The 7 Best Hacks To Not Forget Things, According To Memory Experts

by Toria Sheffield and Melanie Mignucci
Originally Published: 
A woman on a bench writes her to-do list in a notebook so she can stop forgetting things.
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I can be an extremely absent-minded person when left to my own devices. It's why a few solid ways to stop forgetting things prove extremely useful in my day-to-day life. It doesn't matter how many times I tell myself I need to pick up dental floss or can't forget my packed lunch for work: if I don't actively set up a reminder system, I'll forget to do it nine times out of 10.

Remembering something is a two-step process: first, you have to encode the memory, or make it stick in your brain. Then, you have to retrieve it. For most people with everyday absentmindedness, the problem comes when you’re first trying to encode which purse you left your ID in.

“When the brain is not able to encode the memory, that's usually because we're distracted by something else,” Dr. Melissa Shepard, MD, a psychiatrist at Memory Center Charlotte, an Alzheimer’s treatment center, tells Bustle. When you go to retrieve the memory, there’s not a lot for your brain to latch onto — and then you’re stuck pawing through every purse you used in the last two weeks.

In order to set yourself up for success, memory-wise, being conscious of our actions in the moment helps. When you make a memory, all of the other sensory cues happening at the same time also get encoded, says Dr. Shepard. “Maybe you were hungry or tired, or you may have been smelling something in particular,” she says. Trying to remember those elements as well as, say, the name of the client your coworker introduced you to at the bar last night, can help.

Lifestyle factors also play a role in memory. “Your biggest defense against forgetting things is getting enough sleep,” Dr. Beth McQuiston, MD, RD, a neurologist, registered dietitian, and medical director for global health technology company Abbott’s diagnostics business, tells Bustle. Exercise, nutrition, and stress can also mess with your ability to focus on the things you need to remember. “If you're anxious,” says Dr. McQuiston, “that is not the time to pack your suitcase for a trip. Your brain is preoccupied with something else.”

But if you’re sleeping enough, keeping your stress in check, and you’ve ruled out any medical issues, you might need an assist remembering the little things. If you're tired of losing things or forgetting basics, like your apartment keys or a new co-worker's name, here are seven tips that will help you to (almost) never forget daily essentials again.

1. Keep Designated Spots For Commonly Used Objects

If you’re always forgetting things, you want to minimize the work your brain has to do to encode the memory of setting down your keys. One great way to do that is to keep your keys — or your wallet, or your water bottle — in the same place, and preferably a place you see regularly. Placing something in the same place every time tells your brain that’s where the Apple TV remote lives.

Dr. Shepard suggests keeping things like daily medication near something like your toothbrush: “You can’t get around brushing your teeth because they feel gross. Then you see your pillbox sitting there and remember, OK, I have to take my medicine.” This is also a kind of repetition, helping drill it into your brain where you left your wallet (in your weekday purse).

2. Keep Something You Don't Want To Forget With Your Keys

This tip, courtesy of my type-A cousin, is basically the opposite of the above, but the reason it works is genius. She once wanted to remember to bring a Tupperware full of leftovers home from a family party, so she put her car keys in the fridge with the Tupperware. Her logic? She literally couldn’t leave without her car keys, so she’d have to remember the leftovers when she went to start her car.

The reason this works isn’t just that you physically need your keys to get the Tupperware home: it’s also a great example of being mindful with the original memory to help it encode in your brain.

3. Create A Mental "Hook" For Names

Names are one of the toughest things to remember out there, and there’s no shortage of tricks to fix that. One big one? Creating a link or hook for someone’s name. According to Ira Hyman, PhD, writing for Psychology Today, we're way more likely to remember stories or details about a person than their actual name, a phenomenon called the “Baker-baker paradox.” (If you learn that someone is a baker, researchers found, you’re more likely to remember that than if their name is Mx. Baker.)

Dr. McQuiston backs this up. “Say someone's name is Craig — you can then link them to Daniel Craig, the actor. So when you see them again, you have a way back if you've forgotten their name.” Sneaky, right?

4. Set An Alarm

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If you need reminders, set reminders! Some people set an alarm on their phone to make sure they take their birth control at the same time each day. For weekly tasks, like taking out the garbage or changing your bedsheets, create a recurring calendar alert. Other people swear by the Pomodoro technique, where you break your day up into manageable chunks, so you don’t get so absorbed by one task you forget to do another. If you tend to forget things, alarms are your friend.

5. Keep A To-Do List

You can’t do every task right when your alarm goes off, so it’s helpful to write things down on a to-do list, especially projects with a far-off deadline.

Dr. Shepard also cautions against putting too much on a to-do list. “If you put 20 items on the list, you're probably going to forget some of them, even though it's on your list,” she says. “You're also gonna kind of feel bad about it when you don't get all your stuff checked off.” Instead, try prioritizing the top three to five things you need to get done, and focus on those. Or, if it’s helpful to you, you can create a tiered to-do list so you have one central location for all projects, short- and long-term. It's an incredibly effective and low-tech way to make life easier.

6. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Take a moment to repeat details you don't want to forget, like names, addresses, or special pronunciations. This moment of being mindful, as well as the act of repetition, will help lodge the detail in your brain. It's particularly helpful when it comes to names. “Human beings love hearing their own names, so you'll make friends” by repeating people’s names back to them, says Dr. Shepard.

Doing this out loud adds another sensory cue to encode the memory, but you can do this a bunch of different ways. Keeping a designated spot for certain objects is one form of repetition. Another is writing something down — like, with a pencil and paper. “You're getting some sensory feedback from the act of writing,” Dr. Shepard says, which helps the memory stick in your brain. “The more ways that you can come up with for repeating something, the better.”

7. Do It In Advance

The worst part of forgetting something is when you remember that you had to bring your work laptop home after you’re halfway through cooking dinner. As much as you’re able to set the groundwork for those tasks in advance, it’ll be easier to remember them. This will also help you when you’re completing a multi-step process, so you don’t forget that one crucial detail.

“Get everything done when you're nice and calm and your brain is working well,” says Dr. McQuiston.

Putting your keys in the same place every day is not just a form of repetition, but for setting future-you up for success. Dr. McQuiston also suggests putting shoes that you know you need to bring upstairs on the steps, or keeping your reusable grocery bags near the door so you can easily grab them on your way out. Writing yourself a Post-it note somewhere you’ll see it is another option.

Forgetting stuff is bonkers annoying, and it can really mess up the flow of your day. If you find yourself forgetting things more than usual, both Drs. McQuiston and Shepard suggest bringing your concerns to your doctor — memory issues can be a sign of depression, thyroid issues, or other medical problems. But if you’ve ruled out a medical issue, constantly forgetting things is something you can work on.

Experts Cited:

Dr. Melissa Shepard, MD, a psychiatrist at Memory Center Charlotte

Dr. Beth McQuiston, MD, RD, a neurologist, registered dietitian, and medical director for global health technology company Abbott’s diagnostics business

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