Ask HN: How to deal with memory/cognition slowing down as an engineering leader?
I work in engineering management. In recent years I've noticed my memory has become a bit worse, and I'm feeling generally less sharp cognitively than I once was. I don't think this is anything pathological; it's not that severe - I think it's largely due to a combination of ageing and a chronic lack of sleep during this time.

Due to this, I'm finding myself in situations where my memory just fails me, in discussions where I really need to be on top of the details. And, while I've never been great at making decisions quickly, nowadays it's taking longer than ever.

Given some more time, I still have the knowledge and judgement to be make good decisions. But it is affecting how I do my job, and (I believe) how people perceive me in my role.

I wonder if anyone else here has experience with problems like this, and if so, whether anyone has any advice on things that could help. For example, I'm finding I need to take much more detailed notes. Tips along these lines would be welcome.

Sleep is the key. Repeated lack of sleep has an extreme impact on cognition and memory retrieval.

A few things that have helped me:

#1 sleep in a completely dark room. A specialist MD shared this insight with me and it changed my life. I also use an eye mask and white noise machine.

#2 use a call recording tool on your internal meetings that can summarize notes. Being able to go back “in time” to a call often has enabled me to reload the entire interaction just watching a few min of the call.

#3 rely on your team. As a leader you get the benefit of the doubt that you are covering a lot, so I’ve made a ritual of just asking people to restate our last interaction and where they are at now with any updates. Again, simple thing but helps trigger my memory

Good luck!

Also, if this is affecting you, get a sleep study! The money will be well spent if physicians can find possible reasons for poor sleep that can be improved - a lot of people suffer from various kinds of sleep disorders, and treatment is becoming cheaper and more accessible to the point that a diagnosis well worth it for increasing numbers of people, given the increased quality of life it can offer.
This is so important. I got diagnosed with mild sleep apnea, and I was "only" waking up 5-10 times per hour. After getting situated with a CPAP, my mood and mental clarity has improved 3-5 fold. I had similar symptoms to OP - feeling like I was losing my memory and mental capabilities.
I agree. Sleep dictates everything else. It's so difficult to get a good night of sleep, though. There are too many impacting factors. And wearing masks/earphones are usually uncomfortable.
Under pillow bone conduction speakers are a great way to get an audio fix whilst falling asleep.
Can you elaborate? How does it work improve sleep?
Just some ideas that I found...

.. temperature is critical, and if you experiment with setting your thermostat exaggeratedly high or low for a while you will eventually notice it has an impact on sleep.

... getting cold was a frequent struggle as I would lose the covers and they would be twisted up and I would have to drowsily untwist. Now I wear a long sleeve fleece button shirt backward like a smock. Backward because the tails of the shirt always fall down and keep your side warm. The covers I just pull up to armpit and have never had to wake up since.

I hate light masks too, so I cover my face with lightweight athletic shorts that have a cooling effect. Then I use a small half-size pillow (walmart chopped memory foam) and turn my head sideways to muffle the ear not facing the pillow.

  • nunez
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On the topic of white-noise machines:

There are headphones out there that are purpose-built to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

My favorites right now are SoundOFFs, which emit pink noise, no apps required.

I'm also going to experiment with the Ozlu Sleepbuds, which many are calling the unofficial Bose Sleepbuds III since Bose discontinued the second iteration of these buds and sold off much of the IP to this team.

Having an headphone on ears for 6-9 hours continuous- isn't that harmful for health?
  • nunez
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It's fine as long as the earbud fits well. Comply foam or custom tips makes that easy.

I've been sleeping with custom ear molds for five years prior to moving to noise machine earbuds. Hearing's fine as of earlier this year!

"You are more likely to remember something if you read it out loud, a study has found"

"It turns out, any walk outdoors has the potential to unlock our brains"

"Older adults who consumed cranberries frequently as part of their diet saw improvements in episodic memory, neural function, and brain perfusion"

Cranberry article

"Conflict of Interest DV, MH, MM, and AN received funding from the Cranberry Institute.

The remaining authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest."

Do you really believe those ?
You may be overthinking / part imagining it: self-calibration is hard.

And in any case experience is as useful as raw ability in getting things done.

I'm now ancient (late 50s) and recently had to step away from my start-up as CTO since we sold the IPR, but instead I am doing a part-time PhD (just had my first paper published) and may become a fractional CTO for a friend's business. For the last I won't be racing the tech staff on coding speed or code performance, but I think that decades of delivering such stuff can help them do it and get credit for it.

There’s nothing wrong with “i’ll get back to you”, provided you do quickly and comprehensively.
Did you have a child birth? This event was the biggest source of my fading interest in programming and fading health.

Regardless, I'd recommend taking more notes and set up 15 mins before and after work to go over them. I'd also recommend using a paper notebook in supplement of an electronic one as you can spontaneously put down some notes on paper.

