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How to Improve Your Memory

How to Improve Your Memory

    Our memory is one of the integral parts of day-to-day human life. We’re using it every moment, consciously or not, as we perceive the world and interpret it based on our memories and experiences, or as we look for the car keys, trying to recall where, exactly, was the last place they were seen?

    It’s no small wonder that this part of our brain would fall prey to such inefficiency and failure, given the busy pace of Western life and the constant barrage of information that the hippocampus must somehow keep up with. At the same time, how can we fall complacent when such an essential thing as memory doesn’t work properly? Many lifehackistas and personal development fans spend hours, weeks, months and years dedicated to other areas of their lives while they completely ignore the memory.

    You should up your standards. Your memory should be a finely-tuned, working piece of equipment that you can depend on. So where do we start?

    Clear Your Mind

    Some of our memory inefficiency is no doubt caused by the clutter in our heads and the ceaseless stimulation of our senses and the barrage of information we so often complain about. The other part of poor recall is inefficiency in the way we store information—much like a hard drive, I suppose, where write speeds can be affected by how much the drive is trying to do at any one time, or completely halted when the drive is full, and can be slowed to a halt by inefficient methods of accessing that data.

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    Meditation

    Meditation is a scientifically proven way to clear your mind and relieve stress. If you find your mind too cluttered to recall important—or even not-so-important—facts throughout the day, adopt a regular meditation habit and reap the health benefits that come with it.

    Meditation goes something like this: find a quiet environment. Focus on your breathing. Quit thinking and forget about the world. Practice until you can actually forget about the world and focus on your breathing.

    GTD

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    As soon as I mentioned cluttered minds, you knew I was going to mention it. The Getting Things Done system is perfect for clearing your head because it eliminates the need to remember. When you’re not trying to hold on to and juggle so much data all day, and you release the stress of trying to retain so much information, that’s probably when you’ll find yourself able to remember everything easily!

    If you just use the info-dumping strategy of GTD, then you stand to gain a lot of mental RAM back. Simply sit down in the mornings—and in the evenings, especially if you have insomnia—and rattle out everything you need to do or consider onto a piece of paper, Word document, task manager, or whatever takes your fancy. The important thing is to remove it from your brain and free up attention for things that don’t need to be at the forefront of your brain.

    Fuel Your Brain

    A starving brain is just like a starving person: it won’t work well. Give your hippocampus the things it needs to operate smoothly.

    Exercise

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    One of the best things you can do for your memory is get exercise. I’ve put this under the Fuel Your Brain section because the reason exercise works so well is that it pumps oxygen to your head. Spend three hours a week walking, running, swimming or doing some form of aerobic exercises. If you already have an exercise regime that doesn’t involve aerobic exercise, you’ll need to add at least three hours per week to get the benefits of exercise on your memory.

    Diet

    The Virgina Woolfe quote is good advice: “One cannot think well, love well or sleep well if one has not dined well.” Of course, if you know anything of Woolfe’s life, you know she’s not an expert on mental health, but in this case, she was right.

    Just like if you failed to exercise, if you don’t eat well, your brain won’t work well. Quit snacking on chips and eat a variety of healthy foods. Avoid processed grains like bread and white rice. What you’re aiming for here is maximum nutrients so your neurons can fire and regenerate at will; fruits, vegetables, and “brain foods” (such as anything containing omega 3 fatty acids—sardines, for one) should comprise the bulk of any intellectual’s diet.

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    Herbs, supplements and drugs

    My pregnant wife is religious in her consumption of folic acid supplements every day, and apparently it’s a good idea for husbands to join in, especially if you’re the type who forgets to do the dishes. With all that folic acid she’s taking, she’s sure not forgetting.

    B vitamins are very important to healthy brain function. Not only will they give your memory a boost, but they’ll reduce stress too—our prime contributor to poor recall.

    As far as drugs go, I wouldn’t take any, but there is one you can boot. Smoking decreases blood flow to the brain, stopping oxygen from getting in there and hence making your prior attempts to rectify this problem useless

    Memory aids

    There is nothing wrong with aiding your memory with a shopping list or a mnemonic. If you need to remember that Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit to help you learn to read music notation, then you shouldn’t be ashamed if it makes your life easier—just be glad you’re not the other guy who’s trying to memorize by rote.

    There are plenty of systems and techniques that fall under the heading of memory aids. Some are as simple as writing a note on your hand or keeping a shopping list. Some aren’t—plenty of Tony Buzan-style techniques are all across the web.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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