Brain extenders, also known as patients assignment sheets, report notes, and task lists, are often carried in scrub pockets or on clip boards and are referred to in nursing lingo as my brain. Basically, a list in whatever form is akin to a life vest that prevents drowning in a sea of information and to dos. The incredibly easy process of making a task list may be something you already do, both in your work and personal life, but lists deserve a quick review of why they are so effective and how they free up working memory—which ultimately reduces stress and improves patient care and workplace interactions.

Science has shown that certain areas of the brain are allocated for short- and long-term memory. Short-term memory, also referred to as working memory, is stored in the frontal cortex while our long-term recollections live deeper in the brain’s more expansive central core. Only so much information can be held in the working memory at any one time. Oncology nurses know there is a lot to cram into this smaller memory space—keeping track of tasks, medications, formulas, and patients, can leave even the most seasoned nurse filling up all their working memory time slots and needing additional brain power. 

Writing down time-sensitive assignments and tasks is like coiling all of that information into just one of the time slots of your working memory. From your list strategies for accomplishing the workload can be developed. Printed assignment sheets can save time, but don’t forget that physically putting the pen to the paper is like writing in your memory bank in darker ink and short-term memory recall is improved (without having to remove “your brain” from your pocket every few minutes).

One additional memory aid is to visualize your list because imagination engages the brain. For instance, simply imagining a neon sign over the medicine room flashing important prioritized information can be helpful; however, the more creative and personal the image, the better the memory boost. Personally, I like written lists that I can actually cross off, maybe this is a fall back from when I used to get gold stars for accomplishing tasks.

Do you have a particular strategy that helps improve your workflow and recall information?