How to Remain Diligent with a Less-Than-Stellar Memory

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I have never had a great memory. That is, except for a few random and pointless things that I can recall with great clarity for no particular reason. For example, I clearly remember when I was 12 my sister’s boyfriend telling me that smart people pressed “9-0” on the microwave when cooking something for a minute and a half because pressing “1-3-0” takes 33% longer… great.

Yet, I was not able to remember the order of the calendar months until I was in High School. I only ever memorized two phone numbers in my life. I still do not know the birthdays of anyone in my family without asking someone else for help. I am better at remembering faces than names, but even then, my memory is not picture perfect ─ I have definitely forgotten people’s faces before. And, I often say things like: “It’s like that movie, with the guy, remember? He was in that other movie about that one place?”

Needless to say, having less than total recall can make staying on top of work tasks difficult. So here are a few tips that help me. Hopefully, these might help you in your day-to-day activities as well:

Set up triggers

To remind myself of things, I have to set up triggers that will, well, trigger my memory. If I need to take a vitamin every day, for example, I might put it in the bathroom sink. That way it is somewhere that I will always see it in my routine ─ inside my cereal bowl would work equally well. Same thing with work activities. For meetings, I set a calendar reminder, and sometimes, I set a reminder after that reminder just in case I get sucked into something else between the first reminder and the actual meeting.

I put important things physically in my way if they are of high importance. If I need to mail a few things in the morning, I put them on my computer keyboard so that I am forced to deal with them before I can check email (another option would be to rubber band them to my phone if that was my go-to device for email).

Memory is context-dependent. That is why you may not remember your neighbor’s backyard BBQ from 10 years ago until you see an old photograph from the event pop up in your Facebook feed. The photo triggers contextual memories from the BBQ that start flooding into your mind’s eye. That is why I set up my own context triggers to remind me visually of what I need to do.

Change your triggers

Alarms and notifications from a phone or computer can be effective. But, after hearing that same alarm sound enough times, the brain may start to block it out as background noise and then it becomes meaningless. I will occasionally find that I am not waking up as quickly to my alarm as I once did. Or, I am not responding to the chime that goes off when I get a new email (like some sort of reverse Pavlovian conditioning). When I observe that decline, I change the notification sound in order to jolt my brain into thinking, “What the hell was THAT?”

Previously, I had observed that I was not responding to text messages right away, and then forgetting I had them at all. To fix that problem, I set my phone to chime every 10 minutes until I open the message, which is effective, but also very annoying (hence its effectiveness).

Do not trust yourself

I do not know how many times I have said, “Oh, I’ll DEFINITELY remember to do that.” And then not remember to do that. Even if I am convinced I will remember (because sometimes, even in spite of my bad memory, I actually do remember things), I have learned never to trust myself. I always make a note, or set an alarm, or set up some kind of trigger. I never trust myself. I always assume I am going to forget.

Do not trust others

When I assign tasks to my teammates, I follow the same process of using triggers and reminders as I do for my own tasks. I remind myself to follow up with them on the task well ahead of when it is due. That way, if they did forget, they still have enough time to try and get it done.

Take copious notes

I always try to take copious notes. I never know what is going to happen or what details I might forget without them. Sometimes, it can feel like notes are overkill and that I’m writing down things that seem obvious or elaborating more than necessary, but I have always found that it is better to have more notes than not enough.

Someone may relay a task to me and I think, “Oh, no need to take notes, that was pretty straightforward, and I am going to work on it right now.” But then, 100 other things come up. Before I know it, that straightforward task moved to the bottom of my list, and by the time I get to it, I will no longer remember what was so straightforward about it!

Notes need to be clear enough that even someone who was not involved in the conversation would know what needs to be done. And, sometimes, that someone is me! Because even though I might have been in the meeting, sometimes my memory fails me to the point that it was like I was never even there. I always date stamp my notes as well and put them somewhere where I am reminded to look at them.

Triple check everything

It is incredibly easy for me to transpose number orders and dates, further hindering my ability to remember such things. Once, in middle school, I wrote that the boiling point of water was 121 degrees Fahrenheit (another oddly clear memory of mine). When I tried to argue with my teacher that I was at least close, he said, “You were off by almost 100 degrees!” But all I could see was that each individual number was only off by one. That is why I triple check everything.

It goes back to my third recommendation: do not trust yourself. It is all too easy to transpose numbers, miss a cell in a worksheet, overlook a PowerPoint slide, or forget what time that meeting was supposed to start. So, always try to triple check yourself if time allows. And, after triple checking yourself, have someone else check you as well. A fresh set of eyes can do wonders, which is exactly why at Thought Ensemble we always review each other’s work.

We all have skills that propel us forward and shortcomings that hold us back. Being successful means acknowledging your shortcomings, and figuring out how to beat them (assuming that your plan of attack does not involve tattooing vague messages all over your body like Guy Pearce in Memento).

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