Improving your memory doesn’t have to be a difficult process. It is about learning how your brain works best and using this knowledge to your advantage. You don’t have to change your brain’s memory systems.
To get you started, here are 10 (+ 2) powerful memory improvement tips. Unlike suggestions like “eat more choline,” most of the memory techniques below take just a few minutes of practice to have an effect, yet will help you to remember almost anything when you want to.
1. Pay attention to what you want to remember
For anything you see, hear, smell, feel, or touch to actually become a memory, you have to pay attention to it. The most important reason why people cannot remember other people’s names is that they don’t pay enough attention to the name during an introduction. The same applies to “forgetting” whether you have locked the door. You were likely doing it on autopilot and your brain was occupied with some thoughts about the future or past. So, whether you want to remember a name, an action, or any other information, make a conscious effort to pay attention, and you will be amazed how reliable your memory actually is.
2. Avoid multitasking whenever possible
Multitasking may be a hallmark of modern times, and you may find it necessary to talk on the phone while switching off that stove, or driving to work. Studies however have shown that 98% of the people cannot multitask, that is, they can really only pay attention to one activity at a time. By multitasking, you are essentially switching your attention between different activities and are bound to lose some information. The more you switch, the more you lose.
3. Get your blood flowing and get oxygen to your brain
For most of human history, we made our most important decisions while being upright and in motion. Whether people were hunting for food or trying to avoid becoming food, they likely did it while moving or standing. Unfortunately, evolution is not that fast, and our brain and body have not yet become accustomed to our sedentary lifestyle.
Your brain needs good blood flow and oxygen to function well, and the best way to get this is by moving. Aim for at least twenty minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per day.
Use time boxing: If you are preparing for an exam, or sitting at your desk to read and remember, alternate between 20-to-30-minute study periods and 5-to-10-minute bursts of light exercise.
4. Visualize what you want to remember and connect it to something you already know
To memorize new information, we have to connect it to something we already know, or in other words, we have to make associations. Visualization is a powerful tool to create good associations and improve your memory for any kind of information.
Here is an example: Your wife/husband asks you to get a book on gardening from your friend Jim when you next meet him.
To remember this, create an association between your friend (cue) and the book, reminding you to ask him when you see him.
Visualize Jim opening the door, having a big book and some carrots in his mouth. You say hello, but he, having his mouth full, only mumbles something. The next time you see Jim, his face will most likely remind you of the carrots and the book in his mouth. Ah – I needed to ask for this book on gardening.
Try the Number Rhymes to practice visualization and at the same time learn a very effective and practical memory technique.
5. Combat the doorway effect: Before going to another room to pick up an item or do something, mentally rehearse what you are going to do
Most of us have gone to another room to fetch an item, and upon arrival, we have forgotten what we wanted to do. Why is that? Science has come up with two primary explanations for this kind of forgetting:
First, we committed our intention to memory in one environment, and now we are standing in another room that likely has very different features. Several studies have shown that we tend to remember information best in the environment in which we have learned it. This phenomenon is commonly known as context-dependent memory.
Second, by walking through the doorway, you are signaling your brain that an event has passed. This encourages the brain to “purge” the event details from the forefront of your memory. This purging at event boundaries has become known as the doorway effect. If this happens too often for your taste, you are not alone.
Try countering the doorway effect by visualizing or telling yourself what you are going to do in advance, before you set out for your destination room: While you are still in your living room, visualize yourself walking to the kitchen, opening the fridge door, and taking out that wine bottle. Then go and do it.
6. Think about the meaning of names you want to remember, and add information to make them meaningful
Again, to improve your memory for new information, you want to create effective associations between this new information and what is already stored in your memory.
Here is an example on how to add meaning to information: You are introduced to a person called “Bronislaw”. (Bronislaw is a popular Polish first name).
Ask yourself, what does the name mean to me? To me, “Bron is law” looks (and sounds a bit) like “brown is law.” I happen to know that in Thailand policemen uniforms tend to be brown – “brown is law” – Bronislaw.
7. Get enough sleep
A multitude of research has shown that sleep improves memory and insight. To help forming new memories, we need to sleep enough before learning, and to consolidate these memories, we need to sleep enough after learning. How long should you sleep? Aim for at least 7 hours per night.
Are you in need for a memory boost during the day? Take a longer nap in the early afternoon. Sixty-to-ninety-minute naps strengthen newly acquired memories and restore our capacity to learn.
It is natural to be a bit concerned about an upcoming exam, interview or date. After all it matters to us, so we want to be at our best. The good news is that short term, moderate stress actually boosts memory. However, when stress becomes intensive or goes on for too long, it inhibits the formation of new memories and recall of information we already know. Constant stress, worries, and pressure are memory killers:
Chronic stress has been shown to literally kill neurons in the hippocampus, a brain area important for memory, so when you feel stressed out, don’t try to do more of the same. Go for a walk and relax.
