How to improve short term memory -

graceacupuncture - 19/01/2022 - STRATEGY - 293 Views

One of the most common questions I get is “How do I improve my short term memory?” By “short term memory”, they mean remembering things over the course of a short period of time, such as over a day, week or month.

Short term memory problems are pretty common, based on my caseload. Even the spouses of my patients complain that they’re forgetful. It’s not surprising, since so many things can affect short term memory, including stress. The good news is that, in many cases, it’s possible to improve short term memory.

Free DIRECT download: WRAP memory strategies (patient handout). (Email subscribers get free access to all the resources in the Free Subscription Library.)


Practice what you want to improve

Many people enjoy memory games or other brain-training games, since they’re fun and often addictive. We’d like to think that they actually improve our attention, memory, and other cognitive skills for our day-to-day activities. But unfortunately, there is little objective research to back this up.

For example, the Simons et al (2016) review of the brain-training literature finds strong evidence that brain-training improves performance on the trained tasks, and less evidence that it improves performance on closely-related tasks. They find that there is not much evidence that doing brain-training exercises improves performance on day-to-day tasks.

Instead of playing games, research suggests that we should practice doing the thing we want to improve.

This means that if you want to improve your ability to remember people’s names, then you should practice remembering people’s names.

Or if you want to remember how to use the remote control, practice using it.

Depending on what you want to improve, you may get some benefit from brain-training games. Just make sure it’s challenging and related in some way to WHY you want to improve your memory.

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Deciding what to practice

Short term memory plays a role in just about everything we do. The key is to think of the situations that are bothersome or embarrassing when your short term memory lets you down.

For instance, I hate to forget someone’s name, but I couldn’t care less if I remember what I ate for dinner last Tuesday. So I practice remembering people’s names, and I don’t bother trying to rememberpast meals.

On the other hand, I had a patient who REALLY wanted to remember what she had to eat over the past 24 hours, because different family members would ask her about it, just as a general topic of conversation. Since it was important to her, that’s what we worked on.

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Make it stick in your memory: WRAP it up.

McCabe et al (2016) tells us that improving memory takes effort. The first rule is to pay attention. If you don’t notice something now, you’re not likely to remember it later. If you try any of these WRAP memory strategies, you’ll automatically be paying attention.

Write it down.Repeat it.Associate it.Picture it.

Writing something down once may be enough for it to stick in your memory, especially if you combine it with the other three tips. Say it aloud as you write it, try to connect it with something you already know, and imagine it.

Repetition is very helpful for remembering things. You can repeat something several times in row, especially to make sure you’re remembering correctly. But then it’s helpful to space it out. Do something else for a bit, then try to remember the thing you are practicing. This is called spaced retrieval. You can do it informally, like I describe here, or you can be more systematic with an app like Anki. If the memory problem is more serious, try a system like spaced retrieval with errorless learning.

Association is a powerful memory tool. It’s basically linking the thing you want to remember to something you already know. It’s best if the learner comes up with their own association, but it also works if another person helps them out. If an association doesn’t immediately come to mind, try to think of a funny, strange, or outrageous association. This will make it stick better in the memory.

“Picture it” means visualization or imagination. I tell my patients to try to put the thing they want to remember into a mental cartoon, movie, or documentary. As with association, making it funny or outrageous will increase the memorability factor.

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Examples of what you could practice

Here are some things that my patients have wanted to remember better.

Important information

Current date and time, or where to look to find the information.People’s names and relationships.Own address and phone number.Birthdays and ages.Cities or states where family live.Pet names.Names of politicians or actors.Medication names and reasons for taking them.Where to look for information, such as facility activity schedule.Facts such as no longer having a driver’s license.

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Recalling past events

Accident, illness, or hospitalization information.Details of past events, such as a wedding.Events of recent past, such as meals, appointments, activities.

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Remembering to do things

Household chores.Going to appointments.Attending activities.Taking medication.Making phone calls.

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Listening and remembering

People often have trouble remembering details from conversations they have. Some people are also bothered that they can watch something on TV and not really remember anything.

Instructions from medical or rehab staff.Other interactions with professional staff (ex, bank, electric company, etc).Conversations with family or friends.The news or on-screen entertainment.Audiobooks or radio.

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Reading and remembering

Some of my patients complain that they can’t retain what they read. This may affect daily activities such as reading the newspaper and mail, filling out forms, and paying the bills. It can also affect life participation activities such as reading for pleasure or emailing family and friends.

Dealing with the mail.Written instructions.Filling out forms.Paying bills.Reading the newspaper, books, or magazines.Remembering a phone number long enough to dial it.

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Keys, phone, glasses, and other important things

You’ve probably heard that having a “home” for important items is helpful, and I can attest to that after working with older adults for years. Muscle memory is a powerful force. If you get into the habit of keeping things in a certain place, it can save a lot of time and aggravation.

The problem arises in establishing that habit once short term memory problems have started. What I’ve found helpful is to use a labeled container kept in a prominent place. For some people we added a bright sticky note where they’d be sure to see it, just a reminder to put the thing in the container.

For instance, place a small bowl on a table inside the front door, with a sign peeking up that says KEYS. The new habit to form is to drop the keys into the bowl as soon as you walk through the door. If you tend to walk by without seeing it, put a bright note on the wall somewhere along the route where you’d quickly notice it. Depending on privacy, you could put a note on the outside of the door so you see it as you walk in. Chances are, after a few days, you won’t need the note anymore.

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Tasks and activities

Many people want to improve their memory for procedures. These are some of the tasks and activities that my patients have want to improve their memory for:

Using the remote control.Accessing voice mail.Using a phone to make calls, text, or take and send pictures.Email.Facebook or other social media sites.Using the microwave.Remembering the safety rules for using a cane or walker.Using a chin tuck consistently so they could avoid thickened liquids.Looking at the clock or calendar, rather than repeatedly asking a family member for the information.

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Looking for memory exercises online?

There are many, many things you can find online to use to practice memory. Here are just a few.


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When you’re looking for an app, try an online search for “best app for X”, where X is what you want to improve. Here are ones that I’ve use over the past year.

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Online exercises, games, and activities

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What are your go-to short term memory exercises?

I love hearing about how other people work on improving short term memory. What do you find helpful?

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Related Eat, Speak, & Think posts

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McCabe, J. A., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2016). Brain-Training Pessimism, but Applied-Memory Optimism. Psychological science in the public interest : a journal of the American Psychological Society, 17(3), 187–191., D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work?. Psychological science in the public interest : a journal of the American Psychological Society, 17(3), 103–186.

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Free DIRECT download: WRAP memory strategies (patient handout). (Email subscribers get free access to all the resources in the Free Subscription Library.)

Featured image by holdentrils from pixabay.