How to Have a Great Memory

By Michael Masterson

Wouldn’t it be great if you had the type of memory that would never let you forget a name . . . or a birthday . . . or an appointment, not to mention where you put the keys?

The good news is that you can, according to Cynthia Green, founding director of the Memory Enhancement Program at Mount-Sinai School of Medicine. In her "Total Memory Workout," Green argues that although some memory weakening is attributable to stress, sleep deprivation, and aging, most of us can have very good memories simply by doing the right things.

Here’s what Green recommends:

First, keep yourself in good memory health. That means getting enough sleep, avoiding excessive stress, and maintaining a positive mental attitude.

Second, recognize that a better memory is the result of better habits in each of the three stages of memory:

  1. acquisition
  2. storage
  3. retrieval

The acquisition stage is basically about how well you pay attention. The major cause of forgetting, by far, is not acquiring the memory in the first place. To enable yourself to pay better attention:

  • slow down
  • ask questions
  • repeat what has been said
  • summarize afterward
  • make connections

In addition to these fundamentals, you can use little tricks that will implant memories more firmly in your long-term memory banks. These techniques include:

  • linking lists of things with visual pictures
  • creating a story that links ideas together
  • using rhyme
  • creating acronyms
  • grouping three or four units into one
  • categorizing items

Green is also a big advocate of physical memory aids, such as schedulers, master plans, to-do lists, weekly reviews, note taking, "forget-me-not" locations, tickler files, and perpetual calendars. Using such artificial devices is not only practical, Green argues, it is efficient. Much of the information you need to remember is only for short-term purposes. Rather than commit it to long-term memory (which takes some extra time), you can simply write it down and consult it when you need it.

But written techniques also make it easier to fix memories permanently. The physical act of writing something down, reading it, and transferring your notes from one place to another will go a long way toward embedding a memory in your brain.

Hint: The most important secret when it comes to memory is to resist the temptation to memorize too much. The truth is that most of the stuff you think might be worth remembering today will seem completely unimportant a week from now. So it is probably a lot better to focus on only one big idea/fact/figure at a time. Memorize that and forget about the rest.

When you meet someone new, you will certainly want to remember his name. And it might be a good idea to remember something else about him — where he lives, what he does, etc. But unless you limit the amount of information about him that you intend to remember, chances are you’ll forget everything.

If you are following ETR’s advice on planning and organizing your time, you are already using most of the physical devices recommended in "Total Memory Workout." If you also make it a habit to pay close attention to what you need to know — by slowing down, asking questions, summarizing, etc. — you will begin to notice that your memory will automatically improve. As the weeks go by, it will become easier to remember all the many things you have for so many years forgotten.

Having a great memory does not guarantee success, but it’s a very nice addition to other attributes we’ve already spoken about. Bright and scatterbrained may cut it in some circles, but you are much more likely to succeed if you are seen as bright and precise.