Tips for improving your memory

Forgot a name? Lost a file? Missed a meeting? Here’s how to boost your recall.
Tips for improving your memory

Sherlock Holmes knows a thing or two about memory. The mystery-solving character in BBC One’s television series Sherlock uses a mnemonic technique called “the mind palace” to visualise physical locations where he can store various memories or clues. Later, he retrieves these memories through association with the settings.

Sherlock is fictitious, of course, but “the mind palace” or “loci” technique is real. Today it is utilised by memory champions like Boris Nikolai Konrad, a neuroscientist and speaker. Recollection techniques “enable you to massively improve your memory ... no matter how old you are”, said Konrad, who is based in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

Maintaining your memory is imperative in business. Clients appreciate when you remember their names and details about them and their families, for instance. But it’s all too easy, in this age of constant distraction, to forget names, lose a document or your car keys, make a procedural mistake, or accidentally miss an engagement — and such lapses can have consequences.

“People make memory slips all the time, and we forgive ourselves and forgive other people,” said Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and ageing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the book 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain. “But a major slip can be catastrophic and can be something technical that hurts the company.”

Memories fade for several reasons: age, particularly if people don’t take care of themselves; genetics, though not as common; stress, which overloads the brain and body; lack of sleep; and often, a poor attention span, thanks in part to technologies that divert our concentration.

“Memory has two major components — learning and recall — and if you are distracted by your cellphone or anxious thoughts, your memory won’t be as good as when it’s focused,” Small said. Most often, humans forget names and faces, where they put things, or something that is on the “tip of their tongue”. But people, he noted, “have much more control over their brain than they realise”.

Konrad, Small, and Bob Kittell, memory expert and president of consultancy firm Ultra Memory Systems Inc., in Orem, Utah, believe memory loss can often be countered by using effective recall methods. They offered the following tips:

Visualise and connect. Like Sherlock Holmes, you can build your own memory palace by envisioning locations and storing memories there. Additionally, “make up images to remember a name and picture in your mind,” Konrad advised. “If you meet a Thomas, picture him eating a tomato.” Small emphasised the importance of “look, snap, connect” — a three-step recall process. With “look”, focus your attention on the thing you want to memorise. With “snap”, create a mental snapshot of that thing. And then “connect” by linking up that mental snapshot so it has meaning. “My wife’s name is Gigi, and if I’m parking my car and I’m on level 3G, I see triplets of my wife standing by the car,” he quipped.

Repeat and retrieve. Repeat people’s names when you meet them. And later, ask yourself details about those you met, so they stick in your mind. Have conversations with yourself. If you read a magazine article or report, quiz yourself on what you just read. “Known as ‘retrieval practice’, this habit has been confirmed to be very beneficial for memory,” Konrad said.

Practise mindfulness. Step back, breathe, and reflect. This is necessary because, “our brains are over-stimulated”, Kittell said. So regularly meditate, practise yoga, or do something that relaxes you and your mind. “Meditation not only improves mood and memory, but it rewires your brain,” Small added. “Chronic stress causes wear and tear on your brain cells, and different relaxation methods can reverse that.”

Be healthy. Lack of sleep leads to memory lapses. But a good night’s sleep “triggers the garbage truck to clean out the brain”, Small said. Similarly, diet and exercise play a role in memory by keeping the brain and body healthy.

Turn off technology. Don’t be glued to your phone, computer, or tablet. “We’re constantly using our devices, and this can create stress and be distracting. It’s important to manage the technology so it doesn’t take over your life,” Small said. Instead, leave your office to have face-to-face conversations with colleagues. Or take a walk and memorise something. “Don’t get on Facebook or Instagram or on the internet during your break — do something that requires your brain,” Kittell added.

Use it or lose it. Tap your memory habitually to remain acute. Do crossword puzzles, grill yourself, or test yourself with trivia. “Research shows that a memory used is a memory that stays,” Konrad said. “Using your memory and giving it challenging tasks throughout your life is the best way to increase the chances to stay sharp.”

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at