To Remember Random Errands, Turn Them Into a Story

A memory trick that plays on the human brain’s innate desire for narrative.

A closeup of glistening brown eggs in a carton
Bobby Yip / Reuters

Who among us has not walked into a Target mentally chanting something like “Eggs, shaving cream, toothpaste, toilet paper” only to get home and realize we’ve forgotten the toothpaste? Looks like we’re using mouthwash tonight!

If you’ve got a lengthy to-do list, and you’re not ready to commit to bullet journaling or whatever to keep track of it all, Gary Small, the director of the Longevity Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, has a little trick to hold it all in your head: Turn the words into a story.

He demonstrated this trick on Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. It can be used to remember any random set of words, and he showed us: Beach, Professor, Horse, Teddy Bear, Cigar, Nun, Palm Tree, Pasta. He told us to make up a story about those words, and then moved on to talk about other stuff, coming back to the words at the end. (Feel free to play along!)

This trick works because the human brain is a glutton for stories. Narrative just seems to stick to our brains better than loose facts do. As I’ve written previously, the way someone tells the story of their life to themselves forms a big part of their personality. Almost all healthy adults are able to construct a narrative of their past—it seems to be one of humanity’s innate skills. “The default mode of human cognition is a narrative mode,” Jonathan Adler, an associate professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering told me when I interviewed him about this.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, sure Joan, but we also tell ourselves stories in order to remember.

That’s the key to the memory trick—it takes random dots of information and strings them into something with meaning. “If something is meaningful, it will be memorable,” Small said.

Do you have a story for those random words? Here’s mine:

A professor was riding a horse on the beach. He cuddled his teddy bear close to his chest, which he had brought because he was afraid of horses. As he clopped down the shore, he came across a nun smoking a cigar under a palm tree. She waved to him and he hopped down, eager for a break from riding. From his saddlebag, he produced fistfuls of pasta that he had brought for lunch, and shared it with the nun under clouds of cigar smoke, and also the regular kind of clouds.

This story is a surreal nightmare! And it is very bad as well. But it worked—I remembered all the words. This is something that could easily be adapted for errands. So the next time you go to Target, you can stop the mental chanting and instead tell yourself the story of a man picking up all the things he needs for Halloween mischief—eggs, shaving cream, toilet paper—and also some toothpaste, because he wants to be at his freshest while practicing his craft.