Memory is the Thing I Forget With

A hiker overlooks the sunset. Text "Not all classrooms have four walls" appears on the graphic.

Sometimes I think if I ever lost my mind, I’d never miss it.

- Ziggy

Have you ever walked into a room and forgot why you went there?

Do you have trouble remembering names?

Do you often do one thing while thinking about something else?

Do you sometimes find that words re on the ‘tip of your tongue’ but you can’t quite find them?

All of the above are examples of normal memory loss.

Welcome to memory school! A key factor in being your best self is having a well-organized and effective memory.

The following story was sent to me and unfortunately, I do not know the source, so let’s credit it our friend anonymous:

Several days ago as I left a meeting at a local hotel, I desperately gave myself a personal pat down. I was looking for my keys. They were not in my pockets. A quick search in the meeting room revealed nothing. Suddenly, I realized I must have left them in the car. Frantically, I headed quickly for the parking lot.

My wife has scolded me many times for leaving the keys in the ignition. My theory is the ignition is the best place not to lose them. Her theory is that the car could be stolen. As I burst through the door, I came to a terrifying conclusion. Her theory was right, the parking lot was empty. I immediately called the police. I gave them the location, confessed that I had left the keys in the car, and that it had been stolen.

Then, I made the most difficult call of all. “Honey, I stammered, I left my keys in the car and it has been stolen. There was a period of silence. I thought the call had been dropped, but then I heard her voice. “Are you kidding me, I dropped you off this morning!”

Now it was time to be silent. Embarrassed, I said, “Will you come and get me.” She snapped back, “I will, as soon as I convince this policeman standing beside me that I have not stolen your car!”

Everyone has memory lapses.

What is your most embarrassing memory moment? And by the way, we’ve all had them.

Here are just a few comments I have heard from participants in my memory workshops over the years:

  • I swear if my memory was any worse, I could plan my own surprise party.

  • Just once, I want a username and password prompt to say, “Close enough.”

  • My brain seems to have too many tabs open at the same time.

  • I like to make lists. I also like to leave them laying on the kitchen counter and then guess what’s on the list while at the store. Fun game.

You think you want a better memory. But how badly do you want it? Are you motivated enough? Improving your memory requires forming life-long habits, and this requires commitment on your part. You can’t get a better memory the same way you can get better clothes or a better computer. You can’t swap your brain for a better one. To improve your memory, you have to make these habits part of your regular routine. Like anything in life, the results you get depend on the effort you put into it.

You may be asking yourself why you should be improving your memory and learning new skills in this modern age of technology. You can always rely on a Google search to find information or plug something into your smartphone to remember it. The problem with technology is that it gives you an excuse to let your mind get lazy and forget something. If all your information is in your phone, what happens when your batteries run out, or you leave your phone somewhere? If our brains were computers, we’d simply add a chip to upgrade our memory. However, the human brain is more complex than that, so improving memory requires more effort.

What is Memory?

Memory is the mental activity of recalling information that you have learned or experienced. Memory can be short-term or long-term. In short-term, your mind stores information for only a few seconds or a few minutes. Such memory is fragile, and it’s meant to be; you brain would soon read ‘disk full’ if you retained every phone number you called or the subject of every ad you watched on TV. Your brain is also meant to hold an average of seven items, which explains why you can generally remember a new phone number for a few minutes but need your credit card in front of you when you are buying something on line.

Long-term memory involves the information you make an effort to retain, either consciously or unconsciously, because it’s personally meaningful to you (data about family and friends), or you need it (job procedures), or it made an emotional impression, such as the first time you drive a car or an anniversary date when a special family member died. Some information that you store in long-term memory requires a conscious effort to recall. Another type of long-term memory is called procedural memory, which involves skills and routines you perform so often that they don’t require conscious recall.

In order to remember something, three things must happen, First, you must receive and learn a piece of information. This is the ‘recording’ step. Second, you must store the information in your brain. This is the ‘retaining’ step. Lastly, you must ‘retrieve’ the information from your brain in an useful and effective way. So, when someone says they have a bad memory, what they are really saying is they don’t have a good process for storing and retrieving information.

Kenneth Higbee, a well-known memory expert and author of ‘Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It,’ says: It is the disorganization in your mind, not the amount of material, that hinders memory. Long-term memory is relatively permanent, and has a virtually unlimited capacity. A disorganized mind is like a filing cabinet into which documents have been thrown at random, with no folders or labels. When you try to find a particular item, the clutter of the rest hinders your efforts. However, if all documents are in labeled folders, and the folders are in labeled drawers, finding what you want is very easy because you simply look under the appropriate heading. A good analogy is a library. If the books were put randomly onto shelves, it would be nearly impossible to find anything. The library catalogues each book and organizes the shelves so that retrieving a particular book is an easy task. Your mind hates chaos. It wants to see order everywhere. You would be shocked having found how well structured your mind is and how all the mechanisms of the brain work together to help you live in this world and not to get lost.”

We all have limits on the amount of memory we can access at any one time. There is no way for you to remember every movie you’ve seen, every book you’ve read, every conversation you’ve heard and every person you’ve ever met.

I have been facilitating Memory workshops for over 40 years, and I can tell you that the reasons why we forget have remained consistent over that time, with only one change, that being our over dependency on technology. The four main reasons I’ve identified why we forget are:

  1. You have a poor attitude about your ability to remember.

  2. You are not paying attention.

  3. You are in a hurry.

  4. An over dependency on technology.

Could your attitude be your own worst enemy when it comes to remembering things?

I’ve never understood why so many people are negative in their self-talk about their memory; many talk in ways they wouldn’t talk to their worst enemy. Anne McGee-Cooper writes, “If you think your memory is lousy, you will interpret normal memory lapses as proof you are right, thus blocking your own best memory performances.” Are you the type of person who tends to ruminate over things? If you have a memory lapse, do you magnify it? Do you then use this as self-incriminating evidence to be later compared with yet another memory lapse.

Let’s play a little game of ‘True or False.’

"Everyone has memory lapses."

The answer is true. There is no such thing as a perfect memory. Kris Kristofferson once said, “Memory lapses are one of God’s blessings. If I could remember everything, I’d be a mess.”

In a recent study of healthy adults, the average number of memory slips was around six per week, irrespective of age, gender and intelligence. In fact, it was the younger, busier people that were the most absent-minded. Remembering is an active process and making the most of your memory involves paying better attention, planning and organizing. Our brains were designed to forget. Even the smartest person doesn’t remember everything. Forgetting protects the mind from being cluttered with trivial details. So the idea that forgetting is somehow ‘abnormal’ is a myth. But some people seem to forget too much, such as doctor’s appointments, important phone numbers, birthdays, or anniversary dates.

Question: When you get up in the morning, do you expect your memory to be perfect throughout the day?

Many people hold unrealistic expectations about what memory is and how memory works. They seek perfection from their memory. Our thinking process is basically a running commentary that we have within ourselves. Having presented hundreds of Memory workshops over the years, I would say that the number one factor in developing and maintaining a good memory is having confidence in your ability to remember; a negative mental set in memory becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and results in poor memory functioning. If you don’t think you’ll be able to remember anything, you are not likely to put forward the effort needed to succeed. The worst thing about a low self-concept is that it leads you to emphasize your failures. You are likely to jump on every memory mistake as proof of your failing mind. With a negative self-concept, you fail to notice the number of memory successes you have each and every day.

To be your best self, you need to have a positive attitude in order to have an efficient and effective memory. You must stop thinking that you have a bad memory.

Samuel Johnson wrote, “The True Art of Memory is The Art of Attention.” Paying attention is critically important to improve your memory. If something is of interest to you, generally you will have little trouble remembering it. However, if you are uninterested, or if you are bored, you will not have the motivation necessary to remember well. Some of the difficulty people report with poor memories is not just a matter of forgetting, but simply of not learning it in the first place. This especially happens when we are meeting new people. If you want to remember something, you must pay attention to it. It is recommended that you give your activities an additional degree of attention. Writing things down or saying things out loud (I’m locking the door) are ways of applying this principle. Attention is a close second in factors affecting memory effectiveness.

