There is no such thing as a poor memory.

You may be terrible at remembering names, or great with names but lousy at remembering birthdays and anniversaries, or terrific at remembering facts you’ve read but hopeless at remembering details about people. These are memory tasks, and there are likely to be memory tasks that you are less skilled at dealing with. But memory is not a "thing". Information comes in different packages.

Think about all the different types of information you have stored in your memory:
· the name of your dentist
· your Social Security or PIN number
· the taste of chocolate
· the sound of train whistle
· the scent of a rose
· the feeling of fear
· the knowledge of how to drive a car
· your intention to pick up bread on the way home
· personal details about your neighbor
· thousands of faces
· thousands of words
and so on.

Is it logical to suppose that all these very different types of information are processed the same way? That being good at recalling one type of information means that you’re good at remembering everything?

Of course not. Being able to remember the names of all the latest Olympic gold medallists doesn’t make you reliable at remembering to pick up milk on the way home. Or at remembering your spouse’s birthday. Or to make a dentist’s appointment.

There is no relationship between your memory for facts, and your memory for future actions and intentions.

Remembering information you have learned, or experiences you have had, people you have met, usually involves retrieval cues — things that trigger your remembering. The sight of a familiar face triggers your memory for whose face it is. The question “What’s the capital of Australia?” triggers the stored information: “Canberra”. Seeing your old school brings back memories of childhood days.

Occasionally, a memory seems to pop into our heads for no apparent reason, but even then, there has probably been some triggering event — a barely noticed object, a casual thought.

Remembering your intentions is harder, because of the lack of cues. This is why, of all memory tasks, remembering to do things relies most heavily on external memory aids. Reminder notes, calendars, diaries, watch-alarms, oven-timers, leaving objects in conspicuous places — all these external aids are acting as cues to memory. One of the most effective and easiest habits I adopted in my life was when I started using such reminders routinely — without shame, now I realized this most importance difference between most memory tasks and intention memory (and worked out how to use them effectively!).

But there are other strategies we can use too. If we understand how intentions are encoded in memory, we can see which intentions are less likely to be remembered, and re-state them to make remembering more likely.

For example, when we form an intention, we usually link it either to an event (“after we go to the swimming-pool, we’ll go to the supermarket”) or a time (“at 2pm I must ring Fred”). But these trigger events or times frequently fail to remind us of our intention. Why?

Often it is because the trigger is not in itself particularly distinctive. Your failure to remember to ring Fred at 2pm, for example, may be because you paid little attention to the clock reaching that time, or because there were other competing activities triggered by that same time signal.

In general, time is a much less effective trigger than an event. So, one very easy action you can take is to re-state your intention as an event-based intention rather than a time-based one. Instead of thinking: I’ll ring Fred at two, think: I’ll ring Fred after my meeting with Joan.

· Get into the habit of writing yourself notes or providing physical reminders of your intentions.
· When forming an intention, try to link it to an event, preferably a memorable one.

For more about intention memory, download an excerpt from the forthcoming e-book Remembering intentions, at

Author's Bio: 

Dr Fiona McPherson is the author of The Memory Key, a practical handbook that goes beyond mnemonics to help you achieve genuine, long-lasting memory improvement. Her website,, provides information about how memory works and effective memory strategies.