Strategies for Overcoming Poor Memory in the Workplace

My auditory memory skills and my visual memory skills are poor. Tell me something and I’ll forget. Draw me something and I’ll forget. I find names a particular challenge. I have developed a number of workplace hacks to minimise the impact of poor memory. Some of these coping strategies have become the perceived strengths that I have built my career on.

“Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” 
Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

To-do lists

This is not going to be an article on how to effectively manage a to-do list. I’ll save that for another day. Everywhere I go I carry a notepad and a pen. Every time I commit to doing something for someone it goes on the list. The reverse is also true so I can keep track of what I am waiting on. I also use learning lists (another topic for another day) for things like packing for business trips. Oddly I’ve never really got on with checklists but I ascribe that to the variety in my work. If I have to expend effort trying to remember to do something then that is cognitive power I can’t use for other tasks. The act of capturing actions brings order to meetings as there is a clear agreement on who is expected to do what.

Remembering names in meetings

A head start can be gained my making a note of all the people that are expected if the meeting has an invite list. It may also be worth noting what their role is if that information is available. Arrive early at the meeting and create a sketch of the room layout using circles for the available chairs. As people arrive if you know their name fill it in as they take their seat. If not ask. It may also be worth noting what their role is if that information is available. At meetings with a lot of people unfamiliar to one another, it is common for the chair to do a round table and this will help fill in the blanks. The list created beforehand will be a useful cross reference. Addressing people by name will then help the process of repetition to memory. 

meeting room layout example

Use the environment & triggers

Like the humble to do list this technique does not help improve your memory it removes the need to use it. If you need to remember to post a letter on the way to the office put your car keys on top of the letter. When you grab the car keys the letter will act as the reminder. This is a trivial example but this is probably the technique I use most in a variety of different ways. I caution against interrupt driven reminders for things that are not time driven because they are just that – an interruption. If Outlook pops up to remind me of something just as I’m on the brink of solving a complex problem the flow is gone. The cost is far greater than the few seconds it takes to say remind me in an hour.

Schedule recurring Tasks

Need to prepare a finance report for the monthly team meeting? Need to update risks and issues for the fortnightly check point? If you have recurring meetings in the calendar it is worth scheduling in time to complete the prep work that will be required for that meeting. Scheduling your priorities is a big part of managing your productivity but in this context is it a great tool to ensure you don’t turn up to a recurring meeting unprepared. You can also use the same technique to schedule in prep for any meeting you accept. 

Diet, sleep and exercise

These are three overlooked elements to maintaining a healthy memory. There is a mountain of research explaining why each of these contributes to a more effective memory, which I’ll spare you from. A solid 8 hours sleep every night, 30+ minutes of exercise that leaves you out of breath multiple times a week and a diet pack with colour rich vegetables and light on refined sugars will get you on the right track and Google will help if you want to take this further.

Safety Nets

If you are dyslexic, any system you put in place will fail from time to time. I use three types of safety nets: default actions, colleagues, and interim deliverables.

If someone needs a decision from me or approval for something and the risk of a poor decision is not too great I may give a default answer. I’ll commit to a holding answer and if I have not responded by the deadline with a revised answer that’s the binding decision. This keeps things moving and in all likely hood, assuming a good workflow, important decisions will get the priority to be reviewed in more detail (which may or may not change the default answer). Top tip: once you have done the further work if you decide to stick with the default let the person know so they don’t have to wait until the deadline to start on next actions.

Asking a colleague to remind you of something can work on two levels. There is a fair chance they will remember and remind you and for some odd reason I find I am more likely to remember something I have asked a colleague to remind me of. This might be in part because they can act as a trigger – when you see them you remember that you need to remember.

The interim deliverables technique is more workflow than memory aid. It is a useful safety net so I have included it here. I often complete a draft of a work product but want to come back to it and review or enhance it. To ensure this good intention does not mean the work goes unrecognised should I forget, I’ll submit it as an interim deliverable. If I need to email a document I’ll email the draft with a delayed send and most likely I’ll revise it and replace the email. If not at least the draft if submitted on time.

Safety nets can be fragile to changes in the environment. This is why my gym refurb resulted in my losing my gym pass.

Rhymes, alliteration, and chunking

These are recognised encoding techniques to aid fact retention. I am sure everyone knows “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain”. Mnemonic devices like these can be powerful for encoding and remembering information. I’m not going to cover them here as I find in the workplace this type of wrote memorising of small amounts of key facts is not a common occurrence.

Memory palace

I learned how to do this as part of a speed-reading course. It is amazingly powerful. For months after the training course I could remember, in order, the 10 longest rivers in the world. Right until the point I forgot the room in the memory palace they were all associated with. I found this technique required a phenomenal amount of effort to create and repeat the associations that linked the facts to the objects in the room. Unlike a mnemonic device you can encode vast amounts of information in this way. However, I have not found it a technique I use in a work context. I do wish I knew how to do this when I was doing closed books exams at university. I explore memory palaces further in my book review of Moonwalking with Einstein.

Do you have any memory aids that are useful in the workplace? If so please leave a comment.