Skip to main content

Blog Short #178: 9 Ways to Improve Your Memory

Photo by DrAfter123, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Last week, you learned how memories are formed and how easy it is to distort and rewrite them as you retrieve them over time.

This week, I’ll show you how to improve and keep your memory sharp. Since we have a lot to cover, let’s dive right in!

1. Pay Attention

If you want to remember something, you must focus on it long enough to move it from your working memory to your long-term memory. Your working memory holds information for about 15 to 30 seconds, and then it’s gone unless you focus on it long enough to move it along to your hippocampus, where it consolidates into a long-term memory.

These four strategies will help you pay attention.

  1. Use all your senses. If you remember from last week, the first phase of memory formation is encoding. In this phase, your brain captures all the sensory input (visual, audio, etc.), and the emotions, thoughts, and meaning that make it memorable. By consciously taking in what you see, hear, smell, and feel, you’ll maximize your attention.
  2. Chunk it down. For mundane information, chunk it down. We do this all the time. Instead of the phone number 3528896721, you write it and see it as 352-889-6721. When you break information into chunks, you have less to remember. Each chunk becomes one piece of information. You can only hold 7 to 9 pieces of information in your working memory at one time.
  3. Repetition. Repeat what you want to remember out loud as many times as needed to cement it in your memory. I do this when I want to retrieve something in another room. As I walk toward the room, I repeat in my mind the thing I want to get because otherwise, I’ll start thinking about something else and totally forget what I came to do.
  4. Remove distractions. Distractions are the enemy of memory, and we have far too many of them. If you want to remember what you’re doing, put down your phone, close your computer, and stop multi-tasking.

2. Make It Meaningful

Paying attention is the first part, and making it meaningful is the second. They work together. Here are four strategies that will help you create meaning.

  1. Attach emotion to it. Your brain loves novelty, drama, surprise, and emotion. All of these stimulate the amygdala, which is the brain’s alarm system. It wakes you up and makes you take notice. When you feel something, it pulls in your attention, and you’re more likely to remember it. One way to aid this tendency is to label your emotions as you feel them.
  2. See it in space. When you go grocery shopping, especially if you do this often, you know the store layout. You know which aisles or areas have the specific items you usually buy. I create my grocery list based on that layout. I chunk the list by food groups and put them in the order I typically walk through the store. If I forget to bring my list, I can usually remember everything I need because as I walk my usual route, I can see the list in my mind. Seeing things in locations helps you remember.
  3. Use the context. You’re more likely to recall something if you’re in the same setting you were when you first thought about or experienced it. Maybe you had a conversation at the office and can’t recall all the details when you get home, but when you go back to the office the next day, you remember them. Returning to the original context stimulates your memory.
  4. Note future consequences. Considering the consequences of forgetting something before you let it go can help you remember it. As you tell your friend you’ll call her tomorrow, remind yourself that you’ll hurt her feelings if you don’t follow through. Imagine her being upset with you. That makes your promise more meaningful and memorable.

3. Rely On Your Virtual Assistant

Tech can be a serious distraction, but it can also be your friend when you use it right. It’s the perfect virtual assistant when you have too much to hold in your head.

Your smartphone has all kinds of mechanisms to remind you of things you need to remember. You can set alarms to go off at specific times, keep lists on your phone, and update them on the spot. There are tons of apps you can use for various tasks, record-keeping, or activity logs, and you’ve got a calendar at your fingertips.

Using tech devices to assist your memory will not hurt your ability to remember, so use them. Doing so creates more space in your mind for other things.

4. Create Mnemonics

Mnemonics are fun! They’re devices you create to remember something, and they usually take the form of acronyms, songs, rhymes, or abbreviations. If you’ve ever played the piano, you know the one for the musical notes represented on the treble clef: Every Good Boy Does Fine – EGBDF.

You can create your own. I’ve created some for my important passwords. Not only will you remember better, but creating mnemonics adds energy that makes things even more memorable.

5. Manage Stress

Stress is a significant problem for memory. When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, which has been shown to impair some memory processes. Chronic stress is especially detrimental to memory formation and retrieval. It destroys brain cells and interrupts memory processes in the hippocampus.

Here are three habits that can help.

  1. Keep yourself well-organized. When you’re organized, you know what’s happening and when. You’re operating on the front end instead of the reactive end. Use lists, your tech virtual assistant, a diary or journal, and planning as aids. It’s also good to keep your space and mind decluttered as much as possible.
  2. Be an essentialist. That means cutting out everything you don’t truly need or want to do. Less is better. Sometimes, you can lift your stress level just by cutting out two or three activities that are draining you and that you don’t have to do. Entertain only what’s most essential to your well-being or that you absolutely have to do.
  3. Meditate regularly. Meditation significantly improves cognitive functions, including concentration and focus, memory, creativity, reasoning, and learning. It also creates emotional space and reduces reactivity so you can handle stress more easily and effectively. Studies have shown that meditators have more activity in the left prefrontal cortex associated with feelings of joy and calm. The benefits outweigh the time you invest to do it.

6. Prime Your Body (Don’t ignore this one!)

Get enough sleep.

This one is more important than you think. Here are three major processes that occur during deep sleep related to your memory functions.

