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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.