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How I Make the Most of My Memory

feedback from Jacob Bender:

Sorry missed your message earlier!

I don’t have a background in gamification. I’ve played a lot of games, some online poker, made a poker app w/ friends (used to be on iOS), otherwise I don’t have much experience w/ it 🙂 How about you?

Not professionally, but is kind of a side passion. But all that led up to me writing for Yu-kai on Very cool!

Not just gamification, but UX design, behavior patterns, etc Oh nice.

Professionally I do web development with a background in pr, marketing, and web Hard to find a full time gamification job though 🙂 That’s a good background, there. Do you work for yourself or for a firm?

Small company locally Currently solidifying skillet You? very cool, i do freelance content and some email for Yu-kai + some marketing for Book in a Box but true love is fiction writing, so looking to sell some of it soon (by the way love your facebook background from Dune!)

Haha few people notice 8:41AM

Hey Erik,

I finished reading your alpha draft. I think the general concept of your outline is good, but some of it reads like a run on thought (though fairly connected). I think if you want to turn this into a published book, it might be good to make it about several exercises and ways to remember difficult things (like names) and provide actionable steps that readers could use.

You mention early on about Attention, Association, and Review” and I think those could be a guide for how you address topics in this book. Depending on the amount of content, this might be better suited as an in depth blog post on a site with good visibility.

Currently I think the biggest issue is you start with the premise about making the most out of your (the readers) memory but much of it reads like personal anecdotes that can’t be reliably duplicated. You mention how you don’t meditate, even though that’s how many do increase their attention. There is some good literature on recognizing and paying attention to what you call Micro-level attention” and much of it has to deal with mindfulness communication and meditation.

If you can turn this draft into a series of practical examples using your Attention, Association, and Review I think you might have something here that provides a solid guide for how to write future content. If you do turn it into a full book (or even a long article) I would suggest researching and citing studies that have been review (like why our thoughts are full of association and how memory is linked). For instance, Jingles are a highly reviewed and accepted way of increasing reach in marketing because of how sticky” they are.

Since you write for Yu-Kai, it might be worth gamifying parts and challenging readers to do various challenges related to the topic. Anyways, as a super early draft I think it has potential 🙂 7:20PM Wow, this is really great feedback, Jacob 🙂 Thank you for reading and thinking through this so carefully and for the actionable feedback.

brainstorm of actionable activities

focus on names and faces? (except EVERYONE has a book about that, here’s another!)

something small vs something holistic

names and faces in the easiest and most approachable…

but fuckk, I’m not THAT interested in it…

Names and Faces:

Attention: -hear the name -repeat the name in your head -say the name: hi name -start a conversation -connect details from conversation to the name: just came from meeting about marketing our new iPhone app,” you see an iphone app icon appear over their eye -ask, what’s the app about? what was the outcome of the meeting, name <– you’re repeating the name so you hear it, and now thinking about how to connect the details you’ve collected -let’s say her name is Sarah and her app let’s you connect subscribers to newsletters in an embeddable form, and she has a certain type of eyebrow, can see an image of air making an ahhh’ sound as it wooshes from an envelope (representing her app) from her eyebrow <–all of this must be done creatively on the fly within the conversation, but starting small and adding layers of this step-by-step as you get more comfortable will work well (it might even work wonders!)

for the ambitious and reckless -ask people how people they know remember them? (this may help you cue you into a quirk or tick or mannerism they have that will help you)…in this case, apply your mnemonic in the same fashion -imagine Sarah’s mannerism is a certain laugh after she makes a joke…can attatch the air and ahhh to the end (in your head of course) to her laugh…I know you have a friend who after a bout of laughing needs to take a deep breath…“ahhhhh” :)

Start of book…

If you learn how to learn, you’ll be unstoppable.” -anonymous

A good memory It’s been two and half years since I turned over the last card in a 52-card deck of playing cards in the final preliminary event in the 2014 USA Memory Championships in New York City.

