first period - pages 374 - 382.
second - the three-page worksheet.
third - two projects, one due next Friday.
fourth - …

I had so much confidence in my memory that I never wrote anything down; I could conjure all my assignments on cue. This was in high school. Once I entered college, I began tracking things more carefully. With some assignments and tests making up 20-30% of the entire grade, I couldn’t afford to make a silly mistake, especially with how much busier I became. Still, I rarely took detailed notes in class. To be clear, I always listened attentively—notes just weren’t all that helpful.

My memory used to be great…

Now—I’m not so sure.

It all began one day at work; at 10:30 AM, I went into our standup. My teammate started giving her update: “Yesterday …”

I zoned out—what did I do yesterday?

“Robert, your update?”

Being a new grad and only a couple months into my job, I panicked.

“Uh yesterday I uh… went through my backlog, still working on that uhh… one issue. Uhm… no blockers”

I got a confused look from my manager, but we just moved on. When I got back to my desk and started looking at my docs, PRs, and etc. from the day before, I started to finally recall what I’d done. I brushed it aside; maybe I just didn’t sleep well that night.

Yet, more instances like these came up—and more frequently. I had trouble remembering what I’d eaten, problems I’d worked on, decisions made, etc. It started to bother me. Memory is a critical part of how someone learns and progresses; was I going to be completely left behind because of this mysterious shift in my brain?

I started to question why:

“Is this just aging? That would suck”

“Maybe it’s nutrition? Am I getting enough vitamins?”

“Is it sleep? Not enough caffeine?”

“How about work engagement? Am I just not interested in the work I’m doing?”

“Hm… It must be the dooms-scrolling on Instagram.” (side note, this does in fact affect memory & working cognition.)

Yet, regardless of the variables I controlled, my ability to absorb new information never improved, until recently.

The Coding Mental State

My job is a full-time software engineer. This means that most days, for many hours, I tackle random bugs, tasks, issues across the application that naturally arise while developing an application. This is every programmer’s job. However, it was this randomness that sat at the heart of why my memory had so regressed over the years.

Let’s explain through an example. A big part of my job is to deal with errors of all shapes and sizes.

From ones that you see dating all the way back to the first programming course:

Exception in thread "main" java.lang.NullPointerException
    at Main.randomFunction(
    at Main.main(

To cryptic and unhelpful error messages like:

C:\Users\robert\AppData\Local\Temp\ccZIOBl3.o: In function `HelloV':
C:/Users/robert/Documents/c++/stuff/threads.cpp:31: undefined reference to `_imp__pthread_exit'
C:\Users\robert\AppData\Local\Temp\ccZIOBl3.o: In function `main':
C:/Users/robert/Documents/c++/stuff/threads.cpp:17: undefined reference to `_imp__pthread_create'
C:/Users/robert/Documents/c++/stuff/threads.cpp:23: undefined reference to `_imp__pthread_exit'
collect2: ld returned 1 exit status

Execution terminated

error: expected primary-expression before 'void'

And finally ones that are hyper-specific to your code-base:

gets zzzzzz!company10/xxxxxx: SERVER_ERROR Company xxxxxx is relocating:

As a developer, you’re not expected to hard-memorize each error state; there would be too many! Indeed, this is why sites like StackOverflow are so helpful.

Yet, programming is unique because of the sheer number of bugs, errors, exceptions you encounter (with immediate feedback) in any given timespan. And while all these errors are pertinent at the moment, they’re essentially noise. Over time, your brain’s noise filter becomes impermeable; everything becomes noise.

It makes sense, no? When you program, you’re venturing out into the “sort-of familiar.” You typically know what you want to accomplish, but rarely know exactly how to get there. Information overload is normal, working memory is in overdrive, and long-term memory is precious. What’s real and what’s not; what’s important and what’s not—even immediately after, it’s hard to tell. Your noise filter becomes finer and finer so as to protect your sanity.

It’s only through repetition and pattern that your brain starts to commit things to memory. You see enough NullPointerExceptions to know what that (usually) means. When you first joined, you took awe at your senior engineers who would go,

“Oh I think I remember this.”

And now it’s you, after years of wading through the same sea of sh*t, you’re finally saying it too.

This is your brain being efficient—but the world doesn’t follow the coding mental state.

Back To Reality

The recipe is almost there. Learning happens when one’s engaged, information is presented, feedback is given, and repetition is practiced. The programming mental state usually has all these attributes. Yet, with one tweak—the signal to noise ratio, this pipeline can start leaking.

It was this realization that was my unlock. With this understanding, I started to become more mindful. The noise filter was still incredibly useful—it just needed adjusting both when I entered the coding mental state and when I returned from it.

For the lazy and cocky former students out there who always took pride in their memory, I encourage you to take a moment to audit your noise filter. Perhaps this can be an unlock for you too.