In my research, I read a wonderful article on absentmindedness on the Braingle


Absentmindedness is caused by the failure to pay attention to what you need to do. It is usually caused by one of three different scenarios:

  1. The thing you need to do is part of a habit or a routine such that it requires very little attention.

  2. You are distracted by something that takes your attention away from the thing you need to do.

  3. You are trying to do two things at the same time (multi-tasking).

There are basically two types of absentmindedness. The first type is forgetting something that you did (Where did I put my glasses?). The second is forgetting whether you did something at all (Did I pay my VISA bill?).

The biggest challenge to paying attention in the twenty-first century is multitasking. The brain, unlike a computer is not designed to multitask. To switch gears, the brain must stop, start, and retrigger each time there is an interruption. This causes fragmented concentration, resulting in memory deficiencies as well as poor quality work. If you want to remember something, you have to pay attention to it. For activities that require focus and attention, a person can only pay attention to one thing at a time. One reason people don’t remember where their keys is they’re not paying attention when they put them down. Studies show that it takes about eight seconds to fully commit a piece of information to memory, so concentrating on the task at hand is crucial. Technical consultant, Linda Stone writes, “I willed myself to stop giving everything ‘continuous partial attention (CPA).’

Everyday forgetting is often linked to the fact that when you’ve done something so many times in the past, it can be hard to remember if on this particular day, you’ve turned off the stove or unplugged the iron. You are operating on auto-pilot. Indeed, some people go through entire routines of ‘checking’ in the morning because they know they have problems remembering. If you really want to cure absentmindedness, you really need to become aware of what you’re doing. You could not function effectively without auto-pilot. You drive to work without noticing every turn, or you recognize familiar faces in the hall without really observing the person’s features. Automatic activities take less thinking, less attention, less mental energy, and less time. They can be very beneficial. The danger occurs when you lose your attention skills and operate on automatic pilot too much of the time.

If you want to remember something, you must pay attention to it.

Most of us go through our daily lives with fairly fixed routines. We get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, and drive to work the same way every day. Sometimes, you may not even remember how you got to work. You are functioning on auto-pilot. This isn’t necessarily bad because it allows our brains to slowly speed up to meet the requirements of the day, but it also doesn’t give our brains any exercise. To keep your memory intact, make sure you use it on a daily basis. Vary your routines whenever possible. Drive a different route to work occasionally. Lock the door with your opposite hand.

A participant in one of my Memory workshops shared this story. “For years, I have been taking the bus to work and at the end of the day, taking the same bus home. One day, I had an errand to run after work, so I took the car. Afterwards, totally forgetting about the car and the errand, I took the bus back home as I regularly would. Only an hour after I got home, did I realize I had left the car at my office.”

What happened here? This person, didn’t bother to consciously apply the memory effort necessary to note a change in routine. You see, you may have a terrific memory, but it’s of no use unless you make it work for you.

It is impossible to completely overcome absentmindedness, but you can take steps to reduce it, such as being more organized, keeping written notes and calendars, repeating what you need to do and remember out loud to better organize your ideas. A sure fire way to remember particular items is to put them in exactly the same place, every single time. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’ will go a long way to solving your forgetfulness problems at home or the office. Find specific places to keep all the items that are often misplaced. The most common problems here are glasses, keys, medications, TV remotes, and smartphones. Memory failures will occur if you do not consciously apply memory effort when it is needed.

Paying attention requires being present. Unfortunately, most of us are rarely ever present. We are rushing about from here to there and our minds are often occupied with thoughts about the past or the future. Common memory complaints such as “Where did I park my car?” are directly attributable to a lack of in-the-moment attentiveness. Think of the times you’ve rushed out the door because you were running behind schedule, only to discover later that you left behind something important. Instead, you need to slow down and pause. It is important to pay attention to and concentrate on what you are doing. It is nearly impossible to be attentive when you are always operating in a frenzy.

