Angela K. Troyer Ph.D., C.Psych.

Living With Mild Cognitive Impairment

Using Good Memory Habits to Boost Your Memory

Grandma’s advice is the best for solving common memory problems.

Posted Aug 31, 2015

FreeImages.com/Martyna Adamczyk
Source: FreeImages.com/Martyna Adamczyk

We all make memory mistakes from time to time. If you have MCI, you probably make them more often than you used to. The good news is that there are simple things you can do to boost the likelihood that you will remember things that are important to you. In this posting, we talk about a memory strategy that is a lot like Grandma’s advice … a pearl of wisdom based not so much on hard scientific evidence but proven through years of experience.

Using good habits as a memory strategy

Most of us have a number of habits or routines that we build into our day. We read the newspaper, have a cup of coffee, and brush our teeth habitually, often without even thinking about it.

If used correctly, habits can be harnessed as powerful memory strategies. They are great for remembering things that you do on a regular basis. When habits become entrenched, they happen automatically without much effort on your part. This means you don’t have to spend time trying to remember things you have done or need to do, because you can rely on your habit.

Here are some pointers about using memory habits to deal with specific memory problems:

Where did I put my keys?

It is a fairly common experience to misplace things that you use often, like your keys, wallet, reading glasses, or mobile phone. This can be frustrating when you spend a lot of time looking for these things, especially when you find yourself doing the same search day after day.

In this case, Grandma’s advice “a place for everything and everything in its place” are good words to live by. If you have a habit of always putting your car keys in a bowl by the door, for example, then you don’t have to try to remember where you put them last. You’ll know exactly where they are even if you don’t remember putting them there, because they are always in the same place.

The way to develop this type of good habit is to start by figuring out a logical place to keep each item. You are more likely to remember a logical place, like keeping your postage stamps in the same desk drawer as your stationary and envelopes, than an illogical or neutral place. After figuring out a logical place, the next step is to put the item in that place and then – here is the difficult part – always put it back when you are not using it.

Often the reason that we lose things is because we put them down without thinking about where we are putting them. When we don’t pay attention, of course it is very difficult to remember. By making a conscious effort to return an object to a specific place, you are breaking the bad habit of putting things down without paying attention and building a good habit of using consistent, logical places for items. With time, the habit of using the logical place will also become automatic, and acting without paying attention will help rather than hurt your ability to find things.

Did I take my medicine this morning?

Another good use of memory habits is for remembering to do things that are repeated often, like taking a medication twice every day. We don’t spend much time thinking about the things we do over and over again, and it is easy to forget to do them, or forget whether we have done them.

The key here is to develop a habit of doing something at the same time that you would normally be doing something else. With time, the one activity becomes a cue to do the other. For example, if you are already in the habit of brushing your teeth twice a day, you could keep your medication near your toothbrush and make it a habit to take your medication when you brush your teeth.

What else do I need to remember?

There are many other everyday situations where habits can be used to help you remember important things.  If you find that you often forget to lock the door when you leave the house, make it a habit to always turn around and double-check the door as soon as you close it. If you often send an e-mail and forget the attachment, make it a habit to add the attachment before you start writing the e-mail, while it is still in mind. If you find that you make appointments but forget to check your calendar, keep the calendar in a prominent place, like on the kitchen counter, and check it whenever you prepare a meal.

Developing good memory habits can be particularly difficult when it forces us to do things differently. It is hard to break old habits and to create new habits. The flip side, of course, is that once you have a new (good) habit, it is also hard to break. While you are developing a new habit, you may find that you slip easily into your old habit, but keep plugging away at it. Eventually, your new habit will win out and you will find that you are spending less time searching for lost objects or pondering whether you remembered to do something you intended to do.

Adapted from the book Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment by Anderson, Murphy, and Troyer.