Researchers say there are 4 basic ways to improve memory. First, process information actively. Second, use recall to reinforce memory. Third, space out your remembering attempts to counter forgetting. And fourth, use your metamemory to improve your confidence about remembering. These factors can guide daily habits that improve your memory for the most mundane or random bits of information. These principles also work for studying, but there is a lot more nuance to them, which I’ve covered here. For now, let’s stick to practical activities that use these principles.
- Practical aspects of everyday memory
- 1. Remember all your OTPs, token numbers, and passcodes
- 2. Remember all your passwords by creating a system
- 3. Remember your vehicle numbers, friend’s phone numbers, birth dates, and card details
- 4. Create a human-social memory template
- Memory capacity comes down to proof, rehearsal, and confidence.
- Confidence rises when memory becomes a stimulus-response pair
Practical aspects of everyday memory
- Forgetting is a common problem.
- Memory is based on beliefs like “I suck at this” or “I’m only good at that.” This affects confidence in memory.
- Memory is a practice-based skill.
- Confidence in memory is as important as actual memory capacity.
Memory problems are common when one is stressed, emotionally drained, aging, or suffering from mental health problems.
Our memory has 2 components that matter in a practical sense.
- Memory – which is the actual information you recognize, remember, or rehearse. When you know a detail like a phone number, you can recognize it when you see it. When you have a memory stored, your actual memory is what you can recall, not what is stored. And the way you store trivial details is by rehearsing them actively by repeating them, talking about them, writing them down, etc.
- Metamemory – which is a memory evaluation mechanism that creates a judgment about your memory capacity. E.g., I for sure know I don’t know this, I used to know it, but now I don’t. These judgments can be false and are extremely quick because metamemory doesn’t access the entire memory to pass judgments. Just like us in the real world, metamemory passes its judgment with little to no concrete information.
If your memory is worsening, it’ll affect your metamemory in a negative way by creating beliefs like your memory is bad, or you just can’t memorize anymore. Confidence in memory comes from your metamemory because it tells you what you know or don’t know (without verifying if there is a memory in your brain). When confidence drops, your attempts to memorize reduce, and that further weakens existing memories. Essentially, if either memory or metamemory goes bad, you might stop putting any effort into practically trying to remember. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where you prove to yourself that you can’t remember because you failed to try hard enough.
So, while improving memory, it’s necessary to improve your confidence in memory too.
Memory capacity, particularly its 2 types: working memory (your ability to hold some amount of information, like an OTP) and long-term memory (your ability to recall information more than a day after you have memorized it), are trainable. That means you can actively practice the skill and improve without worrying if you have good memory genes.
How should you begin? I’ve outlined 4 very simple daily habits to build memory for critical information and improve overall confidence in accurately remembering that information.
1. Remember all your OTPs, token numbers, and passcodes
Use chunking as a way to simplify your OTPs (one-time passwords) or passcodes. Chunking is essentially making small groups of information and treating it as one single unit. So, split the number into groups of 2 or 3 digits. E.g., If your passcode is 520391, remember it as 5-twenty and 391. Passcodes come unexpectedly – in a restaurant, in a login attempt, at a cashier, etc.
Numbers that mean something to you are easier to remember. Everyone has meaningful numbers like birthdates, scores, height, weight, money, dates, and events. Identify them to process the random numbers better. So it doesn’t feel like you are remembering random digits. In some cases, you won’t find any meaningful pattern. So rely on chunking.
Another technique is to whisper or say the numbers out loud. When humans produce information with words or typing, they remember it better because now the information is processed more actively with sensory components (sounds, finger movement, etc.) (this is the production effect)
Avoid using your phone’s copy-paste or auto-fill options so you can really practice remembering. These habits will improve your working memory because this information is only required temporarily. And, you’ll have many “tests” to start feeling confident that you can remember details.
2. Remember all your passwords by creating a system
People often have 10 to 50 different places to login in with a password. Google chrome or Safari help you remember them. In fact, people need so many logins that businesses have created password management systems. Samsung stores passwords to make your logins easy too. All of these useful features, unfortunately, make us prone to forgetting our passwords because we hardly ever rehearse them. Without rehearsal, they are easy to forget. Avoid relying on these systems, so you get to flex your memory.
One way to remember your passwords is to create a system of changes to some easy-to-remember “core.” Say your core is a meaningful name to you. You add symbols and numbers to it for extra security. When you have to reset your password, you add another detail to it. This way, you can store many passwords in your brain and logically figure out which one might be correct. Once you repeat this enough, you’ll associate the login with the password at the level of muscle memory.
