On the way up - Remember when you didn't forget? - You can't change the total power of your memory, but it can be trained with simple steps that can ease its burden and make forgetfulness a thing of the past.
We've all heard the joke: 'My memory is so dreadful that I decided to buy myself one of those 'How to Improve Your Memory' books. But when I got it home, I discovered I had already bought it some time before - and now I can't seem to remember whether I've read it or not .'
It would be funnier if it were not so scary. Most of us are forgetful and, in management, forgetfulness can equal disaster. Worse still, as time progresses, things get worse. If you hope there will be fewer things to remember as you climb the greasy pole and reach the upper echelons of management - forget it (pardon the pun).
Our learning ability declines from our teens and early twenties onwards, and our memories start to lose their edge in our early forties. So, as the volume of data that managers need to master nowadays never stops increasing, the capacity of their memories to deal with it is steadily decreasing.
Here is a simple memory test, which, if your memory is as lousy as mine, will doubtless depress you deeply. Do you sometimes ask people to return telephone calls and then forget why you called them? Do you sometimes forget exactly where you parked your car? Do you forget birthdays, anniversaries, important business meetings or other special occasions? Do you leave your desk and then have to return for something that you forgot? Do you - like the book-buyer in the joke - repeat things because you forgot you had done them already, or buy things that you already have? Do you put things in wrong places - keys in the refrigerator, for instance, or the milk in the cupboard?
If you never make any of these gaffes, congratulations. Your memory is superhuman - and you can stop reading now. But I'll bet every important document I've ever mislaid to a knot in your handkerchief that fewer than 1% of readers passed with flying colours. The remaining 99% occasionally (or frequently) suffer from some (or many) of the absent-minded boo-boos listed. That is the only reassuring thing about forgetfulness: you are certainly not alone. Nobody is immune, and it cannot be cured.
It can, however, be minimised. Although you cannot literally change the total power of your memory, you can train it to be more effective, the way young actors do when they learn how to memorise their lines.
First, take the strain off your brain by devising simple routines which will mean remembering one thing instead of many. That is the basic purpose of diaries and work lists: you merely have to remember to look at them, then your eyes take over from your memory. And if you turn the action into a routine - checking your work list each morning should be as habitual as putting on your shoes - another burden will be lifted from your memory's shoulders.
The more you can lighten its load, research evidence indicates, the more successfully your memory will cope with the rest of its tasks. Computers (and portables in particular) can be great memory aids - for work lists as well as addresses, schedules and documents. But they cannot solve all the problems. So here are half a dozen tips that will make your memory work harder - by giving it less to do.
Put things where you can't miss them. Pile files you need to take with you in the doorway, balance letters on the top of a chair, stand books in the way on the floor. In other words, place essential things in incongruous positions where you can't possibly overlook them.
Add details to your diary. Next to an appointment, write in any particular documents or data that will be needed. For example, '3.30 meeting with sales director; take latest sales figures'. Or whatever.
Names. Forgetting people's names - one of the most universal of memory problems - will be minimised if you adopt the American habit of repeating them clearly at the time you are introduced. Say, 'Hello Mr Smith-Brown, it's good to meet you', instead of the more reticent British 'good morning'.
Make visual associations. Tying together memory strands is one of the best-known methods of memory improvement. When you park your car, look for something unusual or odd nearby, and so on.
Carry notecards. Even if you have a laptop, you cannot switch it on and off everywhere you go. So do not be embarrassed to carry either a small notebook or a few small cards on which you can write prompts.
Don't knuckle under. Don't resign yourself to being forgetful. Don't excuse yourself by muttering 'everyone knows Einstein was absent-minded, and he was a genius'. If you are not a genius, being absent-minded is less forgivable.
Your memory is like a muscle. It needs to be stretched and exercised to keep it in peak condition. It doesn't like alcohol, or too much caffeine, or too little blood sugar - all of which promote forgetfulness. Like any muscle, it will tire if overused. But if you treat it properly, it will serve you as well as it possibly can until you reach the top - and after that, long into your retirement.
Winston Fletcher is chairman of Bozell UK, the advertising group.