Designing a Photographic Memory

Some people are born with photographic memories. Most of us, including myself, are not. Personally I have an especially difficult time with rote memory, which is memorizing something that doesn't follow any particular logical pattern, such as the English spelling of the word corps (pronounced "core"). Like really, who in the hell decided to put that P there?

Anyways if you're like me and worry about what you might forget at the perfectly inopportune time, there's good news: this problem is largely solvable. What I have found is that I don't completely forget the particular information that I need, I just don't have it in focus at the right time.

For example let's say it's Tuesday evening and I check my calendar for the following day. I realize that I have a very short window on Wednesday to eat lunch between different client engagements, so it's important that I have food at the office and don't have to go pick anything up. I go ahead and pack my lunch Tuesday evening, but I worry that come 6:00 the following morning my mind will be focused on consuming caffeine and getting out the door, not on my lunch. Knowing that I drive to work and that (at least today) my car requires a separate physical device known as a key to start, I simply set my keys on top of the lunch that I packed in the refrigerator.

The following day if I make it to my car without remembering my lunch (or keys), seeing my car will trigger - or bring into focus - the memory of putting my keys into the refrigerator the night before. Subsequently that will trigger the obvious questions of why I put my keys into such an odd place, which in turns reminds me that I need take my lunch to work.

The core of this concept is simple but very powerful: it only takes a tiny piece of information to awaken a flood of thoughts. Think about how seeing an old picture often brings out a myriad of memories.

When you are worried you are going to forget something, design a memory trigger for yourself while the idea is fresh on your mind. There is no reason to take the risk of having an important thought not be in focus at the right time, so design around it.

There are almost infinite ways to incorporate this idea into daily life. Here are a few other examples from my life:

  • I keep a running grocery list on my phone. When I reach for a paper towel to find none I quickly add paper towels to my grocery list, though I may not actually go shopping for a week.
  • Similarly I keep a running list of blog ideas because topics to write about often come to me sporadically during any number of activities except sitting down to write. 
  • I typically capture some sort of note, just a few words, when adding new contacts to my phone. Three years from now if we haven't spoken but suddenly cross paths I can easily remember the context around meeting this person and why I added them to my phone.
  • I capture information about my workouts (primarily the strength training aspect) on my phone so that the following week I can progress from the appropriate spot.
  • After starting a load of laundry (which takes place in my garage) I put the laundry basket back inside in front of my bathroom door so that an hour or two later when I get up to use the restroom, I'm reminded to finish the laundry.
Each of these actions and their effects may seem relatively small, but by getting into the habit of continuously creating memory triggers you can really minimize the risk of forgetting the things that matter to you most. 

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