to multitask (and it shows).
Forrin asserts that the memory interference likely happens because, instead of concentrating on the information you're getting in the moment, your mind is veering off to concentrate on the future. Essentially, you can't really multitask and think of both things at once, so your brain doesn't encode what it's receiving in the present as well.
Some people might be hit harder than others.
The people who might have the worst time with this, Forrin says, are people with performance anxiety.
While there's work to be done to confirm Forrin's assertion, I suspect it might link to the fact that, while increasing the stress hormone cortisol during or after learning benefits memory consolidation, increasing it during recall--i.e., when you're up in front of everybody--actually makes it harder to pull up the memories you need. Chronically elevated cortisol interferes with memory, as well, so if you are always on edge at work and are worried about how you're doing, recall can be worse, too.
How to deal with performance-induced memory issues.
Because of the way all this works and the results his team got, Forrin recommends an easy hack for reducing pre-performance memory deficit.
Just try to get your performance over with first before anybody else.
With this simple strategy, Forrin asserts, once your own presentation is done, your brain won't be trying to play doubles anymore. You can focus solely on the information others are delivering to you and encode it well, rather than continuing to worry.
Granted, this strategy isn't always going to work in the office. You might need to wait for your turn because of a specific protocol or logistical issue, for instance, or because your information has to nest between other information from teammates.
But you might be able to, say, request to present at a conference in the morning instead of the end of the day, or you could make sure you schedule performance-based meetings early on Monday or Tuesday so you'll be focused for additional, unrelated training you need to take by the end of the week.
Memory encoding and recall is incredibly complex. We're still gathering pieces to understand it. But Forrin's research underscores a larger principle--we really mentally can handle only one thing at a time, whether we like it or not, particularly when under stress. Trying to do more creates interferences that hinder your results. Give your attention without division and you'll come out ahead.