The human mind is a strange computer.
This device in your head can generate and process ideas and complex relationships that are beyond even the most advanced of machines and artificial intelligences.
It can remember childhood tragedies and foresee future opportunities, and dream surreal remixes of all the information that passes through it. When it’s damaged, it repairs itself – and often in strange and unexpected ways. So why do even the greatest minds struggle to memorize speeches and passwords, or to remember to pick up the house keys before shutting the front door?
It’s a question that many of those greatest minds are struggling with themselves. But for the business leader with a heavy schedule and big responsibilities, such things are best left to the boffins. A better use of your time is to figure out ways to get the most out of that strange computer in your head, and learn to succeed at the basic stuff even as your higher mind excels at more human tasks such as solving problems and bringing people together.
So about that basic stuff: what are some of the techniques you can use to remember the little things, day in, day out?
One of the classic methods is known as ‘loci’, or the memory palace. It’s great for remembering sequential information, such as lines in a speech or tasks in a process. Loci takes the memorizing process out of the realm of language, and situates it instead in your spatial and navigational intelligence.
Begin by picturing a place you know well. You are going to go on a mental tour of that place – whether it’s your childhood home or your office building. As you walk from room to room, mentally associate each element that you need to remember (for example, each line or paragraph of your speech) with each consecutive room that you pass. Do it a few times in a row to cement the associations. When it comes time to recall the information, just take that tour through your ‘memory palace’ once more. Professional memory artists swear by it!
If language and letters are more your bag, there’s no need to totally jettison them. The second technique for memorizing things is to use acronyms – words or sequences, like POTUS, that are made up of the initials of each word in a series. This one’s good for learning a new workflow, or piece of information with not too many elements (such as NEWS – the points of the compass).
A third technique is to create or borrow rhyming mnemonics. The famous example is ’30 days hath September, April, June and November…’ and there are many more preexisting ones for different subjects. You can also come up with your own. Our brains love patterns, and rhyming is a great way to enshrine a piece of information in your memory.
A more advanced technique is ‘Visualization and Association’. This is another one that’s great to use ahead of presentations and meetings. It’s not dissimilar to the memory palace, except that in this case you’re coming up with images rather than places to which you will connect the items that you need to remember. Instead of a walk through a house, you might order those images into a simple story, so that as you relay the story in your head the things that you need to remember are prompted in sequence. It’s not just a great remembering method – it’s a handy way to keep your imagination toned up!
When it comes to facts and figures, it can be very impressive (and sometimes plain convenient) to reel off long numbers and statistics without needing to refer to your notes. But here you will find you’re veering dangerously back towards the territory in which computers perform best. Rather than athletically trying to remember, say, a nine-figure number, the human mind will work better if that number is broken down into manageable chunks – units of three-four numbers at a time. Unsurprisingly, this technique is known as chunking. The hard work comes in building those chunks up, one set after another, so try to do a few each day.
PQRST is another one of those acronyms – but in this case, the process it recalls is a memory technique. It stands for Preview, Question, Read, State, and Test, and if this sounds like the kind of technique you used to prepare for exams in college then that’s because it’s a very effective way of learning complex facts and concepts. The difference is that in college you were revising work you had already covered in class, whereas in the office you may be confronted with brand new ideas that you need to take on board quickly. That’s why the first step is Preview: it gives you a chance to prime your mind by quickly scanning a text to get the gist.
And finally, the classic: write it down. Simply put, the process of writing things by hand stimulates the mind in ways that merely reading those things does not. You can take this to the next level by writing different elements of the subject in different styles and colors, to help your subconscious to categorize them.
No single technique is better than others, and most leaders will need to find the combination that works best for them in different circumstances. To get started, you can find step-by-step details on how to approach each technique in this great visual guide from QuidCorner.