Top 10 Ways to Battle Digital Dementia

For the last couple of years, I have felt like I was losing my ability to remember pretty much…. anything.  I was terrible with names.  I couldn’t remember some childhood events that should otherwise seem salient.  I was even forgetting names of places that I had traveled and swore I would never forget (like the Island of Gavdos in Greece where everyone is naked ...seriously, how do you forget that?).   I was thinking that maybe I’m getting hit with some early stage memory loss.  I didn’t even want to do the 23andMe genetic test because I thought it might reveal my genetic predisposition to dementia.  

My brain has been on overload for quite some time.  I am trying to consume so much information that I simply can’t retain everything.  With such easy access to quick hit content (whether it be news, fake news, stock market, social media) I am constantly bombarding my brain with new information.  My ability to retain this incoming data was simply overwhelming and while it didn’t feel overwhelming in the moment, I was clearly experiencing the impact of it.  Why?  Cognitive overload.  All of that skimming and constant notifications were creating digital dementia.

It is almost like my brain said, “Don’t worry about remembering anything Russell because you will be able to look it up online.”  That term neuroscientists are using, “Digital Dementia”, explains how the constant use of digital technology results in the deterioration of cognitive abilities such as short-term memory.  I believe this is a real problem here and I’m writing about it now because I have dramatically changed my digital behavior since moving to Costa Rica last month.

Here’s the deal.  I have been in a language immersion program for the last three weeks in Costa Rica.  I am not tethered at all times to the Internet.  I’m not consuming the news every 15 minutes.  I’m not watching my portfolio like a hawk.  I’m not sending emails (or hitting email refresh) every 5 minutes.  I’m not getting slacked, texted, or notified.  I am focused but not stressed or anxious.  I am sleeping >8 hours/night.  And the result:  I think I have my memory back.

I am memorizing hundreds of new Spanish words and conjugations.  I am remembering the names of the people that we are meeting and interesting facts about them.  I have much faster recall on past experiences.  The work that I am taking on is specific, time boxed, and focused.   But you don’t need to move to Costa Rica or make a major life change if you feel like you’re experiencing digital dementia.  Consider these top 10 actions (heck, try 5 of them):

  1. Find 10 minutes of mindfulness in the morning
  2. Get >8 hours of sleep
  3. Use Inbox Pause so you aren’t feeling the need to constantly check email
  4. Don’t take your phone to bathroom (that’s probably where you check mindless content)
  5. Turn off your Slack notifications that put you on other people’s schedules
  6. Turn off your phone notifications that buzz/vibrate every 3 minutes
  7. Read a book (but more important, commit to 30 minutes each night)
  8. Commit to something that requires memorization (e.g. a language)
  9. Try a digital detox (put away the phone on a weekend or 3 nights/week)
  10. Limit (or eliminate) Facebook consumption (when 1-minute turns into 1 hour)

I would love to hear other strategies to battle Digital Dementia and get back ownership of your memory.  It has been really invigorating to realize that the issue wasn’t losing my mind, but rather my mind was getting lost trying to absorb too much information.  I don’t think I needed to move to Costa Rica to figure this one out but it has been a heck of a forcing function!