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Memory tip: Remembering short lists

[For the next week or so I'll be posting the techniques I use to help me remember things. I'll be covering topics like memorizing short lists, oddball things, and names.]

The human brain isn't good at remembering lists. Our brain didn't evolve to be good at that. Instead we evolved to be good at making tools and inventing things. One of the things we invented is paper, which is much better at storing lists than our brain. We also invented PDAs and cell phones. If I don't have paper, I can TXT the list to myself.

However, we don't need those tools for short lists.

For very short lists remembering the quantity is often good enough. Suppose I have 5 errands to run. If I get distracted I forget the last errand. I find that if I count the number of errands before I begin, I know I'm done when I count the errands I've run. If I don't count ahead of time I may forget one. Worse, once I am done I have a nagging feeling that I've forgotten something. By using this technique I don't have that nagging feeling afterwords.

For lists of 4-6 items it helps me to remember the first letter of each object. Suppose I need to buy milk, tissues, yogurt, and soap. I remember M, T, Y, S. For some reason it is easier for me to remember the letters and associate them back to the words. I can memorize a list like M-T-Y-S by just saying it out loud a few times.

I still prefer to use a written/electronic TODO list for these kind of things, but now that you understand the technique let me give an example of where a TODO list doesn't work.

This technique is much more appropriate for situations where you can't use a list, like speaking to a group of people. Suppose I'm having a discussion with a few people and while someone else is talking I think of 5 things I need to bring up. I want to make sure I cover them all, and I don't want to waste people's time by standing there saying, "ummm. ummm... was there something else I wanted to talk about?? ummm.... uummm".

Instead I assign a word to each of the topics. Those words might be Virtualization, Latency, Budget, Bug (the particular bugid is not something I need to memorize), and 50Gig (what that refers to is a long story, but remembering "50Gig" is enough to jog my memory). I can stand and speak about those 5 items, in order, authoritatively, without fidgeting around trying to remember what is next, or be worried that I've forgotten something. All I need to remember is VLBBF.

Using this when speaking helps make you look confident and prepared.

[Next tip will be posted Wednesday: "Two ways socks help you remember things"]

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Soft Skills

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