A 3-Step Plan to Make Any Memory Last
Train your brain to master the art of controlled anticipation
Tell me if this rings a bell: After a long, long, long stretch of pandemic sameness, you finally have something on the calendar that has you looking forward — maybe a date with a friend you haven’t seen in forever, or a weekend day trip, or just a coveted afternoon alone, away from the people you’ve been cooped up with. You’re excited. You’re eager. You’re ready. And then, suddenly, it’s here and then over — and by the time the next week is out, you can barely remember how great you felt.
It’s natural. We have a tendency to tear through time, rushing from one good thing to the next, inadvertently allowing memories to dissipate as fast as they’re made. But there are some ways to cement our memories, to make experiences stick around a little longer. Here’s how to slow down long enough to take a moment with you.
Make the Plan Even If You Know It Won’t Happen
Just the act of making a plan has huge benefits
Before it happens: Master the art of controlled anticipation
Research has shown that the feeling of anticipation can exceed the happiness of the event itself. But left unchecked, it can lead to too-hasty consumption.
In one study, for example, binge-watchers remembered less about the TV show they’d watched compared to people who took in one episode each week. When we gorge ourselves on something rather than savoring it, “memories decay more rapidly,” the researchers found. To harness the powers of anticipation, I’ve developed a few tricks that keep my mind a bit more grounded in the present. Copy them if you’d like:
Tailor your social media
Using social media to sprinkle little drops of excitement throughout your day is a great way to channel anticipation into planning. If you’re planning a post-pandemic trip, for example, try following local restaurants and accounts dedicated to your destination, so that when you finally arrive, you won’t be too overwhelmed by decisions to enjoy your time. Plus, having those images in your feed post-trip might help you feel like the fun hasn’t ended just because the trip has.
Add some friction
By turning off auto-play on streaming services, for example, you’re adding an extra step that makes it harder to just mindlessly zoom through a whole season, giving you the chance to digest what you’ve just watched. If you’re at a family gathering for the first time in months, find an excuse to briefly step out of the moment and take a mental picture or jot down a detail on your phone. When you remove yourself from the flow of what you’re doing, just for a second, you can make a conscious effort to remember what you’re experiencing.
As it’s happening: Focus on how it feels
I have plenty of enjoyable memories from college, but one of the clearest is — believe it or not — holding a baby. For the first 20 years of my life, I had never done it. So when my college housemate’s newborn nephew (and his parents) came to visit, I was apprehensive about getting too close. His size completely baffled me. I looked at his feet and wondered, How can someone so tiny grow into someone like me? How was I ever that small? I was scared to death that I would drop him.
That’s what made it so unforgettable when he was placed in my arms. Even now, I can recall it as if in slow motion. Research has shown that strong emotions, even ones that aren’t obviously positive, can give a memory the clarity it needs to stay sharp for a long time to come.
And whatever you’re doing, try to remember in the moment to zero in on any new or unfamiliar elements. As the time management expert Laura Vanderkam has noted in Forge, a sense of sameness can dull our memories, while variety sharpens them. When planning something you know you’ll want to look back on, try adding at least one new element — for a long-awaited reunion with a friend, for example, you might pick a location neither of you have visited before, rather than simply opting for someone’s backyard.
After it happens: Talk about it
There’s a theory of how we retain and lose memories over time that’s called the forgetting curve. This theory holds that if you don’t take action to cement new information within a week of obtaining it, you’ll end up forgetting about 90% of it.
Taking action can be as simple as intentionally revisiting your experience. If it involved a friend or loved one, debrief with them after the fact. If you have photos, notes, or other snippets of information captured in the moment, look back over them. You don’t even necessarily need full-blown journal entries — I have a few weird quotes stored on my phone’s Notes app from my time at university, and whenever I read them again, I feel like I’m right back there.
If you have the time and bandwidth, writing about an experience is a great way to make sure you can reconnect with it later on. After watching the movie Soul, for example, I knew I had to write about it — I loved it so much, and writing an article on it reminded me of how I felt. The more reminders you can create for yourself in a moment’s immediate aftermath, the longer that moment can live.