Are you overwhelmed by the insane number of memory tricks out there?
Some gurus swear by “memory palaces”, others praise flashcards, and still others fill whole books with embarrassing memory rhymes. How are you supposed to know which memory tools to actually use?
Answer: it depends.
You don’t need to find one memory trick or tool to rule them all. Instead, you can choose the right memory tool for every job. Remembering your loud new coworker’s name is a really different task from acing a history final.
In this epic, step-by-step post, I’m going to walk you through the memory tools I’ve found most helpful, and when you’ll want to use each one. By the end, you’ll have an awesome grasp of:
- How to use and choose memory tools to remember anything you want.
- Which memory tools you should always use, and which you should not use unless you really need them. My picks are a bit unconventional, but that’s because I hate the idea of doing more work than you need to.
- Why some of these tools can actually be dangerous and work against your memory goals. These are mental power tools — they’re awesome when used correctly, but they need to be used with care.
It’s a ton of solid info, so I even made a sweet PDF visual cheatsheet for you, to get it all on one page and make it way easier to remember. You can scroll up and grab the free cheatsheet now. (It’s that big button you skipped. The little title graphic is just a taste of the full cheatsheet glory.)
So let’s start with the basics.
Actually, the basic, singular: Your memory is already awesome.
Your Memory Is Already Awesome
I know, I know, you wouldn’t be reading this now if you weren’t writhing in the agony of some vicious memory failure. I definitely feel your pain — how do you think I wound up learning enough to teach this stuff?
But the only way to get your memory to do what you want is to realize how much it already does. Your memory is awesome!
How do I know? Because you’re reading this right now.
You’re decoding thousands of words on the fly and snapping them into meaningful sentences, paragraphs, ideas. How are you even doing this?
Seriously, don’t shrug this off, it’s crucial. There’s a good chance you’re sorely in need of an exquisite paradigm shift. Your memory already works so amazingly well at almost everything you throw at it. Reading. Talking. Navigating the Internet. Navigating your neighborhood. Navigating Thanksgiving dinner without triggering a family crisis. (Usually.)
Your memory works so well that you don’t even notice. The only time you ask, “How’s my memory?” is when you finally hit a task that doesn’t happen to mesh instantly with your superpower.
If you only notice your memory when it fails, you’re like the parent who only thinks about their toddler when they’re changing a diaper. Not a great recipe for a long-term relationship.
And here’s the thing about all these memory techniques/tricks/gimmicks: they always leverage the way your memory naturally works.
Which means that our first and basic memory “techniques” should always be to ramp up our memory’s default approach. If that doesn’t work, we can break out the fancy stuff.
The Four Natural Memory “Techniques” to Use Every Time
Here are the basic, natural “techniques” that your mind uses to form memories. Most fancy memory techniques (maybe all) ultimately come down to one or more of these. They’re like the Master Keys to the Memory Toolbox. I mean, they would be, it needed more than one key. Anyway…
- Pay attention! Focus up!
- Make it interesting! Exciting, even!
- Connect to what you know
- Make a habit of review
Let’s unpack these.
Pay Attention! Focus Up!
You can’t remember what you haven’t seen. Or heard. Or somehow sensed.
This seems obvious. But it’s crucial.
How many times have you glanced at a written phone number, started to dial, then gotten frustrated because you’ve already forgotten the second half of the number?
What just happened? You didn’t really look at the number to begin with.
I sure don’t. I give it a too-quick glance, because on some level I know that I can always look again. I don’t actually see it. And no memory technique in the world is ever going to recall something I never saw in the first place.
The solution? Focus.
Full focus feels special. It’s that keen awakening
when you really look at something, even for a few moments: a stunning
flower, an awesome new toy, a beautiful face. Those moments are
highlights. Those are the impressions we never forget.
The secret is that we can make strong impressions whenever we want — if we choose to focus.
But if something seems deadly dull, we won’t want to focus. So we also need to get interested.
Make It Interesting! Exciting, even!
Your mind will only remember something if it’s interesting. Period.
Now, many contemporary (and ancient) memory guides think that you
should make material interesting by bolting on mnemonics (memory
prompts). For instance, if you want to remember a “2”, you can think
of a swan, which has a similar shape and is way easier to remember.