  1. Deep sleep aids your hippocampus in consolidating the information you’ve encoded while awake into long-term memory. This is partly why power naps can help memory. However, they don’t make up for the lack of a full night’s sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, memory consolidation is impaired.
  2. Secondly, a lack of deep sleep impairs the functioning of your frontal cortex the next day, interfering with your ability to concentrate, be alert, and pay attention, all of which are necessary to encode new memories.
  3. Last, the “big rinse” that usually occurs only during deep sleep doesn’t have a chance to do its job. Each day, we accumulate amyloid plaque in our synapses (the connection between neurons). When you sleep, glial cells in your brain wash that plaque away. Think of it as your brain’s dishwasher. It’s removing the dirt, in this case, plaque. When you don’t get enough sleep, amyloid plaque remains in your synapses when you awaken and continue to accumulate. Not only does this interfere with memory making, but it can lead to serious cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

You need seven to nine hours of sleep nightly for good memory and health.

Exercise regularly.

Memory requires consistent growth of new neurons and protection of existing neurons. This process is facilitated by a neurological growth factor called BDNF (protein brain-derived neurotrophic factor). Dr. John Ratey refers to BDNF as “Miracle-Gro” for the brain because it both grows and protects neurons.

Here’s where we get to exercise. Physical activity – especially aerobic exercise – helps produce BDNF. The recommended amount of exercise is at least 150 minutes per week, and you can do it by walking if you like. More is better, but 150 minutes will suffice.

Keep a good diet.

A good diet is necessary for your health and also significantly impacts memory. The basic list of foods to eat includes leafy greens, fruits, whole grains, legumes, berries, nuts and seeds, salmon, and healthy fats such as olive oil. Foods to avoid are sugar (especially), processed foods, saturated fat, fried foods, too much salt, and red meat.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, it’s a good idea to take Omega-3 supplements made from algae oil. Omega-3 fats are necessary for good brain functioning and stable mood. You can also eat walnuts and flax seeds as an aid to Omega-3 production. I’ve been a vegan for some years and take algae oil supplements along with eating walnuts daily, which works fine.

Drink water.

Your brain is 73% water. When you’re dehydrated, even mildly, you run the risk of memory impairment and, over time, brain shrinkage. Water also serves as a shock absorber for the brain and spinal cord. So drink up! Especially when you need brain power for work or a boost in energy.

Try some coffee.

If you’re a coffee lover, rejoice! Caffeine in coffee sharpens your brain and has been shown to enhance memory and reduce the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. That said, don’t overdo it, and don’t drink it late in the day, as it will interfere with sleep. Also, coffee loaded with sugar and heavy cream might cancel out those good effects.

7. Keep Learning

Memory is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. To build your memory muscle, you need to surprise your brain with things that are innovative, novel, and challenging in order to keep it sharp.

An excellent way to provide that stimulation is to learn something new. It can be new information, how to do something new, or solving a problem. Doing crossword puzzles is fun and exercises your brain, but doesn’t provide the challenge that doing something new does.

Three additional techniques to help you remember what you learn are as follows:

  1. Repeat and rehearse. If you read something, underline what you want to remember and make notes on the side if you like. Then, go back later and reread what you highlighted. For quick memory, repeat something mentally more than several times until you feel it stick.
  2. The Spacing Effect. Try recalling new information over time. You’re more likely to solidify your memory that way. Each time you recall a memory, you strengthen it. Students who space out study sessions over weeks remember what they learned longer than those who cram the night before an exam. Spaced-out repetitions are more effective.
  3. Self-Test. One of the most successful ways to learn and remember something is to test yourself on the information rather than just reread it. Try writing it out, teaching it to someone else, or simply self-testing.

8. Connect

Humans are social beings. We don’t do well with isolation. Even if you’re introverted and enjoy alone time, it’s essential to make connections with other people. A 2007 study found a strong correlation between having an active social life and slower memory decline. Social interactions stimulate your brain. Even ten minutes of conversing with someone can improve memory.

9. Keep a good mindset.

We’ll end with this last one. As you might imagine, what you think and believe about your memory impacts how well it functions. If you repeatedly talk about how your memory is declining, two things happen:

  1. You do less of the things we’ve listed here today that will keep your memory sharp and functioning well.
  2. You’ll remember less. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Lisa Genova:

Like people, your memory will function better if it has high self-esteem. Speak nicely to and of your memory, and it will remember more and forget less.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,



Adan A. (2012). Cognitive performance and dehydration. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 31(2), 71-80. DOI: 10.1080/07315724.2012.10720011

Attuquayefio, T., Stevenson, R. J., Boakes, R. A., Oaten, M. J., Yeomans, M. R., Mahmut, M., & Francis, H. M. (2016). A high-fat high-sugar diet predicts poorer hippocampal-related memory and a reduced ability to suppress wanting under satiety. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 42(4), 415–428.

Bialystok, E., Craik F., & Freedman M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia 45(2), 459-464.

Derbyshire, E. (2018). Brain Health across the Lifespan: A Systematic Review on the Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements. Nutrients, 10(8), 1094.

Genova, L. (2021). Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting. Harmony.

Gupta, S. (2021). Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. Simon & Schuster.

Kang, H., Voleti, B., Hajszan, T. et al. (2012). Decreased expression of synapse-related genes and loss of synapses in major depressive disorder. Nature Medicine 18, 1413–1417.

Nehlig A, (2016).  Effects of coffee/caffeine on brain health and disease: What should I tell my patients? Practical Neurology, 16(2), 89-95. DOI: 10.1136/practneurol-2015-001162

Rasch, B., & Born, J. (2013). About sleep’s role in memory. Physiological Reviews, 93(2), 681–766.

Ratey, J. J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown.

Ybarra, O., Burnstein, E., Winkielman, P., Keller, M. C., Manis, M., Chan, E., & Rodriguez, J. (2007). Mental exercising through simple socializing: Social interaction promotes general cognitive functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(2), 248-259.

Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition19(2), 597-605.

If you like this article, please share!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *