How To Hack Your Memory Into Better Shape

Now, where are those keys?!

If you're like members of the Fast Company editorial team, you may have difficulty remembering where you put your keys. Or your phone. Or whether you locked the door.

Research psychology has shown that this happens because these automatic actions don't even make it into your attention in the first place—if this is the three-thousandth time that you've locked your door, then your mind doesn't think it necessary to place it into your working memory—which means that it won't have the chance to become a part of your memory memory.

The right move, then, is not simply to train our attention muscles—something meditation does a great job of—but to adapt to our slippery habits of mind.

The following hacks, then, are like mental galoshes, giving us a little bit of traction in our stormy brains.

Always write it down

As was noted in a recent epic Quora thread, is the Getting Things Done realization that your brain is "for processing, not storage."

What we need to do, then, is to take the storage bits of our working memory and store them in somewhere that isn't our synapses: Could be a notebook, napkin, or any forward-thinking productivity app. Think of it this way: Our brains only have so much bandwidth, so the more we outsource our remembering to other places, the more we can devote our minds to becoming awesomely unstoppable—another reason why productive people take better notes.

Make it a routine

Writing for Inc., Kevin Daum humblebrags that he rarely loses his keys or sunglasses. Why? By putting them in the same place every time.

"The same applies to important information," he observes. "If you establish specific e-mail and desktop folders for critical documents, you'll know right where to go first."

As we've seen before, we're creatures of habit—so we should make them productive ones.

Find workarounds

We recently had the privilege of marinating in the thoughts, insights, and insights into thought of Arizona State University psychologist Peter Killeen. The full story springing from his research into mind wandering is still forthcoming, but a story that he told us about his teacher, the noted behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, is germane to our present conversation.

The venerable thinker wrote a book on being excellent at growing old, and one related anecdote helps us out here.

As Killeen recalls:

You say, 'Okay, what are the work-arounds here?' For instance, when Skinner was around us he wasn’t able to remember the names of all his acquaintances and friends in his life. He and his wife would have a deal, whoever remembered the name first would say to one another, 'Fred, here’s the Morgensons. Fred and Jill.' You set up alternate ways to do those skills. Just smart engineering.

So by taking notes, forming habits, and making clever collaborations with your partner, you can make your memory work better—even if your working memory isn't any better.

Hat tip: Inc.

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  • Linda St George

    I would like to know if there is a link between the nine types of intelligence and the kinds of things people remember. In my own case, I have a very high degree of linguistic intelligence, and I also score high on intrapersonal and existential intelligence. However, my visual and mathematical/logical intelligence are almost nonexistent. As far as memory is concerned, I am unable to remember conversations, events, movies, and what my boss at work tells me to do. I also have a mild case of prosopagnosia. On the other hand, my memory for spelling words, remembering dates, and understanding the intricate workings of grammar is nearly perfect. As a result, I have become a highly accomplished editor and a decent ESL teacher. 

    That said, it is very embarrassing for me to not be able to remember important conversations with my spouse and close friends, and to have to write down almost every word my boss says when she tells me to do something. 

    So, aside from my question about types of intelligence and memory, I would like to know if you have any suggestions as to how to remember what my spouse or friends say without having to record or take notes during intense, intimate discussions?

  • Daniel Lowe

    Nice article!  Some other effects of "writing it down".. I find that when I write a list, and then forget that list at home.. I have a much better chance of remembering the items on that list, than if I had never made a list at all.

    Writing down "ideas" turns them into "action items" that then require "resolution".  For this reason, I keep a white board above my desk with my immediate, short, and long term goals and critical creative ideas.

    Getting a tablet has also helped my brainpower recently.  It's "auxiliary storage" for me.  

    Don't underestimate the effects of language on brainpower.. learning another language (even a programming language!) can introduce you to concepts you haven't heard of before. 

  • Arne Jenssen

    It is an interesting point that you say the brain is for processing not storage. I makes sense to unburden it by writing down things. The act of writing it down by it self makes it easier to remember. In the same time as you want to unload things from memory, you should also want to have a broad memory of ideas that you can actively recall. This will make you more creative and effective in your job. Your primary language is an example of things you want to remember. You can't look up words when you need them. 
    Arne Jenssen, creator of MemoButton