Six Memory Joggers for Overloaded Brains

postItNoteGuyI confess that my memory is somewhat sketchy. While I rarely forget a friend’s birthday (thanks to Facebook!), I’m terrible with names. And then there’s the issue of my car keys, which I’m continually misplacing. Just ask my husband—he’ll tell you that sometimes I cheat and drive off with his set, leaving him the task of finding mine.

My memory glitches aren’t unique. Considering all of the thousands of pieces of information we’re expected to retain—everything from personal identification numbers and Web site passwords (I have at least a dozen) to errands and birthdays—is it any wonder that sometimes we forget? Even in an era of smartphones and electronic calendar reminders, we misplace wallets, leave the umbrella on the kitchen table, and draw a blank when our new neighbor strolls over to say hello.

To assist their already overloaded brains, busy people have come up with some pretty unusual ways of remembering things. Mary Beth Klatt of Chicago writes reminders on her hand, and an Oregon resident admits to putting Post-it notes in a pair of her shoes. Truth is, it doesn’t matter how silly a “memory jogger” may seem—as long as it works.

These offbeat techniques are actually a good idea, says Alan Searleman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. Using so-called “external memory aids” is one of the most effective—and easiest—ways to boost your recall.

“The best memory pales in comparison to the faintest ink,” explains Searleman. “If you leave a physical reminder, it’s really hard to forget something.” Because external memory aids are obvious, they’re less mentally taxing and free up your “cognitive resources” (your brain, in other words) for more important things, says Searleman.

To help you remember the important things in life, we’ve rounded up tried and true memory joggers from people who swear by them. Just watch out for their drawbacks.

Memory Jogger 1: The Ubiquitous Sticky Notes

Yes, you can send yourself an e-mail reminder or dictate a note on your phone. But plenty of people still rely on those brightly colored Post-it or “sticky” notes that pop up on refrigerators, bathroom mirrors, and computer screens.

Married couple Micki and Jerry Hendricks of Morris, Illinois, don’t think they could live without them. “I put them everywhere,” says Micki. “I’ll leave one on the mirror in the bathroom or by my phone so I’ll see it in the morning. Or I’ll put a sticky note on the dash of the car if I have errands to remember.” Her husband, Jerry, uses them as well: “He even stuck one on the dryer saying, ‘Please clean the filter after every use!’” she says with a laugh.

Klatt prefers her hand to the sticky note. “I use a marker to mark an ‘X’ or a dot on my hand,” she says. “People tease me about it, but it works, and that’s what’s most important. I especially do this to remind myself to move my car first thing in the morning if I’ve parked in a metered spot. Otherwise, I’ll get a parking ticket!”

Memory Jogger 2: One of These Things Doesn’t Belong

Put something out of place, and you’ll be forced to remember why it’s not where it belongs. California resident Jenny Forsberg Meyer used this technique to help her husband remember his lunch for work. She suggested that he keep his car keys in the refrigerator—on top of his lunch box—and it worked!

Even a simple box of facial tissue can do the trick. One Wisconsin resident relies on the tissue box to boost his memory: If he thinks of something in the middle of the night that he needs to remember the next morning, he knocks the Kleenex box off of the nightstand. Then in the morning, it triggers him to remember what he would otherwise have forgotten.


Memory Jogger 3: The Bell Tolls for Thee . . . But Why?

Setting an alarm to remember a meeting or appointment is a great idea—as long as you remember what the alarm is reminding you of! Use a software program such as Outlook that will prompt you not only when you’re supposed to do something, but exactly what that something is.

Memory Jogger 4: A Master Plan

One of the easiest ways to avoid forgetting something is to keep a “master list” in one place. Whether you opt for a simple wall calendar or a higher-tech choice, such as a smartphone with every imaginable app, the technology matters less than the idea of having one place to leave yourself notes, reminders, and lists.

Memory Jogger 5: The Name Game

Undoubtedly, the most embarrassing memory glitches occur when you’ve met someone numerous times—and still draw a total blank on who they are. It’s not an early sign of senility: linking faces with names is the most common memory complaint, says Searleman. Take one person from California who often eats at a nearby sandwich shop. While the shop owner always greeted him by name, he could never recall the owner’s name to return the courtesy.

Determined to break the bad habit, he decided to think of a way to remember the owner’s name, which was Paul. He pictured Paul McCartney, his favorite Beatle, and has remembered his name ever since. He was able to remember Paul’s name because he made an association with it, explains Searleman.

Another technique that works well is called face-name imagery technique. “You take the person’s name, transform it into a concrete object, and imagine it interacting with the person’s face or head. The more bizarre the image, the better.” This puts the person’s name in “visual code,” which is easier for us to remember. “You have a verbal code—the person’s name—and you tie it to something visual on the person. The best way to do that is to make a visual link between the two,” says Searleman. So, you might picture a snowball whizzing by the head of your new neighbor, Elizabeth Snow. Or imagine Brian Manecke standing next to a manatee, as the two words sound similar.

Still, the game isn’t foolproof. So if you have to introduce two people to each other and can’t remember their names, use Searleman’s emergency move to get out of a tight spot. “Look at both people and say ‘Do you know each other?’—and don’t do anything else,” he says. If you remain quiet, the two will introduce themselves to each other, and you’ll save yourself from embarrassment.

Memory Jogger 6: Get it Together (Literally)

Charlotte Gnessin’s husband grew so tired of her habit of misplacing her keys that he was driven to invent a solution.“I kept losing my keys constantly and it was driving him nuts,” explains Gnessin. “He found this gadget with a retractable, elastic cord and attached it to the inside of my pocketbook. I haven’t lost my keys for the two months I’ve had it.” While driving with her keys attached to her purse may look a little odd, she doesn’t care.

“It took some getting used to, but it works,” says Gnessin. “My husband and I often say that between us we have one good brain, so finding something that works consistently is big.”

Don’t feel guilty if you have to rely on Post-its or a phone chirping at you to jog your memory—we all need a little help now and then. A less-than-perfect memory is often simply a sign of a busy life, and today there are plenty of technologies to help you manage it all—without forgetting anything.

Kelly James-Enger writes about health and wellness from her home in Downers Grove, Illinois.