4 Strategies To Remember An Idea That You Forgot

We all know the feeling of not being able to remember that one idea that we were excited about just moments earlier. You bang your head against the wall, pace the hall, and do everything possible to recall that idea, but nothing works. You can’t remember it!

It's a fairly common problem. Most of us randomly think of ideas throughout the day, sometimes at work, sometimes at home, and sometimes in the worst places possible, such as at night or in the shower. These ideas could include weekend plans, new video ideas, and new insights for your blog; all providing value to your personal or professional life.

If you’re like me, you’ve developed a system for remembering ideas before they slip your mind (I take notes on my phone, dictate to Otter, or send myself a Slack DM). But these solutions don’t always work.

What happens when you don’t have a phone, piece of paper, or laptop handy? How do you make sure you remember the brilliant ideas that just popped into your head?

Luckily, there are some ways to remember fantastic ideas. Here are my favorite strategies for remembering things I’ve forgotten.  

1. Retrain Your Visual Attention

The first thing I do is retrain my visual attention on whatever I was looking at when I had the missing thought. If you can’t remember what it was, look around you for your memory cues and often something will trigger your mind. Sometimes this is as simple as reopening the Chrome tab I was in or replaying that YouTube video I was watching.

Visually returning to the location of the thought tends to summon the idea out of my slow grey matter that some call a brain. I've found this method is effective with most sighted people.

2. Retrace Your Thoughts Back To The Idea

Sometimes, during a conversation, I completely lose track of the topic or my train of thought. My first worry is that I might have dementia (spoiler, I don’t) and my second worry is how to regain that track of thought.

I’ve found that the best way to retrace the conversation is by talking through the thread of conversation that got us there. Often, one point of conversation will spark your memory and voila, you are back to where you were and the idea is saved!

For some reason, my brain works the same way for internal ideas. It’s as if there is a conversation in my head that I can retrace, much like a conversation with a friend. Once you can start unwinding your train of thought and begin retracing your thought processes, the idea often pops back up.

3. Retrace Your Footsteps To Where You Had The Idea

The power of physically retracing one’s footsteps to re-find some thought, idea, or thing is remarkable. I can’t count the number of times I have frantically walked through my apartment trying to find my lost keys in an attempt to recreate my actions or thoughts before I misplaced them.

The problem is that the most idea-prone environments are also the most difficult places to remember ideas from. I have some of my best ideas when driving, running, swimming, or in standing the shower. While you can pull over to take notes, jump out of the shower or pool, or stop mid-run, I often convince myself that I can in fact remember that idea. This usually turns out to be incorrect!

Hours later, the idea is nowhere to be found. To remember the idea, I’ll retrace my actions, jump back in my car, put on the song I was listening to while running, or if I’m feeling really desperate, walk back into the shower!

One example happened last week. I like to work at a local coffee shop - the atmosphere is incredible and their cappuccino is the best around town. After I returned home, my friend was appalled last Sunday when I left my house not once, but twice to walk back to the cafe to try to remember a blog idea. Sure enough, the second time I remembered my idea and am currently writing the post.

4. Recreate The Stimulus for the Idea

I enjoy reading books and listening to podcasts, which is how I consume most of my news, and information, and conjure up my ideas. A really engaging book or podcast will become my singular focus, consuming all my attention as I immerse myself in the story. A recent example of this was Green Lights by Matthew McConaughey, which I tore through in several hours.

On the other hand, sometimes there’s a book or podcast that is both interesting and informative but also just plain boring. I’ll find myself tuning in and out of the conversation as ideas fly into my head left, right, and center. When this happens, it’s all I can do to take notes and record every idea. If I forget one of these ideas or fail to write it down, I can usually find it again by rewinding the podcast or flipping back a few pages to find the stimulus for the idea. Sometimes it’s a word, a phrase, or conclusion to a chapter that initiated the idea and finding that stimulus can spark the idea again.