A Full Guide To Mastering Effective Meeting Recaps and Follow-Up Emails

Effective Meeting Recaps

Do you have meetings that you think were effective, useful, and productive, yet find later people have lots of questions about what happened? Do people not know what they need to be doing immediately after? Perhaps you struggle to get responses after a few days from your clients and colleagues? Not getting the right information from your email chains?

These are signs that you need to make a good meeting recap and follow-up emails. If you want to know how to send a follow-up email and a good meeting recap, then read on!

We have created a guide for you to craft a perfect meeting recap and follow up letter. We will give tips to craft the email, suggest some tools to help what you shouldn’t do, and give a follow up email sample. After reading this article, you should be able to get the most from your meetings and after meeting email chains. 

What is a Meeting Recap and Why You Should Compose It?

meeting summary

A meeting recap is in the name. It is a meeting summary that provides an overview of what was on the agenda, identifies the action points and sends them to the relevant participants. 

It has several benefits:

Keeps people informed

If you don’t compose this meeting recap, you will find that people are unsure of what needs to be done next, and important details will be lost.

Historical record

The recap email provides a good historical record, as it gives information that can be searched and found, which shows that all necessary communication was made, that the meetings that needed to be held were held, and people know who is responsible for certain tasks.  

Accountability

If people are unsure of who is responsible, or perhaps worried about a lack of transparency, the meeting recap email will help address these reasonable concerns. The main point of these is to ensure that everyone is clear on what took place, all participants know what needs to be done next, and this, in turn, guarantees accountability and that the meeting was a good use of time.  

What is a follow-up email?

follow-up message

A follow-up message is when you are waiting for some information or response after a meeting, and you need to get some answer. Perhaps this is a client, or you’re waiting to hear progress from a colleague on their work, and they haven’t responded. 

These types of emails do have some similarities to the recap meeting, as they are both about meetings that happened in the past, but it has a different goal. The goal here is to get some specific information, however, like the recap email, it requires an element of summarization. 

What to include in a recap email?

the meeting recap

The recap email should include:

A thank you

Say thanks to those who attended, and start the email with a friendly tone. Meetings take time out of people’s day, and people can get sick and tired of them. If they feel appreciated for attending, they will most likely attend future meetings as well. 

Summary of agenda

The agenda, which should have been sent before the meeting as well, should be sent as part of the follow-up email. Any discussion of the items and how they will be addressed should also be included. This way, everyone knows what was talked about, and what is to be done next. 

Action items

Action items should be included as part of the email, but also tagged should be those who have to deal with them. This way, everyone knows what is to be done, by who, when, and why. 

Relevant documents and data

Any documents that were presented in the meeting, such as data, statistics, presentations etc. should be attached to the email for review. So if anyone missed the meeting, or wants to double-check something, they can have a close look. 

A reminder of the next meeting 

Finally, add a reminder of the next meeting. You don’t want people forgetting when the meetings are, and ideally, it should be added to any calendar software you use, so people know when the meeting will be, what the agenda will be, and what needs to be done beforehand. 

What should follow-up emails include?

Follow-up emails should include the following:

A thank you

This starts the conversation in a good tone and prevents them from feeling like they are being hassled. 

A brief summary of the previous meeting

This should remind them of what was spoken about and will jog their memory to provide you with the right information

A polite request and reminder

It should end with a polite inquiry as to what is needed from you, and this should be direct, honest, and polite. 

Who is responsible for the meeting recap? 

Generally, the task of writing the meeting recap should be assigned to one particular person, who takes responsibility for the organization of the meeting. This can be the project leader, manager, or executive. This person should follow and understand the content of the meeting, be able to take meetings notes, and be familiar with the software to help communicate the key points of the meeting. 

Consider using software to record the meeting to automatically transcribe the meeting notes and extract action items that can be communicated to the team immediately. This will lessen the burden from you or whoever is recording and get the best notes possible. 

