Star in a starOne of the great things about David Alan’s Getting Things Done (aka GTD) is that you don’t have to remember anything. “Get it out of your head” David says.

My memory has improved since I started using GTD to keep my head clear. If you are using GTD, you’re not using your memory for trivia anymore, so it must be storing important things! That is a good reason to get better at using it and understanding how memory works will do that. Did you know you can improve your memory?

It is OK to forget

It is actually good that we don’t remember everything. Exceptional memory can be a problem. Imagine if you recalled everything, all at once, all of the time. It would be completely distracting, making it hard to focus on the moment or to step back and look at the bigger picture. You would be overwhelmed by memories.

You see, it is actually OK that we forget some things. The important thing is that we can recall the things that we do need to recall. That is all we need to achieve with our memory.

You might have heard that there are three types of memory. An immediate, sensory memory, which is very fleeting. A short term memory, which deals in seconds or tens of seconds. It remembers things just long enough for you to dial that phone number, or to do the next action. Finally, there is long term memory.

When things make it to long term memory, we can pretty much remember them for life – with a bit of practice. That is the magic place for remembering things.

Remember, it is all part of the process

The process of remembering things is clearly key. It turns out that there are three parts to this as well.

Firstly, there is what is termed encoding. It sounds a bit technical, but it is basically the process by which your brain sorts and processes things, and links them to other memories, ready to put them inside your brain. This is the second piece, storing things. Then the third piece, of course, is actually remembering it or recalling.

There are different ways of getting things back from memory. There is recognition, the way that we recognise someone’s face when we see it. It is quite easy isn’t it? It is intuitive, because we are better at it. That is what is so easy about multiple choice questions. We only have to recognise the answers, rather than recalling them.

Recalling is the important bit for your productivity. That is when you have to go inside your brain and find the piece of information you want, digging it out. The discrepancy between recognition and recall tells us that there is more stuck in our head than we can normal get out.

Getting better at remembering (recall)

There are two things we can do to improve the situation. The first is to work on putting things into our head, the encoding. The trick here is to work at it. The short cut to success is hard work, right?

If I give you a phone number, you will probably have forgotten it in a few seconds. However, if you start to think about the number more deeply, to engage with it, it enhances the encoding process and helps get into your long term memory. Is the phone number like somebody else’s? Are there patterns in the number? What are they? Any rhymes or rhythm?

Break the number down into chunks and see if you can visualise those chunks in your mind. Make the image vivid and colourful, perhaps use animals or objects related to things about the number to make the shape of the digits (there is a great trick for this in an old post about memory on litemind). Think deeply about the number and try and make some logical sense of it.

Getting the information linked to things we already know, and thinking about it at different levels, improves recollection. If you are trying to remember information from a textbook, write the information out in your own words. This puts the information through more of your brain, engaging at a higher level than just reciting it.

You’ll remember I said there are three parts to memory function. We can’t do much about the middle bit, storage, our brain just does that. However, the last bit we can also perform some magic on: recalling.

Get to the right place to remember

Godden and Baddeley (1975) performed an experiement which used two groups of people. One half stayed on the beach (sounds good to me), the other half went 15 foot underwater.

Both groups had to memorize information. The groups then split again, with half the people from underwater going to the beach, and half of the beach people going underwater. Who remembered things the best? It was the people who were in the same place they were before. Recalling the information in the place they learnt it was more important than the effect of being underwater. Now, before you rush off to try and revise for your next exam in the actual exam hall, we can approach this another way.

It is a state of mind

One of the tricks about recall, and this is a wonderful technical word, is ‘salient cues’. It essential means that if there is something relevant to a memory, based on how we encoded it, it will help cue (or trigger) that memory.

If you are stuck trying to recall something, rather than focussing on that thing, think about where you were when you learnt it or any related facts you are able to bring to mind. Anything at all related, even what you were concious of when you learnt it. What was the emotion? Was there a particular smell or location? Were there any other things you can bring to mind?

Try ‘walking backwards’ through time. Remember how you lost your keys; you mentally retraced your steps and then you suddenly remembered where you put them. It works. Look for associations, anything related to the memory. If you learnt it when you were 15 feet under water, go back under water! In fact, if you learnt something after a little alcohol, you’ll remember it better after a little alcohol. The reverse is also true, but you’ve probably figured that out already,

You see, we can greatly improve our memory, just by working at the way we put things into it, and the way we fetch things from it. No there’s something to remember.

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