I’ll get to memory prompts in a sec. First, here’s a little secret: everything can be interesting.
Seriously. You could write a dissertation on dust bunnies, if you had
to. Start asking questions. (Where do dust bunnies come from,
We find things dull when they have no meaning for us. You’d give
the most thrilling tale in the world a blank stare if it was written
in Vedic Sanskrit.
So how do you find more interest in the seemingly lame?
- Focused attention is a great start. It’s amazing the interest you can find in the details.
Ramp it up! Whatever you’re learning, imagine it more — brighter, bigger, more color, more movement and sound. That might not always be possible, but you can almost always…
Connect this new stuff to what you already know.
Connect to What You Know
We remember by connecting.
Think of a baseball geek. He can remember thousands of game scores,
because he’s interested. Obsessed, even.
But those scores don’t float about in isolation. His brain is a baseball network, a power grid humming with thousands of
criss-crossing connections. Every game score is connected to specific
players, to specific teams, to the epic story of a particular
Ultimately, all this “data” connects to his enthusiasm for baseball
itself, his memories of the actual games he’s played and seen.
He never sat down with a score spreadsheet to memorize. He built this vast network piece by piece, eagerly snapping each new discovery to what he’d already learned.
The more meaningful connections you make, the better you’ll remember. Especially if you love it, if you want to think about this stuff. You craft your own mental network, and as far as I can tell, it’s mainly powered by your enthusiasm.
Make a Habit of Review
But even the most beloved network needs to be maintained and renewed with a habit of review. Otherwise it fades.
Memory is like anything else. Use it or lose it.
Enthusiasts get their reviews in by compulsive conversation on their chosen obsession. For the rest of us, we’ll probably have to make a deliberate habit of review.
But wait! you cry. If I have to review, it doesn’t count! The whole point of REMEMBERING is to transform into a super-genius who only has to see things once and then remember it forever!!
Yeah … about that.
That’s not really a thing. Trust me, I checked.
The Exceptions Prove the Rule
There may be isolated, individual exceptions to this rule, but as far as I can tell, they all seemed to have neurological problems. Seriously. The few cases I’ve found of seemingly effortless, near-perfect recall always suffer a severe trade-off of some other problem or loss. Think Rain Man.
So if you enjoy being a conventionally functional human, please just accept that remembering involves some kind of review.
(I mean, even Sherlock Holmes needed filing cabinets.)
You can do reviews on a simple schedule. It all depends on your goals, on how long you want to know something and when you want to know it. Keeping the core wisdom from a life-changing book is different than prepping for your certification.
In theory, you can map out a simple review schedule on a calendar. Sometimes, it’s as easy as going over the material once a day at bedtime. Or once a week.
Ultimately, reviewing comes down to thinking about what you’ve learned and strengthening those connections.
One great way to review like this is by teaching. Trying to explain forces you to clarify your thoughts. (Trust me.)
Another powerful review tool is a computer flashcard program that tracks and schedules when you should review each separate card. You can use a “spaced repetition” algorithm, tuned to how your brain actually remembers, and this will massively reduce the number of reviews you have to do. By an order of magnitude. But we’ll get to flashcards in a sec.
When the Four Basics Don’t Work, Use Advanced Memory Tools
Pay attention, make it interesting, connect to what you know, and come back to renew what you’ve learned. Those are the basic memory skills.
But sometimes they’re not enough. That’s when we pull out our advanced memory tools. And each of these tools leverages one or more of the basics.
Make it Exciting With “Mnemonics” (Memory Prompts)
So I promised we’d get to “mnemonics”, or memory prompts, and here we are.
Mnemonics made hard stuff easier to remember.
Say you keep forgetting that your loud new coworker’s name is Fred. It’s a commonish name, right?
Now try imagining him in a bright orange, big-spotted Fred Flintstone outfit.
Yeah. Not so easy to forget, is it? Next time you see him, you’ll get a slightly traumatic flashback to his Hanna-Barbera look. No way you’re forgetting he’s Fred.
Mnemonics can be incredibly powerful. Over the years, I’ve made and used thousands. Yes, thousands.
