6 Tips to Become a Memory Master

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 28, 2017

Have you ever been introduced to someone, only to have their name instantly vanish from your memory even while they’re still speaking with you? You’re not alone.

Whether it’s socially or work-related (or in many cases, both), fading information equates to frustration, not to mention lost time and productivity. According to data released by Bridge by Instructure, a corporate training platform, employees spend nearly 6,000 hours annually looking up information they’ve already been taught in training; 46 percent of employees rely on sticky note reminders.

Related: 5 Tips to Sharpen Your Memory

Reminders aside, there are additional ways to boost memory. Ken Jennings, 74-time Jeopardy! champion, partnered with Bridge by Instructure to host a free online course offering practical tips to find, learn and retain knowledge. Here, the Seattle-based best-selling author spent time with SUCCESS to outline six strategies to successfully retain information.

1. Create mnemonic devices.

Jennings relied heavily on this strategy while preparing for Jeopardy!, more than a decade ago. “I had to learn all the presidents and dates,” he says. “What years was Zachary Taylor president? Most people don’t know or care and some [facts] are more boring; they did not stick organically.”

So he concocted ways to quickly recall information: “John Quincy Adams was elected in 1824, so I thought of Quincy, the TV show—that guy’s a coroner, so he probably works 24-hour shifts.” Mission accomplished.

2. Shift your attitude.

“I always say it’s less a technique than an attitude,” Jennings says. “Many people think they have bad memories, but they have really good memories.” Like how you can recall the batting average of every player on your favorite baseball team but can’t recall the name of the medicine your doctor prescribed.

Now, apply this on a deeper level. If you’re having trouble remembering something, ask yourself, Why am I not interested in this? What change can I make to be more motivated about this subject? And if you’re training colleagues and employees who are experiencing challenges recalling information, how can you make the topic more interesting and relevant for them?

Ken Jennings

3. Take a timeout from technology.

Look at your brain like a muscle that needs to be exercised—that can mean something as simple as calculating a tip amount at the restaurant instead of relying on punching numbers into your phone, or finding your way to that restaurant without your maps app.

“When you have Siri, Google and Watson who all want to retrieve stuff for you, how do you make sure you evolve things in your brain like navigating directions?” Jennings says. His advice: Take one day of the week and don’t use your GPS. “Practice navigating and remembering routes where you’re going instead of Googling something immediately. Take a second and see if it will come to you.”

Related: 10 Tips to Stay Sharp

4. Ramp up your curiosity.

Jennings grew up mesmerized by contestants on Jeopardy! because they didn’t know what the categories were going to be ahead of time and they seemed so curious about everything—the opposite of how many of us operate.

“I realized how much we compartmentalize—I’m interested in this kind of music or that kind, baseball but not hockey, I like history but not science,” he says. “As a result, I think we have a hard time remembering the things we’ve told ourselves not to be curious about.”

There should be no lines, he says. “You should always be curious. Everything is actually cool. So, living your life just a little differently every time you’re in a conversation and someone mentions something you’ve never heard of, ask, ‘What’s that?’”

5. Take good notes.

When your life is dense with networking and you’re immersed in participating in one calendar obligation or another, it’s helpful to take notes in your phone or notebook as it’s happening.

“Then you’ve got something to refer back to that’s not happening in real time,” Jennings says. “Later that day or on the plane home you can go through it all.” Jot down any connections you made, things you talked about and things to follow up on.

6. Give it the side eye.

Another way to jog your memory is to look at something from a slightly different, adjacent perspective. “Try to remember a name or word—running through the alphabet will work,” Jennings says. “There’s an ‘S’ in it for sure, wait it starts with an ‘R’—triangulate it. I always have a good sense of how long it is, I can’t remember this guy’s name, but it’s seven letters or it’s the name of a pope.”

And then don’t look straight at it, look above it or to the side of it and see if the cue’s there. “A cognitive guy told me this, that makes it more likely for the association to pop up,” he says, recalling when they did a word scramble together on a game show. “You’d see the letters and have to create the name of the animal or the food. You don’t want to look straight at the letters, when the thing is trying to manipulate to the field of vision; look to the side and see the anagram.”

So the next time you’re looking at your hotel room key trying to think what’s the room number, don’t look straight at the key. “Side your field of vision while the wheels turn and then, ‘Oh, 807!’”

Related: 9 Easy Ways to Stay Mentally Sharp

Vicki Salemi is a career expert, columnist, author of Big Career in the Big City, speaker and frequent on-air guest. She resides in New York City and is a huge fan of the Yankees, cardio tap (yes, as in dancing) and cardio tennis.