How To Make The Best Memories: Tips To Optimize Your Memory Abilities

Stacey Koprince —  August 22, 2012 — 10 Comments

How much did you study for the GMAT this past week-end? For how many hours? Over how many sittings? What did you study and how did you study it?

Most importantly: how many breaks did you take and how long were they?

Time Magazine just published a fascinating little article: To Boost Memory, Shut Your Eyes and Relax. Go take a look at it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. : )

gmat memory

Has this happened to you? You have ambitious plans to study a ton of things this week-end. You get tired, but you’re determined to push through, so you keep studying. You begin to get a bit anxious because you feel you aren’t learning well (and you’re not!), so you study even more. You get even more tired, and that makes it even harder to learn. By the end of the week-end, you’re exhausted, frustrated, and demoralized.

You may have already heard me say this (many times on various forums or in blog posts!), but I’m saying it again because it’s so important: your brain makes better memories when it’s not tired.

The Time article quotes Michaela Dewar, the lead author of a new research study on this topic. She notes that we are at a very early stage of memory formation when we first start to study new information, and further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time.

The italics are mine. Note what Ms. Dewar has said: more stuff has to happen in our brains after we have studied this info in order for us to be able to recall that information later on.

The best part? The article indicates that this long-term memory consolidation occurs automatically, without people having to think about it. We just have to go do something else that doesn’t involve learning other new things. Eat lunch. Take a walk or exercise. Listen to some music while cleaning the house. Call your mom to say hi.

Also, get a good night’s sleep. As the article indicates (and as we’ve known for years), our brains continue to form new memories while we sleep each night. Interestingly, the article notes that sleep is especially helpful in developing what’s called procedural memory “ how to do something, such as solve a certain kind of GMAT question.

How can we use this in our GMAT study?

There are many ways to study, but for a significant study session “ one in which you want to cover a decent amount of material and learn multiple new things “ plan for 1 to 2 hours. If you can make it to 2 hours without getting too tired, go for it, but cut yourself off if you realize that you’re feeling significantly mentally fatigued. (What does that feel like? Read this.)

Note: watch out for an all-or-nothing attitude (I can’t study for the full 2 hours “ either because I have a conflict or because I know I don’t have enough mental energy to last “ so I might as well not even start). That’s just a recipe for procrastination. You can do an effective review or skill-building activity in just 10 or 15 minutes, if that’s all the time you have!

If you hit that 2-hour mark, though, stop. You can study more today, if you want, but not right now. Take at least an hour break. My general rule is that I break for at least as long as I studied “ so if I studied for 2 hours, I break for at least 2 hours. During your break, particularly within the first 30 minutes, try to do things that do not require either learning something new or making difficult decisions. In other words, try not to do things that take much of the same type of brain power.

Next, if you plan to study on days that you also have work or class (and most of us do have to do this), see whether you have the flexibility to study before or during the class / work day. You could get up a little earlier than normal (warning: don’t try this if you’re a night person) or possibly arrange to get into work a bit later than normal a couple of days a week. You could study on your lunch break or take your books or laptop with you to class so that you can review between two classes. These kinds of sessions are less likely to be able to last for 2 hours, but that’s fine “ you’re just trying to get some studying in while your brain is still fresh.

If you’re a night person, and you work during the day, then you don’t have to worry about this as much because your brain will naturally be relatively alert at night. But if you’re a morning person, work hard to try to find some alternatives that will let you get at least some studying done earlier in the day.

Key Takeaways for Making Strong Memories:

(1) Don’t overload your brain. When you become mentally fatigued, your brain does a poorer job of making new memories.

(2) Know what mental fatigue feels like so that you can recognize it when it’s happening. It does not feel like physical fatigue and it can actually be hard to realize when you’re in the midst of it “ after all, the whole point is that your brain is really tired! Read the article I linked above (Too Many Decisions Drive You Crazy); it contains a good description of mental fatigue.

(3) Keep to a steady sleep schedule as much as possible. You can’t guarantee yourself a good night’s sleep every night, but the steadier your schedule, the more likely you will be to get good sleep. Also, if you have been in the habit of getting too little sleep during the week and making up for it on the week-ends, make an effort to change the pattern to a more steady one. Your body, your brain, and everyone you know will thank you.

* GMAT is a trademark of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of the name or any material does not imply endorsement by GMAC.

Stacey Koprince


Stacey Koprince is an Instructor and Trainer as well as the Director of Online Community for Manhattan Prep. She's also a management consultant who specializes in corporate strategy. She has been teaching various standardized tests for more than fifteen years and her entire teaching philosophy can be summed up in five words: teaching students how to think.

10 responses to How To Make The Best Memories: Tips To Optimize Your Memory Abilities

  1. Thanks so much. It was quite helpful. Honestly, I didn’t know that why sometimes I have some basic mistakes in my calculations while I’m doing quantitative problems. My math skill is quite high and silly mistakes in calculations does not make any sense for catching 700+ level scores. By reading this article, however, I found that I didn’t have steady sleep schedule and it was very influential on my performance. Besides, I tried to study as long as possible till I became exhausted without consideration of this point which it should be enough break period to let your brain overcome the fatigues and get ready for new information and analysis. I really appreciate of your useful materials.

  2. Very Helpful information to organize oneself for a stress free preparation.

  3. Thanks for the important info. It’s likely to be helpful for all GMATTERS including myself.

  4. Excellent article, it provides a new way to understand how the brain manages to absorb new information. Very curious to know that the brain is processing the newly learned info while we doing other different activities.

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Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Developing a Study Plan (Part 2) - August 29, 2012

    [...] Get a calendar and block off one to two hours each day (okay, you can have one day off each week J). Also, you don’t have to do the 2 hours all at once. Also, you’ll probably have some days on which you can study only 30 minutes or even 15. That’s fine – start off planning for 1-2 hours each day, but it’s okay if a few days “slip.” You may then have other days on which you want to study 3 or 4 hours; that’s fine as well, as long as you don’t study for more than about 2 hours at a stretch. (Why? Read this.) [...]

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