Avoid the Dark Side
But mnemonics also have a dark side. They can distract you from the very things you’re trying to learn. They
can reinforce the perception that the material itself is dull.
It doesn’t help that the few “memory championships” and TV show memory demonstrations seem to gravitate towards one-off feats of cramming ridiculously useless data. Hooray, you memorized three decks of cards! Major life skill UNLOCKED!
Yes, I totally respect the work involved, but this is like gathering actors and having them compete to portray the most obscure shades of emotion possible. A lawyer who may be developing a peanut allergy opens a piece of junk mail from a non-profit koala bear refuge. One koala’s name is Peanut.
Wouldn’t we rather these actors used their skills to tell an amazing story?
Okay, so maybe Peanut, Esq. could make it as an off-Broadway monologue. But still. You get the point. Don’t reach for mnemonics first. If you can possibly remember the material on its own, do that.
Use Mnemonics Wisely
That said, if you’ve focused on it and made it as interesting as you can and thought about how it connects to what you know, and you still need help, mnemonics are great for sealing the deal.
Mnemonics basically break down into /word/ mnemonics and /image/ mnemonics.
In theory, you could use movement, smell, taste, or pretty much any possible sensation. But while I have found hints of dance mnemonics, the literature on odor and food mnemonics is sadly lacking.
Use Rhymes, Acronyms, and Other Magic Words
Word mnemonics are quite common, and you probably already use a few.
Rhyme and Rhythm
Ever mutter “30 days hath September / April, June, and November”? That’s a simple rhyme mnemonic. Rhyme and rhythm can lock things in your mind like nobody’s business … actually, like everyone’s business, i.e., ad jingles. There’s a reason those things get stuck in your head.
If teachers were paid entirely on commission based on your test scores, your entire education might consist of jingles.
Rhyme is important, but rhythm is also key. Some memory sentences rely solely on rhythm, like the old spelling mnemonic for “principal” — “the principal’s your pal, so you spell it P-A_L”.
As ad jingles show, music can help too, but I, at least, have to be /really/ motivated to come up with tunes for what I’m trying to learn. I have experimented with it, though; it’s a whole other realm of potential memory power that lies mostly untapped. Only in our culture, though — other cultures have rich traditions of mnemonic songs.
Although our culture certainly digs music … imagine if our musicians started leveraging their lyrics to fill everyone’s heads with awesome, useful information. That would be rather epic.
Awkward Acronyms and Silly Sentences
Anyway, a less fun and thus much more common mnemonic is the “acronym” or “memory sentence” approach.
In an acronym, each letter stands for another word. Your science teacher may have taught you “ROY G. BIV”, where each letter stands for a color in the spectrum. Good old Roy.
Or you may have learned the planets with a memory sentence like, “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos”. The first letter of each word is also the first letter of the planet. My for Mercury, Very for Venus, and so on. (Back when Pluto was a planet, Mother would have served Nine Pies, but Nachos are probably healthier anyway.)
Making a sentence is a lot easier than trying to make an acronym out of “MVEMJSUN”, but it’s the same principle (not principal).
Word mnemonics are great when they work. But sometimes information is a bit too random to fit easily into a rhyme, acronym, or memory sentence. That’s when you make crazy pictures.
Make Crazy Pictures
“Image mnemonics” are crazy mental pictures that help you remember stuff.
You imagine something so big, bright, vivid, and unique (i.e. weird) that you remember it easily.
And this image reminds you of what you’re trying to remember. It connects.
A classic example: at the company Christmas party, you meet a new IT guy named “Mr. Baker”. Alas, he’s a pretty boring-looking dude, and you’re in imminent danger of forgetting his name.
Instead, you imagine him as covered in flour and wielding a gigantic rolling pin. For the advanced version, you might even imagine the rolling pin jammed up his largish nose. This ensures that your mnemonic will stay firmly connected to his unique face, and also that you’ll lose your appetite and not gorge on Christmas cookies.
Now when you see Mr. Baker lurking down the hall, you’ll instantly “see” your terrible visual pun and remember he’s a Baker.
(If you hesitate to make your acquaintances into a gallery of maimed sufferers, here’s a more humane way to remember names.)
