The human brain is a curious thing. Sometimes it will remember a random and out-of-context fact your friend shared with you 17 years ago and make you wonder how much storage space you have up there (fun fact: about 2.5 petabytes). Other times you walk out of your office or log off Zoom for the day and feel like your memory was wiped the second you do.
Whichever scenario you relate to more, know that with the right memorization techniques, anyone can improve the capacity and speed in which their brain processes information. Not having to constantly look up data or check your to-do list because you’ve remembered this information will also boost productivity.
Having a better memory isn’t just helpful to remember your family’s go-to pot roast recipe, it’s also an important skill to have at work. Whether it’s remembering the name of someone you met at a conference or recalling figures or dates during a meeting with your team, a good memory is good for business.
Fortunately for anyone who now thinks to themselves, “Well, I’m not good at memorizing anything,” your brain is a muscle and can be trained. Your brain memorizes information in four steps: attention, encoding, storage, and retrieval. Here’s what happens in each stage:
Attention: Let’s say you’re in a meeting and one of your colleagues pitches a marketing idea. The information enters your brain through sensory receptors. They will hold on to this information for mere seconds while your brain filters it and hopefully deems it important. Only when you consciously perceive information, will it be passed onto the next step.
Encoding: It looks like your colleague’s pitch was good because your brain is now encoding the information. In this step, it will either be moved into your short-term memory or working memory. Your short-term memory will hold the information for a few seconds, while in your working memory, you can retain it for up to 20 minutes. This can be helpful when solving a math problem or cleaning up an Excel sheet but it won’t help you recall your colleague’s pitch during the client call next Thursday.
Storage: Moving information from your short-term memory into your long-term memory is an active step. Your brain can’t make this decision for you, you’ll have to memorize it using a technique that works for you—but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Retrieval: How you pay attention, encode, and store information will affect how well you can retrieve it at a later point in time. The more time that passes between the last two steps, storage and retrieval, the more important it is to revisit and review the information frequently so it stays fresh in your mind.
This covers the basics of the memorization process but let’s dive into how your brain can get better at memorizing. Depending on how your mind works, you may find that either verbal or visual memorization techniques help you better retain pieces of information.
If you’re not sure whether you’re a verbal or a visual person, ask yourself the following questions: Do you prefer reading instructions instead of having someone show you how it’s done? Do you have a knack for memorizing lyrics or advanced fluency with words? If your answers are yes, you’re probably going to benefit the most from the following verbal memorization techniques.
Chunking refers to a memory technique where you group items together so they’re easier to remember. Although our phones can do a great deal of memorizing for us (let’s be honest, who remembers their partner’s phone number these days?), remembering things like your Social Security number or a grocery list can be helpful in everyday life.
If you’re managing multiple projects or teams across different locations, chunking is a great technique to memorize all of them and can save you from constantly having to look up this information. Break the locations up by area, department, team size, or first letter (Miami, Minneapolis, Memphis)—each section should contain no more than seven items to remember (that’s the magic number). Try to memorize how many items are in each category and you’ll find it much easier to store this information using chunking.
Similar to chunking, spelling mnemonics are great tools to help you remember lists or groups. Simply use the first letter of each word to create an acronym that’s easier for you to remember than the individual parts. Have you heard of SMART goals? The acronym makes it much easier to remember what the steps are (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based), right? If you work in HR, logistics, or accounting, you’re probably used to working with acronyms—remembering what they stand for will make your life a lot easier.
If you can’t make up an acronym, try an acrostic! The idea is very similar but instead of using the first letter of every word, you create a little poem, like this:
Always there for you
Small stuff to big stuff
Automate your work routine
Not just your to-do lists
Any part of your project workflow
You can also create alliterations to retain information. This is especially helpful when you struggle to remember names. If a new colleague introduces themselves with the name Andrew, you’re more likely to recall it the next time you run into them at the cafeteria if you used an alliteration like “analytical Andrew” or “amazing Andrew” upon meeting them the first time. Try it out!
Picture this: You’re driving home from work and a song comes on the radio that you haven’t heard in years. You turn up the volume and sing along, remembering every single word. If this happens to you on occasion, your long-term memory stores music very well!
You can use the power of lyrics and melodies to your advantage when memorizing information. Make up a catchy jingle or song in your head and turn boring or complicated things into fun tunes.
This can be helpful when remembering your company’s growth numbers for a meeting—just try to avoid breaking out in song in the middle of an important call.
Rhyming may just be one of the easiest memorization techniques—think about nursery rhymes! They’re so easy, even little kids can remember them. Whether you use a rhyme to remember a person’s name at a networking event (Romana from Asana) or to link a product name to a product line, it’s definitely going to help you retain the information better.
The opportunity to make something rhyme may not always arise but when it does, it’s going to make remembering something a lot easier.