I’m not sure my interest in programming has faded, but I certainly have less time for it if I also want to sleep.
Does day job take too much of your time? Maybe that's a front to optimize?
My manager is experiencing the same due to a bout of long covid.

The way it appears he is dealing with it, from my perspective, is he has delegated the things which require immediate memory/cognition to us and is leveraging his expertise to direct us at a higher level and trusting us to execute and feed back pertinent information when we next check in.

While I feel for his worsening condition he has managed to do negotiate this in a way that:

1. Leverages his knowledge, expertise and network to a greater degree

2. Given us autonomy that feels empowering, while not increasing our workload to pick up his perceived slack.

Have you considered checking for sleep apnea or other sleep disorders/any other disorder?

It's advisable to consult with relevant doctors, get some tests done, and ensure you're not overlooking any underlying issues.

Relying on tips may not resolve the problem.

In addition to all the sleep related advice, look into your nutrition. I found Max Lugavere's book Genius Foods extremely helpful.

Also look into your stress level, zen meditation can do wonders for it. In my experience mediation also helps with sleep deprivation.

> I'm finding I need to take much more detailed notes

There is nothing wrong with that. Create a habit to always take notes. This helps remembering what was said and if that is not enough, you can even read your notes.

Although, I use org-mode and denote in Emacs with a Zettelkasten style setup to keep my work related notes nowadays. I would argue that everybody should start taking notes on paper. Get a well bound leather notebook, a nice pen. Open it at the start of every meeting, write the date, time and title of the meeting and keep doodling. That does so much for my attention, concentration in the meetings and recall of the meetings.

Take notes of meetings and read them before going to sleep or at the time your brain is performing better. For example, I tend to have problems in the afternoon, so I try to do most of my work in the mornings or late evenings.

Make sure not to make enemies, as they will use this against you. In that sense, try to make meetings flow and if something requires a decision from you, ask people to create diagrams and explanations in a wiki like internal page, like confluence, so you can digest it on your time to make the correct the decision. Similarly, create yourself any diagram or descriptions/points you want to discuss beforehand to take it to the meetings. Maybe make them available before the meetings as well so people can provide you with info you will have processed before the meeting and during the meeting it will be easier to make decisions. Have a good night sleep. Have a good routine and eat well. Take any food supplement you may think you require, and consult a physician if you need medication. I've been taking lion's maine recently and has helped a lot with memory cognition. Unfortunately there is no easy solution here, except to work harder to overcome your problem. An alternative to working harder is getting less tasks to focus on, manage less people, reduce the amount of workload so you can still deliver good work, or even step down from workload intensive roles, like C- ones. Or if you can't step down but have some budget, have your own sharp assistant to help you out.

  • jart
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If you're thinking slower than you want about work, then maybe it's because the work isn't worth thinking about. If you're forgetting things at work, then maybe it's because they weren't worth remembering. Absent a serious health condition, a mind won't just fade away when it knows it's needed and is serving an important purpose. Try introducing a little bit of disruption into your life to make things interesting again. The struggle is what keeps us going.
Delegate more.

People mostly like to take responsibility. For decisions, let someone else offer up the potential solutions. Make someone else your memory. Its a very important part of management because it develops you and them. For technical people it is hard because we see the detail as the part we like most. Let someone else enjoy it.

PS. You can't delegate responsibility! That's abdication.

Stress will poke holes in your memory. (I once thought that taking statins might be affecting my memory - but stress was the more likely cause...)

I've also heard that exercise can boost your memory. (Possibly in part because it improves your sleep, but it also enhances oxygen flow.) Or maybe it just reduces your stress.

You've ruled out "anything pathological" - otherwise I would suggest mentioning it to your doctor. But I've always wondered if "brain plasticity" is what's causing us all to adapt to our new habit of endlessly scrolling Facebook/Hacker News/Reddit/Twitter -- by adjusting our perceptions to handle shorter bursts of attention. There've been articles and books written on the subject, but the fix they often recommend is just: unplugging for a while.

In many situations, it is difficult to attribute causality to age because it is correlated with so many other things. Age brings with it kids, side quests, sleepless nights, partners, and so on. There is also a creeping apathy towards the Nth repetition of the same technical challenges which makes us less attentive to their differences. If you play chess, note how much worse at it you are when you do not focus.

As a general tip, I typically say don't take notes, don't use spell checkers, don't scribble thoughts, and so on. Young or old, these are crutches you'll only ever lean on more as time goes on. Meanwhile, you'll get better at mentally storing, organising and imagining if you do it more, or at the least, you'll retain these abilities for longer.

Time for a promotion!
  • p0d
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I'm 52 now and I rely more on my notes app now, which is Joplin. Keep making notes as you are doing at present and it will help.

I also resonate with the person who said that reading out aloud helps. I start each day reading the Bible and I read out loud when my mind is overly busy. I find this helps.

I also like your comment about never being great at making decisions quickly. I often describe myself as a good thinker, if not a fast thinker. In saying that, we do tend to compare ourselves to the fastest thinkers we know. So don't beat yourself up too much :-)

Well, you need to get more sleep, then. You've answered your own question.

