If your memory is more like a sieve than the proverbial elephant’s don’t despair – there are some very practical steps that you can take to noticeably improve your memory.
Let’s start with the techniques that have the most immediate benefits, six “tricks” that allow you to improve your memory and remember names, tasks, lists, and strings of numbers or words.
- When you meet somebody new and want to remember their name simply say it out at a natural point in the conversation – normally something like “Hi Alastair, it’s great to meet you”. If you’re more visual then use Franklin D. Roosevelt’s trick and imagine their name emblazoned on their forehead.
- Saying things out loud can also help you remember arrangements – “The coffee house at 2:00 pm? That’s great” – as well as tasks – “I just locked the door” for instance if you have a habit of wondering half way through the morning if you did lock up as you left home.
- If it’s something that you must remember to do later on then when you say it out loud don’t say “I mustn’t forget to …” as that reinforces the idea of forgetting. Instead start with “I’ll remember to …”, and reinforce it with a visual cue, such as your ring being turned round, or wearing your watch on the other wrist.
- Writing things down seems obvious, but make sure that you do it in a way that will help you remember – use capitals, spell everything in full, and use different colours for different elements in lists. Typing is much less effective, but if you must then use an unfamiliar font that will make you read more slowly and concentrate more on the content.
- Reading things out, whether to yourself or another person, will also help you to fix information in your mind – and explaining what you are talking about, or putting it into context, will also help you to recall the information more easily.
- If it is a string of numbers – for instance 6-4-1-4-5-2-7-5-6 – then construct a sentence where the letters in each word match the sequence – “Andrew grew a tidy beard as shaving didn’t appeal”. This technique can also be used to remember other lists of words – “Richard of York gave battle in vain” being used to remember the sequence of colours in a rainbow – and as a rule the more personally relevant the sentence is to you the easier it will be to recall.
After those six simple tricks these four steps are less direct but will have a deeper and longer lasting impact on improving your memory.
The first is something I’ve written about before – stop trying to multi-task. The optimum discrete tasks that we can competently manage at one time is four. By constantly switching between tasks we don’t allow ourselves time to form memories properly. Concentration on the task at hand is vital to improve your memory as it takes eight seconds to ‘fix’ a piece of information.
The second step is closely linked to concentrating on one task at a time – mindfulness. Glucocorticoids released during stress actively restrict the formation of new memories and learning, and mindfulness is proven to reduce stress. In addition mindfulness increases powers of concentration and focus, enabling the mental space required for new memories to form.
The third step to improve your memory is another perennial subject – to get more and better quality sleep. Research shows that losing three hours sleep from just one night can impair forming and recalling memories. And whilst it is in sleep of over eight hours that the brain is understood to create longer term memories, over a third of us get far less than that, chronically affecting our memory.
The fourth step is to learn a new skill or to do something out of the ordinary. Studies have shown that people who learn musical instruments or foreign languages show improved memory and recollection in many other areas as well. Additionally, new experiences, even as simple as taking a new route to a familiar destination, can make help you to improve your memory. Our brains are constantly filtering out familiar information, and a move to the unfamiliar will naturally shift our brain to a more receptive state. The effect of this change in mental state continues after the novel experience has finished. So a new route to a routine meeting might be a natural way of being able to better remember what is said and agreed.
Now that you have the tools to improve your memory why not find out more about the mechanics of memories – and why the act of recalling them might change them.
If you enjoyed this why not sign up for my monthly newsletter here with three stories every month on the quirky side of relationships and psychology.