Reasons We Forget Things and What to Do About It

reasons we forget things

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Have you ever tried to remember a password, but it just slips your mind. Or have you ever forgotten the name of a new acquaintance the next day, despite being able to remember their face?

We’ve all been the victims of faulty memory, left grasping for information we know is there to no avail. Why is it that sometimes, when we need it most, we can’t recall something? According to Elizabeth Loftus, a renowned expert in human memory, there are four reasons we forget things. Psychology About has more:

Retrieval Failure

One problem with memory involves knowing something is stored but being unable to retrieve the information. The theory why this occurs is called memory decay, which suggests that each new memory creates a ‘trace’ that can fade away if not accessed regularly.


There are two types of interference, proactive and retroactive. Proactive interference means an old memory is getting in the way of forming a new one, or that the information from the old and the new memories are getting confused. Retroactive interference means that new information has interfered with recalling older information. This kind of interference can affect our ability to recall lists after even a short span of time, or remember the name of someone we just met.

Failure to Store

Sometimes, we just don’t store the information we take in, or just fail to store it to long-term memory. Our short-term memory can only recall about seven things in the span of about 30 seconds, and after that, it becomes more difficult. Distractions can also be a big factor in being unable to store information, whether we cause them ourselves or whether they come from outside.

Motivated Forgetting

This is a theory involving voluntary suppression or unconscious repression of memories that make us feel uncomfortable, or are too traumatic to deal with. Repressed memories, however, are not a universally accepted theory, due to the near impossibility of testing the phenomenon.

Other Reasons We Forget

Multitasking can play a huge part in memory failure. Switching back and forth between tasks, whether it be by choice or because of interruptions, can severely impair our ability to focus. Although you might think switching between several tasks is more productive, the sad truth is that it forces your brain to ‘reset’ each time you switch tasks. That can actually increase the time needed to complete each task.

Another theory is that we simply overlook defining details. For example, in Joseph T. Hallinan’s book “Why We Make Mistakes” Hallinan presents a page with 15 different versions of the familiar penny. The book challenges the reader to identify, from memory, the correct version that represents the common one cent piece as it actually exists.

According to Hallinan, less than half of those tested choose the correct image. The reason? We know the shape and color of a penny, which we’ve all seen many times, and have a vague idea of the rest. This is because our brains take a short cut, only storing information vital to identifying the penny as distinct from other coins.

What You Can Do

So how can we fight against our own forgetfulness? Loftus and Hallinan both have some suggestions that may help:

  • Perhaps the most helpful thing, whether it be in a journal, on your tablet, or on your phone, is creating a to-do list.
  • Take advantage of daily planning apps: Schedule Planner in the Apple (and Android) store lets you set alarms, export calendars to Dropbox, and has quite a few other handy features as well.
  • Stop Multitasking! Take the time to concentrate on one task at a time, and you’ll be able to do better work faster.
  • Take a mental picture: if you often forget where you place your keys, try thinking of the items surrounding them too, when you put them down. Try to take in identifying details, like the color of the surface they are sitting on or what might be near by.
  • Repeat what someone says back to them. This not only helps you confirm what they said, but it also lets the other person know you are listening.
  • Take a closer look, and try to take in the smaller details. This will not only help you commit things to memory, but also allow you to better understand the information.
  • Keep yourself organized. Separate your notes and documents in a way that makes sense, and use something as simple as a shoebox to keep them together and tidy.

You can also follow the advice many instructors give about best practices in note taking. Don’t bother taking down things word-for-word. Just jot down quick facts or ideas as you go.

There are also online alternatives to memory exercises. Services that offer memory training, like Lumosity, use mini games to test and slowly improve your memory and reaction times. There are also a few sites that offer free memory games, like this free Brain Age game, a kind of Simon Says that helps your short-term memory.

Memory can be critical in business. Be sure to keep your memory sharp with some of these important tips.

Forgetful Woman Photo via Shutterstock


Aubrielle Billig Aubrielle Billig is a Staff Writer for Small Business Trends. She covers business as it is impacted by pop culture, entrepreneurs in the arts, and other topics affecting creative businesses. She has a background as an illustrator and her design page can be found at AubrielleBillustrations.

8 Reactions
  1. When meeting someone for the first time I ask them to spell their name (unless it’s totally obvious like Bob) and it helps to lock it in.

  2. If you think that you’ll forget about something. Note it and email it to yourself. I always expect myself to forget things so I make it a point to note everything.

  3. Einu Vincent Charles

    I wonder why memory loss seems to increase as one grows old. Any explanation to this and what. can be done to improve old people’s memory?

  4. My work involve lots of multitasking and its very difficult to remember what needs to be done going from one extreme to the other! I know now why I am forgetting to do a task that is very simple to achieve!

  5. Thank you so much for giving a powerful tip of memory. I truly inspired by your article, it was really useful for us.

  6. Thank you so much for this few tips. I have lent a lot from it. . I appreciate,Thank you.

  7. Charlene Jade Collins

    I’m fifteen years old and forget things easily. Not just things. I also forget words that I will say. It alarms me and my mother coz I am suffering forgetfulness at a young age. Which may affect my studies.

  8. I’m in my mid twenties and i tend to forget a lot of things. Earlier I used to relate people’s name with something interesting to keep them in my mind but now I find it very hard in remembering a new name…..I even can’t remember a new face properly……its frustrating,,

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