Who should receive the recap email?

Look at the list of attendees for the meeting. They should receive the summary of the meeting. Action items should also specifically go to those who need to undertake the particular task. In addition, consider anyone else who didn’t attend the meeting but is related to the project, so they know everything that was said and any news that may affect their work. 

How Long Should You Wait Before Sending a Meeting Follow Up Letter or Meeting Recap?

Meeting Follow Up

You should send the thank-you email with the recap after the meeting as soon as possible, with the key information included. The average worker sends around 40 emails and receives 120 per day, so it’s easy to get lost in this horde of information. If you wait too long, it will be forgotten about by the attendees, and when it comes to writing it, you will miss details you forgot about, and the action items are now late. 

However, this does not mean that they need to be rushed. Try to make sure you have all the key information, action items, and relevant people involved. Proofread a couple of times, and then send them. Ideally, a few hours after the meeting when it’s still fresh in your mind, but you’ve double-checked sufficiently.

A meeting follow-up email should be sent ideally two or three days after the meeting. This is to check in after giving the attendee time to reflect on the meeting. It is also worth considering sending a second follow-up email after no response if you want confirmation of receipt. Do not send this chaser email after the first day, rather give it some time, and you will find the response rate may actually then increase. If it has been ignored, there is probably some priority on the other end, and overloading too soon will also be lost again. 

Mistakes in Emails: What You DO NOT Need to Do

Mistakes in Emails

We explained what you should include, who to write to, and when to write the email. While these are absolutely important, it is just as vital to know what not to do in an email. Avoid the following mistakes next time you are writing a recap or follow-up email:

Send too brief an email

Recap:

“Hey everyone,

Today we discussed the budget, how the product is coming along, and John and Sarah both know what they need to do next.

 See you next time”

This would be a disastrous email for several reasons. We do not know what was said about the budget or the product first of all, so how can anyone who didn’t attend the meeting know what the project status is. 

Next, there is no thank you for anyone who came, so people who did attend won’t feel particularly appreciated taking their time out. 

Thirdly, we have no summary of what it is John and Sarah need to do, so they may not be clear and no one else knows what they are working on next. 

The closing remark is short on details, and there is no reminder of the date of the next meeting. 

Finally, and a minor point, the tone is very brief, and the grammar is very basic, it does not look like it has been proofread. All of this is why details and a bit of time spent on email crafting are so important. 

Follow up:

“Hi Tim,

Let me know what you think since the last time we spoke.

Regards,

J.”

This follow-up letter is equally overly short and underwhelming. There is no basis of communication, no details on what the email writer is after here. If it was a client, there is no attempt to persuade or engage the client, and they will not feel happy. If it was a colleague, then again, they may have no idea what the email wants. We will give you later a follow-up email sample.

Send too long or wordy emails

Meeting Recap:

“Good evening everyone,

Thank you so much for taking the time to come to the meeting on this day. I know you are all very busy, and with working from home it can be extra difficult to attend meetings, as I know many of you have families and other commitments. In today’s meeting, which took place at 11 o’clock on the 17th of June, we discussed how we can improve the budget, and James suggested that to cut costs we could outsource to another company on the development side, but John suggested that this would be to the detriment of controlling the development. John and Sarah both have lots to do, they have to write up a report on the current state of the product, and provide a full customer profile when they will detail their needs, budget, problems, and preferred social media. The next meeting will be on the first Thursday of the next month. 

Kind regards,

Claire from HR

Now, in this instance, we have the opposite problem. While it does follow the general pattern in including what should be included in the email, we can see an overly wordy summary. It generally could be written much more efficiently, the thank you particularly did not need to be quite so long. 

It also is written in one solid block of text, this is not easy to read and will turn people off reading past the first line. The action items went into too much detail, it would have been preferable to write “Customer profile report to be written by John and Sarah” for example, and the details sent separately.

