How to Remember Things

Do you ever wish you were better at remembering things? Have you ever found yourself thinking “I should remember to do this”, and then feeling anxious and frustrated because you don’t expect yourself to actually remember?

Here’s a technique I developed to solve this problem. This technique has had the unanticipated side effect of reducing anxiety, because now when I think “I need to remember this”, I follow this procedure, I feel confident that I will remember, and then actually remember things. It’s awesome!

Memory as Communication Channel

The key idea here is to think of the act of remembering something as being a form of communication. When present me wants future me to remember something,  present me needs to communicate with future me, through the medium of memory.

Let’s say I’m brushing my teeth before bed, and I see that the sink is taking a long time to drain. “I should get some drain cleaner,” I think to myself.  I’m not going to do that now, so I’ll need to remember to do that later.  The “me” brushing his teeth needs to communicate this fact to the future me, who will buy the drain cleaner.

Have an Audience in Mind

The first rule of communication is know your audience. The more narrowly you define your audience, the better chance you have of getting your message across.

“Future me” is a massive audience, and is way too broad for the message I need to send.

If I know I need to buy something, the future me which needs to remember is the me who’s either composing a shopping list, or just arriving at the grocery store. If I’m sorting the mail, and suddenly remember that I need to buy drain cleaner, that does me no good.  It isn’t all future me’s that need to remember – it’s the specific future me’s who can act on the information contained in the memory.

So the first step in this technique is to select a specific version of future me that needs to remember. I address this “future me” by imagining being that future me. In this case, I imagine walking into the grocery store, in as much detail as possible.  

Use Sensory Details

The specific grocery store we go to is next to a car dealership. So, in order to target the correct future me to receive the memory,  I pull up visual details like the Jeeps up on racks, or the balloons tied to lamp posts. I remember the bumpy yellow strip on the sidewalk in front of the store, the green and blue logo above the sliding doors, and the produce section at the front of the store.  I pull these images into my imagination. I might picture the car audio place I pass on the way to the grocery store, the RV that’s always parked in the store’s lot, and the feeling of unbuckling a seatbelt.

When these memories, and associated sensory feelings, are pulled up in my mind, I then pull up the image of the thing I need to buy. In this case, it’s a jug of drain cleaner. Maybe some other time it’s peanut butter or yogurt or distilled water. I imagine reaching out and grabbing this jug item from a shelf. I imagine the sound of the thing’s name. By associating the sensory details of the store’s entrance with those of the task I need to accomplish, I set up a trigger that goes off at the right moment.  I try to consciously spend a few seconds holding these mental images together in my imagination, and then return my focus to the present.

The predictive processing model pops up here, again.  When I approach the store, and drive by the car audio place and the jeep dealership, my brain starts to promote a prediction of ‘drain cleaner.’  I see the RV, and unbuckle my seatbelt, and this prediction gets stronger. As I approach the front of the store, and experience the same images I used in my imagination, my brain pulls up other, related pieces of information, including the image of the drain cleaner jug. That prediction gets stronger until it appears consciously. 

Memory and imagination can both inform which predictions are made, and imagination is something you can use to ‘program’ future predictions you’d like your brain to make for you.

Now that I’m actually at the store, I either write down ‘drain cleaner’  on a paper I have with me, or else chat my grocery list to my wife, who can remind me if I’m forgetting anything. As I’ve gotten better at using this technique, my confidence in my ability to remember information like this has increased, which reduces anxiety and helps me feel more relaxed in general.

That’s all there is to the technique! Others have written about this technique elsewhere, but for some reason, framing it in terms of communication made the act of creating vivid associations feel more intuitive and less silly. (I have noticed that self-consciousness and the fear of looking silly are incredible at sabotaging my personal development.) Hopefully this approach works for you as well as it works for me. This technique is one of many insights that came out of the idea of “communication between different versions of myself”,  which I originally thought up when writing this post. I plan to explore this idea more in the future.

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