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Room to Remember

The thinking trick that puts you in control of your memory every day

Forgetting everyday information is frustrating, time-wasting, embarrassing and stressful. If you’re doing it a lot, it eats into your confidence and plays havoc with your plans. It’s the enemy of efficiency, but it can be beaten – with a simple strategy that’s been around for centuries.

If you’re plagued by forgetting the sort of information that’s vital to the smooth-running of your day, there’s a thinking trick that could change your life. 

Prospective memory – remembering things to do, people to meet, ideas to implement – is probably the hardest type of memory to keep under control. You have no memory of the experience yet, because it hasn’t happened; you just have the idea of it, the abstract need to remember it. And if you’re the sort of person who forgets to attend meetings, to return your library books or to get to the bank or post office or dry-cleaner’s before closing time, you’ll know how many problems these small moments of forgetfulness can cause. 

I’ve shown many thousands of people a way to start remembering everything on their to-do-list, so that it all gets done at the right time. It’s a technique that even works for those great ideas you have – maybe in the shower or in bed in the middle of the night – that somehow evade your grasp when you try to remember them later on. This strategy lets you deposit and retrieve key bits of information in a very accurate and effective way, and it even helps to train your brain at the same time, getting you into the habit of using your memory powerfully and keeping it fit and well. 

It works like this:

– First, choose a room that you pass by several times a day. It could be the hallway of your house, the entrance lobby of your firm, a shop you drive by on the way to and from work… Many ancient memory systems are based on our ability to remember spatially. Expert memorizers hold information in buildings, journeys, even whole cities in their minds, but this trick requires you to think about just one, familiar room.

– Next, spend a few moments picturing this room in your mind’s eye. Pick a particular viewing point – the doorway, for example, or standing looking in through the window – and practise ‘seeing’ the room in your imagination, noticing its shape, the colours of the walls, the location of any furniture… and anything else you can see, hear or even smell in the room. Like all the best memory strategies, this one relies on imagination and the powerful mental images we can all summon up. 

– Now, whenever you have specific job, appointment or idea you want to remember, choose an appropriate image to represent it – then ‘fix’ that image into your chosen room, in the most memorable way possible. For example, to remember to go to the bank, you could use the image of banknotes, and imagine stapling them to one of the walls like very expensive wallpaper. Picturing a huge pile of laundry in the corner of the room will remind you to get to the dry-cleaner’s before closing time. If you hang up an oil-painting of your mother, you’re adding a powerful mental clue that you need to phone her today.       

– Use bright colours and as many of your senses as you can. Memory loves exaggeration, as well as humour, surprise and the surreal. Since the days of the Ancient Greeks, users of memory techniques like this one have practised creating striking mental ‘image-clues’ to remind them of the things they want to learn. As you imagine adding images to your chosen room, do everything you can to make them as interesting, unusual and memorable as possible. 

– Whenever you want to check your to-do-list or retrieve an idea you had earlier in the day, simply return to your ‘memory room’ – in your imagination – and find the images you put there. Practise scanning this imaginary space and spotting the clues you left there. Those banknotes stapled to the wall mean that you need to go to the bank. What’s that in the corner? It’s laundry, reminding you about the dry-cleaning. Who do you need to phone? There’s an oil-painting to remind you…

– You can visualize this collection of clues wherever you are. The beauty of choosing a real place is that you’ll be prompted to think about it every time you pass the place for real. Leaving through your office lobby, for example, you’ll be nudged to spend a moment checking your imaginary version of this room – and then get all the right errands done on the way home.   

– Once you’d done a particular job you can either imagine removing the image – unstapling the banknotes, clearing up the clothes, taking down the painting – or simply let it fade away when you stop thinking about it. We naturally forget mundane things that we don’t need any more and don’t think about, and you’ll find that the old pictures quickly disappear, especially when they’re replaced by new clues. Any images that need to stay there for a few days will stay in place, because you’ll strengthen the memories every time you visualize them.

This technique exercises some key aspects of your thinking, especially your ability to imagine pictures and to use visual clues to jog your memory. It’s a great feeling to be able to choose to remember something and then recall it at will. The more you practise the process of making, fixing and retrieving memories, the more flexible, accurate and speedy your memory will become. You’ll boost your confidence in your learning skills in general, as well as avoiding embarrassment, saving time and getting more of the important things done: in short, enjoying making your memory work for you for a change!

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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