Many times when you need to remember something you can write things down on a piece of paper or on sticky note. You can use one of the dozens of note-taking apps that exist for your phone or you can opt to leave a voice memo. You might even set alarms with notes to go off at certain times to remind you of something. These luxuries are great but their downside is that if you use them all the time you lose the skill of relying on your own memory. And there are times when your only option is to rely on your memory.
For example, times you rely solely on your memory:
- Remembering someone’s name after a networking event or party. Sure, you might have exchanged business cards but how do you remember which is whose?
- Taking an exam. And other times when bringing your notes along is considered cheating!
- Knowing details about your client’s company or a company where you are interviewing. It’s not nearly as impressive if you pull out a list.
- Making a mental to-do list. Do you write out a shopping list for less than ten items? What about less than five? How often do you remember to buy everything you intended?
As with most things, having a good memory is a skill that can be acquired, learned, and practiced. There are a few memory techniques that you probably already use, but perhaps you are not aware of them. By becoming aware of how they work and practicing their use, you can increase your memory capacity.
There is a limit to the number of arbitrary items our working memory can process. In a paper titled, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two, George Miller found that it is possible to increase that limit by chunking the information into something more meaningful. By consolidating data points into fewer, organized, sequenced chunks of information you can remember more than would be ordinarily possible. What constitutes a chunk differs based on your own long-term memory and store of knowledge. Examples of chunking:
- The town where I grew up had the area code of 973 and the city code of 398. Everyone’s phone number started with a 973-398 so I only had to recall the last 4 numbers instead of all 10.
Here’s a common workplace scenario: you walk into a conference room only to be promptly introduced to Jason, Elizabeth, Vern, Robert, and Paul. According to PsyBlog, names are difficult to remember because they are arbitrary and meaningless. The trick to remember names, then, is to assign meaning to them. Use whatever pops into your mind. Perhaps Jason is sitting on the left so you picture him as a “J” which is a letter hooks to the left. Vern might be wearing green so he is Fern Vern. You have to use what works for you and it’s often true that the sillier the better.
When you encode two unrelated items together in your memory, when you encounter one you will likely also remember the other. If you plan to visit your boss’s office before leaving for the day, take a minute to associate your boss with something you will undoubtedly come across today, such as the elevator. To do this, you could picture your boss standing in the elevator as the doors open or you can picture his face on the button that you usually hit. The next time you take the elevator you will think of your boss, thus remembering you wanted to go talk to him today. The elevator or the elevator button are essentially acting as a trigger which reminds you of your plans of talking to your boss.
Adding a visual element engages a new area of your brain. Create an image of what you want to remember. If it is a sequence of items, you can create a “video” or walkthrough of sorts to link them together. For example, to remember a grocery list, you might picture your route around the grocery store. If you are memorizing your presentation, think of yourself as a tour guide, bringing your audience to several stations (i.e., your talking points).
Do you have a good memory? How do you manage to remember things that people often forget?