Follow up:

Good afternoon Timothy,

I am glad we had the pleasure to discuss such an important matter the other day of whether you think our business can offer a solution to people in your situation. I agree with everything you said and have been reflecting on it a lot. I would be most grateful if you could oblige me with your further thoughts on collaboration in the future. Please write to me in detail about everything you think, and we can arrange another meeting in the future, I am sure. 

Yours sincerely,

Claire 

This is very wordy, flowery, and not very specific either. For a meeting follow-up, while politeness is a key asset, it just sounds unnecessarily lengthy. It would be better if the writer were more efficient. 

Send too many emails

In addition to writing overly long emails, being overloaded with emails is a problem. Whether it’s because you made mistakes due to a lack of proofing, or because you’re eager for responses, you may end up sending too many emails. This means people will skip or miss emails with important information, will turn off notifications, and generally pay less attention to them. 

These are important emails and people need to read them, so do all you can to help them. Send one as soon as you can after the meeting, and if you need to send a second to follow up again, give it a few days. 

Send to the wrong people

To lessen the load of emails, make sure you only send them to the right people. Do all the employees need to know each and every meeting that took place? No. Do developers need to know the finer details of a marketing meeting? Probably not. Do the senior executives need to know the content of the meeting or is this something for more junior members? These are questions you should consider. 

When making a recap email, think, who is involved in the project, who attended or was invited to the meeting, and who has to do something as a result of the meeting. They should receive the summary. Anyone else, it will just be annoying, and when they receive summaries of meetings they should see, they will more likely ignore. 

Assume anything

Just because you sent the email does not mean people read it. Or that because you said the time of the next meeting, people will remember. Maybe people didn’t receive it. Maybe they pretended to read it.

What can you do about this? Communicate well, but add things such as dates attached to calendars with the next meeting. Send all the action items and meeting notes through other programs, such as Slack, or any other software you use. It doesn’t have to be another entire email, but the core action items and discussed items from the meetings. This will make it easier for the attendees to receive the information and to ensure that nothing is missed. 

When it comes to meeting follow-ups, ensure that the important details are mentioned again. You can’t assume what has been remembered whatsoever if you wish to achieve good results. 

Give a whole transcription

Transcribing meetings is good for records. But sending an entire transcript, or recording of the meeting would mean the attendees have to spend more time just trying to find some important information. Imagine you’re on a Friday afternoon after a meeting, ready to go home (or turn off your laptop if you work from home) and now you have to spend an hour reading or listening through the meeting you just attended, this would be a tedious task many people don’t want to do. 

What can you do to fix this problem? Use software like Notiv to isolate and transcribe the key action items and topics covered in a meeting. This can give short, easy to read summaries of the meetings, and everyone knows what happened and what needs to be done next. 

Other tips

Meeting Recaps Tips

Here we have a range of other tips to consider when crafting your emails. 

Integrate

We’ve mentioned it a couple of times, but it is a tip on its own. Integrate your emails and the follow-up information with other apps and software. For example, Notiv can send out action items immediately after the calls, wherever they took place, to send to Slack. This will ensure everyone knows what to do. 

Attach the next meeting date invitation to calendars, such as Google Calendar, create the invites for the next meeting immediately (with zoom for example), and send out action items with other software such as Slack. MS Teams for example allows you to send out invitations in emails, and they click attending, and it syncs automatically with the windows calendar. You can also use software such as Calendar which compiles all your various calendars together. 

Automate

Automate the transcribing process, to make better meeting notes. You don’t want to be too distracted in the meeting writing everything down, so while you can follow some tips, you should enlist the help of software to guarantee nothing is missed. Send out automatic reminders, so you can keep people in the loop, that way you won’t word about forgetting anything yourself! 

Mobile Friendly

When you write your emails, remember a lot of people check their emails on their phones. Movable Ink reported that 62% of emails are read on mobiles! Making sure emails are mobile-friendly is a great way to make sure people read them easily.  How can you do this?