I’d just memorized a shuffled deck of playing cards in two minutes and forty-two seconds and arranged a second deck to match the first. The result was a top-10 time at that year’s event. It felt pretty good.

And a challenging memory It’s also been over 20 years since my grandmother, Lorraine Marty, died after a battle with Alzheimer’s. I don’t know for sure, but I think my interest in memory and learning had something to do with seeing this disease’s effects first-hand.

Mnemonics: they are not everything The USA Memory Championship and other events like it test memory competitors’ skill in mnemonics.

In 2013 and 2014, I was very interested in improving that skill. I thought I could do anything once I’d mastered mnemonics. And when I got better, I thought I could do anything.

I’ve since tempered down my belief in the power of mnemonics to change my life, but it is still a useful tool in a wide-ranging and far-reaching toolbox of learning.

Retaining knowledge By day, I write fiction. By night, I write content for a human behavior consultant and gamification expert ( and do marketing for authors (

In each, but especially in my fiction, an element of creativity is involved.

I hold to the school of thinking that creating something from nothing is rather difficult, and that creativity often arrives from a combination of combining different forms of knowledge.

In the case of writing fiction, this knowledge rests in the forms of stories and characters and worlds I’ve read, heard, or seen through novels, word-of-mouth, or movies.

This knowledge also comes from the memory of my experiences with people and the world.

This is why, for me and my work, memories are very important. They are an ingredient in the creative process, a creative process which in my case makes life quite fulfilling.

Sometimes, memories are fickle I’m writing this book to zoom in on three areas I practically apply every day to make the most of the memory I have: Attention, Association, and Review.

What this book is not This isn’t a book about mnemonics, which I don’t think are world-savers.

This isn’t a book about improving your memory by 10x. I don’t think that’s realistic or possible with our current understanding of biology and technology.

Finally, this book isn’t about specific techniques to improve your memory (although I do mention some throughout).

Also, this book decidely lacks scientific support. (Hint: There’s not that much convincing science about memory and learning yet.) Instead, most of this book relates practical approaches I’ve taken in the hopes you will start your own journey of understanding how you best remember, retain knowledge, and apply it.

What is this book about, then? Very simply, this book is about making the most of your memory. We may not be able to improve our baseline aptitude for memory, but we can at least make the most of what we have.

This process begins by understanding the most practical approach to attention, association, and review.

If you’re ready for a short beginning on the dubious topic of understanding how you retain knowledge, let’s begin.

The first draft of this book was written for a live course I did in Saint Paul, MN, on February 8, 2016.


Attention is all there is.” -anonymous

We have the extraordinary good luck to be conscious beings. We can give attention to things and notice that we have just given attention to something.

You’ve probably heard the saying, Time is the most important resource you have.”

My preferred version is: Attention is the most important resource you have.

This is a bit of a value statement, but I hope you’ll allow me to make such statements so long as I explain what I mean. To me, a short life with deep attention is more valuable than a long one with haphazard attention.

Giving attention isn’t always easy. It’s often hard. Maybe that’s why we call it paying attention.

What does this have to do with retaining knowledge and making the most of your memory?


Noticing what you notice After coming down off the high of the 2014 USA Memory Championship, where I’d proven to myself I could prepare for and compete with the best, I set to trying to understand how I learn best, and how what I learned could be applied for good.

I am highly motivated by curiosity, challenges, and the desire to create. I hope to write and create stories that further human progress. Before achieving this, I have a lot to learn about the craft of writing and the art of storytelling.

The above paragraph comprises observations I’ve made about myself. In essence, I am noticing attributes my person has based on actions I’ve taken. It’s like working back from evidence. Instead of listening to what I say, I watch what I do. (Keeping what I say and do aligned is a useful way to live.)

Coming to understand what motivates and fulfills me came through this self-analysis. But I could only start to dig once I began noticing.

A comment on meditation I don’t meditate, at least not in the way described by most meditation books.

However, the part I like the most about meditation is its emphasis on attention and observation. When I first tried guided meditation, it was immediately clear how unfocused my thoughts could be (notice, too, how you” don’t really choose your thoughts…but that’s another story).

