We’ve all had one of these moments: You get up from your desk at work to head toward — wait, where were you going, exactly? You had a final destination in mind when you stood up, but after taking a few short steps, you have already forgotten your original intentions. And for the millionth time you wonder if you’re experiencing early-onset Alzheimer’s, or if this is just a normal brain malfunction.
Perfectly healthy people can suffer from forgetful moments that have nothing to do with insidious health problems. Harvard Health Publishing cites a number of reasons you might struggle with your memory, from absentmindedness to the inevitable passage of time.
So the good news is you most likely should not panic just because you can’t recall a certain word on the tip of your tongue. The bad news is, healthy or not, you still need to remember that one thing you wanted to finish today before leaving the office.
Memory problems in the workplace can be a serious concern for employers who want to ensure that important tasks do not fall by the wayside. Thus, soft skills like improving your cognitive performance should be a serious concern for you as a young professional who wants to progress in your career.
Luckily, the brain is like a muscle. With exercise, practice and the right kinds of habits, you can enhance your memory over time. Here are some ways you can combat forgetfulness.
1. Prioritize your sleep.
When you’re awake, all your brain power is dedicated to collecting information. But when you fall asleep, your mental energy shifts toward consolidating and cataloging that information. Particularly useful is the time you spend in REM sleep, when you do most of your dreaming and when your brain has the chance to explore what you learned while awake.
Gabriel Smith, a sleep expert for Mattress Firm, says he relies on proper sleep hygiene to enhance his cognitive performance, especially memory. “But that’s not to say we should always increase our sleep,” he remarks. “Too much sleep can be just as harmful as too little, so be careful not to overcorrect.”
The key is to aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. The occasional catnap may offer you a quick burst of alertness, yet unless you sleep long enough to hit the REM stage, you won’t reap the full benefits to your memory.
Furthermore, you should also strive to improve the quality of your sleep. Lying in bed for eight hours won’t do you much good unless you actually feel well-rested when you wake up. If you consistently wake up still tired, evaluate your sleep environment to identify possible issues. You might need a more comfortable mattress, a cooler bedroom or earplugs to block out disruptions. A good night sleep will definitely reverse memory loss and boost brain health.
2. Learn to play an instrument.
Training on a musical instrument does not only expand your knowledge of music, but it is also good for brain health. The actual composition of a musician’s brain differs from that of a non-musician, with a higher volume of gray matter and greater neural plasticity.
Basically, learning to play an instrument can improve your mental performance in almost every other area. You will expand your capacity for recall of all kinds of tiny details, in all kinds of settings.
Gene Caballero, successful entrepreneur and co-founder of GreenPal, plays piano to improve his mental health and to hone his memory skills. “Playing an instrument has been scientifically proven to engage practically every area of the brain at once,” Caballero says. “It’s like a mental full-body workout.”
3. Practice martial arts.
Separately, physical activity and mental exercises can each help slow cognitive decline. But mind-body practices — like many martial arts — bring together those separate components to optimize the benefits. For example, a 2016 study found that both Tai Chi Chuan and Baduanjin improve memory function.
Albert Belzer, a martial arts expert for MMA Fury, points out that one brain-boosting element of Tai Chi is the necessary memorization of various techniques. Plus, he adds, “Tai Chi is great because it is not very physically strenuous, so it is something most people can continue to do in later years.”
The benefits of martial arts practices are not limited to just Tai Chi and Baduanjin. Belzer says you should “train in other martial arts if you’re physically capable — the more techniques, movements and applications you learn, the more your memory is exercised.”
4. Engage in “purposeful practice.”
Entrepreneur Satyajit Sadanandan, who specializes in skill acquisition, stands by the mantra that practice makes perfect. He defines purposeful practice as breaking down large goals into smaller steps, utilizing feedback channels, and constantly raising the bar with increasingly challenging targets.
If you need to learn a new skill or memorize vast quantities of information for your job, one key step to mastering those skills is to actively test yourself throughout the learning process.
“These techniques can be used to improve most memory-oriented skills in the workplace,” Sadanandan says. “Right from remembering names or numbers to memorizing and delivering complex presentations without reading out from text.”
5. Meditate daily.
Meditation can offer numerous benefits in its reduction of stress as well as its positive impact on cognitive function, including memory.
Some people shy away from meditation because they don’t believe they’d be capable of maintaining the right kind of focus — when they think of meditation, they picture monks sitting cross-legged in silence for hours at a time. But one study demonstrated positive results on memory from just 12 minutes of daily meditation over an eight-week period.