  • Have short subject lines, to make it easier to read at first glance and to ensure people open the email
  • Have spaces between links, because on mobiles it is easy to accidentally press the wrong links. 
  • Avoid large photos and other interactive visuals, because on mobiles they may ruin the structure of the email and be difficult to see.
  • Use larger fonts, to make it easy to read on the smaller screens. 

Avoid cliche

“I hope this email finds you well”

How many times do you read this and groan? Other phrases that are most hated, according to one survey, were “Kind regards” and “As per my last email”. Put some creativity when writing your email, and try to write like an actual human being, and people will pay more attention. The best greetings, for example, were simple phrases like “Hi” and “Good morning/afternoon”. Keep them simple, real, and sincere. 

Meeting Recap and Follow-Up Emails: Template and Samples

Meeting Recap and Follow-Up Emails Samples

So, how to best summarize a meeting? And what does a great follow-up email look like? Here we will provide some examples you should follow. Do this, and people will read your emails, remember them, and follow the action items! 

Here is a general template you should follow when crafting your email. This should serve as a good starting point when creating your emails:

Meeting Recap:

Good morning/afternoon

Thank you so much for attending [meeting name] today. We covered a lot of good ground, such as (brief summary of topics). Great work!

Here is a summary of the meeting:

  1. Talking point A
  2. Talking point B
  3. Talking point C

These are the main action items to be undertaken. These will be sent as well via (communication tool):

  1. [name] will do [task] by [Deadline Date]
  2. [name] will do [task].[Deadline Date]

(optional) In addition, attached are the (presentations/data/other documents) for reviewing. 

Our next meeting will take place via (software), on the (date) and the invitations will be sent shortly/have been sent with this email. 

Have a great day!

(Name)

Here we have provided a follow-up email template:

Good morning/afternoon (name/s)

Thanks for taking the time the other day to chat about (the topic at the previous meeting).

 We had a good conversation and I think we have some other things to talk about. I remember you saying (give an example of an important topic covered) and I shared with you (some important details of what you discussed). 

I just want to check in on (what you need to hear from them). Let me know as soon as you can, and we can arrange another chat. 

Have a great day

(Name)

Samples

So let’s take a look at how these templates would look like filled in:

Meeting Recap

Hi everyone,

Thank you all for attending the meeting this morning. We got through the agenda and made great progress on some important topics, including marketing direction and the budget for the department. Good job! 

In today’s meeting, we discussed the state of the market research on our new products. We reviewed what tasks had been completed since the previous meeting and listed additional tasks that need to be done. Here are more details on these discussions:

  • John has a basic breakdown of three types of consumers of our product
  • The team decided we should focus on all three of these consumers, but tailor different marketing for them. 
  • Sarah shared some key updates on the budget, sharing areas we need to reduce overheads, and others that have a surplus

The following action items are to be completed:

  • John is to develop a fuller outline of our key market, with help from marketing. Deadline: July 5th.
  • Reid will come up with a content plan. Deadline: July 15th
  • Sarah will discuss with the accountancy department and HR to discuss reallocation of funds. Deadline: July 9th

The action items will be sent also via Slack. 

Our next meeting will be on July 20th, a Zoom link has been attached. 

Please contact me if you have any questions.

Sincerely,

Claire

You see how in this email, the spacing is nice and clear, so people can read it easily. It follows a clear logical structure, is friendly, provides sufficient detail but does not overwhelm, and covers everything we have talked about. Follow this structure, and you will write some killer emails!

Follow-up:

Good morning Jeremy,

Thanks for taking the time the other day to chat about our software. We had a good conversation and I think we have some other things to talk about.

 I remember you saying that your company are having around 5 meetings a week per person, that they go on very long, and I shared with you how our software can help them be more productive. 

I just want to check in on when you are able to speak to me about the next steps. Let me know as soon as you can, and we can arrange another chat on Zoom. 

