How to Remember Things

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man trying to remember things

Memory is a big subject – much bigger than a blog post! Nevertheless, few situations are more frustrating than not being able to remember something important. Not being able to remember things makes us feel disorganized and out of control. Of course, many people find it helpful to write things down (or digitally record them), but are there other ways to help us remember?

For some, failing memory is an indicator of a cognitive problem, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. If you worry about this, I will share that I’ve been told that not being able to find your keys is normal, but not remembering what keys are for is not, and should be checked by a doctor. For those with normal brain function, an inability to recall information is likely a symptom of lives which are complicated, crunched for time, and overloaded with responsibilities.

So, what are we to do? I believe that taking one small step can make a huge difference, and I call this step intentional remembering. Often, we forget things because we have not made an intentional decision to try to remember. We hear a person’s name at a party, but we don’t focus on it and figure out a way to remember it. We complete tasks while distracted, leaving only a weak impression on our memory of what we’ve done.

If we want to remember something, we can give our brains “tricks” for recalling it. For example, when I wanted to remember that my husband’s underwear goes in the third drawer down instead of the fourth (which I repeatedly mix up), I made up a little verbal phrase to remind myself: “under goes over.” This may sound silly, and it kind of is, but the point is that by taking a few seconds to tell my brain a riddle or a clue, I made a deep enough impression to remember.

Another example is the “number of items” trick that you can use when out and about. Every time you leave the house, count how many items you are taking with you. Perhaps it is four: a coat, a cell phone, gloves, and a purse. Every time you move to a new location (into the car, out of the car, into the office, off the train, etc.) count to see if you have four items. You don’t need to check for all four individually, just the total number. If you have four, you are good to go! If you don’t have all four, then stop and think about what is missing. This little trick is very helpful to avoid the problem of leaving items behind.

To help with people’s names, try coming up with an association for every name. For instance, say silently to yourself “Blond Betty” or “Tall Tim.” The very action of pairing a name with a visual image makes it easier to remember.

If you have trouble remembering where you put things down, enhance your memory by increasing the number of senses involved in the task. First, establish a designated place for frequently misplaced items (hook for keys, dish for eyeglasses, corner of a desk for cell phone, etc.), and then when you are learning to use this new place, take time to stare at your hand as you put it there (for a second or two), and say out loud “I am putting my keys on the hook.” These activities give your brain three impressions: the kinesthetic feeling of hanging keys, the visual input of watching the keys get hung on the hook, and the auditory verbalization of the fact that they keys are being placed on the hook.

Another tip that some people find helpful is to use color as a visual reminder. For instance, you may want to assign a color to each child in your family for their generic belongings (e.g. their towel, toothbrush, backpack, cup). This helps them “see” their belongings more easily, which can help them remember where they have put them. This also helps parents quickly identify who hasn’t put their items back where they belong.

If you want to remember a sequence of steps (e.g. steps to making a recipe, order of information when giving a speech, morning checklist before you head out the door, etc.), you might want to try using the Loci Method. To use this technique, imagine a place such as a house or castle, and then talk about “putting” the various steps into the different rooms. You can then rehearse a mental “walkthrough” of the home, helping you to remember everything in order.

Mnemonics, such as when the letters of a word remind you of a phrase, are wonderful tools to help us remember information. Mnemonics create a bridge between something we can easily remember and something that might be a bit tricky or complex. I still remember the colors of the rainbow because of the mnemonic “ROY G BIV.”

Rhyme is also helpful for remembering. For example, let’s say you want to remember to turn left onto Pine Street when heading to a location you visit only periodically. You can mindfully give yourself a rhyme, such as “I know it’s time when I see the sign for Pine.”

If you are trying to remember to perform a specific task that is new to your routine, try associating it (i.e. doing it at the same time) as a task that you already habitually perform. For example, take a new medication when you brush your teeth. Another idea might be to clear trash from your car whenever you are pumping gas. I like to set up my coffee pot for the next morning when I am setting the table for dinner.

Lastly, never underestimate the power of a song. If you really want to remember something, let’s say the combination to a lock or an important password, incorporate it into a familiar tune. Most of us learned the alphabet to a song, and I know I still sing that song when I am trying to put a series into alphabetical order. Any tune will suffice. Simply take a few moments to intentionally put the song and the piece of information together, and then sing the song a few times (preferably over a couple of days) to cement it into recallable form.

There are limitless numbers of tricks you can use, and there are no wrong ones. The key here is tobe intentional about helping your brain remember. And if you forget something, don’t berate yourself. Self-criticism hampers growth, so just tell it to be quiet and leave you alone.

What tricks do you find helpful for clearing the mind clutter and being intentional about remembering?

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