by Adrienne Bellehumeur, Owner of Risk Oversight and author of “THE 24-HOUR RULE — and Other Secrets for Smarter Organizations“
Though we may like to imagine ourselves as a species of conscientious planners, humans have an optimism bias. We convince ourselves that we’ll remember the gems generated at that last strategy session… but it ain’t gonna happen. You know it; I know it.
In the moment, we truly believe we will remember:
- The brilliant idea we heard in a meeting
- The changes to the report that the client requested on the fly
- The contact we bumped into on our way to work
- What time our appointment is after hanging up from the call to schedule it
- The life-changing tip we heard at a conference or training session
- The next steps and decisions the team agreed on in an update call
- What we need to pick up for our spouse on our way home from work (yes, this transfers to our personal lives as well)
The Limits of Short-Term Memory and Willpower
Our brains are designed by nature to focus on a few key things at a time for our own survival, and remembering the milk just doesn’t always make that priority list. Short-term memory is like having Post-it Notes stored at the front of your brain.
In an influential paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” psychologist George Miller suggested that people can store between five and nine items in short-term memory. The magic number of items the average adult can hold in short-term memory is seven (plus or minus two), Miller concluded, because of the number of “slots” available.
So, you only have room for seven Post-it Notes.
That’s not a lot of space for all the Post-it Notes you need for business and life! And more bad news — these Post-it Notes don’t stick. They fall off our brain wall after 24 hours. (Technically, this is when a nerve impulse has stopped transmitting through the neural network; you can look that one up.)
Researchers say that the small capacity of our short-term memory was essential for human survival. We needed to take care of the basics (e.g., keep warm, find food, fend off that saber-toothed tiger) without getting bogged down in the details.
But this relatively small short-term memory capacity makes modern-day life difficult. Trust me. Your memory is not as reliable as you think.
You hold an important meeting with your boss, leadership team, or a key client on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend. But after the meeting, it’s the long weekend! (Drinks!) You jump in the car with your friends (or family, or whatever situation you’re in) for three days of fun. Returning to work Tuesday morning, you tell coworkers about your weekend, post pics on Instagram, check the news, roll into a check-in meeting, and grab your third Starbucks. Uh oh – it’s time to get on those notes. Between your sleep-deprived glances (and mild lingering hangover), you can’t quite remember the context or nuances of your chicken scratches or half-typed words in front of you.
There goes your chance to impress your boss or client.
Does this situation sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone. I have laid out this scenario in presentations many times, including to senior leaders, consultants, and successful entrepreneurs who have found themselves in this situation more times than they’d like to admit.
Early in my career, this situation plagued my work weekly, if not daily. I have been embarrassed, lost credibility, wasted some time (OK, a lot of time), and had to repeat meetings (with my proverbial tail between my legs).
I crafted this rule to save my career, and it’s served me to get a grip on my workload and drive killer momentum, while being reasonable at the same time too. And it’s worked for the many people I’ve trained, coached, and consulted with in all kinds of roles.
The Basics of The 24-Hour Rule
You must rethink, reprocess, or rewrite information within 24 hours of hearing it.
Or in simpler terms: Just do something with the information.
The 3 Whys of The 24-Hour Rule
The longer you wait past 24 hours to document your notes, record that new prospect you met at the conference, reflect on the brilliant idea, or file that form, the harder it gets. But there are more reasons beyond just the limitations of short-term memory.
We have an energetic connection with information – tasks, projects, ideas – that we hear in a 24-hour window. Take advantage of it and remember these 3 “whys” of taking action — any action — in 24 hours.
1. We turbocharge our momentum.
Have you ever had something that sat on your to-do list for weeks that you just couldn’t seem to get to? But then, a new task – ah, adrenaline burst – comes your way and you attack it with record speed?
There will be times when you will have to fight with every inch of your body to move a task forward. So, surf that wave. Ride with the wind at your back. Excuse the metaphors. But the point is to momentum as fleeting and precious. Don’t squander it.
2. It’s a gauge on reality.
Imagine a factory. It has a conveyor belt where widget parts are coming in every day. But the outgoing conveyor belt is broken. More and more widgets pile up daily and there is no way to move them off. Naturally, it jams. Does this remind you of your work?
Consider the basic math of it. If you keep piling on to-dos throughout your day but you aren’t moving enough out in 24 hours, your system isn’t going to work. This breakdown is sending you an important signal. You may need less meetings, more time for focus in your schedule, or better delegation, planning, or workflow.
3. It’s a superpower, even if it’s not perfect.
The 24-hour processor is not a perfect system. You won’t feel like reviewing your meetings or reprocessing what was said yesterday on many (if not most) days. It will be hard – even impossible – to process everything in 24 hours on many days, too.
However, if you use The 24-Hour Rule as your default, you’ll (almost) always take one step to move work forward. You’ll recap those key points from your meeting. You’ll send one email. You’ll tackle one follow-up. That’s the superpower at work — keeping work moving in the right direction.
The 24-Hour Rule isn’t a techno-savvy or silver-bullet rule. But it isn’t inefficient, either. What is truly inefficient is bouncing from meeting to meeting, sales call to sales call, conference to conference, seminar to seminar, conversation to conversation without doing anything with the information. Now that is a tragic waste.
Adrienne Bellehumeur is Owner of Risk Oversight, a leading Canadian firm specializing in governance, risk and compliance, internal audit, SOX, and CSOX programs. She is also the founder of Bellehumeur Co., where she consults, speaks, trains, and writes on documentation and workflow best practices. She is the author of “THE 24-HOUR RULE — and Other Secrets for Smarter Organizations“.