Micro-level attention This attention at the level of thoughts is what I call the micro level. I don’t have anything else that is useful to say about our thoughts that just arise” and how to affect them. (If I knew this there would be a much more impactful book to write about human consciousness!)

Mid-level attention Our attention at what I call the macro level is constantly pulled in many directions by our senes, primarily through sight and sound, but also through touch and smell and taste and thoughts and emotions.

We do have some control over our living and working environments. When needed, I can work in a very quiet room (with only few creative environmental cues), optimal (for me) for creative work. I get to be with my thoughts, write or think, then notice the friendly plant on the table nearby, smile, and return to writing or thinking.

Macro-level attention In my definition, macro-level attention refers to the lens I’m viewing the world through. Let me explain through a story.

I grew up between the USA, Gabon, Indonesia, and China. We moved often. I learned to adapt to new places and people, to look for similarities and differences and how to talk to anyone. Mom and Dad encouraged me to play sports and participate in music. I got to travel for competition and performances from Manila, Philippines to Osaka, Japan.

When I was 14, my best friends were Taiwanese and French/German. I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia. Just over our compound’s wall was a local rice-farming village.

In college, I wrote a short story based on my memories of that village. The story gained recognition in the Nick Adam’s AMC Short Story contest. I also studied international trade, comparative politics and international relations, creative writing, and Chinese. I also played a lot of thinking games, like poker. I used software to analyze my play and opponents, striving for improvement.

That’s the story.

From it, you can imagine how I interact with the world moment to moment. Everything I know about the world was informed by these experiences. I notice and take interest in certain things because of what I’ve noticed previously.

You have your own set of interests. Your own models. Different things will attract your attention. Can you figure out why?

Excercise: Remembering Names, Part 1/3 Remembering names is a practical need that many of us aren’t that good at. Very few species are. (There is one species of wasp that can. And sheep.)

Did you meet anyone new today? Perhaps you read a book by a new author? Read an article from an up and coming scientist?

Who was she? Do you remember her name?

How did you remember? (Was it because you found a way to make it interesing to you?)

If you don’t remember, did it reach the tip of your tongue?

All the above are good things to notice.

If you did remember the name, it probably had something to do with Association, our next topic.


We cannot step in the same river twice, because the water has moved on.” -paraphrased from Heraclitus, pre-Socratic Greek philosopher

Have you ever witnessed a runaway train? What about a run-on sentence?

Run-on sentences in conversation usually occur when the speaker free associates. He says something. The content of what he says makes him think of something to say next. Then he says it. And so on. Without regard for you, his conversation partner. You’re fighting not to roll your eyes.

I’ve been on both sides of this never-ending coinflip.

The brain likes associations Our brains are very good at associating. It’s part of the joy of a conversation.

It also seems to relate to how we store memories, if you’ll allow me to use that metaphor (it probably isn’t a scientifically valid way to talk about memory).

You’ve probably heard of word-association games or even done some of them. When I write the following words, what do you think of?

Story, animal, light, boredom, party, pain, cake, fiction.

Each of us probably brings images or sounds or tastes or feelings to mind.

But, because these are abstract words representing large pools (can I say entire oceans?) of meaning, it’s very likely we’ve each come up with different images for each of the above words. For example, when I wrote the word animal above, I immediately thought of an elephant (even elephant is a very abstract term…there are many sizes, shapes, and colors of elephants).

Over time, your brain (we think) builds categories. When I think of fiction, there are books and authors and stories and characters and lessons and entire worlds that come immediately to mind, arising in glorious webs and rainbows of thought.

A brief comment on thinking Our thoughts are full of associations. To remind yourself of this, simply pause for 14 seconds. Shut your eyes. Or look around. Notice your attention moving between ideas or worries or objects in the room. What color is the couch you’re sitting on? What does that color make you think of?

These are trivial examples, but they might help us later. Because you’re starting to practice noticing.

That makes me think of… We remember things that interest us. If your mother means a lot to you, you just aren’t going to forget to buy your mother a birthday present (even if you’re a little late doing so).

