Ed Cooke, CEO and co-founder of Memrise, has an unusual background for an entrepreneur. Forget business school or years as a consultant, Cooke spent most of his 20s competing in memory championships, winning competitions by performing heroic mental feats like memorizing the order of 16 decks of playing cards in under an hour.
This experience might be well often the beaten path for most business leaders, but it's actually perfect preparation for Cooke's current role. Memrise, if you're not already familiar with it, is an amazing tool to help people learn anything from science facts to a foreign language more quickly using fun associations to make new words or ideas stick (I've used it personally and absolutely endorse it for memorizing new vocabulary especially).
The company's approach is science backed -- Cooke's co-founder is neuroscientist Greg Detre -- and draws on the latest research into learning and memory as well as Cooke's unusual expertise. The company is even currently running a test to discover which memorization techniques work the best of all. So when Cooke got in touch recently offering to share tips with Inc.com readers, I told him to send them on over. In his own words, here's what Cooke suggests if you want to sharpen your own memory:
1. Location is key
Quite a common experience is for context to mess with memory in quite a severe way. For instance, you're in the kitchen, and you think "I must get my raincoat from the bedroom" and you head upstairs. Once there, you can't remember what you came for. You return downstairs, and immediately remember. You head upstairs, and again can't remember what you were looking for. I'm a memory champion, and I've been known to do three loops of such nonsense. The trick is to imagine what you're looking for in the location you're headed to. That way the new context will contain the memory of what you were looking for.
2. Train your brain
To keep the memory sharp, the same thing's required that will keep the mind sharp generally: lots of stimulation, keeping mentally active, learning new things. Whether it's doing the daily cross-word, conversing on difficult subjects, learning a language, or simply doing an interesting manual task, keeping active is at the heart of mental health, and the sine qua non of keeping on top of memory as you age.
3. Play mind games
Every kind of memory is different, so there's no general test for memory. But there are many specific games that can be played. For instance: Have someone write out a list of 20 words, give yourself a minute and then try to reproduce them in order. 14 is a great result. Have someone do the same for a list of 20 numbers. Do the same thing with a collection of 10 flowers and their names. Or faces and their names. Each exercise will specifically test your memory (at the moment) for these things. The more you practice any such task, the better you'll get at it.
4. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
If you need to remember something, repeat it, test yourself on it, review it regularly. One great habit is that of "recollection". At the end of the day, reflect on all the things you did. That single repetition will be enough for memories not to slip through the gaps, and can give a general boost to your mental clarity.
5. Tell a story
We're creatures of narrative, and our memories are especially pleased by anything that takes the form of a story. Turn shopping lists, intentions, even single facts into narratives big and small and you'll remember them much better. As a rule of thumb, we remember anything we pay attention to. How to pay attention? The answer is always to find what is interesting in what you want to remember. If it's a story, experience its meaning and enjoy it. If it's a conversation, try to immerse yourself in its meaning. If it's a fact, try to work out what would be interesting about it.