Monday 8th May 2017

Short And Long Term Memory

By Jo Cowlin

Use it or lose it. How your short and long term memory affects your ability to learn.

“Naughty Dolly! If you don’t put your shoes on this minute, I’m going to leave without you!”

We’ve all cringed when we’ve heard our kids railroading their favourite doll, in an oh-so-familiar style. They have our language, our tone and our mannerisms down to a tee. When Christopher Paolini said…

“People have an annoying habit of remembering things that they shouldn’t”

…I’m sure he was talking about his children. When we’re repeatedly exposed to certain things and there’s an emotional experience or connection to it, we start to learn how to do, or how not to do things.

Here’s a super stat for you. 80% of our learning takes place unconsciously. 80%! That’s huge. We’re picking up information all the time and if it’s repeated day in and day out, it finds its way to our Long Term Memory (LTM). This process defines us as people. What goes into our LTM determines our behaviour, our relationships and the way we look at the World.

It explains why people have habits and behaviors that can seem inappropriate. They may have observed and been repeatedly exposed to these behaviors in others, making emotional connections with them. Not just in childhood, but at home or in the workplace as part of a company culture. These patterns and behaviours become hard wired into the LTM and are therefore very difficult to change.

We can however, become much more conscious in the way that we learn or how we create learning opportunities for others. True learning involves getting information into our LTM, but much of what we think we’ve learned is soon forgotten or was never learned in the first place. So, how can we make sure crucial information is stored in our LTM and we make learning stick?

Review, rehearse, review and rehearse some more! We lose about 50% of what we’ve learned in a 24-hour period, because our Short Term Memory (STM) decays very quickly. If we don’t review the information, we have to learn it all over again. Remember all those late night GCSE cramming sessions? Feeling like you were reading things for the first time? It could all have been avoided if you’d done the follow up homework, or even read over your notes that evening. Good old hindsight eh.

For information to get into and stay in our LTM, we need to connect with it. We need to format the information in different ways to help us relate to it effectively. So if you’re learning a new skill, you might find different ways to practice. Or you might draw a mind map about the process. Or you could show someone else how to do it. Find the right format for you and you’ve cracked it.

If our LTM is like a giant filing cabinet, where hard copies of information/knowledge/skills and insights are stored, think of our STM as an email inbox. Vast amounts of information and stimulus enter it every day, most of it junk. Unless we pay particular attention to something, it’s just in storage and could end up in the trash. If we don’t work through our inboxes, they just fill up until nothing else can go in. You might just be able to recognise something, or recall it if asked to do so, but it won’t be recovered easily.

If we want to retrieve something from our STM, we need to tidy that inbox! Set up those filters! Process the information we need, file it away and trash the irrelevant stuff. This creates lots of lovely space in our inbox, so that we can receive new information.

How does information move from the STM to the LTM? Via the Working Memory (WM) of course! Stick with me. The WM is a bridge between the STM and the LTM. It’s the thing that decides what information we keep and what we trash. If we believe a piece of information is important, we need to act quickly, around 5-20 seconds to be precise. If we don’t do something with it, it’s as good as gone.

Which brings me to our old pal Attention Density. For the information to be processed in the WM, before it’s transferred to the LTM, we have to action it. A champion ski jumper will practice over and over again until they know the jump inside out. Then they’ll rehearse it mentally, visualising a successful outcome. Because information must be classified, organised, connected to and stored with information already in the LTM, it takes time and effort to get there. And not just for the Olympic Athletes.

What does this mean for you?

If you want change to stick permanently you need to think about how you will expose yourself, team, or organisation to new information/skills/insights/knowledge.

How will you create an optimum environment that will enable the learner to process information through their WM? Where learning is reinforced and revisited, in different styles and formats. How will you create a space that allows yourself or others to take conscious and consistent action to build an efficient LTM filing system?

If you take these principles on board, you can create effective strategies to take the learning on, rather than leaving it to chance. You can design your own learning interventions. You can set yourself up to succeed, bringing about the change you wish to achieve in your behavior, your skill set, your team or your whole organisation.

About the author 

Jo Cowlin

Jo Cowlin, Director of Bolt from The You

To find out how Boltology could radically transform your mindset and your organisation, drop an email to us at

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