Managing memory

The below is a detailed list of factors to consider when trying to improve your memory. A number of these are summarized in a very good overview, which is also quite readable, written by Barbara Wilson (here). Links to software and services here are typically just examples you may find useful and not specific endorsements. If you have other services that could be added here and others may find useful please let me know.

Global factors

  • Mood is a background influence on all of our cognition.  If you suffer from stress, from anxiety or depression, you may find it useful to see a psychologist. Decreasing this stress will help you focus and function more efficiently in daily life.  Your psychologist will likely help you to learn specific methods to use in daily life to improve how you deal with stress and anxiety.  This is often a short-term process–you may see someone weekly for three months or so.  If you do not find your anxiety or stress is decreasing, or if you feel the psychologist is not a good fit, you are always free to ask to see a different psychologist or therapist.  You should not find, though, that you are continually moving from one therapist to another.
    • You can find a psychiatrist or psychologist from your primary care physician. 
    • You can find psychologists who are covered in your local area by visiting the website for your insurer.
    • More detail is available from websites like the listing in Psychology Today.
  • Fatigue is a major factor affecting cognition.  Try to set a regular sleep/wake routine and stick to it, especially during the working week (i.e. Sun-Thu nights). The Centers for Disease Control provide specific guidelines on:
  • Attention.  Varying attention is highly likely to influence memory. Individuals with a past diagnosis of ADHD may consider re-trying stimulant medication for a period to see if this influences their memory in daily life.
  • Environmental distractions:
    • People function best when there are few distractions in the environment.  Try removing distracting items from a desk, or using earplugs in noisy environments.
    • Try to keep eye contact with others when they are speaking; this will increase the chance that you follow what is said.
    • Email and text messages can be extremely distracting.  Develop the habit of checking these only at designated times (e.g., 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 5pm) if possible.  If not possible, try setting a reminder to check these only at hourly intervals. 
    • There is growing evidence that methods such as Mindfulness training, which could be thought of as a form of training in ignoring distraction, and regular meditation may help improve attention.  You may try such programs to see if they are of benefit to you.

Principles for learning

To make certain you have the best chance of remembering information, you can work to improve your "encoding" of information when you encounter it.

  1. Simplify the information you need to remember.  In addition to getting rid of distractions and working on focusing, you can try to summarize key points at the end of a conversation (e.g., “so just to confirm, …”).  This recall will help make sure you remember what you have heard.  Similarly, when reading, you can summarize material in the margins of the page in 1-2 dot points.  Review these at the end of the chapter or section you are reading.
  2. Remember one thing at a time.  If you are being given too much information, ask others just to give you the key point or points.
  3. Make sure you have understood.  Build this into the two points above by checking the main point with the other person at the end of a conversation.  Confirm with them, "so the main thing you are saying is that..."
  4. Link to things you already know, that are successfully in your memory, if possible.  If you have a general “model” for information you have to remember it will make it easier to learn new information. For example, while this can be applied in many ways, if you are working in business and know you often have to remember details a company together (e.g., (i) the person you interact with and (ii) its share price) use this pairing as a general model for learning and make sure you have these key points after reading or hearing about an organization.
  5. Avoid trial-and-error learning.  Trial and error learning is when you let yourself recall the wrong thing when you are trying to learn something.  For example, looking at a word then trying to recall the meaning spontaneously. Research has shown that when you do this, you are likely to learn the incorrect errors that you make while trying to learn.  In this example you could ensure that you review the word with the correct definition while learning, until you get it correct, and only after this test yourself without the correct definition at hand.
  6. Ensure you actively engage and process when trying to learn the material.  We know that if you process information more deeply, for instance, by thinking about the implications of what someone has said or how it relates to you, you will be more likely to remember it.
  7. Rehearse important information a number of times after you learn it.  For instance, review the most important things you have to remember after each meal, or at the end of the day.
  8. “Distributed practice” is better than massed practice.  That is, if you have to learn something revise it a number of times with a break in between each time you do.  Reciting it intensively, once, is not the way to do it.  Research also suggests that “Spaced retrieval” is also better – i.e., if you gradually lengthen the delay until when you must recall something.  So after an important meeting you could summarize the 3 key points; check these an hour later over lunch; 3 hours later at lunch; then the following morning on the train.

Specific strategies

  • Mnemonics – take the first letter of a series of key words for an important point, and learn these.  For instance, to learn the colors of the rainbow (Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet) you can take the first letters–ROYGBIV–and learn the sentence “Run Off You Boys, Girls In View”.  You can later recall this sentence and work back to the colors.
  • Embedding information in a story or rhyme also helps improve your memory.
  • Visual imagery can be extremely helpful.  For instance, to remember your doctor's name is Dr. Benjamin, you may rename him “Dr. BanjoMan”, and imagine him playing a Banjo.  To recall that a specific company is headed by a certain CEO and sells three main types of products you could imagine that CEO standing on a street corner selling these.

