Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the Career Addict blog, and contains an affiliate link.
Our memories take a beating these days. One, because we have so damn much to remember (passwords, logins, dates, lists, names, directions…), and two, because many of us rely on digital notepads and to-do lists, our memories don’t get to flex their muscles as much anymore. They’ve grown tired and flabby.
A good memory is a tremendous asset. Many people seem to be blessed with natural ability (I myself used to have a near photographic memory, but it has sadly deteriorated as I get older). But there’s good news: virtually anyone can improve their memory with a few simple tricks and techniques. In fact, improving your memory has become big business, with books and online courses designed to show you the way, for a price, of course. And there are “memory championships” all over the world, with contestants tasked with remembering long lists of numbers, or random items, or playing cards. The US Memory Championship is held in New York each spring. Joshua Foer covered the event as a journalist, became intrigued by the methods used by the competitors, and began an intensive year of memory training. He returned to the contest a year later and won in 2006. You can read all about his journey from memory novice to US champion in the fascinating Moonwalking with Einstein. If he can do it, so can anyone.
Our memories are complex beasts. There’s long-term memory, short-term memory, and working memory. Thankfully, you don’t really need to understand it all in order to get better at it (although it wouldn’t hurt). The only thing you really need to learn is that memory is predominantly visual. So use that. Create vivid pictures whenever possible (more on that in a moment).
A few other easy tips include repetition (repeating something to ourselves several times helps to encode it in our memory), writing it down (not simply typing it, as the act of pen on paper seems to activate our brains in a more meaningful way), and simply paying more attention (we forget things because we didn’t really pay attention or notice them in the first place).
Want a few other techniques to remember all your shit? Try these.
The Method of Loci
The Memory Palace method was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. You start with a location you know like the back of your hand (your house or apartment, your workplace, the street you live on, or whatever). It needs to be fairly large, with many rooms or buildings, and plenty of characteristics. When you close your eyes, you should be able to easily “walk” through the location, noting furniture and items of interest. Once you can do that flawlessly, you can then associate items with your palace.
For example, let’s say you need to memorize a grocery list that includes bacon, milk, eggs, bread, and coffee. Starting at the beginning of your memory palace, associate one item with each room in some visual, vivid, weird, bizarre, and strange way. Make the front door a giant, sizzling piece of bacon that spits grease at you as you approach. Walking through it, you enter the foyer, where you see a cow tap dancing while wearing a tophat. Turning left, you enter the dining room where chickens are building a fort out of dozens of eggs. Beyond that room is the kitchen, and here, the oven and fridge are both made entirely out of bread, and they say “hello” as you pass them. Finally, you go through to the living room, and you see the entire floor is covered with coffee grounds, the throw pillows on the couch are giant coffee beans, and the Christmas tree is decorated with red coffee berries.
You can – and should – go even zanier with your own palace. The more bizarre you make it, the more likely you are to remember it. Always take the same route through your palace, and ideally connect the item to something concrete in each room.
The Name Game
We meet new people all the time, and keeping track of the names can be exhausting. There are several little tips to assist you. First of all, use someone’s name immediately and frequently when first meeting them. Say it out loud. Next, connect it to their appearance, or position, or job in some way (such as Tall Paul for the 6’5” new guy in accounting, or Blue Sue for the VP who always wears a blue brooch). It doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does make it easier if it does. Even using the same initial sound can work (Silly Sally, Mischievous Michael), as can turning them into a (similar sounding) image (picture a rave party to remember Dave, or a carrot to remember Carol).
There are a number of useful password managers out there (Dashlane, LastPass, and BitWarden are three of the best), but you can quickly create and remember your own unique passwords by using a template. Start with something you can easily recall, like the name of your first girlfriend, and the age when you dated. Let’s make that Susan13. Next, use the first two or three letters for whatever website or service you need the password for, such as “twi” for Twitter, or “ho” for Hootsuite. Finally, tack on your favourite or lucky number, and a random symbol. In this example, my password for Twitter would be “Susan13twi27#”. It’s random, but easy to remember. The only thing that changes is the middle part (the first 2-3 letters). Everything else stays the same.
Tell a Story
Linking random items or tasks together in a visual and crazy narrative is a great way to commit them to memory. Create vivid, insane mental pictures, and connect them to each other in some manner. So if you have to buy coffee, pick the kids up after soccer, and drop off the dry cleaning, you might have a gorilla driving a car through traffic while sipping from a travel mug. He spills coffee all over his suit (because of course he’s wearing a suit) when a Brazilian soccer team steps out in front of his car and he has to slam on the brakes. Your narrative includes coffee, soccer, and dirty clothes that need to be cleaned.
Again, the crazier, the better.
Look, Snap, Connect
Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center, created this technique to help you remember virtually anything. It’s called look, snap, connect. Look stands for just that: looking, as in paying attention. It’s a reminder to focus on the things you know you’ll need to remember later. Snap refers to creating a mental picture. Consciously commit it to memory. And connect instructs us to connect items, names, or tasks in some bizarre manner (similar to the story technique).
These refer to several tricks and ideas for committing various things to memory. A mnemonic is a learning technique that aids retention and recall, and there are many. A few of the most common include:
Rhyming – word pairs, or a short poem (e.g. 30 days hath September, April, June, and November)
Music – recalling information through a song, tune, or jingle, like the ABCs
Acronym – the first letter of each word in a series creates a single word to remember. A classic example is HOMES for the names for the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior)
Phrase – the first letter (or two) of each word in a series is used as the first letter of another word to create a memorable phrase. An example is “Harry Hencock lives beside Bum Corner, not on Faye’s new name” to remember the first 11 elements of the periodic table (H, He, Li, Be, B, C, N, O, F, Ne, and Na). Or “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” to remember the notes on the treble clef (E, G, B, D, F).
Number of Letters – a mnemonic for remembering a series of numbers is to create a phrase where each word contains the same number of letters as the number it replaces. For example, “now I go to the bank” would replace 312234.
Spelling – to remember tricky words, use each letter as the starting word for a memorable phrase. Mnemonics becomes “monkeys never ever mix onions near intensive care snakes”, for example.
Our memories are like muscles: use and exercise them, and they’ll get stronger. Ignore them (and rely on just your smartphone), and they become atrophied. It’s amazing the number of people that don’t even know their own phone number because it’s stored in their smartphone. Memory: use it or lose it. And with these techniques, you should be able to remember practically anything.
What’s your best memory hack or mnemonic? Leave your suggestions in the thoughts below.