You can make crazy pictures for just about anything.
The Hidden Power of Puns
Visual puns are the go-to choice, and they’re surprisingly potent. Puns may seem harmless, but what is a pun, anyway? A connection. Whether you love puns or loathe them, they evoke a visceral response, precisely because they tap into the deepest mechanics of how we think. It’s kind of freaky.
But you can also use symbols, like imagining a sword to stand for a battle. Or you can imagine a piece of the idea, or words that sound similar, or /whatever will work/. It just has to remind you.
Level Up Your Imagination
It can take some practice to imagine strong image mnemonics that you’ll remember easily. But it’s time well spent, because you’re actually practicing your imagination.
In my own work, I found that my powers of imagination really ramped up as I crafted image mnemonics. I write fiction, and I found I could write much more visual scenes. Even my dreams got more vivid. It’s pretty awesome.
But Don’t Go Crazy With Crazy Pictures
On the other hand, you want to use this tool with care.
It’s not that you’re going to drive yourself to madness with your crazy pictures. You dream way crazier stuff for hours a night, and you manage to focus just fine.
It’s not even that all your acquaintances are going to accumulate a collection of strange and violent accessories.
It’s more that every time you use an image mnemonic, you’re training yourself that you can’t remember without it. This can get out of hand.
For instance, I’ve read published advice to make up crazy pictures just to remember a two-line quotation. The author carefully picked an image for every third word or so.
That’s nuts. It’s like hopping on a Segway to cross your porch.
Okay, full disclosure, I did actually try something similar myself. Briefly. But as I discovered, unless you have a head injury, your verbal skills are up to the challenge of remembering a two-line sentence. Seriously, you can do this! And more precisely, image mnemonics are the wrong tool. You want to leverage your verbal skills, you want to say the quote out loud, hear the words, find the rhythm.
You might well want to imagine what it’s talking about — this will round out the experience. But you do not want to be toggling back and forth between isolated visual puns for particular words and the flow of the sentence. Task switching always has a cost.
The only time I would use a crazy picture for a quote is if I were learning a lot of quotes, and I wanted each entire quote to have a single prompt so that I could find it. I’ve used this technique for long texts.
But how do you keep lots of crazy pictures in order? That brings us to the memory trick par excellence — the memory palace.
Imagine a “Memory Palace”
So you know how you can’t remember a seven-digit phone number, but you can remember where hundreds, even thousands of things are in the real world? Your bedroom alone probably has a hundred different things that you could find instantly, you know exactly where they are.
In fact, you’re so good at this that if you can’t find one thing, (say, your car keys), it’s a minor crisis. Right?
Turns out, you can do this with imaginary stuff too.
Unleash Your Spatial superpower
If you want to learn ten quotes, and you’ve got a crazy picture for each quote, you can imagine storing them in specific real places in a real room.
Basically, you hack the exact process that happens when you put a pillow on your bed or your socks in your drawer, except you imagine putting away a fire-breathing pineapple or a jumping jack mime.
And it totally works.
Later, when you think, “What was my first quote? I put it on the bed,” you’ll see your pineapple, and remember your quote.
It’s crazy. But it’s leveraging two basic skills — making things interesting and making connections. You know your bedroom, so you connect your bed to the crazy picture (which is also interesting), and your crazy picture to the original material.
You Can Also Use Objects or People
You can also experiment with using individual objects or people as “palaces”. We already did this earlier, when we stored a rolling pin in the unfortunate Mr. Baker’s nose. We’re really good at connecting details to individuals, so you have a good chance of remembering who has what.
Head, shoulders, elbows, hands, knees, feet — you can find several places to store pictures on a person, in the order of top to bottom and left to right. Plus, you can also trigger even more reminders by giving the person crazy hats and clothes.
For instance, I recently saw an author interview video, and then wound up reading his book. When I wanted to remember a list of five key points, I stored the crazy pictures right on him. I could imagine his whole person, even though I’d only seen his talking head, because again, we’re really good at thinking about people.
If you want to learn more about memory palaces, you should know for your searches that this is also called the “loci” method. The ancient Greeks and Romans totally got to this first, and “loci” is Latin for “places”.
