Can’t Remember What You Forgot? How To Improve Your Recall

When working hard, making decisions or formulating new ideas, it’s important to be able to recall the information we need from our memory banks. But does it ever seem to you that this is getting harder, that we’re forgetting more, more often and relying increasingly on our technology to get us out of a jam when our flukey memory lets us down again.

We forget names, documents and appointments. We forget to pick up the kids, collect the dry cleaning, or pick up that urgent stationary order you placed yesterday.

We forget. A lot.

It can be embarrassing. (Gee, I feel so STUPID!)

It can be annoying. (I know the answer, I know it, I know it, but it just won’t come)

It can be worrying. (Is this the first sign of Alzheimer’s?)

But most of all it reminds us of human fallibility.

Forgetting is normal. We forget what we don’t need to remember and thank goodness for that.

Our brain isn’t designed for us to remember everything. As educators and trainers know, our forgetting curve is remarkably steep, even when we are interested in the subject matters.

Not remembering the things we WANT to is what drives us mad and our rising level of frustration simply aggravates the situation.

While we can be impressed by the prowess of those whose memories appear limitless, it’s important to put this into context. Will your life be diminished in some way because you can’t remember the sequence of 52 card-decks?

But if your level of forgetting is harming your workplace performance or potential prospect of getting a bonus or promotion, it’s time to address the problem and do something about it.

How can we get better at remembering what we forgot?

Let’s start with the fundamentals.

1. Pay attention!

The best way to get better at remembering is by making sure it gets entered into your cognitive memory banks in the first place. The time we don’t remember is when we get over busy and indulge in a little multi-tasking (yes, I know you would never be guilty of this yourself) and we think we’re paying attention, but we’re not. The sad reality is without good quality focused attention, there’s nothing to encode as memory.

This is the reason we keep misplacing keys, glasses, shoes and children.

Your habit may be to always put the car keys on the hall table. But when you’ve come home laden down with shopping at the end of a long and tiring day, the dog weaving in and out of your legs, the kids asking “What’s for dinner?” and your mobile alerting you to an incoming call, then maybe you didn’t put the keys down where you would normally. Naturally they turn up mysteriously in the fruit bowl, in the dog’s bowl or in the fridge, after you’ve spent 20 minutes frantically searching for them.

Like the time I was desperately searching on my desk to find my mobile to retrieve a phone number for a colleague while speaking with them on the phone. It took a few moments to realise I was holding it!! (Don’t tell.)

2. Stress Less.

Yes I know easier said than done. But one sure way to forget more is to have to handle more stress than is comfortable. Have you ever heard someone (or yourself) say “I’m so stressed I can’t think!” This is because as stress levels rise, our ability to retain access to the pre-frontal cortex diminishes, meaning we find it harder to concentrate and stay on task. Yep, we’re back to number one. Too much stress (and intense emotion) reduces our ability to pay attention and as I mentioned, without attention we have nothing encoded to as memory.

3. Go to bed.

Sleep deprivation is a global pandemic and it’s leading to widespread forgetting. We need enough good quality uninterrupted sleep to ensure we consolidate our long term memory and improve our level of recall.

Did you know regularly going with too little sleep not only makes you grumpy and more forgetful it can lead to the formation of false memories? Now there’s a conundrum. Not only are you forgetting the important things that are real, your brain’s gone into confabulation mode, making stuff up and leading you to believe things that simply aren’t true.

How much sleep you need is a question only you can answer. For most of us between 7-8 hours does the job. Consistently getting less than 5.5 to 6 hours can be a concern for long-term brain health and function.

Other studies have shown that sleep helps to prune back unnecessary synapses during deep sleep (at least in mouse brains), which is seen as en energy and space saving mechanism making the brain more efficient. This is helpful forgetting, because what was relevant to us five years ago may not be any more.

4. Stop thinking so hard.

Have you ever noticed how long after the event where you couldn’t remember a person’s name or the title of the film you saw last week, how it just “pops” into your mind when you’re just getting off to sleep, taking a shower or walking the dog?

Overstimulating our brain with too much information over extended periods of time is cognitively exhausting and leads to the brain switching off to avoid overload. We enter the default thinking mode, a low energy state, where we go for a little mind-wander down the nearest rabbit hole of our subconscious thought. This may reveal a veritable treasure trove of useful associations, potential new ideas and memories.

Chilling out by taking regular brain and technology breaks of 15 – 20 minutes at a time refreshes your focus and ability to remember things better. As does relaxing the mind using breathing techniques or some kind of meditation practice.

Mindfulness meditation commonly uses the breath as a focus for attention. Scientists have shown how the rhythm of breathing coordinates electrical activity in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus. These areas are associated with smell, emotion and memory respectively. The research has indicated how emotional recognition and memory recall is modulated to be more accurate during breathing in through our nose. The message? Keep breathing in.

5. Move it.

Yes, get off your chair and move. Regular daily aerobic exercise boosts memory and helps reduce brain shrinkage. It sounds dramatic but simply increasing your daily level of physical activity by walking a minimum of 10,000 steps increases blood flow to your noggin and stimulates the release of BDNF (essential to neuronal health and function), reduces insulin resistance and inflammation, and boosts the size of the hippocampus the area of the brain associated with learning and memory.

Did I mention that exercise helps memory? What are you waiting for – get moving!

6. Practice.

Yes I know, that terrible word meaning you have to do some work. Practicing remembering not surprisingly helps you remember better. So if you’re forgetting too many things, this is the time to get those mental muscles into action.

Practice can look like focusing hard on the information you want to remember and then closing the book or article you’ve been reading, and jotting down (by hand) the key points from memory. Test yourself on remembering rather than going for the easy solution by looking for the answer on Google.

Last but not least, I want to mention one special group that deserves an honorary mention in relation to remembering difficulties. These are the ladies going through the menopause. During this time it can appear that your memory has suddenly packed its bags and left the building. I’ve heard for many women who have experienced this and been both embarrassed and worried by this phenomenon. It can show up as losing track of your thoughts mid-sentence, or going blank on the name of a colleague who you’ve been working closely with for a number of years. Peri-menopausal and menopausal brain fog is real and is thought to be the result of changing hormone levels and disturbed sleep patterns leading to cognitive difficulties.

During menopause the areas commonly affected include the working memory and the ability to retain new information. If this is happening to you, don’t put up with it, address it by looking for ways to ensure you’re getting enough sleep, that you’re getting enough sleep, that you’re managing stress levels effectively, and using what ever trick or tip you find helpful. If necessary have a chat with your health practitioner.

According to Miriam Weber between 1/3 and 2/3 of women report becoming more forgetful during menopause with the worst symptoms manifesting in the first year post-menopause. Remember, this is NOT a sign of impending dementia.

We have a remarkable brain that is plastic, meaning we can create or strengthen existing synaptic connections between existing neurons. While this plasticity does diminish with age, you can drive this plasticity to up-skill in those brain areas through your choice of focused attention. Just be prepared to put in a little extra effort and time.

The harder we make our brains work, the more efficient they become. Practice makes perfect as they say. While perfection is not required, improving your brain’s function especially in the area of remembering is important at any age.

Gaining mastery always requires our attention, rehearsal and practice.

Is forgetting getting in your way of performing at your best? What techniques have you found helpful to help you remember?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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