Have a great day

Claire

Here it is friendly, but straight to the point. It summarizes what was discussed, so the recipient remembers, and they know exactly what is needed from this email quickly. It could be longer if necessary, and more details are needed, but this is the type of email you should be writing.  

Conclusion

meeting recap

In this article, we explained why you should write a meeting recap and follow-up email. We explained what should be included, who to contact, what you shouldn’t do, and provided some other advice, as well as recap and follow-up email samples you can follow. We hope you can now write these follow up letters and recap emails with confidence and know exactly why you need to spend a bit of time to make these. 

Notiv provides software to help you craft meeting agendas, share action items, and summarize meeting notes with AI. Learn more about Notiv’s pricing and start a free trial today

How To Eliminate Time Wasters at Work and Increase Your Productivity

distractions at work

How often do you stop working, even when you try your best to focus on a task? Does the sound of a notification, someone’s voice, an email, or another meeting regularly ruin your productivity? There are many distractions at work, whether you work in an office or at home, and they come in many different forms. This article will help you accomplish more tasks and beat these time wasters effectively

A study on the consequences of interrupted work shows that workers usually overcome this issue with speedy compensatory tasks, leading to a stressed-out workforce.  So it is something that needs addressing if you or your team are struggling to be as productive as you’d like. Another study by Gallup found that on average, workers in the office are interrupted every 3 minutes, so that is a lot of distractions!

Knowing what the distractions are, and how to deal with them, will help you overcome these time wasters much easier. We explain the types of distractions you and your colleagues face every day, list the top time wasters, and give you some advice on how to beat them, increasing productivity.

Most Common Distractions from Work

You may think that a chatty colleague, or your lack of willpower to not check your phone are the only time wasters at work you need to worry about. While these are big time wasters, and we’ll get to them, there are many types of distractions, some of which you may never think about. We list the main categories of distraction:

types of distractions

Technological Time Wasters

This one isn’t a surprise, we’ve already mentioned it twice! However, it comes in a few forms. Phones are the main distraction, with over 46% of people in one U.S survey spending 5-6 hours on their phone a day. Generally, the rate of people using their phones is increasing year over year. Technological devices help us in many areas of life, but there is so much on there which, in the context of work, could be a waste of time.

It’s not just phones though, these distractions can come on other tech devices. Sitting facing your computer, it’s very easy to get distracted, whether by social media, emails or even by other work-related messages on slack. We will come to all of this in more detail later on.

managing distractions

Working Space

How your workspace, whether a home office or otherwise, is set up is another major factor in how productive you are. If there are lots of people walking around and talking to you, and if you have a lack of personal space to get your work done, you will most likely be interrupted a lot, and lose out on productivity. 

how to accomplish tasks effectively

Lack of Self-management

These types of time wasters can be the result of poor working methods, but also from poor organization on behalf of the company. One study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that due to Covid-19, the number of meetings and emails sent increased significantly, leading to a long workday, and a more stressed workforce. When there is a lack of coordinated communication within the company, too many meetings, and a constant stream of conversations which could be done via much more efficient communication, rather than letting workers get on, then productivity will suffer. 

Personal Habits

The final type of time waster is more about personal choices. Unhealthy habits, like a bad diet, lack of sleep, and too much sugar, for example, can lead to a lack of concentration. A lack of exercise can mean you sleep poorly, leading to bad concentration at work. Too much caffeine as well can lead to an inability to focus on your tasks. 

Also, are you a tidy person? An untidy work environment has been proven to cause a lack of productivity as well and can lead to distraction. A study by Princeton showed how order is preferred by the human brain to be productive. 

The Biggest Workplace Time Wasters

We’ve explained the types of time wasters you may experience. Here are the top three distractions at work you need to overcome and some tips on how to do so. 