Meditation can take many forms. Some people free write as part of their meditation practice, while others practice yoga (another mind-body exercise like the martial arts). Allow yourself to experiment with meditation so you can identify the format that will work best for your personality. Then commit to incorporating it into your life.
6. Eat memory-boosting foods.
Introduce more foods to your diet that will increase blood flow to your brain. More blood flow means more oxygen and more brain power. That interaction between your blood and your mind is the reason so many people like to take walks to clear their minds — exercise gets the blood pumping. But you can reap mind-clearing benefits from particular types of food, as well.
Nutritional biochemist Dr. Shawn M. Talbott recommends pomegranate extract for the purpose of increasing blood flow, while theanine (found in green tea) can shift brain waves to a state of “relaxed alertness.” He also suggests New Zealand pine bark and guayusa leaf to enhance cognitive performance.
You can try to make your own teas and other meals out of those ingredients. Alternatively, if something like New Zealand pine bark is difficult to procure at your local grocery store, you may be able to find dietary supplements or natural energy drinks that incorporate it. Just avoid relying on caffeinated, sugar-filled energy drinks—which may have some short-term benefits to your mental functioning but can harm you in the long run.
7. Stop multitasking.
It’s the age-old dilemma: You have a lot of tasks to accomplish in a short period of time, so you split your attention between several at once rather than focusing on a single one. The problem with that approach is that we end up putting in half the effort instead of doing our best work.
“All too often,” says Pooja Krishna, co-founder of Maroon Oak. “The culprit isn’t our memory but our focus.” In other words, multitasking impedes our ability to concentrate and absorb important details.
Not only will multitasking lower your performance on the tasks at hand, but it can even hinder your broader capacity for recall. Anyone who multitasks across multiple screens (a common practice in today’s workplace) is putting themselves at especially heightened risk of reduced memory. Such prolonged exposure to screens, combined with the harmful habit of multitasking, is sure to exacerbate your stress and even prevent you from getting adequate sleep at night. All of these factors will in turn hinder your memory.
So although you may prefer to work with several monitors and a dozen open tabs on your browser, challenge yourself to reduce that number over time. Find little moments to disconnect. Focus on one task before moving to the next, and you should see cognitive benefits. It's a great way to improve brain function.
8. Stay organized.
In the same vein as avoiding multitasking, keeping yourself organized can promote better attention to detail and greater capacity to remember important information. Tanya Mitchell, chief research and development officer at LearningRX, advises everyone to get ahead of the day with a quick planning session.
“I think it’s also a great idea to always start your day by going through what needs to get done, spending at least 5-10 minutes planning,” Mitchell says. “When someone consciously tries to remember items and sets aside time to do so, it will always help their memory throughout the day.”
When you get to work every morning, dedicate a few minutes to plan your day and create a to-do list. You don’t have to schedule out every last minute, but at least write down a checklist so that when you finish one task, you know immediately what to shift your attention to next. You can also do five-minute braindumps before bed. Not only will you sleep better because you will feel less stress from the weight of the day, but your brain will be more inclined to work out those problems during the night.
9. When all else fails, use memory tricks.
The most effective means of enhancing your memory and treating memory loss typically involve behaviors, exercises, and habits that will help you flex your skills over time. But if you’re not there yet, or you need a quick solution to remember something important, you can lean on memory tricks.
“Although strong memory needs to be trained, memory strategies can be helpful for people that don’t have the time to get a mental sweat a few times per week,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell recommends linking noteworthy information with visual cues. For example, if you need to remember someone named Taylor, you can play off the word tailor and imagine that person with a sewing needle. Other mnemonic devices include acronyms, rhymes, chunking and the method of loci (associating information with a familiar geographic location).
Think of your memory like you think of your physical fitness — you should first lay a foundation by establishing a healthy lifestyle and habits that support your fitness. But in addition to that healthy lifestyle, you need to implement a regular exercise routine to continue stretching the appropriate muscles. Finally, those fast hacks and memory tricks are like running drills. They are not the most important aspect of your fitness goals, but they can help keep you agile.
An agile mind and memory will prove to be incredibly valuable as you progress through your career. You may start to remember tiny but consequential details that used to evade you, like how to use a particularly difficult tool or the name of that contact you met at a conference last year. You don't have time to be dealing with memory loss.
If you dedicate yourself to enhancing your brain’s performance, supervisors and managers are bound to notice.