Use the Power Wisely
Memory palaces are amazing, and everyone should make one at least once. They’re a superpower.
But for most tasks, they’re also complete overkill. You could make a memory palace to remember the list of the planets in order, but Mom’s nachos are way cheaper in time and cognitive load.
Plus, even memory palaces will fade if you don’t review them. (Trust me.)
If only there were a way to store lots of little bits of information and review them without having to make tons of extra mnemonics and palaces.
Oh yeah. Flashcards.
Review Anki Flashcards
So, most flashcard systems are basically useless.
Not totally. You can get some good practice in. But it’s haphazard, and you have no idea whether your practice is actually working, or whether you could the same results with fewer reviews.
The Power of Spaced Repetition
Anki is an amazing flashcard program, free on most platforms, that uses “spaced repetition”. Which means, “reviews planned around
how your memory actually works.”
Spaced repetition yields astonishing results.
What’s the normal “review” schedule? “Learn something once, never see it again, forget it.” Or maybe, “learn something once, never see it for weeks until you’re cramming for a test, flub test”.
Spaced repetition takes a completely different approach, based on scientific experiments of how people actually remember. You do a lot of
reviews at the beginning, but each review means you can wait longer next time. This is huge. After the initial flurry of reviews, you’re soon waiting days, weeks … months … and years.
Plus, each card is scheduled separately. Easy cards need fewer reviews, hard cards need more. Every day, Anki presents your personal list of the exact cards you need to see that day — and no others.
If only I’d had this in school.
The Dangers of Anki and Spaced Repetition
On the other hand, Anki isn’t the solution to everything. It offers amazing efficiency, but like all the rest of these tools, it can have a hidden cost.
When Success Feels Like Failure
For starters, flashcards can lead to burnout. In a strange twist, the very efficiency with which Anki hides the cards you currently know means that you spend a lot of your Anki time focused precisely on your hardest cards. This can make you feel like a failure, even though you’re actually remembering almost every card in your deck.
The solution is to be mindful of cards you keep failing and figure out the problem. You might need to edit the card, break into multiple cards, or rethink it altogether. But it’s hard to stop and do this if you’re trying to rush through the reviews as fast as you can.
Chunking and Randomness
Flashcards also encourage you to use chunking. Chunking is when you break a lot of information into smaller “chunks” that are easier to learn. This is why phone numbers are broken in half — it’s easier to remember a three-digit number and a four-digit number separately than a single stream of seven digits.
With flashcards, you usually (but not always) want each flashcard to have a small, separate “chunk”. For many types of knowledge, this works perfectly.
A lot of what we learn can be broken into isolated facts or short lists.
The problem is that as you review, these cards get randomized. So for anything that’s really complex and depends on context, flashcards can shatter your knowledge into random little bits. Context can be a tremendous help to memory — an actor can say hundreds of lines with the right cues, but freeze up at a single missed prompt. If context matters, Anki might not be the right choice.
Memory palaces can be an interesting way to provide context — you use the “rooms” of the palace to sort your crazy pictures.
Alternatives to Anki
You can try a really basic version of spaced repetition on your own, where you simply renew something every day until you’ve mastered it. Then you can move it onto a longer-term schedule. I’ve done this with longer texts that I didn’t want to split into Anki-sized pieces.
On a related note, there’s a fascinating blog by a fellow who is trying to remember one key incident for every day of his life. He keeps refining his review technique, but it always involves daily or almost daily reviews and a methodical journey through a mental calendar which he imagines spatially. Here, Anki’s randomization would destroy so much context.
You can also experiment with using flashcards as a scheduled trigger for a longer period of thinking. I’ve used Anki flashcards to trigger reciting an entire canto of a poem or chapter of the Bible. There’s no rule that you have to limit flashcards to tiny info bits.
Don’t You Want To Think About This Stuff?
On a deeper level, there’s this whole other problem — if you’re trying to keep reviews to an absolute minimum, are you really sure you want to remember this stuff? Don’t you like thinking about it?
If you’re just trying to ace a test and get on with your life, you can ignore this existential question and use Anki for Matrix-style learning upload. Seriously, if you’re in school and not getting perfect scores yet, Anki will change your life. Use it.