Smartphones and Social Media

We already mentioned electronics, and smartphones are the top distraction. Of course, phones can be used for work and just because you or your colleague are looking at their phone when sitting at their desk, it doesn’t mean no work is getting done. However, it can still cause a lot of interruptions. 

When you’re on a phone, notifications may come in, and it’s very easy to get sidetracked. This is why social media is a real distraction, as are emails, and other forms of communication that have little notifications, as your brain instinctively wants to react. 

Social media has been found in some studies to be a major cause, if not the main cause, of distraction in the workplace. People spend a lot of time on them endlessly scrolling, but also, even if they aren’t on the apps themselves when workers just know that people are available at any time at the press of a button, they cannot focus on their tasks well. 

How can we overcome this, when we rely so much on our phones? The best solution, aside from deleting those distracting apps which obviously would be the most effective, if a bit drastic solution these days, is to turn off notifications from non-work-related apps during working hours. This way, nothing will disturb you, and you can avoid staring at your phone too much. 

Noise 

Noisy neighbors and workplaces can be disastrous to your concentration. Whether it’s a colleague constantly bothering you or some construction in your neighborhood as you work from home, noise is proven in various studies to be a major source of stress and distraction. Due to the rise of open-plan offices, this is made worse, not better. In addition, if your home office is full of noise, you may well also struggle. 

Few people would rather work in tiny cramped cubicles, so open, or partially open offices, are most likely going to stay. Therefore, the best solution to this is to wear headphones and listen to something that is not too distracting. Music can help you at home or the office and can drown out any distracting noises. Find what music is right for you as it shouldn’t be anything too overwhelming or stimulating itself to enable you to focus! 

Overload of Communication

time wasters at work

This factor is a combination of the previous two but needs discussing. Notifications, emails, and offline or online meetings constantly getting in the way of work are major sources of distraction.  If you are having to stop your work every ten minutes to have another chat with a manager, and have days full of meetings, it’s very hard to get your work done. 

This requires an overhaul of how communication is done in the company, for channels to be properly organized, and for meetings to be productive and only when necessary. We will come to what you or your management can do to fix this shortly, as it requires a bit more detail. 

Eliminating time wasters

We’ve got a few other tips to ensure you get the most out of your workday, manage distractions and utilize your time more effectively:

Time management

It is rare that workers actually work each and every minute of their working day. We all need rest, not just to be more productive but for our well-being. Allocate time for specific tasks, give yourself a plan of what you will do so you aren’t multitasking, and give yourself time to breathe and relax as well. This will allow you to focus better when you do need to work, allowing you to be far more productive, than overwhelming yourself with 100 things to do at the same time. Very few people can successfully multitask, so don’t overburden yourself. 

time wasters

Workspace

Environment dictates and a messy desk is a major distraction to your work, even if you don’t think so. So, clear your desk, have a quiet environment or use headphones, and also close all useless programs and applications from your computer and phone. Try to take a more minimalist approach and you will find yourself being more productive

managing distractions

Keep yourself healthy

This isn’t always easy of course, but trying to make some improvements to your health will help you be productive at work and less liable to be distracted. 

Regular hydration has been shown in studies to massively increase concentration. Not only this but hydration can help reduce appetite and benefit your health in many different ways. It can also substitute drinks full of sugar and caffeine (maybe not all of your coffees of course.)

Exercising can lead to better sleep, better mood, and more energy, allowing you to be more focused. 

A good diet as well will lead to better energy levels, so think about what you will have at lunch when you’re working if you want to be productive. 

distractions at work

Productivity Management Software

There is a wealth of apps you can use to boost your productivity and manage distractions. In addition, they will help you and your company achieve more effective communication.  These can really help with the problem of too many meetings, messages and poor communication.