9. Learn mnemonic techniques if you need to memorize a large number of facts, names, or other information fast
Mnemonics range from simple memory aids to memorize names, dates, or definitions to complete mental filing systems. The Method of Loci, also known as the Memory Palace Technique, allows you to memorize hundreds of things in order. Besides being highly effective, mnemonic techniques are fun to learn. A great tool to learn foreign language vocabulary is the Keyword method.
The Number Shape System is one system to get you started
- Write down the numbers from 0 to 9, each on a separate line, on a sheet of paper.
- Now look at each number.
- What does the shape of the number remind you of? Which object comes to mind? Write down this object next to the number.
- Rehearse your associations a few times: Mentally go through the list and imagine each object as vividly as you can. These objects become your pegs. You now have a so-called mnemonic peg system ready to be of service.
Here is my list:
How to use the Number Shape System
When you want to remember an item, just imagine it, or even better visualize it interacting with a peg. Start with the first peg in your number shape list. For example, suppose you want to remember a shopping list:
- Quart of milk
- Letter envelopes
The first item you want to buy is a quart of milk. Imagine throwing a football at the dairy shelf with the milk bottles. Upon impact, the bottles are bouncing around, some pop open, and milk is splashing all over the place.
The next item is a pack of letter envelopes. Imagine they are letters written by a politician you utterly dislike. Set them on fire with your burning candle. Continue in this fashion for each of the items on your list.
When you want to recall the shopping list, just start with the number 0 and recall the associated number shape (here an American football). This will bring back the memory of the football smashing the milk bottle shelf and remind you that you wanted to buy milk. Continue in the same fashion for each number.
10. Practice recall by self-testing
This is my personal top memory improvement tip.To keep information you have memorized, you have to tell your brain that it is important to you. This strengthens the connections between all the different brain cells involved in a particular memory.
Probably the most powerful and versatile technique to achieve this is practicing recall by self-testing. In various studies, self-testing has been shown to be the among the most time-efficient memory improvement methods.
Let’s say you want to remember the important parts of an article or book you are currently reading: Prepare a short list of questions you are going to test yourself on. If all else fails, turn paragraph headings into questions.
After you have completed your reading, take a short break and then answer the questions from memory. You can further improve on this by answering the questions again the next day, then two days later…
Recall practice is not limited to written information. You can also use it to remember the gist of a documentary you have watched on TV or YouTube, or to recollect the way to an unfamiliar destination.
Adaptive spaced repetition software, such as Anki (my favorite) or Flashcards Deluxe, allows you to test yourself, while automatically keeping track of what you know and what you have to practice more. These apps are available for PC/Mac and your smartphone, and synchronize information between different devices.
Note down information in a question and answer format, and test yourself whenever you have a bit of time. Do you want to learn a new language or prepare for a professional exam but have no time? Practice while commuting, siting in your doctor’s waiting room, or queuing for your restaurant table, instead of feeling bored.
11. Make use of external cues and reminders to remind yourself of future events and tasks
Remembering things you need to do in the future and appointments you need to keep poses two challenges: You need to remember what you wanted to do, and you need to remember when you wanted to do it.
To keep your dentist appointment, I recommend you simply set an alarm or use the calendar in your smartphone, or make an entry in a paper calendar.
Some tasks are triggered by events rather than time: One option for these tasks is to use visualization, as described earlier, for connecting events and things you need to do.
However, if a task involves an object you already have, the easiest way is to visibly put that object in a place you are going to come across at the time of the event.
For example, to remind yourself to take your medicine after dinner, put the medicine on the dinner table. Do this right when you form the intention. To remember to take your books back to the library, put them next to your car keys.
12. Give a speech without notes and make notes while under the shower using a simple peg word system
Smartphone apps like Evernote or OneNote are great for taking notes and jotting down ideas while on the go, but not really practical while taking a shower. Often brilliant ideas occur to us in the strangest of situations, and if you don’t grab hold of them when they pop up, they are probably gone for good.
Learn an easy-to-use memory system such as the Number Shape System (introduced above) or the Number Rhymes in five minutes and keep your flashes of insight.
You can also use these peg word systems to give an inspiring speech from memory
Write your speech on a sheet of paper, and read it out loud to make sure it flows well. After you are done with polishing, encircle the key points and peg each one to one of the 10 numbered hooks in the Number Rhyme System.
During your speech, just mentally go through each of the pegged key ideas and you will never get stuck. You will be well prepared and confident, and this will come across in your speech. Remembering 10 key points is usually enough, but if you need more, the Method of Loci allows you to memorize any number of ideas.
Which memory improvement tips should you start with
Now that we have actually covered a top 12 list of memory improvement tips, I recommend you start by taking 2 or 3 of these techniques and practice them in your daily life.
You likely already know where your memory “fails” you the most. Pick the strategies you feel are closest to your need, start applying them, and you will surprise yourself, by how much your memory is going to improve.
If you want to add some additional techniques to your mental tool chest, also read my post on improving focus and concentration.
Have you tried any of these tips before? Which one do you like best?