Modify your environment

Use things in your environment to remind you of what you need to do.

  • “Environmental cueing”: place to-be-remembered items in obvious locations.  For instance, always place and keep keys, phone, purse in a particular spot – e.g. a table by the door.
  • Use a diary and notebook (paper or electronic) and religiously record information and check this at given times.
  • You can use daily events as triggers to remind you to check your notebook.  For instance, every time you drink water, or every time you wash your hands.
  • Automatic bill payments: Set up automatic payments for your credit card, rent, utilities, cable etc. to avoid forgetting these.
  • Prescription refills: Ask your pharmacy to contact you monthly to remind you about these.

Aids to help avoid forgetting

  • Medication: Get a day-by-day medication planner if you have not already that you can fill at the start of the week to make certain that you take your medication–once only–every day.  This is critical as you may not realize you are missing or double-dosing on your medication.
  • Calendars – It can be very useful to use a calendar to a greater extent.  This may be a large wall calendar (e.g., on a whiteboard or paper), a desk calendar, a notebook or calendar in a smartphone.  The calendar in a smartphone has the benefit of including an alarm with events.
  • Plan how to search. If you always misplace things, use a flow-chart to remind you where to search.
  • Notepads (written post-its, electronic); use of a whiteboard.  You will need to be sure to proactively make a note of things you have to remember, even if (especially when) it seems unnecessary.  Note taking works best if it becomes habit–most people do not expect to forget things when they are hearing them.
  • Camera – use a camera to quickly photograph things you need to remember, or notes people have written for you.  This can be done directly into free note-taking services (e.g., Evernote, OneNote; see below).
  • Smart devices such as the WeMo: these are wireless switches that allow you to control devices at home from your phone, or automatically through services such as

Software that can be helpful

There are many helpful applications that you can use with an iPhone, Android, or other smartphone.  Some of the many options include the following. 

  • Evernote (; any device; free), OneNote.  This is a digital notebook that backs up to a server, so that you cannot lose the notes.  It can be accessed from a phone, desktop, or any computer (webpage) and notes are easily searchable. Do note that these companies will have your information stored on their servers; you can review their privacy policies at their websites. Think carefully before storing confidential or health information here.
    • It can store photographs, audio and text, so you can (for instance) take a photo of a friend and then make notes about what you just discussed.
    • It notes your location, so you can search for a note you made (e.g.) at the hospital.
  • Audio commands.
    • iri (iPhone; free) reminders.  By holding down the main button on your iPhone you can give your phone verbal instructions.  This makes it easier to record and remember things.  You can combine this with the notes and location functions to create reminders and location-based cues.  For example:
      • “Remind me to buy milk when I go to Walgreens/leave work”
      • “Remind me to put the trash out every Tuesday night”
      • “Set an alarm for 6pm tomorrow called “Buy sugar””
    • Rather than typing text messages or emails, it is possible to dictate messages; e.g. “Text Alex “I’ll be home at 5”” or “will it rain today”.  On an iPhone hold the main button to trigger Siri; on an Android phone install “Google Now”.
  • If This Then That (; any smartphone; free).  This application is similar to Siri with reminders but allows more complicated events.  You can ask it to use your location to trigger “events”; e.g. you could automatically text message a partner when you get off the bus or when you leave work.
  • Voice recorders allow you to record important information to review later. iPhones come with the application “Voice recorder”.  Many free Android applications exist, such as “Hi-Q MP3 Voice Recorder” & “Tape-a-talk”.
  • Dictation software can make it easier to write documents or emails.  There are many types of software to do this,
    • Paid software which has been around for some time includes the Dragon series; “Dragon NaturallySpeaking” (pc), “Dragon Mobile Assistant” (android), and “Dragon Dictation” (apple, iPhone).  
    • On apple computers dictation is build in and can be used free of charge. You can choose to have information stored locally on your computer, rather than have transcription done via Apple's servers.
  • For navigation, many helpful smartphone applications exist. Google Maps (iPhone, android, free) allows you to search for a location (e.g., home) and then gives you directions to either (a) walk by foot, (b) use public transport, or (c) drive there.
  • A smartphone is only useful if you have it!  It can be useful to keep it on your belt (e.g., see “phone holsters” in Amazon) or attached to a handbag.  To allow you to find an iPhone if it is lost, turn on the built-in find my iPhone” function.  On Android phones you can register for one of many similar services such as AndroidLost.