Productivity Management Tools that Helps You Avoid Time Wasters

waste of time

We gave you some tips so far to help you get on with your work with ease. To further help you, we have collected some of the best tools available to you to increase your productivity and overcome distraction when working. Here is a list of the types of tools you can utilize:

Distraction Blocking Tools

When you use these applications which block out sites, social media or whatever else is a big time waster, you can be considerably more productive. You can block out certain sites and other apps while you work, keeping yourself from going into wormholes on the internet. Free browser apps such as Leechblock, Freedom, or Serene (among many others) can do this, and you can usually specify certain times, days etc, that you want to block a list of particular sites on your browser. 

how to accomplish tasks effectively

Time Management Tools & Productivity Software

 

In addition, you can use timekeeping apps such as Toggl, Due, or Toptracker, to help you keep track of how long you spend on a task. Using this kind of software can also help you plan and manage what tasks you have to do for the month, week, day, hour, so you can ensure you stay on top of everything you need to do.

time wasters

Collaborative Software

Using collaborative apps, particularly ones that integrate well with others and can be all found under one “roof” really help coordinate communication, leading to less pointless meetings, fewer interruptions, and more efficient communication. You can place work tasks, pin vital information, and send messages to individuals or groups. For example, Slack is a great place to have different channels for conversations between relevant team members. Trello is a good place to share work tasks in real time, especially for small teams. As well, Notion is an excellent collaborative software, combining tasks, key company info, and communication in one place.  

managing distractions

Meeting Management Software

You most likely will have online meetings. Software such as Zoom, or Microsoft Teams can be good ways to host these virtual meetings with multiple attendants. In addition to having better communication, it’s good to make the most of any online meetings, no matter what platform you host these meetings on.  

For example, you can use Notiv to ensure that all meetings, on any software, are recorded, transcribed, and the key information is noted, so that everyone knows what happened in a meeting and, what to expect in future meetings.

By doing so, meetings won’t take too long to recap information, and everyone knows what to do afterward. It can be integrated with other apps as well such as Slack, to ensure all communication about any meetings is stored and done effectively. No more going through notes or repetitive questions about previous meetings, no more pointless meetings as time wasters, it’s all in one virtual space. 

Conclusion

We hope this article has given you some useful advice to ensure you overcome distractions at work. There are three main things to focus on, the workspace, personal habits, and how communication is done at work. There are a range of tools out there to help you with a lot of this, so no matter where you work or what you or your team do, we can all be more productive.

It is also vitally important to recognise the disruption too many meetings can have at work and try to focus on reducing this load.

sales call tips

By removing distractions in the workplace, increasing concentration abilities, and generally creating a better environment for working in, you will greatly improve productivity and allow you and your team to get on with what they need to do.

How Memory Works: The Science of Memory

how memory works

How are memories formed in the brain? Our memory works in distinctive ways to take what we perceive and encode it in our brains. It’s the very framework we need to make sense of our day-to-day, take action and create better value from the time we invest in a task.

Unfortunately, memory is a tricky thing to master. While it may take you an entire day to memorize a chapter, you can forget that chapter in just minutes! In fact, studies have shown that in the 10 minutes it takes for you to grab your morning coffee, you have forgotten 42% of what you just did. If you’ve just left a meeting where you weren’t actively paying attention, that means you’ve effectively just missed a good chunk of the information you needed. Because your brain selectively stores information based on the importance you give it, you could be losing important information that you might need in hindsight and this is where inefficiency starts.

the science of memory 2

And it doesn’t stop there. Over the next few hours, you’re likely to forget 64% of the information you wanted to retain and by the end of the week, all you’re likely to remember is that you had a meeting and who attended it. This is the “Forgetting Curve”. Created by 19th Century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, the “Forgetting Curve” depicts your loss of crucial information if there is no attempt to retain it. Basically, what this means is that you very quickly lose your memory what you’ve learned within a week unless the information is consciously reviewed.

the forgetting curve

There are loads of articles on memory, how to remember things quickly and techniques, from simple methods like mnemonics to more intricate techniques like Learning Pyramid or Memory Palace. But perhaps the best place to start is to understand how memory and the art of forgetting works. We’ll also share some simple techniques you can use to improve your memory quickly.