A memory confidence-building trick is to create a secure list of your passwords and then log out. Once you log out, you log in again. This becomes a way to repeat and rehearse your password.
This method will help you build long-term memory, and there will be no shame or complication in forgetting while you learn to remember (most platforms help you reset your passwords easily).
3. Remember your vehicle numbers, friend’s phone numbers, birth dates, and card details
-Repeat them in your mind
-Remember to remember and verify you got it right
-Rehearse them out loud at random
To remember details like your vehicle numbers, phone numbers, card details, addresses, etc., use 3 memory improvement techniques:
- Repeat details in your mind or out loud: Repetition is by far the easiest and most efficient way to remember. The neural circuits that govern a memory strengthen with repetition. The most effective type of repetition is spaced repetition (also called distributed practice) – you repeat after sufficient gaps in time. E.g., if you want to commit an address to memory, repeat it a few times right after learning it. Then repeat it a few hours later. Then the next day. Then in a week. When you learn, memory starts to decay by default. This is called forgetting. Repetition delays that decay, and with enough repetition, it is resistant to decay.
- Remember to remember and verify you got it right: Prompt yourself to recall something later. This starts your “prospective memory” which acts as a self-notification at a later time. When you do remember that detail (maybe at random times, when your mind wanders), quickly verify if the details in that memory are right or wrong. Remembering to remember, aka an active prospective memory, can build confidence in memory because you can rely on not forgetting, so your beliefs like “I am forgetful or absentminded” are proven wrong.
- Rehearse the details in a context: Information that you produce is generally remembered better (the production effect). So verify details you are trying to remember in the presence of other people or write them down or say them out loud (all three are ways of producing that information – socially, using fingers, or using your vocal cords).
Remember people with their name, face, social media posts, industry domain, one personal bit, location of meeting, first and last interactions to glue social details together into a meaningful “profile” about the person. Profiles are easier to remember compared to scattered information because the brain likes information in a coherent network of details.
When it comes to people, create a human template that contains all of that information. Whenever you are triggered by any one item in that list, try to recall all the rest, so you develop context and test yourself on that memory template.
A good way to promote memory for people is to recall their details in conversation or while introducing them to each other. Writing an email introduction is a very good strategy. It can help you recall and revisit that information for future reference. Plus, others feel good when you know their name and personal details – it makes them feel special and acknowledged. So because they feel good, the entire conversation is likely to be mutually rewarding and your memory for those details improves.
Think of social details as anchors that ground your social knowledge about a person. Names, dates, locations, achievements, and professions are strong anchors because: a)Humans have a strong spatial memory, b) Names are prioritized with extra neural resources. c) achievements and professions stand out making them easier to remember.
A good quirk of a templated approach to remembering people is it will help you build your social network.
Memory capacity comes down to proof, rehearsal, and confidence.
🧪Proof: Gotta verify you remember something, or else it decays.
🔁Rehearsal: Strengthen memory by repeating it.
😎Confidence: Trust you can remember; it comes from your “meta-memory” after proof and rehearsal, which decides what you know.
Confidence rises when memory becomes a stimulus-response pair
You want your cognitive memory to feel like “muscle memory”. Muscle memory is just highly rehearsed cognitive memory. The more you repeat and know something for sure, the more intuitive it feels. There is lesser cognitive control over that memory, which means you don’t have to figure out the details using tricks or “a mind search.” The information becomes a pure stimulus-response pair with hardly any effort.
- What is your car license plate? (stimulus): FGH 104502 EP (Response)
- What was my first boss’s name? (stimulus); Rick Morty, he is a scientist, lived in California, had a dog, now writes fiction, met him last 6 months ago at the airport (response)
By memorizing many such examples, your brain will develop a higher-order memory template called a schema. A schema becomes a custom-tailored container with the right compartments to use for very specific forms of information that perfectly fit in that template.
Musicians develop a musical schema that helps them remember long musical sequences with just one listen. Chess players develop a chess schema that makes remembering meaningful chess positions easy, but not random positions. A schema is a pattern that captures fitting information. You’ll see patterns emerge as you memorize more details, particularly about people. The stronger your schemas get, the easier it is to remember more information in that schema.
Recap of the activities to improve memory and confidence in memory
- Remember OTPs, passcodes
- Create a password system
- Repeat, remember to remember, and rehearse details
- Use a template to contextualize social information about people
Using insights from this article, you can extend the framework to include more details like:
- To-do lists
- Shopping lists
- Facts and trivia about people
- Locations of where you place things
- Special conversations
- Important moments shared with people
Tip: Mental rehearsal is like screenshotting your memory.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.