How to Remember Everything (Even Without a Notebook)

Writing is humankind’s most important invention. Without the written word, every new generation would have to “start over,” save what little can be passed down tribally. History—in the formal sense—begins with writing, since we can only make educated guesses at what happened before that (a period historians call “pre-history”).

It’s the same principle in everyday life: if you want to remember something, put it on paper. Obviously we can help you there, given what we sell

But there are still times when we can’t write things down — and despite our better judgment, we have to trust our raw memory to keep information for us. It’s practically common sense not to trust your memory… but what if you HAVE to?

In this post, we’re stepping away from paper and anything else you can use to write things down. For the moment, you’ve only got your mind—and we’ve come bearing our best tips for helping it carry things. 


Why We’re Bad at Remembering Things

There’s a LOT more to this subject, but here are three reasons our memory doesn’t work as well as we want.

1. Very little information has both urgency and immediacy. Put another way, only a few types of information grab our brains’ immediate attention as “essential to surviving and thriving.” The information likeliest to stick is both urgent (“this is important”) and immediate (“pay attention right now”), but very little counts as both. Killer habits like smoking are able to persist in part because, however urgent the cautions to your health, the hazards take a long time to kill you. Conversely, cable news has immediacy, but it struggles to make most news urgent for most people. 


2. Short-term memory is both small and slippery. Long-term memory is actually pretty impressive in humans, but it only contains what we already know. To learn new things, we have to rely on short-term memory first. But short-term memory can only hold so many objects at once (scientists think it’s about five). Making matters trickier, you can’t hold those objects in mind forever before they slip or before other objects replace them. If long-term memory is the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese, short-term memory is your two bare hands; that’s all you can hold, and worse, lots of those balls are coated in pizza grease. 


3. We’re easily distracted and confused where memory is concerned. If you watch detective shows or police procedurals, you know eyewitness testimony seems like a big deal, and for an intuitive reason: “someone literally saw it happen.” But what those shows rarely capture is how unreliable that evidence can prove upon scrutiny. Most such witnesses don’t have a perfect, point-blank view of what happened; they don’t usually have context for what they’re witnessing; they can easily mix up or mistake details that, in the ether of memory, had seemed specific. You probably know, in your own way, how memories collectively “blur” together and details can get misplaced; consider that this happens all the time without us noticing. 


Tricks We’ve Already Taught Ourselves

Fortunately, we’ve been collectively aware of this problem for a long, long time—so much of the education we receive is meant to help us remember essential information. Whether in school or not, some of the most important things we know were taught to us in “sticky” mnemonic format. 

Mental tricks or not, writing is always the best way to remember things. 
Which notebook is best for keeping your most important thoughts and ideas?

Some examples:

The ABCs. We learn the alphabet—which, when you think about it, is a 26-character string of arbitrary shapes and sounds—in song format. It’s one of those tunes that gets stuck in your head FOREVER, and thus even young children can nail that challenge on demand.  

Stop, drop, and roll. Anyone who suddenly finds themselves engulfed in flames has been prepared for it since elementary school. 

The Five Ws (and H). This is pretty fundamental to anything grade-school students write: making use of Who, What, When, Where, and Why (and sometimes How). Even in adulthood this kind of “thinking toolkit" is useful. 

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. It (probably) takes a Ph.D. in Mathematics to fully understand, but none of us here can explain why the sequence is PEMDAS: Parentheses first, Exponents second, then Multiplication and Division and, finally, Addition and Subtraction. So if you’re trying to teach this to a 7th-grader, a cute little sentence like this is probably easiest to make it stick. 

King Philip Came Over From Germany Soaked. If you need to keep ecology/biology stuff straight, it’s helpful to picture an industrial-age German with a cloak and crown wading out of the Atlantic Ocean onto the Jersey Shore. Then you’ll never forget the taxonomy: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and finally Species. 

Roy G. Biv, keeper of the rainbow. In your mind you can personify Roy however you want, but associate him with the rainbow and you’ll remember the color spectrum: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. 

Longitude runs long, latitude lies flat. They’re both L words, so they’re easy to mix up. But with this mnemonic — even just one half or the other — you can keep it all straight. 

“Invest between yourself and the ground.” Pithy bits of advice like this one practically count as mnemonics because they’re densely distilled. With just six words, you’ll be more conscious of respecting your feet, back, quality of sleep, and odds of a car crash. (The usual objects of this advice are shoes, mattresses/chairs, tires, and in the case of women, bras.)

“Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” This is Howard W. Newton’s definition of tact, and it sticks for a couple reasons. For one thing, it defines a word that is otherwise difficult to distinguish from similar qualities like compassion or articulateness. For another, it gives a person specific calls to action… if you want to be tactful, (1) make your point, but (2) be nice about it. 


How to Remember More (Including This Blog Post)

Mnemonic devices are extremely useful, but it can require effort to invent your own because you have to stop and think—more creatively than usual—about retaining mundane information. What will work doesn’t always make (perfect) sense. 

To wrap this post up, it seemed appropriate to give you a mnemonic for mnemonics—a trick for remembering how you can remember other things better. (Whoa, meta.)

It’s a SAD DAY when you can’t remember things, right?

S — Song & Silliness
A — Acronym & Abbreviation
D — Distillation

D — Definition
A — Analogy
Y — Your Life (and Context)

The examples in the section above should illuminate what these are, but here are quick outlines anyway:

Song & Silliness — any tune (original or covered), rhyme, or other “childlike” connection sugary enough to stick
Acronym & Abbreviation — making multi-part info easier to store by shortening component words/phrases into letters (like this mnemonic, "SAD DAY")
Distillation — capturing the “essence” of an idea or fact in a short, sharply-worded phrase
Definition — precisely describing something to be distinguishable from its neighbors or counterparts
Analogy — drawing comparison (e.g. simile or metaphor) between one concept and another concept you already know
Your Life (and Context) — remembering information via details unique to your experience (for example, your teacher’s quirks) 

Turn your sad day into a glad day. 
Which new notebook is right for you? 

This is the conclusion of the article, which—to the point we’re making—rarely contains anything memorable. (Statistically, most people are long gone by this point, even on a blog’s best posts.) That might be disappointing to some writers… but if you remember only two words and they are “SAD DAY,” our job is done here.

See ya next week!

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