Life Caching

Making the most of our memory in a world of information and competing requests

There’s a term in psychology known as the “forgetting curve.” Essentially, it says that over time our memories fade. From forgetting where we placed our keys, to specific terminology within our industry, the visitation of this curve strikes swiftly and unexpectedly. Compound that with the inundation of information most of us receive daily ( emails, slack messages, twitter and instagram feeds ) and it can feel like any hope of long-term organization is a zero-sum game.

The dilemma we face is essentially one of storage. We have a limited amount of memory, so, what should we keep and what should we forget? It’s here that the inner workings of a cache can offer some superb insights.

We have a limited amount of memory, so, what should we keep and what should we forget?

Cache, isn’t that a computer thing?

Cache is a finite set of storage that a computer can access for quick recall. It enables all of us to revisit our top digital hits, with reduced time. How? Because they are readily available in the cache. The main thing to understand is that the cache is limited, and it isn’t arbitrary or random. It operates with precision, leveraging storage algorithms like “Least Recently Used.” As it turns out, humans share similar operations, but we can be even more intentional.

Least recently used, in daily life

The “Least Recently Used,” algorithm prescribes a hierarchy to information that pushes the least recently used item or information towards the bottom. Or, to reverse that, it places the most recently used item at the top. A few weeks ago, I purchased a significant bundle of books ( despite my unavailable bookshelf storage ). Inevitably, my new books joined the already out of control, overflow stack on my desk. After a week or so, though, something interesting began to happen. The books took on a new sorting order, from most recently used to least recently used. The books I was reading or referencing had a preferred placement, a natural order on top of the stack.

Which brings up another interesting point about storage. We get the most efficient use of space when we create quick access to the things we use frequently.

Creating storage hierarchies

Back to my book problem. While the natural ordering of these books was helpful, they still contributed to a greater mess on my desk. I wanted my desk to be clean, but I also wanted easy access to my new books.

So, I turned to my full bookshelf. I knew what I had to do: prune and remove.

I scanned through my bookshelf, and pulled several books out — one’s I hadn’t touched in ages. I cleaned out one of my IKEA storage shelves, and inserted this poor neglected stack of books. I cleaned off my desk, and inserted all of my new books on my book shelf. Organization and access all in one package.

But, there’s one more thing. I kept the current book I was reading, out on my desk.

This range of access is known as “storage hierarchies,” or “multi-level memory.” For the most recently used item, I gave it the most prominent position. The bookshelf was the second layer. And finally my IKEA storage shelf, was the third layer, practically hidden from sight.

When it comes to cache, the most recently used items should have the highest visibility.

Consolation in the cache

Remember the “forgetting curve,” ( insert laugh here ) I mentioned at the beginning of the article? This is essentially the principle of LRU in practice, and that’s a good thing. It’s our brain’s way of prioritizing our short-term memory. But the brain gets by with a little help from its friends. And two of its best ones are an organized environment and clear cues.

When it comes to cache, the most recently used items should have the highest visibility.

So next time, you find yourself frustrated with information overload, ask yourself, “ what have I used recently? How do I create an environment and mindset that echoes that?” Then, take consolation in the cache.