The good news is there is probably a lot of low hanging fruit that can help with this. Quit alcohol, for one. Quit caffeine, too, for at least a couple of weeks. Screen your window, and leave it at least a crack open, if you live in a place with clean enough air to allow that - if not, air purifier it up. Try to get used to sleep masks, they're phenomenal for blocking out light, and they're really not so bad if you take your time to test and get used to them.

Past that, physical exercise is also widely known to keep cognition healthy as one ages.

Something not mentioned yet is exercising your brain, since I notice you said that you are working in management.

Quite a while ago I left my job where I was doing a mix of development as well as management of a small team. Now I'm doing indie game development and I'm getting more brain exercise working on hard problems every month than I had in a whole year at my IT job.

Since then I feel as if I have become a lot sharper than I had been for a long time.

if you mean it: fast 16 hours every day. this will boost your cognition right from the start. 23+ hours fasts once or twice a month. kills my old mans' ADHD and improves early alzheimers symptoms.

reduce fat intake to your personal min requirement.

controlled sleep deprivation, meaning no stress at all, every once in a while, 48 h, to 'reset the brain', no liquor, 16h+ fasts, coffee is ok. sounds like nonsense but try it and be happy.

You stay up for 48h every once in awhile? What does no stress mean exactly and how do you feel after?

By no stress I mean, no deadlines, only recreational coding and building stuff, no going through documents, minimum of screen time, best none in the night hours, puzzles and stuff are great. Nothing work related at all. Recreation is the goal. The controlled sleep deprivation is for organs, synapses, receptors.

You go hiking, talk with people through the night, write on novels or blog posts, then you go hiking again. Or swimming, or relaxed skiing, surfing, nightly museum or gallery events and weekends are the perfect time for this kind of thing.

The goal is to "empty your storage" of certain hormones and transmitters and get the respective organs and receptors to their limits, which they will barely get to after just 48 h of wakefulness, but it will be enough for your brain to notice the difference when you wake up afterwards. 'Holy shit, this is what it is / what it was like' ...

It's like getting a drop out of the fountain of youth. The boost will return after normal days and healthy sleep but work/life are crazy and TV/ads put an insane amount of obvious, subliminal, subconscious stress on our brains that we aren't aware of and that builds up in specific spaces that, after some 'amount', kind of constantly put some threshold under pressure which annihilates the boost of even good sleep, which is why you should do it regularly.

A lot of people swear on sleep but check their cabinets or ask them for their stack and you'll know ...

Because you can look away but you can't control what's ON your peripheral and so you have to get your hormone and transmitter producing organs, and just as - or even more - importantly, *the respective receptors*, to the point where they can produce and enjoy proper doses again.

Some bad analogies: Stretching is great but you need to stretch beyond a point to really enjoy the state and the progress afterwards. The same goes for strength training, we call it progressive overload. Too much is bad, especially on drugs, pain killers and stuff, but just the right amount without any additional stress and it works sustainably well.

If you know the right kind of researchers, they can certainly go beyond stones are hard and this is what 99 peoples' blood work and 4000 survey participants say.

Specialised online gaming once per week, soya lecithin 3 per week, gingko on key days or max twice ler week. Other supplements in rotational basis. Only a supplement per day, only 3 days per week.
Have you tried using Anki or another SRS program? In my experience, it will solve whatever memory issues you have – as long as you keep up with your cards.
What’s that?
Oh, flash cards. I’ve never used them but memory is a muscle and it must be exercised. There has to be something more fun, though.
Spaced repetition, through flash cards or another tool, is pretty much the gold standard in terms of optimizing your memory. It really doesn't get much better than that. Flash cards aren't super exciting, but realistically even 15-20 minutes a day is enough to learn and remember a ton of stuff.
I find that the subject under study dominates my sense of fun, no matter the format of that studying.
The trick is to effectively study subjects you’re burnt out on or no longer have that magnetic attraction to.
Do you have any tips? I haven't really approached this category because it feels like a lost cause.
I find B group vitamins to be very helpful for cognition.
In my 40s, I started drinking tea in the afternoon. It helped a bit.
In my 50s, I started drinking coffee in the afternoon. It helped a bit.
  • swah
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Finally some different suggestions!
If you are male check your testosterone levels; lowered T can allegedly cause a decline in cognition. Here's a link to an NIH citation rather than any woo woo sources, but still up to you to decide.
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Yeah but don’t worry about it, benefit of maturity and wisdom and seniority, is you can forget son minor details.

Sleep, exercise, testosterone sups (nothing crazy) and some quite time to compose your thoughts will all help, you need to take some dedicated time/care for yourself, and you’ll be fine.

Delegate. Shorter meetings. Less meetings.

Have them do the evaluations and write you reports. Then have them revise the reports based on upper management responses.

Stop by engineering advisors in their area and not your office.

Prepare for retirement?