How to Improve Working Memory: 10 Exercises That Work

| Memory

how to improve working memory feature imageSo you want to know how to increase working memory.


Having a strong working memory is proven to give you an advantage in life.

For example, working memory is involved in everything from giving stellar presentations to remembering what you read. Air traffic controllers rely on it and your ability to trade successfully on the stock exchange requires the honed focus only effective working memory can bring.

Working memory exercises will help if you don’t have enough of it and I’ll give you a bunch on this page.

But above all, you need more than just a bunch of working memory activities.

You also need what I call holistic memory training.

This is essential because exercising just one level of your memory is good.

But exercising all levels of your memory is outstanding.

So if you’re ready to target your memory both specifically and at large, let’s dive in and make it happen!

What Is Working Memory?

Working memory helps you manipulate information as it comes into your mind. It involves short-term memory, to be sure. But exactly how memory works comes down to working memory’s ability to essentially “juggle” information through multiple brain areas.

These brain areas include the:

  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Hippocampus
  • Amygdala
  • Intraparietal sulcus
  • Broca’s area

Together these brain areas allow you to access information and put it into use. Working memory also helps usher information into long-term memory.

It’s basically like a conductor of a symphony. It’s not any of the instruments as such. It’s the aspect of memory that governs how the brain prioritizes information. And it helps you “hold” onto the information so you can work with what your brain has prioritized.

You use working memory all day long, especially when you need to pay attention. It helps you deal with emergencies, which is one reason why many people criticize social media. We are suffering digital amnesia because scrolling through social media literally “burns out” our working memory by placing it in a state of constant alert.

So if you want to maintain the ability to think fast on your feet, it’s essential to keep your working memory healthy.

And that’s what you’re going to learn to do next.

light bulb in a dark background

How To Improve Working Memory 

When you target your approach to memory improvement at your working memory, there’s something really important to keep in mind.

It’s a big problem because of something called the transfer effect. The idea here is that nearly all working memory activities benefit you. 

But playing a memory training game doesn’t necessarily transfer to real life benefits. It only makes you better at playing the game. This effect is called near transfer. It happens a lot when we play video games.

Far transfer, on the other hand, happens when you engage in exercises that improve other aspects of your life. One simple example involves the benefits of developing bilingualism. Not only do you get great working memory benefits, but your long-term memory and other aspects of mental well-being receive great fitness.

So please keep this difference between near transfer and far transfer in mind as you select from the following list of activities.

One: Simple Games

Memory games like Tetris and crossword puzzles give you near transfer effects. You will enjoy an improvement of skills related to the games themselves.

At least, theoretically. Crossword puzzles are well-known for encouraging cheating, which winds up reducing the desired effect.

To get the most out of simple puzzle games, make sure that quick thinking is involved. Rather than hum and haw over the answers in a crossword puzzle and fall for the seduction of looking up the answers, go through it as quickly as possible.

Likewise, when playing Tetris, focus more on the experience. You can always play again and gradually refine your strategy as you go. But it’s important to realize that so much of the strategy is actually outside of your control due to the randomness of the algorithm. That’s why you will tend to get the best exercise by going as fast as you can and letting go of the outcome.

playing Tetris with a red game tool

Two: Brain Training Games

The app stores are filled with software games that will hide objects behind tiles and engage you in math puzzles.

As Christine Till has shared, Cogmed doesn’t show benefits much better than solving puzzles with pencil and paper. But there is one exception. She found that people who follow-up with an individual human coach do show somewhat better results. 

This makes a lot of sense because the near transfer skills can be contextualized through conversation and contextualization in a larger framework of goals.

But without that human touch, general brain training games tend to boost executive functions, but not working memory in any significant way.

Three: Code Breaking

When I designed my Memory Detective game and the accompanying novel, I made sure to include actual working memory exercise.

This requirement means that the game includes code breaking. Participants in the game will use memory techniques like:

These memory systems work to exercise working memory because they involve developing codes and decoding them. They also involve chunking and bootstrapping.

In other words, you use memorization strategies that break things down into smaller points. And you bind or join together different kinds of visual and auditory information as quickly as possible.

It’s fun and provides a substantial workout!

Four: Mental Math

Running calculations in your mind is a challenge that gives your working memory a real workout.

The Trachtenberg Method is particularly fun. You can also learn chisanbop or mental abacus routines. 

Learning to solve a Rubik’s cube falls under this category too.

Five: Chess

Every time you remind yourself of how a chess piece is allowed to move, you’re exercising your working memory.

You can take it to the next level by memorizing chess openings using mnemonics.

a woman is playing chess

Six: Take A Mental Journey

Dominic O’Brien is often credited with inventing the journey method. But it’s actually an ancient memory technique.

It exercises all the levels of your memory over time. But it’s especially demanding on your working memory while you use it.

The trick is to make sure that you’re populating your journeys with well-formed mnemonic images. This activity in itself provides tremendous working memory training.

Seven: Practice Concentration Meditation

Few activities provide a better workout than concentration meditation.

You can definitely “sit just to sit,” as Alan Watts put it.

But as I discuss in my book, The Victorious Mind, much better benefits roll in when visualization and semantic memory exercise is involved.

You might also consider some of the medieval activities, such as working with the ars notoria.

Eight: Optimize Your Diet

There are many foods that improve memory.

The problem is that no one can hand you a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all diet.

But the good thing is that reading and research also provide working memory exercise. So dive deep into figuring out the best possible diet for you.

I cover how I learned a very powerful set of dietary skills in The Victorious Mind if you want one particularly focused research resource.

And make no mistake:

Cooking for yourself will also exercise your working memory. You can literally mash two potatoes with one fork, if you know what I mean.

mashed potatoes in a white plate

Nine: Doodle

I went to university for a very long time. Eleven years in total, and then I taught at university for ten years after that.

Whenever I attend the talks of professors, I always bring a notebook. Sometimes I take notes in a standard format. But usually my note taking is quirky. That’s because I doodle. A lot.

You might think it’s impossible for doodling to give your memory a solid workout. But Jackie Andrade has demonstrated the “doodling effect” that I’ve benefited from many times in official experiments.

It works because doodling while listening to a lecture keeps your brain in what scientists call a “minimal state of arousal.”

Doodling is not to be compared to mind mapping, however. Mind mapping will also give your memory a workout, but you’re probably better off mind mapping later to give yourself what Dr. Gary Small and other memory experts call “passive memory training.”

Ten: Write Your Heart Out

Engaging with your autobiographical memory is powerful.

You can look through old photos, call up friends to reminisce, or just daydream through your past.

But to get a great memory workout that exercises all levels of your memory, writing a memoir provides fantastic exercise.

Memory requires you to juggle what you’re doing in the present moment while also drawing on prospective memory. You literally exercise your memory of what you need to write about next at the same time you’re digging through your recent and distant past.

Plus, you exercise your procedural memory as you operate your writing tools (pen or keyboard).

And if you really want to take things to the next level, you can sketch out your home.

That’s one of the exercises I teach in my FREE Memory Improvement Kit:

Free Memory Improvement Course

Even if you can’t draw, the simple exercises will get your pen moving and you’ll write out at least a few memories you have about friends and family.

Make no mistake: Writing is one of the most powerful memory exercises available. And it exercises just about every level of memory I’m aware of, including episodic memory.

And that’s what holistic memory training is all about.

So what do you say?

Are you feeling empowered to improve your working memory?

Let me know if you have comments or questions and get out there.

Use these exercises and you’ll literally feel the burn as you challenge your brain and enjoy the sensation of strengthening each and every aspect of your mind.

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