Tips for memory difficulties

There are many reasons why people may have memory difficulties, including dyslexia, medical conditions including mental ill-health, the side effects of medication, and the effects of stress.   Here are various strategies to try.  Try making gradual changes, rather than trying everything at once!

Minimise distractions from the environment

  • Reduce sound distraction - wear headphones;
  • Reduce visual distraction - turn your desk to face a blank wall;  use screens; keep your desk tidy.
  • Book a quiet room for a period of concentrated work.
  • Minimise interruptions e.g. ask colleagues not to talk to you while you are concentrating.

Reduce the load on working memory

  • Write things down, so that you don’t have to keep remembering them. ‘Buy birthday card!’ ‘Milk!’ 
  • Collect a list of questions to ask your manager, rather than constantly interrupting.
  • Put a note where you need it e.g. for things to do on the way home, put the reminder on your bag; put notes for a particular meeting with the papers for that meeting.
  • Use apps such as Toodledo https://www.toodledo.com/
  • Diary reminders (you can use these to schedule tasks as well as meetings).
  • Avoid multitasking, and try to complete each task before starting the next.

Use reminders and alarms

  • Put all appointments in your Outlook calendar (you can adjust the warning times).
  • Set phone alarms.
  • Set reminders of forthcoming deadlines.

 Plan work activity

  • Depending on your role you may want yearly, termly, monthly or weekly plans.
  • Make a daily task list (you may have a standard list, to which you add extra items).
  • Schedule work for particular times. Some people like to do the most complex tasks first thing in the morning, when they are freshest.
  • Schedule time for particular tasks, if you find it difficult to get the time for them.
  • Remember to keep checking your plan, and record any new tasks.
  • Improve your ability to judge how much time to allow by recording how much time jobs actually take.

 Set up record systems

  • In many administrative and finance roles, it is helpful to set up systems (or use existing systems) so that you can easily check what work has already been done.
  • Before you deal with an item, check what has already happened (to avoid paying the same invoice twice).
  • Create a record of what tasks need to be done for recurrent activities e.g. those that happen on a monthly or yearly basis.  This will prompt you next time.

 Organise your work space

  • Give your resources a permanent home, and always put them back in the correct place.
  • Take regular time to do your filing, so that you can find materials again.
  • Use trays and folders (physical and electronic) to organise your flow of work.
  • Talk to your colleagues to create systems that work for everyone.
  • Make sure that when you are dealing with something you also record what you have done, and put it in the right place e.g. the file for paid invoices.

 Chunk work

  • Break your overall plan into smaller sections, then when you are ready to work break those sections into manageable chunks, then concentrate on one at a time. “The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” 
  • Some people make a  visual overview of the whole, so they can see where their current chunk fits in.
  • Find out how long you can concentrate for (which might be as short as 15 minutes). Design chunks to last that long. 
  • Set your timer, concentrate on the chunk, and when the timer goes stop and take a brief minibreak to allow your brain to recover. 
  • Tick the chunk off, then start the next chunk. 
  • This technique helps you to make progress, even on days when you are struggling. You can revise your work next day.

 Follow a prompt list

  • Photocopy your standard daily tasks list, and add any extra tasks.
  • Tick things off as you do them.
  • If you have difficulty following a list, cover up the items you haven’t yet done, so that you can only see the next task.
  • Train yourself to keep returning to the list, if you can’t think what to do next.

 Following instructions

  • Check that you have understood correctly e.g. ‘So the first thing is for me to …’
  • Do not rely on remembering verbal instructions.  Ask for a written reminder, to which you can refer.
  • Some people make audio recordings, to which they can listen again.
  • If the instructions are about an activity in the future, you may want to create a reminder that you will see when you come to start the task. E.g. Put a post-it on a form ‘waiting for authorisation from X’.

 Make a note of answers to questions

  • Take the time to write down answers, and create reminders for yourself.  Most people don’t like being asked the same question over and over again.
  • For important information, you may need to work to get it into long-term memory, for example by repetition.
  • Some people find it easier to learn by doing, so will want to carry out the new task several times, not just know how to do it.

 Take regular breaks

  • Taking regular breaks allows your brain to recover. 
  • Sitting at a computer all day isn’t good for you, walk around regularly.
  • Drink enough water to remain well hydrated.
  • Take a proper lunchbreak.  If possible go outside for natural light.
  • Eat healthily to maintain steady blood sugar levels.
  • Try free Workrave software workrave.org to prompt you to take a break.

 Separate the idea-generation from idea organisation.

  • First mind dump all your ideas (by writing or using a mindmapping software), so that they aren’t lost.
  • Secondly start to think about how they fit together.

 Creating your own reminders

  • Keep things short and easy to read.
  • Use colour, pictures, flow charts.
  • Print of screenshots which you can mark up (press this button).
  • Keep examples of completed forms.  Highlight key fields.
  • You may want to ask a colleague to check that your notes are correct and that you haven’t missed anything out.

 Use visual strengths

  • Make an overview and keep it by you so that you can see where you are in a process.
  • Use mindmaps to map a subject and see the connections.
  • Use colour, pictures, icons.
  • Use screenshots and photographs in instructions.
  • Use flow charts.
  • In Outlook use colours to mark status, and flags
  • Use crib sheets, screen shots, check lists.
  • Think of a visual image and also visualise words beneath it e.g. when trying to remember someone’s name, think of their face with their name written below.

Use sound strategies

  • Record instructions or notes to yourself on your phone or a digital voice recorder.
  • Ask if you can record meetings if you are unable to make effective notes.
  • Use rhythm and song.
  • Telling someone else will help to fix information in your memory.
  • Group numbers in threes, so that there is a beginning, middle and end, and repeat them aloud.
  • Rehearse a presentation out loud.

Use action strategies

  • Practise a new process.  “Walk through, not talk through.”
  • Learn by doing and repeating.  It may take several times to get it embedded in your long-term memory.
  • It may be helpful to think of a process as a journey, which requires you to go (either physically or virtually) to a number of different places. 
  • Interact with information – write it on cards and move it around; make diagrams; ask questions.

Tips for remembering

  • Make it multi-sensory: see it, touch it, hear it, do it.
  • Make sense of it – it is hard to remember something that you don’t understand.
  • Make it stick – we remember things we are interested in.
  • Make it memorable – make is unusual or exaggerated (see a word in colour, or very large)
  • Make it organized – groups, patterns, categories.
  • Review and practise information to get it into long term memory.