Much like the name suggests, this technique allows you to build on facts you already know. It uses associations and connections to broaden your expertise and knowledge on a topic. The key to this technique is to not just memorize facts but to learn them and connect them to your web of logic.
Let’s say you’re a hiring manager and part of your job is remembering and reciting information about your company. Sure, you could write down a cheat sheet to reference important dates and numbers during interviews but if you’ve memorized these facts and can recall them freely, the setting will feel much more natural to both you and the person looking to work for you.
Repeating something over and over again (also called rote learning) is not just tedious but also ineffective. You need to allow your brain to encode and store the information which takes time. That’s why spaced repetition is the key!
Pierce Howard, psychologist and author of the book “The Owner’s Manual for the Brain” advises that work involving lots of brainpower should “be spaced out to allow new neural connections to solidify.”
The next time you’re listening to a webinar, take notes of the things that you want to remember. Let some time pass after the webinar and work on other tasks before you return to your notes and read them again. If you repeat this routine (study, work, break) and leave enough time for your brain to encode and store the information between study sessions, you’ll be much more likely to remember it.
If verbal memorization techniques don’t work for you, you may be a visual learner. This is likely true if you often think in mental images or pictures and have a great imagination. So here are some memorization techniques that use visualization to retain information.
This technique is great if you have a creative mind and need to remember a long list of items. It’s also called linking technique because you’re linking one item to the next to create a story that will help you remember the full list. The beauty of it? You only have to remember the first item and you’ll be able to connect it to all the others through linking.
Remember that the more you exaggerate in your story, the easier it will be to recall it. The actor Barry Reitman shares a great video example of how to use the link or story method to remember a to-do list.
Writing things down can help you visualize information better. You can use different colors, titles, and subtitles to make the information more memorable. Flashcards break the information down into chunks that are easier to remember.
They’re a great tool to combine with spaced repetition. Ideally, you’d study difficult or new things more frequently than things that are easy to recall to challenge the weaker areas of your knowledge. If you don’t like writing on physical flashcards, try an app like Brainscape to study with virtual flashcards.
Flashcards are a great tool to use when prepping for a pitch or a speech and they can double as your security blanket because they’re easy to hold discreetly and scan through when you’re lost.
Mind maps are wonderful tools. They’re not just great for brainstorming ideas with your team but they can also be helpful in visualizing information to remember later on.
You can use a brainstorming template or create a physical mind map on a whiteboard or paper. Because the different pieces of information are organized by sections (chunks) and you can use colors to add more structure, retaining these facts will be easier for you. You can also use the linking technique by remembering which paths are connected to one another and build bridges for your mind.
You may have seen this technique used by Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Sherlock Holmes in the BBC television show. In the show, he calls it his mind palace and it sure doesn’t look like a technique that’s accessible to anyone who’s not a genius detective.
Fortunately, the loci, or memory palace, technique is a lot less complicated than the show makes it out to be. It’s best used to store information like faces, lists, or digits and works similarly to the storytelling technique—through linking and association.
Think of a place that you know inside and out, like your bedroom or your kitchen. Visualize a series of objects or locations in this place like doing your bedtime routine or making your coffee in the morning. Then associate each item that you want to memorize with the object or location. When you want to recall the information, visualize the space (go to your memory palace) and retrieve it.
The more you use the method of loci the easier it will get to expand the size of your memory palace. Eventually, you may be able to use your whole house to store and retrieve information.
The good news is that your brain is a muscle and memorization is a skill. With practice and time, anyone is capable of improving their memory.
Just like you’d tend to your body when you workout, you need to give your brain the power to perform. Getting proper sleep, exercising regularly, and sticking to a healthy diet are all important aspects in fostering a fit and healthy brain. Health is all about balance, just as it is for workers balancing the project management triangle. Taking breaks is also essential in giving your brain the time to encode and store information.
While you can improve your memory over time by exercising your brain, no one can remember everything all the time. Thankfully, instead of overwhelming the computer in your head, you can offload excess information with the right digital tools.
To do list software helps you keep track of all your tasks and allows you to organize them by priority, link them to important documents, and share them with your team members. The best part: you can opt in for reminders on upcoming to-dos so nothing falls through the cracks.
If your team relies heavily on working together and pushing to-dos back and forth, task management software can help you keep track of your own and other tasks. No matter how good you are with memorizing your own tasks, having a place to connect with your colleagues to inform, delegate, and track to-dos will help you stay on schedule and hit your goals.
As you progress in your career, you’ll find that an agile memory and mind will be valuable assets. Besides increasing your productivity because you don’t have to look everything up, a better memory will also improve your workflow and your connections with others, and even your leadership style. Keep exercising that brain of yours, and for anything that doesn’t stick, use the right tools, like our project planning software, to store excess information.