By Dr Vicki Culpin, Dean of Faculty and Director of Research, Ashridge Business School
We all have times when our memory fails us. We forget the name of an important contact, turn up to a meeting at the wrong time or overlook a vital task. This is hardly surprising at a time of working under intense pressure – but there are practical steps you can take to make sure your memory doesn’t let you down. Here are my top 10 tips.
1. Try to reduce stress
Do you ever sit down after a particularly stressful day and realise with horror that you have forgotten to do something important? Stress is one of the most common causes of poor memory performance. Stressful situations have been shown to impair communication between the cells in the brain responsible for learning and memory. The good news is that if you can take steps to reduce your stress levels, your memory performance will start to return to normal after just one week.
2. Get enough sleep
Sleep is critical for memory consolidation – the brain’s method of transferring new information to our long-term memory. Research suggests that deep sleep is the key to both storing and retrieving information. If you are sleeping badly, or not getting enough sleep, think about what you can do to improve the situation.
3. Reduce multi-tasking
Multi-tasking has become second nature to us. However the brain is less efficient at multi-tasking than we are led to believe. When the brain is trying to do two things at once, it ‘switches’ tasks rather than doing both simultaneously, which impacts memory. Research has shown that people who learn something new while multi-tasking are less likely to remember what they have learned later. Try and concentrate on one thing at a time.
4. Rehearse information quickly
In short term memory, how much we can remember is directly related to how much information we can ‘squeeze’ into approximately 15-30 seconds. When we try to remember things we often ‘rehearse’ the information by repeating it in our heads or out loud. The quicker you can do this the more information you are likely to remember. If you speak slowly you may only be able to rehearse four or five facts, speed the process up and you may find you can rehearse and recall up to nine pieces of information.
5. Group information
Research has shown that if you ‘rehearse’ information in groups of three, it can make a big difference to your ability to remember it. Try it for yourself. Take the number ‘145870236’ and try to remember it as a whole. Then break it down in to three groups – 145 870 236 – and see how much easier it is to remember!
6. Chunk it up
If you are giving a presentation, try to break the information down into clusters. This will not only help you remember what you need to say – but will also make it easier for the audience to take in and retain what you’ve told them.
7. Make it meaningful
We are more likely to remember information if it is meaningful. A good way to make information meaningful is to relate it to something that you already know. You can ask yourself questions to encourage this process – ‘why do I need to learn this?’, ‘how does this fit with what I already know?’ for example. Think beyond the facts being presented and consider why they make sense to you and you are much more likely to remember them.
8. Pay close attention
Be honest with yourself. How often have you blamed poor memory when you haven’t made any real attempt to remember information? Or do you create a self-fulfilling prophecy by telling yourself ‘I’m not going to be able to remember everyone’s name, so I’m not going to waste my time trying’. Your ability to remember information will improve if you ensure you are paying proper attention and making an effort to remember.
9. Use imagery/association
One of the biggest memory-related problems is an inability to remember people’s names. Repetition helps, so try to use the person’s name as much as possible during your conversation, as well as when you say hello and goodbye. Some people find that creating a visual image related to the name can also help them to remember it. Does the person look like anyone famous or is there an aspect of their face that is particularly striking. If the visual image is exaggerated or humorous, it will help you link it in your mind to the person’s name.
10. Think about the context
If you are struggling to recall a particular piece of information, try to reinstate the context in which you heard it. It helps if you are physically able to do this (i.e. return to the room where a meeting was held) but if you can’t do that, it’s often enough just to create a visual image of the situation you were in. Think about the physical surroundings, the smell and the temperature. Re-instating the emotional context can also help, so think about the mood you were in.