What is memory?

Cognitive science has identified that memory works in a “dual-process”, where your subconscious memory interacts with your conscious to help you recall information quickly.

Your subconscious mind is involved in routine processes like breathing. Whereas your conscious memory handles problem-based processes. At each of these two levels, your brain is constantly encoding, storing, and recalling the information. Understanding this relationship is crucial to maximizing your ability to memorize and recall information because now you can leverage the two types to work for you!

the science of memory 4

Think back to the last time you learned a new skill. For example, the first time you made spaghetti, there was a component of conscious intention, concentration and analysis, whether it was about the color of the sauce, the amount of salt you put in or your pasta-to-cheese ratio. However, as your ability improves, this process stops being something you need to actively think about and becomes more intuitive. The phrase, “I could do it in my sleep” comes to mind.

What is forgetting?

Now imagine you’ve got a bucket full of water, but it’s got a couple of holes that leak out 90% of your water. Memory is the same. While you can collect and store information, if it’s not stored properly, you risk losing or being unable to recall the information, which is an inefficient process. There are several ways you could lose or miscode information, namely:

  • Memory Decay: When you learn something and don’t rehearse or revise it, memories decay or fade away.
  • Interference: Your old memories and information compete with the formation of new memories, thereby making it difficult to remember what is new and what isn’t.
  • Failure to store: Some information, for instance, unimportant details, never make it to your long term memory. These bits of information, like the chorus of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, you really don’t need to remember.
  • Memory Repression: Suppression of extremely disturbing or traumatic incidents is a defense-mechanism applied by the brain which results in a lack of clear memory of them.

How to Remember Things Quickly

So why is it that Billie Jean is now playing in your head? It’s because you don’t just remember songs, you use a host of other indicators like where you were, what you were doing, how you felt and even what you were smelling to recall the song. These different components come together to help you form a stronger memory and increases your chances of remembering the event.

The good news is that there are many methods, techniques and tools that you can use to help you retain information.

  • Take a snooze: REM sleep is important is because your brain moves information from short-term memory in the hippocampus to long-term memory in the cortex during this stage.
  • Something new: Learning new things in a creative manner or in unfamiliar circumstances will help you remember things quickly because it triggers additional activity in the hippocampus.
  • Stress or Danger: You tend to remember stressful events because of the impact it makes. Therefore, such events can be recalled faster as they are “flashbulb memories”; they hold a prominent place in the memory bank. That’s why your last-minute cram session can actually be beneficial.
  • Spaced Repetition: This is the best method to help you remember things quickly. Every time you reinforce the training, the rate of decline reduces.

The Spacing Effect

It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

The most important skill you can take up today is how to learn, even if this means you need to unlearn something. Learning how to learn is a principle under the “work smarter, not harder” tactic to anything you start in life. Your time is precious, and no one wants to waste it on something which will just be forgotten. What we want to do is drive more value from the time we invest.

We are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them over several, frequent sessions. You can learn almost anything using this method!

Spaced repetition might not work if you have to recite a 100-page list tomorrow but the information learned via this method tends to be effectively retained over a long time.

The spacing effect of memory retention

The reminders need not be repetitive as different techniques can work better at retaining information, although this can differ for different people as well:

  • Teach someone else immediately: 90% retained
  • Practice what you’ve learned: 75% retained
  • Engage in a group discussion: 50% retained
  • Demonstrations: 30% retained
  • Audio-visual cues: 20% retained
  • Reading: 10% retained
  • Lectures: 5% retained

‍The Bottom Line

In conclusion, the best memory techniques encapsulate a few basic principles like frequent repetition, leveraging subconscious memory to improve conscious memory and using different modes of repetition. Thereafter, try to test your memory and review every 3-5 days.