Remembering things in the short term comes down to creating interest.

Sometimes that just happens.

Sometimes you will need to work to create an interesting association.

When I’m in a conversation with someone who works in a field completely different (and sometimes unknown to me), I sometimes catch myself saying oh, that’s interesting while I search for ways to actually make it interesting enough to remember. (If I haven’t heard about it, was I really that interested in it?)

Curiosity is a strong motivator for me. If, in a conversation, I can ask a question to build curiosity, I stand a chance of remembering the details of that conversation.

Music, rhymes, and dimes I’m attracted to music and poetry, so I’ll often create jingles to remember things for the short term (advertising uses music a lot).

Shiny things (like dimes) are also easy to remember. If I can make something shiny in my mind’s eye, all the better.

Exercise: Names and Faces Part 2/3 Let’s think about names and faces again.

Was there anything you learned about the person you met earlier today? Something to attach meaning to? For example: Erik, who I met in the hallway, likes writing fiction…I remembered him because my nephew’s name is also Erik with a k’ and he likes reading science fiction short stories.

Appearance is obvious place to start, but a word of caution. Clothing and hairstyles can change, so it’s probably best to focus on facial features.

You can also tell yourself a story… While drinking my morning coffee, I read an article by Erik van Mechelen about human motivation…he discussed the importance of creating habits…we both have the same bad habit of forgetting to brush our teeth in the morning!


Practice allows more practice.” -anonymous

I’m a fiction writer. I write the stories so I don’t have to remember them. (Written records are also good for distribution–the internet is cool.)

My brother composes film-quality music. He saves his compositions so others can listen, too.

You might be thinking: Recording stories or songs is well and good, but what about facts and knowledge and memories?

I’m glad you asked.

The advantage of reviewing By reviewing often, we can build on knowledge we already have. When I write, I get to review and build on stories I’ve told before.

Together, we can be creative with that knowledge, build on top of it, and discover new things!

Making it part of your routine I’ve made review a part of my routine.

If you’re learning a language, Memrise and Duolingo automatically build in spaced repetition, so you don’t need to remember to review words and ideas you’ve already learned.

If you’re learning a cooking recipe or technique, repitition and practice will reinforce what you’re learned and improve your skill level.

My creative process As I look around my workspace, I see environmental cues I’ve strategically positioned to improve my work. These are triggers which help me re-focus, lighten up, or even take a useful break.

Some environmental cues remind me of specific projects, like my whiteboard where I’ve drawn a map for my novel’s fictional world.

My bookshelf reminds me of authors I’ve learned from.

The plants remind me to stay calm. That life is short, and art long.

I also use technology:

There are numerous tools like these to curate and save categorical lists.

Exercise: Names and Faces Part 3/3 Let’s think about names and faces just one more time.

By now you already know the answer to the question I’m about to ask: who was the person you met earlier today?

You remember because we’ve reviewed this fact several times during the reading of this book, which you may have completed in one sitting.

There’s nothing more to say about review except that you need to be mindful of space repetition as it pertains to your needs.

Oh, and there are a lot of ways to remember long lists of things. Like using lists :).

I’ve also created a free blog post about technology I use to remember large volumes of things. Have a read and tell me if I’m missing something.

First and next steps

That was a pretty short book, wasn’t it?

There isn’t much more to say, really.

Except I hope you’ll challenge yourself to make the most of your memory.

Start in a comfortable place. Start by noticing.

Then contact me and we can continue the conversation. There might be more I can help with. Or not.

But I had fun with noticing and playing with how I remember things. I hope you’ll have fun too.

Memory is a forever game. Which makes it fun (if you’re motivated like me). Madeleine L’Engle once said the good thing about getting older is that we don’t lose the years we’ve already had.

You can email me your thoughts on this book to:

I’ll read everything.

Also, I respond to all carefully written comments and questions! if your question is strong enough, i might even get on the phone or skype with you to learn more and talk through it!

Posted on 30/11/2016

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