This article originally appeared in Fast Company
Forget to send that email? Return a call? Meet a deadline? If you chalk up memory mishaps to having too much to think about, you might be making excuses. “We all have a good memory; the problem is no one taught us how to use it,” says four-time USA Memory Champion Nelson Dellis.
Dellis says he always had a mediocre memory, and didn’t think he had championship-caliber memory potential. Today, he’s the record holder for remembering the most names, memorizing 201 in 15 minutes. He was inspired to train his memory after his grandmother passed away in 2009 with Alzheimer’s disease. “She had been of sound mind just 10 years before,” he says. “I didn’t want that to happen to me. I wanted to find something I could do now that would prolong my brain health.”
Dellis decided to enter the championship as a way to measure his memory gains. While you might not be interested in remembering a couple hundred names, you can use Dellis’s favorite tools to improve your memory and focus.
Make It Exciting
One of the best ways to boost your memory is to take advantage of what the brain is naturally good at: remembering the extraordinary. “Most people can recall a traumatic or memorable event,” says Dellis. “It’s not some sort of super human memory; in those instances, there was something special and our brains absorb that better. Ninety percent of your day is non-interesting; you need to turn it into something memorable.”
Trick yourself into making things exciting. It helps to understand that your brain works well with pictures instead of abstract ideas. If you want to remember to pick up pizza on the way home, for example, picture the cheese sizzling and then burning your mouth.
“Give it a color and make it as real as possible,” says Dellis. “If you want to remember a name, come up with picture of what the word could represent.”
For example, picture someone named Nelson turning into Nelson Mandela. Once you have a picture, it’s more easily stored in your mind, says Dellis.
Use A Memory Palace
Dellis’s most tried-and-true technique is creating a memory palace, which involves creating pictures and memorizing them along a path through a space that you know well, such as your home or office. “You could probably walk through with your eyes closed,” he says. “If you want to remember grocery items, link each one to that space.”
For example, imagine toilet paper covering your front door, then make up a story about why it’s there. “Did kids come by and throw it on your door?” asks Dellis. “Take it as far as you like. If the next item is milk, imagine a cow spraying milk all over the door. Continue to create mental pictures through your house. When you get to the store all you have to do is think of your house and mentally walk the same path, and the pictures will be waiting for you. All elite competitors use some form of memory palace.”
Another memory tool is using a linking method. “You’re still coming up with pictures, but the way you store them is different,” he says. “A linked list connects each item to the next, so it’s a narrative.”
For example, if you need to reply to an email, call the IT department about computer issues, and schedule a meeting, imagine the person you need to email is involved in a crime ring after receiving dozens of stolen computers and you need to go to a meeting to decide what should be done with him.
“The more bizarre, over the top, hilarious, or vulgar it is, the easier it is to remember,” says Dellis. “We remember things that are truly out of the ordinary.”
Get Ready For Information
A lot of memory is about paying attention. “It sounds obvious, but we live in a day when our attention span is very fickle, because there’s so much coming at us all the time,” says Dellis. “Force yourself to be laser-focused on one thing at a time.”
For example, when Dellis meets people and wants to learn their names, the first thing he does before asking their name is to mentally ask himself, “What is this person’s name?” over and over.
“This process, as insignificant as it seems, does wonders,” he says. “You’re not thinking about what to say or noticing something across the room. You’re paying attention to the person in front of you, getting ready to accept their name.”
Tools and tricks can help you remember things, but the key to building a strong memory is practice. Dellis recommends a few websites that will help. MemoCamp is a paid site that tests you on remembering names, numbers, words, and more. Dellis uses it to get ready for competition. Another tool is MemRise, a free site that helps you memorize words with games. Anki is another app Dellis uses for memorizing language. And Dellis is also the cofounder of Art of Memory, a website that helps you learn and practice memory techniques.
Give your brain a daily workout by ditching to-do or grocery lists, suggests Dellis. “It’s easy to write something down,” he says. “I love the fact that I’m using my own memory power, exercising my brain, and taking a moment of the day to stretch brain muscles. Commit a speech to memory. Memorize a poem or a deck of cards. Whatever your interest, it helps your memory.”