Don’t wait for the educational system to escape the 19th century. It’s not going to happen in time for you.
But if you really care about what you’re trying to learn, I invite you to go deeper and consider a more nuanced approach to review. In one of the most popular posts on this site, I consider the possibility that the ultimate memory technique could be a habit of daily thinking about what we really want to remember. And Anki could be the perfect tool to trigger this thought.
But we’ve found ourselves in deep waters, haven’t we? Alas, not every memory aspiration is quite so profound. Sometimes you just want to quit missing meetings. And for that kind of detritus, here’s my super-secret guru-level memory trick:
Use a Reminder App. Seriously.
Every once in awhile, I come across some elaborate scheme for mapping your entire schedule onto a memory palace.
It’s so simple! they crow. You just need mnemonics for the months … and the day numbers … and the days of the week … hey, you can have a different room for each month! And for the hours you can attach number mnemonics, except you don’t want to mix them up with the month days … oh! Just set the hour numbers on fire! And then you just need an extra mnemonic for AM vs. PM …
Don’t. Just don’t.
I mean, if you really love doing mental gymnastics to manage your calendar, don’t flame me in the comments, it’s cool. Go for it. But know that it works for you because you like it.
For the rest of us, who, like me, are not in the Super Loci One Percent — if you’ve picked up the idea somewhere that you should feel bad about yourself because you need to use an external tool to track your zillion commitments, drop it. Life’s too short.
So if you need to remember appointments, use a calendar app. Or paper, even.
Losing Your Keys? Normal Tools Are Totally Cool
How about losing your keys? Another genius tip: put a hook by the front door and use it.
As opposed to the suggestion I actually heard on a memory program once, which was to pay attention to wherever you happen to toss your keys and imagine it blows up.
Yes, this is paying attention. No, it is not a great plan. The real habit change is that split second of paying attention as you lose your keys, and at that point, you can just use a hook like a civilized non-arsonist.
Plus, it wouldn’t even work long-term. I can’t say I actually tried this, but I am pretty sure that you’d eventually have twenty different conflicting memories of household explosions, and you’d be right back where you started.
Side rant: any time you read any memory tip anywhere, starting with these, ask yourself: will this work long-term? Will this scale? I get so frustrated with all these one-off tips that sound all great and nifty until you actually try using them more than once.
So, yeah. Don’t let this memory stuff make basic life skills complicated. Using normal tools is totally cool.
Which seems like a great place to wrap this overview of memory tools.
What About Nutrition? Exercise? Sleep? Funny Stories? [Insert Latest Memory Trick Here]???
Except no, I haven’t actually covered every last possible memory aid. Full disclosure. You got me. There’s always more tricks.
For starters, there are plenty of variations on these basic techniques. For instance, some folks suggest taking your crazy pictures and making them a “chain”, where each image connects to the next. This might work for a really short list, but in my experience, these chains break.
And yes, there are other spaced repetition tools besides Anki — feel free to search for alternatives. I just like Anki best, it’s got lots of great plugins, and it’s free on almost every platform (and totally worth it on the iPhone).
Any Memory Pills?
Also, there is a whole subculture of literature about physical aids to memory, like:
- getting enough sleep
- and eating epic amounts of fish or walnuts or whatever
- and probably doing special yoga moves that will unlock the right chakras and scare away your neighbors.
I’m not going to say these things won’t help — in fact, I myself actually do do some yoga (super basic), I do eat fish and walnuts, sometimes, when I have to, and I even occasionally sleep. (Peer pressure.)
Taking care of your body really is important, and good sleep is probably especially key. Sleep is getting hip right now, and one of its many supposed superpowers is solidifying and strengthening memories. So yes, eat right, exercise, and (hardest of all) turn off your toys and get your sleep.
But just don’t think you’ll unlock a photographic memory without, you know, changing how you think. We don’t have a memory serum yet. (Although I did write a story about exactly that…and the ensuing mayhem…)
How the Tools Fit Together
So now you’ve read a small book about all these memory tools. (You’re awesome, and thank you!) But how do you know what to use when?
Remember, always start with the basics, and use advanced tools if necessary.
- Pay attention!
- Make it interesting!
