When I met Nick Winter in downtown San Francisco, he wasn’t wearing shoes. His dress pants and V-neck sweater kept him from looking completely homeless. Nick, a 28 year-old author and entrepreneur, wrote a book called The Motivation Hacker that follows his three month quest to achieve as many goals as possible: from launching a successful startup, to learning to throw knives, to skydiving, to running a marathon, and many more.
A few weeks ago, I suggested that he and I sit down for coffee. Always the adventurer, Nick instead decided we should go on a walking burrito breakfast. We covered a lot of ground (both physically and metaphorically) as we talked about his collection of crazy experiences. The content of the conversation was fascinating, but there was also something remarkable about the fact that we were in motion. If I could have it my way, I’d never go on a non-walking meeting again.
Building a memory palace
After a long talk with an interesting person, it can be hard to remember everything that was discussed. Our brains simply can’t hold that much information in short-term memory. But a group of brainiacs who call themselves memory athletes have discovered a way to massively increase their mental storage capacity.
Though our short-term memories are limited, our spatial memories are far more robust. It’s easy, for example, to walk through your home in your mind and remember the rooms, doors, and decor in vivid detail. Memory athletes have learned to tap into the power of spatial memory. Anything can be remembered, they say, by constructing a building (a memory palace) in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needs to be recalled. The more unique the imagery, the longer the memory will last. When memory athletes want to remember a piece of information, they simply walk back through their memory palaces to find it.
Walking meetings make conversations easier to remember because, without even knowing it, you’re building a memory palace while en route. You’re subconsciously associating what you’re talking about with where you are. The fact that you’re moving gives your brain an extra data point that’s useful when it comes to remembering what happened. You’re able to ask yourself the question, “What were we talking about when we passed [x] landmark?” Like a memory athlete in an imaginary palace, you can walk through the conversation in your mind’s eye.
The conversation in a non-walking meeting ebbs and flows, but the environment stays relatively static. An interaction in a coffee shop or a boardroom takes place in front of an unchanging backdrop. This environmental monotony can make meetings feel like one long, extended blur. It’s harder to tease out the component parts of a conversation because there’s not as much differentiating them.
If you’re trying to improve your memory, maybe it’s a good idea to always be switching up your environment—physically, intellectually, and emotionally. My roommate Raghav Haran separates his past into distinct chapters by changing colognes each time he reaches a major turning point in life. His theory is that the smell of each cologne will trigger a different collection of remembered experiences. I’m not saying we should all alter our scent on a regular basis. I do think, however, that we should think less about how to slow time down and more about how to slice it into easily distinguishable pieces. We can’t change the speed at which time moves, but we can change how we perceive and editorialize it.
Embedded along the route
When our walking burrito breakfast came to an end, Nick gave me a hearty handshake and waved goodbye. I couldn’t believe he’d survived our hour-long meeting without shoes. Even more surprisingly, my memory of the conversation has remained almost as unscathed as Nick’s feet. It’s embedded in my mind’s eye along our route through the city—in the Bay Bridge, in the park near my apartment, and on the streets of San Francisco.