One comment I frequently hear whenever I tell people about my interest in memory and learning is “Oh, that sounds great - but I have a terrible memory. I’m always losing my keys/wallet/sanity!” It’s usually accompanied by a casual shrug of the shoulders and a “shucks” facial expression. This is apparently a common affliction and many seem convinced that they’re doomed to always forget the small things in life. But there’s good news for those of you who are guilty of believing this: it’s not true, and the solution lies in learning a few basic tricks.

The Basics

For starters, you should understand that your brain relies on glucose for energy. As you move through your day, that energy supply gets lower and lower. When that energy supply is low enough, your decision-making abilities and willpower start to wane.

Each time you make a decision, use your body, think deep thoughts or do almost anything, your brain burns off a little bit of fuel. Interestingly, your brain doesn’t make much of a distinction between big decisions and little ones. Making decisions in general drains your brain, period.

Think of your brain as having a lifebar, and each decision you have to make takes a little piece of it. This happens until your brain ends up like the guy on the right:

Scorpion takes out Liu Kang

I’m not going to go any deeper on this part because I’ve written about it before, but just keep this idea in mind: you have a limited amount of useful energy in your brain each day, and your goal should be to use it on things you care about.

Secondly, you should understand how your brain categorizes the information it gets. The way it works is pretty straightforward: if it’s out of the ordinary (salient), then you’re more likely to remember it. Routine stuff, on the other hand, doesn’t stay with you. It might seem like a cruel trick your brain plays on you, but it’s a remarkably efficient tendency.

If your brain were able to remember every detail it came across, you wouldn’t gain very much benefit and your memory would be overwhelmed very quickly. Think about it: would you really want to remember things like the exact woodgrain on the table of a restaurant you had a meal in 3 years ago? Or the texture of everything you’ve ever put into a toilet?

Consider just how much information you’d need to store from talking a stroll in any decent sized city. A walk through a place like downtown San Francisco would mean you’d be forcing your memory to store every crack in the sidewalk, each window in every skyscraper and the color of every piece of clothing of every person you walk past.

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Rather than make your head explode, your memory generalizes and sums up your experience as “You walked down a dirty sidewalk in San Francisco and saw some skyscrapers.” You might remember the face of an incredibly attractive person who walked past you, or that crazy homeless guy screaming about the apocalypse on the corner of Van Ness and Broadway. But most of what you saw in San Francisco would be forgotten - because it was irrelevant to you and your brain saw no reason to store it.

What It All Means

Let’s go through a hypothetical scenario that most of us have lived through:

You wake up in the morning and have to be somewhere in the near future. Work, the airport, a consultation, whatever. You hop out of bed, take a shower and start to get dressed. You’re not very organized, so you search around for that one shirt you like with the black stripes on it.

Up until this point, you haven’t been burning through much of your glucose supply. You probably (hopefully) shower every day and walking from your bed to your shower isn’t out of the ordinary. But now you’re searching for something, and that takes a few points off your brain’s life bar.

Eventually, you find the shirt under a small pile of jeans (one of which you put on) and proceed with the process of getting ready to leave. You get squared away until…shit, you don’t know where your keys are. It isn’t an emergency yet, you still have a few minutes to spare before you need to be out the door. Sofa cushions get thrown off, cabinets get searched and every imaginable nook is probed.

This part is really eating into your glucose supply. You’re having to make a cascade of decisions about where to look next and each one of those decisions takes another tick off the life bar.

The keys end up being under the coffee table and you discover them in the nick of time. You silently chide yourself for having such a bad memory, then head out towards your destination.

Here’s the problem with this scenario: before you’ve even left your house, you’ve burned through a decent amount of your glucose supply. This means that your ability to work, be creative and make good decisions is now slightly more depleted than it should be. It also gives you the illusion that your memory is bad, even though it was actually doing its job all along. Your keys are part of your everyday life, as is your coffee table. Interacting with those things is not novel to your brain and it doesn’t have much of a reason to store information about either of them.

The Solution

It sounds counterintuitive, but the answer here is to stop relying on your memory so much. Ask yourself this: do you really want to store information about mundane things like the location of your keys? Why? In what way does having that information memorized benefit you? It doesn’t, and you should not waste space within your memory or energy within your brain trying to.

Instead, you need to organize your surroundings in ways that allow you to take advantage of your brain’s quirks instead of fighting them.

  1. Create “homes” for items. Designate certain places within your home for the things you interact with on a regular basis. Do this consistently until it’s a habit and you feel weird not putting things back into their places. Doing this means you no longer have to search and burn through fuel trying to find things all the time. If you need something, just go to its designated place. Simple and effective.

  2. Place items where they’re most useful. For example, if you need to have your keys in your pocket whenever you go out the door, the keys should live next to that door. This is basically an optimization of the previous tip, and it means you’ll have to think even less about where things are. Putting the keys far away from the door does work, but it makes the process more time and energy consuming because you need to go back and forth all the time.

  3. Make the most useful things visible, and hide everything else. Another key component to making this all work is keeping clutter to a minimum. Searching is made much more difficult if your surroundings are filled with items you never (or rarely) use. Use the first tip to designate places for stuff you don’t normally use or, even better toss those things out.

  4. Don’t over-organize. One thing to keep in mind here is that this process should save you time. If you’re spending all of your time coming up with a million different places and optimizations for everything you own, it’s going to end up being counterproductive. Don’t be afraid to create a “Misc.” drawer and toss a few things in there.

Optimized scenario

Let’s walk through that sample scenario one more time, but with the optimizations I just mentioned:

You get out of bed, walk into the bathroom and take a shower. After you take your shower and dry off, you walk into your closet and open the drawer you’ve designated for shirts (or you could use my slightly lazier system, which is a drawer for “upper body”). Your favorite striped shirt is right there, and put it on along with some jeans you pulled out of the drawer below it.

You finish getting dressed, walk into the kitchen and realize you have enough time to spare for a cup of tea. It’s warm and soothing, perfect for putting you in the right mindset for the day ahead. But all good things come to an end, and you know you have to depart. You walk over to the door, grab your wallet, keys and sunglasses from the bowl next to it and head out.

Doesn’t that sound much easier? There’s much less stress, and you did an excellent job of conserving your precious glucose.

This can be your reality if you’re willing to respect how your memory works and take a little bit of time to organize your life. You really don’t have to go crazy to see a dramatic impact, and I can personally attest to how useful this sort of “memory outsourcing is.” That scenario I wrote about was pretty much a daily occurrence for me, and I haven’t had to worry about it since making a commitment to the principles I laid out here.

If you’re interested in reading more about how to organize your mind (and life), I recommend you check out Daniel J. Levitin’s excellent book The Organized Mind. Dr. Levitin is a neuroscientist, so this book is extremely light on “self-help” material and very heavy on useful, science-backed information.