From Chunking to Chicken Dancing: Simple Memory Strategies for Everyday Life

Memory loss is one of the most frequent complaints of aging adults and whether your memory loss is part of aging, or part of a more serious condition, it undeniably impacts quality of life.

Our ability to remember, concentrate, think, solve problems, and set goals helps us function daily and there are numerous ways to maintain and improve cognitive health. Just as we work out to strengthen any muscle in our body, we can also “work out” our brains.

What Can I Do to Improve My Memory?

A lot actually – and improving overall health and nutrition is a good start. Some lifestyle changes that can improve memory include getting an appropriate amount of sleep, exercising most days, learning a new hobby or language, and eating healthy foods, especially those high in omega 3s.

At the same, you can implement strategies throughout the day to enhance memory and learning ability.

Repetition is a commonly used strategy when trying to improve your memory. This is a good short-term strategy which entails rehearsing or verbalizing information during an activity to keep track at the moment or within a task. But this is not a solution for the long term.

To retain information over time, it’s necessary to think about how the information relates to other things, a process that makes the information more meaningful to you.

Spaced repetition (every day) and self-testing (use flash cards) are great ways to strengthen that connection. You can practice spaced repetition by repeating the information hours, days, and months later to retain it over time.

For example, you can do this when trying to remember a foreign language or a new skill.

Another widely used strategy is visualization, in which you think of an image or visualize yourself performing the action.

Be creative with images, as we tend to remember the humorous and ridiculous. Use visualization to create an image of a keyword, to replay events in your mind, or to mentally practice or anticipate events that will occur in the future.

For example, visualize yourself doing the chicken dance to remember an upcoming dinner and dancing event.

That brings us to anticipation, which is imagining yourself using information at a time in the future.

For example, if you need to remember that you have to go to the pharmacy at 3 pm, think of what you will be doing at just before 3 pm and where you’ll be. Think about walking to the pharmacy, visualize the stores you will pass along the way, and picture yourself entering the pharmacy.

Another example would be remembering to take your medication at 3 pm every day. Again, simply anticipate and visualize what you’ll be doing at that time – perhaps it’s a TV show you watch at 3 pm or another regularly scheduled activity such as a meal or snack – and take your medication either before or after it.

Connecting information like this is key and another memory strategy is known as linking, or the story method, in which you associate new information with something familiar.

For example, “walking miles and getting thirsty” can be a linking strategy for getting water for a friend named Myles.

Visualizing or making up a scenario for each item in your grocery list, and connecting them to each other, is also a linking method. If you need to quickly run to the store for a few items, for example, and don’t have a written list, you can use this method to visualize four red apples on a tree that you cut down and the stump would look like a loaf of bread, and bread is a carbohydrate, much like potatoes on your list, and so on.

Another interesting method is called chunking, which reduces the load on your memory by grouping related information together. The most common example to describe chunking is how we group together numbers to remember someone’s phone number.

Lastly, the keyword method is a memory technique or mnemonic which generally uses visualization. For example, following a conversation or event, think of one or 2 key words that “summarize” it and link that keyword to an image; To remember the name Jeremiah, you can think of the song “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night.

Each of these strategies requires practice so you’ll want to use them multiple times a day for 3 to 4 weeks before they become more automatic.

And remember, you can always use external aids to assist you:

  • Writing things down has been proven to be effective in helping you recall information. Use a dedicated notepad so that information is always in one place and allows for reference at a later date.
  • Strategically place post-its around your home as visual prompts is also helpful, as well as having a color-coded system for organizing and prioritizing information.
  • Utilize checklists, phone alarms, voice memos, and writing down keywords of conversations, events and things that have occurred during the day and then at the end of the day, and re reading frequently are also useful strategies.
  • Keep a calendar for tracking appointments and daily scheduled activities – and be sure to check it regularly. One easy way of remembering to look at it would be to check it whenever you are eating a meal.
  • Lastly, spend a few minutes at the end of each day to reflect on the day, review things that occurred using visualization, and replay events in your mind.

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