- Enthusiasm makes remembering a million times easier and more natural
- But if you need to make it more interesting, use a magic word mnemonic
- Or a crazy picture mnemonic
- Connect to what you know
- If you need to connect a lot of things and you’ve made crazy pictures, use a memory palace to connect them to spaces, objects, or people you already know.
- Make a habit of review
- Use Anki to track incredibly powerful reviews with spaced repetition
- And for ordinary life stuff, use a reminder app or other normal tools.
Can you see how these tools all relate? You try to make something interesting first, and if you can’t, mnemonics make it more interesting. Thinking about the tools this way keeps you grounded in your memory’s natural powers.
Choose the Right Memory Tool for the Job
Now for the fun part. With these tools in hand, you can start matching them to specific memory tasks.
Here’s a list to get you started. But it’s just the beginning.
When you meet a new person, start with paying attention. We usually first hear someone’s name at the precise moment we are most anxious and focused on potential social disaster. If you didn’t really hear it, ask again. Or repeat it back with a “Nice to meet you, NAME.” If you still think you won’t remember, make a crazy picture and mentally attach it to them.
Numbers, Letters, Decks of Cards, and other “Data” Type Information:
If you’re trying to remember numbers, letters, decks of cards, or anything else you might see a memory champ do on TV, you’ll probably need a system of crazy pictures. And you’ll probably have so many you’ll need a memory palace to store them.
Facts for Tests
Still in school? Put it all in Anki and start acing all your tests. Start with flashcards, and if any info is too complex, use magic words and/or crazy pictures. You don’t usually need a memory palace if you’re using Anki, but there are edge cases where you need to both organize info into a palace and also use Anki to review it.
For a simple list, you can try magic words, with an acronym or memory sentence. If that’s not looking easy, make a crazy picture for each list item and store it in a memory palace. Remember, these techniques make it easy to remember items in order.
Keep Track of Your Keys
Start with paying attention. End with putting your keys on a dedicated hook. Ditto for any other item you keep losing.
Keep Track of Appointments
Do what everyone else does and use a calendar or reminder app. Save your memory superpowers for the good stuff.
If you happen to share my (obscure) enthusiasm for remembering long texts, you’re going to dive deep into magic words and how rhythm and rhyme unlock our verbal superpowers. Because context is crucial, I generally don’t use Anki, at least at first.
To manage lots of material, you might need to chunk it up, assign each chunk a crazy picture, and organize them in a memory palace. (I’ve written a whole book about this, but you can start here.)
Keep what you learn
For me, this is the ultimate prize, to know that all my reading and learning isn’t just falling out the back of my head, that I’m keeping the good stuff and changing how I think.
Honestly, I haven’t totally cracked this one yet — I think it depends so much on the details of what you’re learning and your long-term goals.
That’s why I say you can remember anything you want. Turns out I often want to read new stuff rather than remember what I’ve already read.
But if you really want this, a daily Anki habit makes a solid start.
I wrote a series on saving the “good parts” from books awhile back which has some good tips. But my own decks eventually built up to 18,000 cards or so. And I know of people with more.
So today I’m more focused on how to choose and keep the most important parts — and enjoy reviewing these treasures.
The solution might be as simple as a daily half hour or so of thinking. It could well be that the real test isn’t whether we remember this or that particular fact, but whether we’ve learned to relish spending real time on our own deliberate thoughts.
Your Turn Now! Unleash Your Awesome Memory!
So there you have it! A glittering case of expert tools to craft the vivid memories you crave. There’s enough right here to remember anything you could (reasonably) want.
I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below. What’s your biggest challenge? What’s your best (or worst) tool? What’s the astounding memory tool I totally forgot?
And now that you’ve read all this, you’ve shown us both that you are serious about remembering what you want. So do something about it, right now, before you forget. Pop your email in the form below, so I can send you the sweet cheatsheet that summarizes all these tools onto one colorful, printable page.
Even better, we’ll stay in touch — you wouldn’t have read this far if you and I didn’t resonate somehow. I’d love to keep sharing what I learn and helping you stay on track to unleash your awesome memory.
Imagine if you were finally able to remember anything you want. This could be the small step, right now, that sets that in motion.