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How can I improve my memory?

We forget most details of our lives. So here’s how to train your brain to hold on to what matters most.

How can I improve my memory?
[Source photo: Brett Sayles/Pexels]

Welcome to Pressing QuestionsFast Company’s mini-advice column. Every week, deputy editor Kathleen Davis, host of The New Way We Work podcast, will answer the biggest and most pressing workplace questions.

Q: How can I improve my memory?

A: This is one of the most pressing questions of them all. We forget most of the details of our lives: Conversations, people, events, books, ideas, even whole years of life, fade over time. Some of that’s fine. A lot of information and daily encounters aren’t important to hang on to in the long term. But for the stuff you do want to remember in work and in life, there are several ways to train your brain to hold on to what you want.

Here are a few things that have worked for me and are backed by neuroscience:

1. Use a memory trick. I’ve found sorting facts and information into a song or mnemonic device is helpful. According to neuroscientists, humans can only hold about three or four pieces of information in our minds at once, so they suggest you try to cheat that limit by sorting the information into chunks.

For example: I taught my kids to remember my phone number by turning it into an earworm of a song. The ultimate proof of this method: When I was in second grade, my friend Jessie taught me her method to remember the spelling of science (Silly Cats In Egypt Never Catch Elephants)—and 35 years later, my brain still recites it whenever I write that word.

2. Focus on what you want to remember. Hopefully, you know the pitfalls of multitasking. (You’re more likely to make mistakes, it will take longer to complete tasks, and you won’t retain much of what you did.) So, it makes sense that one of the best ways to remember things is to focus.

While switching off distractions is a big first step, I’ve taken it further if there’s something I really want to remember. Before I got married, everyone told me that my wedding day would be a blur and I wouldn’t remember much of it. So on the day, in the middle of a beautiful moment, I made sure to pause and tell myself to remember it. Twelve years later, and I still remember those moments.

3. Write it down. Several scientific studies have found that taking notes on a laptop isn’t as effective for retaining the information as writing notes by hand. Part of the reason is that you have to slow down to focus when writing by hand (sense a theme?), but I’ve found two other ways writing things down helps me to remember.

First, if I take notes by hand in a meeting, I have to use my own shorthand which usually consists of a lot of abbreviations and only about every fourth word recorded—an imperfect method, but one the forces me to remember the conversation and fill in the blanks when I type my notes up afterward.

The other way I use writing by hand to help me remember: I’ve been using the One Line A Day journal method for almost a decade. I’ve found that reading back over those little daily details that are often forgotten is enough to jog my memory of days that would otherwise be forgotten.

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Kathleen Davis is Deputy Editor at FastCompany.com. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine. More

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