Elizabeth Ransom tells us this story about her parents: “Both of my parents work and lead hectic lives. So my father was bound to forget their wedding anniversary. Remembering at the last minute, he sped to the stationary store and breathlessly asked the clerk, “Where are the anniversary cards?” To his surprise he heard my mother call out, “Over here, Bill.”

Memory, like muscle strength, is a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition.

Let’s play round two of our ‘True or False’ game.

“Writing things down is a memory crutch and actually weakens your memory.”

The answer is false.

Whenever I’m presenting talks on Memory, I always ask this question, “When it comes to memory, what’s the biggest lie you tell yourself?

The answer: “I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it.”

Writing things down is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. Remember this Chinese proverb, “The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory.” The keyboard on your smartphone or tablet can help you take notes and keep records, but it is not necessarily your best friend if you want to remember some of those important things later. The actual act of physically writing something down helps to register it in your mind so you can remember it when you need it.

Let’s play our third and final round of ‘True or False.’

“Most people identify their difficulty in remembering names as their number one memory concern.”

The answer is true.

Martha Weinman Lear in her book, Where did I leave my glasses?, posed this question to a number of people she interviewed, “What can you reliably depend on your memory to forget?”

While she did get some varied responses such as, ‘What did I come in here for?” her number one response by far was, “What’s her (his) name?

The most common complaint that people have about their memories is that they forget people’s names. It surprises me how often people say, “I can’t remember names.” Can’t is not generally the issue here. Replace ‘can’t’ with ‘don’t’ and you have a more accurate statement, “I don’t remember names.” Now it becomes a matter of motivation. You don’t have a poor memory for names, you just are not willing to put forth the effort to remember.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne wrote in an article from Psychology Today, “Interestingly, our ability to distinguish faces is better than our ability to name those faces.. Researchers estimate that we are all ‘face experts’ who can distinguish hundreds, if not thousands of faces we see over a lifetime. The trick is associating those many faces with the names that belong with them.” There are two reasons why recognizing faces is much easier than recalling names. The first reason is simply that recognition is much easier than recall. This is because with recognition you are presented with something and you only have to determine if it is familiar or not. With recall, you actually have to retrieve a piece of information from your memory. The second reason is that pictures are much easier to remember than words. It would be extremely helpful if people would walk around with the first letter of their first name written on their clothes, as Lavergne did in the ‘70’s sit-com, Lavergne and Shirley.

I recommend that people keep a names journal. Write down the names of people you meet along with related information about them. Review this information at least three times in the first week you meet someone. One of the keys to memory is spaced repetition. By reviewing these names, you encode them stronger in your long-term memory.

Have you ever had something on the ‘tip of your tongue’ and just can’t seem to spit it out?

You’re watching an old movie and can’t think of an actor’s name; the anxiety can actually distract you, making it even harder to remember. The reason is that when you are trying, your brain is activating certain parts and blocking others so you can focus. When you focus away, the blocking turns off and your brain is in touch with more of its resources. This illustrates that just because information is in your mind doesn’t mean that you can recall it whenever you want. One way to try to recall the information is to think around it. If given a cue, we can recognize it. This is often referred to as triggered recall. First letter cueing is often used when trying to remember someone’s name. In other words, surround what you don’t know with what you do know. What else do you know about that actor (other movies, life partner, etc.)? Another way is to deliberately stop thinking about it and let your unconscious mind process it for a while. Sometimes the fact will jump into your mind the moment after you stop thinking about it. I call this focusing away. A simple, “It’ll come to me” statement is all that’s required to activate this process. All of us have applied this method either knowingly or unknowingly at times.

Is there a fountain of youth for your brain?

