by Len Horridge

Most of the differences in people’s memory abilities relate to how they organise memories, not how well their brains can actually remember.


Organising and ordering information can significantly improve memory. As well as providing a better structure for your memorable information, it also serves to force you to pay attention, to focus on what you are seeking to remember.


Imagine, for example, how difficult it would be to remember a random list of 61 letters. On the other hand, it would not be difficult to memorise the first sentence on this page (consisting of 61 letters), because it is organised into words.

This works on the principle of chunking. We can remember chunks of information, provided the chunk itself is coherent for us. Another example is that we find it easier to remember phone numbers as groups of digits rather than a single list of digits.

Global to specific

This means organising the material into general concepts before moving on to specific details. This way, you focus on getting a general framework, or overview, before filling in the details.

Once you understand the general concepts, the details make more sense. Rather than being a group of otherwise disconnected bits of information, such as dates or product numbers, the material fits together within – and can ‘clip onto’ – the overall framework.

Seeing how the smaller details relate to one another, you process the information more deeply (which helps you store, and later retrieve, it from memory). This idea is probably familiar as many learning strategies are based on this funnel approach.

For example, as recommended in the topic on Reading Efficiently, before reading it more thoroughly, skim a book chapter for the major ideas as a way to enhance your comprehension and later recall of details contained within it.

Reports should be organised in a ‘general to specific’ format, starting with a summary or overview. This makes it easier for readers to build a framework in their mind before they dive into the main body of a report. They can then hang the details on the framework, and they will be retained in the memory more easily.


This idea is probably best explained with an example. Before reading ahead, take a moment to complete the following exercise.


Read the following list of sports once. When you are done, write down as many of the sports as you can without looking back at the list.

Snow Skiing Basketball Tennis

Long Jump Bobsledding 100-Meter Dash

Hockey Baseball Ice Skating

Discus Golf High Jump

Volleyball Javelin Soccer

Luge Curling Cricket

Decathlon Hurdles

You can organise material by grouping similar concepts, or related ideas, together. Arranging the material into related groups helps your memory. (The human brain is able to remember between five and nine items after one exposure – see Short- and long-term memory.)

For example, in the exercise you just completed, you could have grouped all of the sports into the following categories:

  • Winter sports
  • Track and field sports
  • Sports using a ball.

Keeping these categories in mind, try the exercise again. If you are like most people, you will be able to remember more of the sports. An added benefit is that the process of organising a list into groups can often help you to understand the relationship between the concepts better.

Trying to remember a large amount of unconnected and unorganised information from various sources can be very challenging. By organising the material prior to learning it, you can facilitate both storage and retrieval.

This can involve organising material on paper, perhaps making an outline or a Mind Map, or simply organising material in your memory by tackling it in a particular order or making intentional associations between ideas.

Anything you can do to shuffle information into some kind of framework or ordered structure will make it easier for you to commit that information to your long-term memory.