Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How to Improve Your Memory

General Memory Boosters

There are some general memory boosters you can use right now to improve your memory. Not all aspects of memory slow down as you age, and it is important to know that you can compensate for most problems by using memory strategies and tricks. Some people excel at remembering names. Other people are good at remembering small details. It is unrealistic to expect to remember everything. But you can get better at remembering those things you're not so good at remembering.

Everyday forgetting is linked to the fact that when you've done something so many times in the past, it can be hard to remember if on this particular day you've turned off the stove or unplugged the iron. Indeed, some people go through entire routines of "checking" in the morning because they know they have problems remembering if they've actually turned off appliances and closed windows before leaving for the day.

If you really want to cure such absentmindedness, you need to become acutely aware of what you're doing. When you don't pay attention, you're not likely to register information in the first place. The likely result: forgetting. Paying attention takes effort. There may be times when your attention strays -- think of the times you've rushed out the door because you were running behind schedule, only to discover later that you left behind something important. Instead, you need to slow down and pause. It is important to pay attention to and concentrate on what you are doing, especially when it comes to things you're not usually good at remembering.

For example, have you ever been driving to work and tried to remember whether or not you unplugged the iron before you left the house? To improve your ability to remember such everyday occurrences, you need to pause and pay attention as you turn off or unplug an appliance so that it will register in your memory. This helps to turn an automatic act into a conscious one.

Here are the steps:

  1. Before going out the door, stop. Breathe deeply. Take the time to think. If you're locking your back door, think about what you're doing.
  2. Focus your concentration. Speak out loud to force yourself to pay attention. If you often forget to turn off the stove, go into the kitchen and force yourself to slowly survey the appliances. As you look at each one, say "The oven is turned off. The toaster is unplugged." When you're driving down the freeway and you ask yourself if the oven is off, you'll know that it is.
  3. Go over everything. If you tend to leave important things behind, line them all up before you leave. Go through each item, saying it out loud. Check your calendar to assure yourself that everything you need is lined up and ready.
  4. Take immediate action. Do you need to take back that library book? Do it now, while you're thinking about it. At least put the book by the front door; lean it right up against the door if you have to.

If you're plagued with general absentmindedness, it could mean that your life is simply a bit out of control. Excess stress, lots of responsibilities, and plenty of distractions are interfering with your ability to pay attention, which then interferes with your ability to remember. You're most likely to be absentminded when you're preoccupied. Those who are easily distracted or who tend to be daydreamers are particularly vulnerable to interference.

Here's a quick list of ways to regain some control over your daily life and your memory:

  1. Get organized. Develop a routine and stick to it. If you're organized, you can often make up for not remembering certain things by keeping information and various possessions in easily accessible places.
  2. Enlist a list. Keep a daily to-do list, and cross off items once they've been done. Always keep the list in the same place, and organize the list into categories. Make your list easy to find: Put it on a large, colored sheet of paper.
  3. Keep a calendar handy to keep track of important dates. Check the calendar at the same time every day so it becomes a habit. When you buy a new calendar at the beginning of the year, transfer all important dates from the old calendar.
  4. Have a place for everything, and put everything in its place. If you have a key rack right inside your door, you'll be more likely to hang your keys there and remember where they are.
  5. If you need to remember to take certain things to work or school, keep a tote bag or backpack right by the front door. Keep all papers and items that need to go with you in that bag or backpack.
  6. Focus on one thing at a time, and try to pay active attention each time you put something down.
  7. Make visual cues: Place a colored sticky note on your steering wheel, protruding up from your briefcase or purse, on your office chair, or on your bathroom mirror, your shoes, or your wallet. Don't assume you'll remember; leave plenty of reminders.
  8. Keep important numbers in one place, so you can locate them even if you're under a lot of stress. Be sure to keep these numbers in your wallet: phone numbers for doctors, emergency contacts, neighbors, medical insurance and social security numbers, license-plate number and automobile-insurance information.
  9. Write things down as they occur -- use lists, schedules, and so on.
  10. Return frequently used items to the same spot each time, and rely on placement to trigger your memory (for example, leave an umbrella on the doorknob).
  11. Repeat yourself. If someone tells you information that you need to remember, repeat it over and over again to yourself.
  12. Keep a positive attitude about memory lapses as you get older. Remember, memory decline is not inevitable. Be sensitive to the many things that can make you prone to forget. You can take action to overcome or mitigate most of them.

The more harried you are, the harder it can be to remember the everyday details of your life. You need a system, which is why so many people rely on calendars, electronic organizers, appointment books, computerized reminders, and other memory aids. There are also certain strategies that you can employ to handle specific types of memory problems.

On the next page learn how to improve your memory when it comes to remembering daily tasks and habits.

To learn more about the various aspects of memory, see: