How to Improve Your Memory

Remembering Habitual Tasks

Always losing your keys? If you make a conscious effort to remember where you put them, you'll have a better chance of recalling the spot.
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If you have trouble remembering habitual tasks such as turning off the coffee pot each morning or feeding the cat, the key to solving this problem is to relate the activity to something that you don't generally forget to do every day. For example, if you often forget to take your vitamin pill in the morning, tell yourself each day that you won't eat your breakfast until you have taken your vitamin. Make swallowing that vitamin pill a prerequisite to taking your first bite of food. By incorporating a task into an outline of things that you don't forget to do, you will be less likely to forget that task. You can even make the connection a physical one, say by storing your bottle of vitamins right in front of your cereal box in the cabinet.

Recalling Where You Put Things

There is hope for those who can't remember where they left their car keys or their purse. The main reason why you forget where you put these items is that you weren't paying attention when you dropped them on the hall table, the bedside table, or the kitchen counter. Because you weren't paying attention in the first place, when it comes time to retrieve the memory of where you left the object, you can't. It was never properly absorbed into your short-term memory in the first place.


This problem is compounded by the fact that you have probably dropped your keys or glasses down in many different places many different times, so when you do recall leaving them somewhere, you may not be recalling the most recent place you put them.

Once again, the solution is really quite simple: Pay attention. And if you can't pay attention, be consistent. Make a concerted effort to pay attention to where you are placing the keys. Stop yourself in the middle of dropping them on the desk and take a deep breath. Stare at the desk and say out loud, "I am putting my keys on the desk." If you force yourself to pay attention, you're less likely to forget when it comes time to retrieve that particular memory. This may feel a bit silly at first, but it's a sure bet you'll remember where you left them.

The other sure-fire way to remember particular items is to put them back in exactly the same place, every single time. Find specific places to keep all the items that are often misplaced:

  • glasses
  • keys
  • medications
  • coupons
  • TV remote
  • cell phone
  • cordless phone

In addition, you can take steps to minimize the number of less significant things you have to remember in the first place. If you never seem to be able to find small, often-used items, such as tape dispensers, scissors, or pens, stop torturing yourself: Simply buy extras and keep them all over the house.

To end the frustration of tracking down the TV remote, consider attaching one of the commercially available "homing devices" -- the kind that beeps when you clap your hands -- to the remote. You may be able to find a key chain that works in a similar fashion to help you locate your keys.

Cordless phones are a real boon to our busy, modern lives but not if the last person to use the phone simply left it on the sofa instead of back on the base unit. If you find yourself wasting time searching high and low for the handset of the cordless phone each time that you want to use it, check to see if your unit has an "intercom" button on the base unit; pressing this button makes the handset ring, making it faster and easier for you to find it.

Remembering Your Schedule

It won't matter much if you can remember to do something in the future if you don't remember to do it at the right time. For example, you may remember that you need to mail in your IRS payment a week before the deadline, but if you forget all about the task on the day you intended to do it and the deadline passes, you haven't solved your problem. In fact, a problem with remembering dates is one of the most common memory failures. A combination of mental strategies and mechanical reminders should help get this problem under control.

One way to solve the problem of forgetting dates is to cue your attention. For example, you could take your IRS payment and tape it to the front door, or tape a dollar bill to the front door to remind yourself. Here are some tried-and-true cues:

  • Attach a safety pin to your sleeve.
  • Put a rubber band around your wrist.
  • Move your watch to the opposite arm.
  • Leave a note to yourself (a brightly colored sticky note is ideal) in a prominent place.

Using a calendar is an excellent mechanical method of remembering dates. The key is not to use two calendars -- one at home and one at work. If you do, you're asking for trouble when you forget to transfer an important date and then inadvertently schedule two things for the same day. Get one calendar that's convenient to carry with you. Or, if you can access your computer both at home and at work, try using your software's calendar program to keep track of appointments and important dates electronically. Whatever calendar you ultimately choose, all important days should be marked down. Every morning, consult the calendar and cross off items as they occur. On the first day of the new year, get out a new calendar and transfer all of the important dates from the old calendar so you don't forget anything.

Remembering What You're Doing

We've all gone into a room and totally forgotten what we're doing there. If you've done this, you're not alone; experts suggest that more than half of all Americans experience this problem. It's not incipient dementia, it's just a lack of attention.

Each time you have a thought about going into a room to get something, simply stop for a moment and tell yourself out loud what you are going to get. If you're already in the other room and can't remember what you're doing there, try retracing your steps to where you were standing when you had the thought to leave the room. This form of association will often help jog the memory of your errand.

Studies show that it's not unusual for people of all ages to forget places, names, and dates. On the next page, learn memory tricks and other strategies to remember these basics.

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