We all know that some people are better than others at certain things. Some people’s brains seem to remain relatively youthful. As with other factors that affect memory, the ability to pay attention varies from person to person. Memory is very personal and is not open to comparison; never compare your memory to someone else’s. There are always a large number of factors that are within your control, you can reduce some age-related changes in the brain through the use of some specific strategies. As the brain ages, there are certain functions that are affected more than others. In particular, processing speed, attention to details, and the ability to multi-task are more vulnerable to natural age-related decline. You will find it more difficult to pay attention and ignore distractions as you get older. You will also have trouble shifting your attention back and forth rapidly between two tasks or following two conversations at the same time. Reductions in concentration make it harder to remember; you may find yourself easily distracted by people around you.

The speed with which you perform nearly every thinking, memory and problem-solving task decrease as you get older. This slowing appears to affect everyone and is related to a general age-associated decline in reaction time. Slower thinking also means that a word or name doesn’t come to mind as quickly as before. You see someone at a concert whom you haven’t seen for a long time and may have trouble remembering their name. Often, it may be only a matter of seconds, but it can seem like an eternity.

Memory, like muscle strength, is a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition. The more you work out your brain, the better your memory will become and you will more effectively process and remember information. Although your memory is not a muscle, it does need to receive intentional regular exercise and workouts several times a week to create the optimum environment for remembering. Our brain as well as our bodies need regular activities in order to stay active. For the body it might be an activity such as cycling or walking; for brains, it might be crosswords, puzzles and similar things. A great way to improve how well you recall information is to play trivia quizzes. The trivia can be about anything, movies, actors, etc. Or you can make up your categories.

Your memory is not a thing; it’s not something that you can measure. There is no part of your brain that a doctor can point to and say, “My, what a good memory you have.” Memory is a process. You should think of remembering as an activity rather than in terms of a good memory or a bad memory. We’ve often heard the expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Age is not a limiting factor here; no matter what age, you still have the ability to learn. There are no secrets to a good memory. There is no easy, effortless way to do it. And since remembering is a skill, you need to decide whether you are willing to give the mental effort required.

Food for Thought

What do you do every day to improve your memory?

What do you do every day to maintain your memory?

What five recommendations would you give to someone who wanted to improve their memory?

Come up with two examples of everyday forgetfulness that you have experienced in the past and which may happen again. For each example, generate one or two possible solutions.

Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

I have a photographic memory. I just haven’t developed it yet.

- Henny Youngman

The only thing faster than the speed of thought is the speed of forgetfulness.

- Vera Zazarian

God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.

- James Mathew Barrie

People have an annoying habit of remembering things they shouldn’t.

- Christopher Paolini

It’s surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.

- Barbara Kingsolver

Nothing is really lost; it’s just where it doesn’t belong.

- Suzanne Meuller

You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.

- Cormac McCarthy

I’ve a grand memory for forgetting.

- Robert Louis Stevenson

In the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important as remembering.

- William James

My grandfather’s a little forgetful, but he likes to give me advice. One day he took me aside and left me there.

- Ron Richards

A good memory is one trained to forget the trivial.

- Clifton Fadiman

A retentive memory is a good thing, but the ability to forget is the true token of greatness.

- Elbert Hubbard

The journey of a thousand miles must begin with wondering if you turned off the iron.

- William Rostler

Right now, I’m having amnesia and deja-vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.

- Steven Wright

Nostalgia: a device that removes the ruts and potholes from ‘Memory Lane.’

- Doug Larson

Be careful about lending money to a friend. It may damage their memory.

- Anonymous

I have discovered the secret formula for a carefree old-age: IYCRI=FI. If you can’t recall it, forget it.

- Goodman Ace

No person has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.

- Abraham Lincoln.

The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

I have trouble remembering three things, names, faces, and I can’t remember what the third thing is.

- Fred Allen

One of the very pleasant things about friendship is the “Do you remember?” moments.

- Faith Baldwin

We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they’re called memories. Some takes us forward, they’re called dreams.

- Ancient Proverb

If you have a bad memory, you have to have good legs.

- Polish Proverb

Next Lesson: You're Always Communicating, but Are You Really Connecting?

Subscribe to get updates when new lessons are published >