We all have moments when our memory fails us at work. We forget the name of an important contact, turn up to a meeting at the wrong time or overlook a vital task - but there are practical steps to make sure your memory doesn't let you down. Here, memory specialist Vicki Culpin, dean of faculty and director of research at Ashridge Business School in the UK, shares her tips.
1. Reduce stress
Stress is one of the most common causes of poor memory performance. Stressful situations, lasting weeks or months, have been shown to impair communication between the cells in the regions of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Take steps to reduce your stress levels and your memory performance will start to return to normal after just one week.
2. Get enough sleep
Sleep is very important for memory consolidation - the brain's method of transferring new material and information to our long-term memory. Research suggests that deep sleep is the key not just to storing information, but also to retrieving it. If you are sleeping badly, think about what you can do to improve the situation.
3. Reduce multitasking
We lead increasingly busy lives and multitasking has become second nature. The brain is less efficient at multitasking, however, than we realise. When the brain tries to do two things at once, it "switches" tasks rather than doing both simultaneously, which can affect memory. Research has shown that people who learn something new while multitasking are less able to remember what they have learnt later on.
4. Rehearse information quickly
In short-term memory, how much we can remember is directly related to how much information we can "squeeze" into 15 to 30 seconds. When we try to remember things, we often "rehearse" the information by repeating it out loud or silently in our heads. The quicker you do this, the more information you take in. Speak slowly and you may only be able to rehearse four or five facts in the time slot to get them into your short-term memory. You may eventually find you can rehearse and recall up to nine.
5. Group information
Ever been in a situation where you need to remember a phone number or car registration and don't have a pen? Research has shown if you "rehearse" the information in groups of three, it can make a big difference to your ability to recall it. Try it yourself. Take the number 145870236 and try to remember it as a whole. Then break it down into three groups - 145 870 236 - and see how much easier it is.
6. Chunk it up
"Chunking" information is another useful strategy you can employ. If you are giving a talk or presentation, break the information down into clusters. This will not only help you remember what you need to say but will also make it easier for the audience to take in and retain what you have told them.
7. Make it meaningful
Some people can remember all the FA Cup winners from the past 20 years. Others find that impossible but know the birthdays of their friends. A good way to make information meaningful is to relate something you want to memorise to something you already know. Ask yourself questions to encourage this process: "why do I need to learn this?", "how does this fit with what I already know?".
8. Pay close attention
When people complain their memory is poor, it's often because they simply haven't put enough time and energy into memorising material. Be honest with yourself. How often have you blamed poor memory when you haven't made any real attempt to remember information? Your ability will improve if you pay proper attention.
9. Use imagery or association
One of the biggest memory-related problems is an inability to remember people's names. Repetition helps, so use the person's name as much as possible during your conversation with them, as well as when you say hello and goodbye. Some people find creating a visual image related to the name can help. Does the person look like anyone famous, or is there an aspect of their face (glasses, moustache, nose) that is striking?
10. Think about the context
If you are struggling to recall a particular piece of information, reinstate the context in which you first heard it. It helps if you can physically do this (ie return to the room where a meeting was held) but if you can't do that, it's often enough just to create a visual image of the situation you were in. Think about the physical surroundings, the smell and the temperature as well as the mood you were in.