You might find that you used to be able to memorise an entire textbook when you were in school but now even struggle to remember your shopping list. Indeed, memory changes over time, but it can also be improved.

To improve our memory, we first need to understand how it works. In simple terms, memory is composed of three different elements, encoding, storage, and recall.

Encoding is how you learn new things and includes visual, acoustic, tactile, and semantic encoding. This means that something enters your memory by the way it looks, sounds, feels, or by what it means; it is then stored, which is the second stage.

Storage can be broadly divided into short- and long-term memory. Information is usually only stored for up to 30 seconds in the short-term memory and often comes from an acoustic stimulus.

In contrast, long-term memory can store things from all four sources for an unlimited amount of time. Whereas short-term memory can only handle up to 9 items, long-term memory technically does not have such a limit.

The final stage is retrieval, where you recall the stored information. If you retrieve something from your short-term memory, you remember it in the order it was stored; in your more complex long-term memory, you recall things by association. While some degree of memory loss is normal, you can improve the recalling process. Here are some simple ways how you can improve your memory.

DO try to learn things over an extended period of time. You might be able to memorise several pages in an afternoon. Still, most likely, you will have forgotten most of it after a couple of days. Splitting up the information and repeating these smaller chunks for several days or even weeks will make your learning more effective and long-lasting.

DON’T focus on one single thing. It might seem better to learn one thing after the other and only start the new topic when you’ve fully mastered the previous one but often that is not the case. Because long-term memory works by association, it can be helpful to try and combine related tasks; this is a method called interleaving.

DO use mnemonics. A mnemonic is a specific pattern of letters, a song, or rhyme that can help you recall information more easily. For example, to remember the order of cardinal directions, you could just remember the sentence ‘Never Eat Soggy Waffles’, where the first letter of each word stands for a direction. There are many more well-known mnemonics, but you can also make up your own.

DON’T look up things instantly. It is tempting to look something up on the internet as soon as you can’t remember it, but this does not help your memory. Like muscles, memory needs to be used to keep working at a high level. Instead of immediately looking something up, try to think about it for a while, and you might find it in your mind.  

DO stay active. A good way to challenge your memory is to learn something completely new; this could be a language, an instrument, or any other new skill. This process will engage your memory because you cannot simply fall back on things you already know but must stay focussed on managing the new information.

DON’T be too stressed. This is easier said than done, but stress and a lack of sleep impact your ability to recall information, as you simply don’t have the energy to properly focus. Taking small breaks during the day can help with this, but this might still be one of the most difficult changes to implement.

DO repeat things. Repetition is a simple and effective way to remember things better. Once you have learnt something, try to repeat it to yourself either by writing it down or saying it out loud. This active recall is more effective than just passively reading the same thing over and over.

DON’T rely on one technique only. Adding variety can also help the retrieval process. You can mix up the medium and thus senses through which you learn things alternating between listening, reading, or writing information down. The more senses are involved, the easier the recall process should become because you will have several associations linked to the information.