July 13, 2017

How to Improve Your Mind, Memory, and Retention Skills

You can train your brain to always have the right answer

How amazing would it feel to always have the right answer?

We all take in so much information every single day, and you never know when you will need to remember an important detail in a meeting or conversation with someone important.

I personally hate the feeling of not knowing the answer to a question. I bet you do too, because you work hard and want your interactions to reflect the effort that you put in and the knowledge that you have.

However, not everyone’s brain is great at holding or recalling information on the fly.

Is it possible to train your brain to get better at remembering important information? Can you teach yourself to know the answer right whenever you need it?

The short answer is: yes! There is no magic pill that will make you remember everything; however, there are a ton of strategies that you can use to improve your recall and retention.

Here are some of our favorites.

Un-block your brain and learn actively, not passively

You are most likely taking in information far more passively than you realize. Most of us do it, and most of us never know it because we don’t realize that it’s not our bad memory keeping us from having good recall — it’s that the information never really came in at all.

Try this experiment out:

Read 5 pages from a book. Then go back and re-read them. Then re-read them again.

I bet you will find that you pick up on something new every time you read through those 5 pages. Maybe it’s a new detail, or you better understand the concepts explained on those pages. Either way, every time you go over the information and find something new, you are seeing what you would have missed if you hadn’t gone back so many times.

Why does this happen? A few reasons:

First of all, and most simply, if you’re distracted or tired or disinterested, it becomes much harder to listen or read completely actively. You might not even realize how much you’re missing if you aren’t trying to pay attention to getting as much information as possible.

Another factor is our brain’s impulses. Our brains actually shut down when we encounter a concept we don’t fully understand. That means when you see a word or turn of phrase or an idea that you don’t get, your brain gets stuck there. Even as your eyes keep reading or your ears keep hearing, your brain is back where it got stuck…not catching up, not hearing what’s happened since then.

Sometimes the question gets answered with additional information, which helps your brain unlock and start hearing again. But until that happens, you’re not taking in information.

How to fix this?

Whenever possible, actually stop when you hit something you don’t recognize. Look up the word, or google the idea. Scan ahead to see if the concept is explained in a later paragraph.

This is harder if you’re in a meeting where you can’t just interrupt every time you’re confused. However, you can do a few things:

  • Write down questions as you have them, so you can ask them later and don’t have to stay stuck
  • Keep taking notes on things, even if you don’t fully get the concept, so that you can review them later when you do have all the information you need
  • Record audio whenever possible so you can listen back

When you really understand what you’re taking in, the information will really stick, which means it will actually be stored in your brain later on when you need it.

Take really, really good notes

Not only does having good notes give you a record of important information that you can refer to when you need it, but the act of writing information down actually helps you remember it.

Why?

Because when you write things down — especially when you write them down in your own words, as opposed to simply transcribing what you hear — you are cementing the concepts in your brain. Writing things down forces you to use your brain to process the information and understand it in order to get a version of it down on paper.

So how well are the notes that you’re taking working for you?

Here are some ways to amp up your note-taking to improve your information retention:

  • Try a new note-taking style (here are some of our favorites!)
  • Expand on your notes after your meeting or reading session – record questions you need to follow up on, research/summarize any ideas that weren’t clear, etc.
  • Organize your notes to be skimmable later – if you need a quick refresh before a future meeting, this will help you grab the topics that are most important easily
  • Create a catalog of notes – keep your notes all in one place organized chronologically, or separate your notes by topic, so they are easy for you to review concepts later

Your notes are key to your success. The better you record information, the better you remember it, and the easier it is to refresh your memory.

Need a new notebook or note-taking system? Shop some of our favorites, including the Ink+Volt Planner and our new Meeting Notes Pad!

Take notes in new places

What are you worst at remembering? Taking notes just might help!

Personally, I get nervous meeting new people, and often the information that the person tells me goes in one ear and out the other because I’m so distracted by nerves.

So I started making notes after events where I meet lots of people, so that I don’t forget. If I have their business card, I’ll write down that information in my notebook and a few notes on what we talked about.

I also use tricks like trying to repeat the person’s name after they say it, which helps it to stick.

I rarely consult my notes later on, because just the process of writing it down helps it stick in my mind. It is effective because it creates a quiet moment where my mind can relax, process what it’s learned, and then move on.

What are your hardest-to-remember concepts? Can you create a recording system that will help you cement new information?

Process new information and teach it to someone (even yourself!)

One of the best ways to make information really stick in your mind is to explain it or teach it to someone else after you learn it.

This works because, just like putting notes in your own words, it forces you to turn the information into concepts you actually understand. It helps you form connections between new and existing knowledge, and taps into your existing vocabulary, which makes it all familiar and easier to recall.

Of course, it’s not possible to actually teach every single concept you take in to someone else. However, there are a few ways to fairly simply make this a part of your process:

  • Explain something you learned at work to your spouse, roommate, etc when they ask you about your day
  • Summarize the takeaways every time you finish a chapter of a book, an article, etc in a notebook or on the inside book cover
  • Talk through a concept out loud alone in your car (or if you don’t have a private space to talk out loud to yourself, try writing a journal entry explaining the new concept)

This also works for meeting new people, remembering details about your coworkers, etc. If you write down things like people’s spouses and children’s names, activities they like to do, etc, it will help cement those concepts in your mind. Put them in words you’ll understand so that the next time you see them you can actually recall what they told you last time.

Create learning rituals

An important part of being able to recall information later is to be committed to really learning it as it comes in. This can be hard to do if you aren’t in a headspace for learning when you’re reading, or in a meeting where the opportunities for distraction and passive listening abound.

To combat this, establish some rituals that will train your brain to tune in when it’s time to be ready for learning. By setting up a few cues that you do every time you’re about to take in new information, you’ll help your mind prepare to open up and prepare to process the incoming data.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Always take notes in the same notebook, using the same pen
  • Put on your reading glasses
  • Sit in your favorite chair
  • Organize papers or handouts before the presentation so you aren’t distracted
  • Sit in a comfortable posture with your notebook in front of you

Learn in small doses, not by cramming

Focus is good, but trying to cram too much information into your mind at once is rarely productive.

Your mind is only capable of taking in so much at one time; after a certain point, continuing to study only increases your tiredness, which makes it even more difficult for new information to stick.

Typically, the brain begins to lose its ability to retain information around 25-30 minutes, so there is really no point in forcing yourself to continue beyond that (unless you are in a state of flow where things are clicking, in which case momentum can be good — but be mindful that “flow” ends and you will still tire out, so keep checking in).

If you need help making sure you actually take breaks, try the Pomodoro method. It involves setting a timer, working in a short burst (usually around 25 minutes), and then taking a 5 minute break. The timer will help remind you to give your mind a rest every once in a while!

Tell us your favorite memory technique!

We know there are millions of strategies for improving your retention of new information. What’s your favorite? Share it with us on Facebook and help us all improve our memory skills!

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